On July 27, 1882, a group of at least seventy-five “Turtle Mountain Indians from Canada” crossed the US–Canada border near Pembina, Dakota Territory, ordered white settlers off the land, and refused to pay customs duties assessed against them. “We recognize no boundary line, and shall pass as we please,” proclaimed their leader, Chief Little Shell. Native to the Red River region long before the Treaty of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain drew imaginary cartographies across the region or the 1872 International Boundary Survey left physical markers along the 49th parallel, Little Shell’s Chippewas and Métis navigated expansive homelands bounded by the natural environment and surrounding Native peoples, not arbitrary latitudinal coordinates. Over a century later, Indigenous leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico formed the Tribal Border Alliance and hosted a “Tribal Border Summit” in 2019 to assert that “Tribes divided by international borders” had natural inherent and treaty-bound rights to cross for various purposes. These Indigenous sentiments, expressed over centuries, reveal historic and ongoing conflicts born from the inherent incongruity between Native sovereignty and imposed non-Native boundaries and restrictions. Issues of land provide a figurative bedrock to nearly all discussion of interactions between and boundary making by non-Native and Native peoples in North America. Indigenous lands and competing relations to it, natural resources and contest over their control, geography and territoriality: these issues underpin all North American history. Adjacent to these more familiar topics are complex stories of boundaries and borders that were imposed, challenged, ignored, violated, or co-opted. Native histories and experiences at the geographic edges of European empires and nation-states uncover rough and untidy processes of empire-building and settler colonial aspirations. As non-Natives drew lines across maps, laying claim to distant Indigenous lands, they also divided the same in arbitrary manners. They rarely gave serious consideration to Native sovereignty or rights to traditional or evolving relationships to homelands and resources. It is a wonder, therefore, that centuries of non-Natives have been surprised when Indigenous peoples refused to recognize the authority of imposed borders or co-opted their jurisdictional “power” for their own uses. Surveying examples of Indigenous peoples and their histories across imposed boundaries in North America forces historians to ask new questions about intercultural exchange, geopolitical philosophies, and the histories of nations, regions, and peoples. This is a worthy, but complex, pursuit that promises to greatly enrich all intersecting topics and fields.
Indigenous Peoples and Euro-American Frontiers, Borderlands, and Borders in North America
Brenden W. Rensink
Native People and American Film and TV
Native people have appeared as characters in film and television in America from their inceptions. Throughout the 20th century, Native actors, writers, directors, and producers worked in the film and television industry. In terms of characterization, Native employment sits uncomfortable beside racist depictions of Native people. From the 1950s to the present, revisionist westerns come into being, giving the viewer a moral tale in which Native people are depicted with sympathy and white Americans are seen as aggressors. Today, a small but important group of Native actors in film and television work in limiting roles but turn in outstanding performances. Native directors, writers, and documentarians in the 1990s to the early 21st century have created critical interventions into media representations, telling stories from Indigenous viewpoints and bringing Native voices to the fore. The 2021 television show Rutherford Falls stands out as an example of Native writers gaining entry into the television studio system. Additionally, we have several Native film festivals in the early 21st century, and this trend continues to grow.
The United States–Mexico Border
C. J. Alvarez
The region that today constitutes the United States–Mexico borderland has evolved through various systems of occupation over thousands of years. Beginning in time immemorial, the land was used and inhabited by ancient peoples whose cultures we can only understand through the archeological record and the beliefs of their living descendants. Spain, then Mexico and the United States after it, attempted to control the borderlands but failed when confronted with indigenous power, at least until the late 19th century when American capital and police established firm dominance. Since then, borderland residents have often fiercely contested this supremacy at the local level, but the borderland has also, due to the primacy of business, expressed deep harmonies and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican federal governments. It is a majority minority zone in the United States, populated largely by Mexican Americans. The border is both a porous membrane across which tremendous wealth passes and a territory of interdiction in which noncitizens and smugglers are subject to unusually concentrated police attention. All of this exists within a particularly harsh ecosystem characterized by extreme heat and scarce water.
