The Settlers' Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America's Old Northwest

The Settlers' Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America's Old Northwest

The Settlers' Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America's Old Northwest

The Settlers' Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America's Old Northwest


The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially recognized the United States as a sovereign republic, also doubled the territorial girth of the original thirteen colonies. The fledgling nation now stretched from the coast of Maine to the Mississippi River and up to the Great Lakes. With this dramatic expansion, argues author Bethel Saler, the United States simultaneously became a postcolonial republic and gained a domestic empire. The competing demands of governing an empire and a republic inevitably collided in the early American West. The Settlers' Empire traces the first federal endeavor to build states wholesale out of the Northwest Territory, a process that relied on overlapping colonial rule over Euro-American settlers and the multiple Indian nations in the territory. These entwined administrations involved both formal institution building and the articulation of dominant cultural customs that, in turn, served also to establish boundaries of citizenship and racial difference.

In the Northwest Territory, diverse populations of newcomers and Natives struggled over the region's geographical and cultural definition in areas such as religion, marriage, family, gender roles, and economy. The success or failure of state formation in the territory thus ultimately depended on what took place not only in the halls of government but also on the ground and in the everyday lives of the region's Indians, Francophone creoles, Euro- and African Americans, and European immigrants. In this way, The Settlers' Empire speaks to historians of women, gender, and culture, as well as to those interested in the early national state, the early West, settler colonialism, and Native history.


Through the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain vested the United States with an immense swath of western country that stretched from the middle of the Great Lakes in the North to the Mississippi River at its western border and the Thirty-First Parallel in the South. That addition of land doubled the territorial girth of the original thirteen colonies, creating a situation rife with both possibility and vulnerability. Not only was the United States a fledgling republic in a world of powerful empires, but it had also just acquired—at least on paper—its own domestic empire in need of protection from those competing imperial regimes in North America.

This book examines the peculiar situation endemic to the young American nation as both a postcolonial republic and a contiguous domestic empire. It does so by looking at where these dual political demands inevitably collided—in the federal project of western state formation. The main focus of the study is Wisconsin, part of the central government’s first experiment in state building in the Old Northwest during the early national era and the last territory and state formed entirely from the original Northwest Territory. While anchored in Wisconsin, however, this is the story of the first formal national endeavor to build republican states wholesale out of the public domain, a public domain that, at the time, largely encompassed Indian homelands.

The history of United States territories boasts a venerable historiography created by generations of western historians dating back to Frederick Jackson Turner. However, over the last few decades the field has been left largely fallow, a fact all the more surprising given the efflorescence of interest in placing American history within an Atlantic or even a global context. The recent trend of thinking comparatively about U.S. history in a wider world context has yielded many vital insights, among which I want to highlight two: first, that the United States was a postcolonial republic, and . . .

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