Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Indians had a property system too

McGill University historian Allan Greer gets down to the details of how European property rules took over the New World in an article in the April issue of the American Historical Review. It was not a case in which the Native Americans had no concept of property and the Europeans imposed it, he writes. Both groups had private/family ground where they grew crops, and various common areas that belonged to the larger group. There wasn't anything just lying around in either hemisphere that was free to all or in some kind of state of nature.

One way the European system won out was the practice of letting stock run free. "When settlers proclaimed, in effect, that the Indians' deer, fish, and timber were open to all, colonists included, yet the hogs and cattle roaming these same woods remained [the settlers'] private property, they were indeed attempting a wholesale appropriation."

By the time the settlers got around to actually fencing the Indians out, it was all over. The settlers' free-ranging hogs and cattle had destroyed both the native gardens and wildlife in the area. "Privatization of land was not the main mechanism by which indigenous territory came into the possession of colonizers; by the time that sort of enclosure occurred in many places, dispossession was already an accomplished fact, thinks in large measure to the intrusions of the colonial commons."

Greer cites a book I would like to read: Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York, 2004).

Allan Greer, "Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America," American Historical Review 117, no. 2 (April 2012): 365-386.

Harold Henderson, “The Indians had a property system too,” Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 1 May 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post.]

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