Death in Colonial North America: Cross-Cultural Encounters
Erik R. Seeman
Death is universal yet is experienced in culturally specific ways. Because of this, when individuals in colonial North America encountered others from different cultural backgrounds, they were curious about how unfamiliar mortuary practices resembled and differed from their own. This curiosity spawned communication across cultural boundaries. The resulting knowledge sometimes facilitated peaceful relations between groups, while at other times it helped one group dominate another. Colonial North Americans endured disastrously high mortality rates caused by disease, warfare, and labor exploitation. At the same time, death was central to the religions of all residents: Indians, Africans, and Europeans. Deathways thus offer an unmatched way to understand the colonial encounter from the participants’ perspectives.
The American War for Independence as a Revolutionary War
Michael A. McDonnell
The American War for Independence lasted eight years. It was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in America’s history, and yet it was not such a protracted conflict merely because the might of the British armed forces was brought to bear on the hapless colonials. The many divisions among Americans themselves over whether to fight, what to fight for, and who would do the fighting often had tragic and violent consequences. The Revolutionary War was by any measure the first American civil war. Yet national narratives of the Revolution and even much of the scholarship on the era focus more on simple stories of a contest between the Patriots and the British. Loyalists and other opponents of the Patriots are routinely left out of these narratives, or given short shrift. So, too, are the tens of thousands of ordinary colonists—perhaps a majority of the population—who were disaffected or alienated from either side or who tried to tack between the two main antagonists to make the best of a bad situation. Historians now estimate that as many as three-fifths of the colonial population were neither active Loyalists nor Patriots. When we take the war seriously and begin to think about narratives that capture the experience of the many, rather than the few, an illuminating picture emerges. The remarkably wide scope of the activities of the disaffected during the war—ranging from nonpayment of taxes to draft dodging and even to armed resistance to protect their neutrality—has to be integrated with older stories of militant Patriots and timid Loyalists. Only then can we understand the profound consequences of disaffection—particularly in creating divisions within the states, increasing levels of violence, prolonging the war, and changing the nature of the political settlements in each state. Indeed, the very divisions among diverse Americans that made the War for Independence so long, bitter, and bloody also explains much of the Revolutionary energy of the period. Though it is not as seamless as traditional narratives of the Revolution would suggest, a more complicated story also helps better explain the many problems the new states and eventually the new nation would face. In making this argument, we may finally suggest ways we can overcome what John Shy long ago noted as the tendency of scholars to separate the ‘destructive’ War for Independence from the ‘constructive’ political Revolution.
Mapping Native North America
James Taylor Carson
The European invasion of the continent to which we now refer as North America unfolded in several different ways, each with its own particular implications. Yet no matter their differences, each colonial effort drew upon the same moral, intellectual, and material premises necessary to justify and enact the dispossession of the land’s first peoples. From religious arguments about Christianity extirpating “savage devils” from New England or Jamestowners’ obsession with finding gold and precious minerals to the introduction of new species of plants and animals across the continent and imperial assertions of sovereignty, the European invasion of America touched every facet of the lives that had brought first peoples and colonizers together. Examining how first peoples represented their land and how European invaders and their later American successors countered such mapping practices with their own cartographical projections affords an important way to understand a centuries-long process of place-making and place-taking too often glossed as colonization.
Native American Women in the Modern United States
In the years following the US Civil War, the federal government implemented a campaign to assimilate Native peoples into an expanding American nation and a modernizing American society. As policymakers and social reformers understood it, assimilation required a transformation in Native gender roles, and as a result, Native American women were the targets of several assimilationist initiatives. Native women navigated federal interventions strategically, embracing what was useful, accommodating what was necessary, and discarding what was not. As mothers, grandmothers, and healers, women provided stability for families and communities enduring disruption and coerced change. In the 20th century, Native women embraced new economic and political roles even as they adapted long-standing customs. Many began working for wages; although often confined to menial labor such as domestic service in other women’s homes, growing numbers of Native women also pursued white-collar occupations in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later in tribal governments. As tribal governance evolved over the course of the century, some women obtained positions on tribal councils and tribal courts. Native women have also made intellectual contributions—as tribal members and ultimately as American citizens—to modern understandings of democracy, citizenship, sovereignty, and feminism. Since the late 20th century, Native women have been at the forefront of movements to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures.
Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery
“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.
The Underground Railroad
Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.
The Indigenous Roots of the American Revolution
Euro-Americans existed firmly on the periphery of an Indigenous North America in 1763, hubristic claims of continental sovereignty notwithstanding. Nowhere is this reality more clear than in the Ohio Valley and Illinois Country. Try as it might, the post-1763 British Empire could not assume jurisdictional control over this space. Even to begin to try was a task requiring significant investment—both in terms of more systematic Indigenous diplomacy and in terms of reforming colonial political structures unfit to accommodate imperial western policy. North American officials understood the problems quite well and were willing to spearhead reform. Between 1763 and 1775 they supported increased investment to defray North American expenses. They called for programs that would end colonial corruption, something they feared undermined Indigenous diplomacy and made a mockery of the rule of law. Ultimately, they concluded that centralizing Indian affairs offered the best means by which to stabilize North America. Colonials (generally) and speculators and their surveyor corps (specifically) powerfully disagreed, however, seeing Indian country as an untapped resource and imperial restraints as threats to local autonomy. They rejected the idea of centralizing power over Indigenous affairs and used the rhetoric of British constitutional liberty to reframe corrupt behavior into something it emphatically was not.
The Quaker “Invasion”
Adrian Chastain Weimer
Founded in the late 1640s, Quakerism reached America in the 1650s and quickly took root due to the determined work of itinerant missionaries over the next several decades. Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, faced different legal and social challenges in each colony. Many English men and women viewed Friends with hostility because they refused to bear arms in a colony’s defense or take loyalty oaths. Others were drawn to Quakers’ egalitarian message of universal access to the light of Christ in each human being. After George Fox’s visit to the West Indies and the mainland colonies in 1671–1672, Quaker missionaries followed his lead in trying to include enslaved Africans and native Americans in their meetings. Itinerant Friends were drawn to colonies with the most severe laws, seeking a public platform from which to display, through suffering, a joyful witness to the truth of the Quaker message. English Quakers then quickly ushered accounts of their sufferings into print. Organized and supported by English Quakers such as Margaret Fell, the Quaker “invasion” of itinerant missionaries put pressure on colonial judicial systems to define the acceptable boundaries for dissent. Nascent communities of Friends from Barbados to New England struggled with the tension between Quaker ideals and the economic and social hierarchies of colonial societies.
Benjamin L. Madley
Human beings have inhabited the region known as California for at least 13,000 years, or as some believe since time immemorial. By developing technologies, honing skills, and implementing stewardship practices, California Indian communities maximized the bounty of their homelands during the precolonial period. Overall, their population grew to perhaps 310,000 people. Speaking scores of different languages, they organized themselves into at least sixty major tribes. Communities were usually politically autonomous but connected to larger tribal groups by shared languages and cultures while dense networks of economic exchange also bound tribes together. Newcomers brought devastating change, but California Indians resisted and survived. During the Russo-Hispanic period (1769–1846), the Indigenous population fell to perhaps 150,000 people due to diseases, environmental transformation, and colonial policies. The organized mass violence and other policies of early United States rule (1846–1900) further reduced the population. By 1900, census takers counted only 15,377 California Indian people. Still, California Indians resisted. During the 1900–1953 period, the federal government continued its national Allotment Policy but initiated healthcare, land policy, education, and citizenship reforms for California Indians even as they continued to resist and their population grew. During the termination era (1953–1968), California Indians faced federal attempts to obliterate them as American Indians. Finally, California Indian people achieved many hard-won victories during the self-determination era (1968–present).
