J. Wilm: Settlers as Conquerors

Settlers as Conquerors. Free Land Policy in Antebellum America

Wilm, Julius
Transatlantische Historische Studien 58
Stuttgart 2018: Franz Steiner Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
284 S.
€ 52,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Hanno Scheerer, Fakultät für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaften, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

In Settlers as Conquerors, Julius Wilm studies the evolution of free land policy in the United States before the advent of the homestead movement of the 1850s. The author shows how concepts of free land evolved from frontier demands articulated in petitions to Congress into state and federal laws granting free land to settlers. Connecting political with social history, Wilm also studies the effects of these laws on settlement processes, and, more specifically, on inter-ethnic relations between Euro-American settlers and Indigenous people.

Free land proposals originally gained little support in Congress. Settlers occasionally demanded them in petitions from the late 1790s on, but representatives and senators almost unanimously regarded the federal lands as an important source of revenue for the federal state and denied them. As Wilm shows, Congress only adopted free land schemes when they would appear to “fix problems of territorial expansionism and state-building” (p. 251). Free land, he argues, at times became a tool of conquest and colonialism. This was the case in Florida, where the Seminole resisted removal (Armed Occupation Act, 1842), and in Oregon, where the United States fought for supremacy with Great Britain (Donation Land Claim Act, 1850). Wilm traces the Congressional debates on these laws, showing that they were pushed by a small group of westward-expansion proponents in Congress but were still met with strong opposition. Ultimately, however, a majority of Congressmen agreed that settlers as conquerors were a more effective and cheaper alternative to military expeditions.

The two acts for Florida and Oregon, however, were rare exceptions. Pointing to Arkansas, Wilm shows that Congress generally remained reluctant to grant free land to settlers throughout the antebellum era, carefully assessing whether free land proposals served the interest of territorial expansion. Arkansas state politicians tried to obtain free land laws from Congress, claiming that the states’ western frontiers were under constant threat of attacks by native Americans, and that settlers, lured to the territory by free land and organized into militias, would form an effective barrier. Basing its decision on expert advice from military officers, Congress flatly denied these demands, demasking Arkansas’ proposal as a blatant attempt at grabbing Congressional lands. As a result, Arkansas passed a state law to distribute land sold for arrears of taxes to settlers for free.

Employing an impressive range of survey, land, and tax records, Wilm not only sketches the political history of free land laws but also their effects on settlement patterns and inter-ethnic relations. The Arkansas state law was overall successful in attracting settlers, but it served no purpose of conquest or territorial expansion. The Florida Armed Occupation Act originally attracted poor whit people to the disease-ridden territory, but many of them failed to hold on to their property. The act’s effectiveness as a tool of conquest remains uncertain. Wilm speculates that the short-lived presence of a larger Euro-American settler community was disruptive for the Seminole but concedes that the available sources do not allow for definite conclusions. The impact of white settlers on the Oregon native Americans is less vague. Although Oregon remained sparsely populated, the settlers’ farming and grazing activities clearly undermined the Natives‘ subsistence, according to Wilm.

Overall, Settlers as Conquerors offers an intriguing narrative, excellent editing, and extensive footnotes. There are only two minor points of criticism: The first is related to the book’s general design. It is crafted as a grand narrative of free land policy in antebellum America from the 1790s to the 1850s. The flip side of such a broad attempt is that the book sometimes remains a bit too much on the surface. For example, Wilm does not offer a deeper analysis of the Congressional debates on free land proposals. In addition to a detailed description, it would have been interesting to learn more about the intentions and motivations of politicians. Were their decisions indeed driven by self-interest, as progressive historians have postulated? How did party politics and the power of local constituencies influence free land legislation? Similarly, Wilm’s analysis of the influence of free land laws on settlement patterns and inter-ethnic relations remains inconclusive, particularly concerning Florida. Possibly, Wilm would have done well to leave out Arkansas to leave more room to analyze his main argument (free land as a tool of conquest) even more thoroughly.

As a second point of criticism, Wilm could have integrated his research more firmly into the rich body of American historiography on land policy, state building, and inter-ethnic relations. He situates his work in the field of settler colonial studies and offers an important corrective to this sometimes overtly generalizing scholarship when he concludes that settlers and their governments should not be viewed as homogenous entities that worked together to remove indigenous people under a common “logic of elimination” (Patrick Wolfe). Rather, Wilm’s findings show that internal friction was a “sui generis source of settler aggression” (p. 259). This conclusion is certainly valid, but it is little news to scholars of American history. David Andrew Nichols has already pointed to the importance of intra-white friction when he argues that the federal state initially cared more about social order on the frontier than about the transferal of land to white settlers, forming an unstable connection with native American leaders to control both Euro-American and native American unruly young men. [1] The Author‘s findings would certainly add important layers to such narratives. In addition, Wilm’s book could have offered a refreshing counterpoint to the progressive historians’ old but still often-repeated arguments, had he addressed them more explicitly.

Yet these two points of criticism should not diminish Julius Wilm’s work. Rather, they open additional paths to push this already captivating piece of research even further.

[1] David Andrew Nichols, Red Gentlemen and White Savages: Indians, Federalists, and the Search for Order on the American Frontier, Charlottesville, VA, 2008.

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