Social Science and US Foreign Affairs
Since the social sciences began to emerge as scholarly disciplines in the last quarter of the 19th century, they have frequently offered authoritative intellectual frameworks that have justified, and even shaped, a variety of U.S. foreign policy efforts. They played an important role in U.S. imperial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scholars devised racialized theories of social evolution that legitimated the confinement and assimilation of Native Americans and endorsed civilizing schemes in the Philippines, Cuba, and elsewhere. As attention shifted to Europe during and after World War I, social scientists working at the behest of Woodrow Wilson attempted to engineer a “scientific peace” at Versailles. The desire to render global politics the domain of objective, neutral experts intensified during World War II and the Cold War. After 1945, the social sciences became increasingly central players in foreign affairs, offering intellectual frameworks—like modernization theory—and bureaucratic tools—like systems analysis—that shaped U.S. interventions in developing nations, guided nuclear strategy, and justified the increasing use of the U.S. military around the world. Throughout these eras, social scientists often reinforced American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States stands at the pinnacle of social and political development, and as such has a duty to spread liberty and democracy around the globe. The scholarly embrace of conventional political values was not the result of state coercion or financial co-optation; by and large social scientists and policymakers shared common American values. But other social scientists used their knowledge and intellectual authority to critique American foreign policy. The history of the relationship between social science and foreign relations offers important insights into the changing politics and ethics of expertise in American public policy.
The British Army in Colonial America
John G. McCurdy
The British army was an important part of colonial America and contributed to the coming of the Revolution. Although the number of British soldiers in North America was meager in the 17th century, this changed with the creation of a standing army and expansion of the British Empire. The French and Indian War (1754–1763) brought thousands of regular troops to the colonies, and many remained in America after the war ended. Life as a redcoat reflected contemporary society and the soldiers had a tenuous relationship with Indigenous peoples. The army became a flashpoint between Britain and the colonies in the 1760s and, with the Boston Massacre, a cause for independence. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), British soldiers fought in numerous theaters, aided at times by Hessians and Loyalist militias. Despite victories at Charlestown, Long Island, and Philadelphia, the British army was defeated at Yorktown. Following the Revolution, the British army slowly evacuated the United States but remained in Canada and the Caribbean until the 20th century.
Religion and Race in America
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries. Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century. With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
Indigenous Peoples and the Environment to 1890
Indigenous peoples have had profound spiritual and ethical relationships with their environments, but they necessarily altered ecosystems as they fed, clothed, and sheltered themselves and traded goods, long before European colonists arrived. Their impacts became broader in scope and scale under settler colonialism, which corrupted and constrained their environmental relationships. The history of Indigenous peoples and their environments, to be sure, is not a single narrative but a constellation of stories that converge and diverge. Nonetheless, an analysis of the environmental histories of only a fraction of the more than 575 Indigenous groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, reveals major trends and commonalities. The environmental historiography of the First Peoples from their beginnings in what is now the United States roughly through the 19th century provides an opportunity to address such topics as the myth of the “Ecological Indian,” ancient urban societies, the introduction of European livestock and disease, and subsistence through agriculture, hunting, and fishing. The history of dispossession in the late 19th century and the environmental history of Indigenous peoples in the recent era may be found in “Indigenous Peoples and the Environment since 1890.”
Epidemics in Indian Country
David S. Jones
Few developments in human history match the demographic consequences of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Between 1500 and 1900 the human populations of the Americas were traBnsformed. Countless American Indians died as Europeans established themselves, and imported Africans as slaves, in the Americas. Much of the mortality came from epidemics that swept through Indian country. The historical record is full of dramatic stories of smallpox, measles, influenza, and acute contagious diseases striking American Indian communities, causing untold suffering and facilitating European conquest. Some scholars have gone so far as to invoke the irresistible power of natural selection to explain what happened. They argue that the long isolation of Native Americans from other human populations left them uniquely susceptible to the Eurasian pathogens that accompanied European explorers and settlers; nothing could have been done to prevent the inevitable decimation of American Indians. The reality, however, is more complex. Scientists have not found convincing evidence that American Indians had a genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases. Meanwhile, it is clear that the conditions of life before and after colonization could have left Indians vulnerable to a host of diseases. Many American populations had been struggling to subsist, with declining populations, before Europeans arrived; the chaos, warfare, and demoralization that accompanied colonization made things worse. Seen from this perspective, the devastating mortality was not the result of the forces of evolution and natural selection but rather stemmed from social, economic, and political forces at work during encounter and colonization. Getting the story correct is essential. American Indians in the United States, and indigenous populations worldwide, still suffer dire health inequalities. Although smallpox is gone and many of the old infections are well controlled, new diseases have risen to prominence, especially heart disease, diabetes, cancer, substance abuse, and mental illness. The stories we tell about the history of epidemics in Indian country influence the policies we pursue to alleviate them today.
Genocide and American Indian History
The issue of genocide and American Indian history has been contentious. Many writers see the massive depopulation of the indigenous population of the Americas after 1492 as a clear-cut case of the genocide. Other writers, however, contend that European and U.S. actions toward Indians were deplorable but were rarely if ever genocidal. To a significant extent, disagreements about the pervasiveness of genocide in the history of the post-Columbian Western Hemisphere, in general, and U.S. history, in particular, pivot on definitions of genocide. Conservative definitions emphasize intentional actions and policies of governments that result in very large population losses, usually from direct killing. More liberal definitions call for less stringent criteria for intent, focusing more on outcomes. They do not necessarily require direct sanction by state authorities; rather, they identify societal forces and actors. They also allow for several intersecting forces of destruction, including dispossession and disease. Because debates about genocide easily devolve into quarrels about definitions, an open-ended approach to the question of genocide that explores several phases and events provides the possibility of moving beyond the present stalemate. However one resolves the question of genocide in American Indian history, it is important to recognize that European and U.S. settler colonial projects unleashed massively destructive forces on Native peoples and communities. These include violence resulting directly from settler expansion, intertribal violence (frequently aggravated by colonial intrusions), enslavement, disease, alcohol, loss of land and resources, forced removals, and assaults on tribal religion, culture, and language. The configuration and impact of these forces varied considerably in different times and places according to the goals of particular colonial projects and the capacities of colonial societies and institutions to pursue them. The capacity of Native people and communities to directly resist, blunt, or evade colonial invasions proved equally important.
Indigenous Peoples and the Environment since 1890
By the late 19th century, the Indigenous peoples of what became the United States, in an effort to avoid utter genocide, had ceded or otherwise lost their land and control of their natural resources, often through treaties with the United States. Ironically, those treaties, while frequently abrogated by federal fiat, made possible a resurgence of Native nationhood beginning in the 1960s, along with the restoration of Indigenous reserved treaty rights to hunt and fish in their homelands and manage their natural resources. The history of Indigenous peoples and their environments, however, is not a single narrative but a constellation of stories that converge and diverge. Nonetheless, an analysis of the environmental histories of only a fraction of the more than 575 Indigenous groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians reveals important trends and commonalities, including the stories of dispossession and displacement, the promise of the Indian New Deal, the trauma of the Termination Era, the reemergence of Native sovereignty based on treaty rights, and the rise of Indigenous leadership in the environmental justice movement. This article is, thus, not comprehensive but focuses on major trends and commonalities from the mid- to late 19th century through the early 21st century, with examples drawn from the environmental histories of a fraction of the more than 575 Indigenous groups, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Topics include dispossession and displacement; the Indian New Deal; the Termination Era; the reemergence of Indigenous sovereignty based on treaty rights; the management of forests, minerals, and water; and the rise of the environmental justice movement. For the period before the establishment of reservations for Indigenous people, see “Indigenous Peoples and the Environment to 1890.”
Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy
Since its founding as the nation’s capital in 1800, Washington, DC, has been typified by an atypical urban history—a city that was home to the federal government and a diverse population of local inhabitants. This local–federal dynamic has shaped nearly every aspect of its history. The central industry has always been the federal government, local governance has ebbed and flowed, and federal officials have exerted authority in moments of political strife. Washington is the only major US city devoted to administration rather than commerce, industry, or finance. At times, policies in the nation’s capital were envisioned as programs that could be implemented across the country, while at other moments, Washington fell behind other cities. As the nation’s capital, Washington has attracted a diverse group of residents, giving the city a distinctive, cosmopolitan presence. Washington began as a Southern city, and then shifted to become a Northern one, and by the mid-20th century, it became national and global. Since its founding, multiracial Washingtonians waged sweeping campaigns for social justice, often inspiring national movements but were tempered by the persistent lack of statehood, an ongoing struggle.