Theft of Indigenous Peoples’ Land

In a recent article I wrote about ancestors who, in different states and at different times, acquired land very cheaply from the state rather than from a specific person, and my realization that they had profited directly from the U.S. government’s theft of Indigenous peoples’ land. On two occasions in the last month, I have been asked how I documented that transfer of land from Indigenous hands to those of my white ancestors. One asker was intrigued because this kind of exploration is unusual in genealogy work. The other wondered how to do similar documentation in a different geographic location. Since both asked about my references, I decided to explain what I did.

About a dozen years ago, I first began to notice what became a pattern of white ancestors acquiring land from the state when yielded two U.S. General Land Office patents to one of my immigrant great grandparents in central Illinois. A few years later, while visiting Tennessee, I browsed old deeds records in the Monroe County courthouse. There, I noted another white ancestor acquiring 160 acres from the state of Tennessee in 1827. On a subsequent visit to Tennessee, while visiting the Washington County Courthouse, I scanned the Direct Index to Deeds and Mortgages (North Carolina land grants are now searchable online). I found several records like the one shown below, documenting North Carolina land grants in the 1700s. (What is now east Tennessee had been part of North Carolina.) The individual named in the image below, William Nodding, is a distant ancestor. 

North Carolina land

Ancestry’s growing collection of property records now includes not only deeds such as these, but also an extensive collection of homestead records. (For a discussion of ways to search property records, see my earlier blog on Property Records.

Homesteading is one of the processes the U.S. government used to transfer land, mainly although not exclusively to white people. The Preemption Act of 1841 allowed individuals who were already on federally-owned land to buy it very cheaply if they were: 1) “head of household”; 2) a single man over 21, or a widow; 3) a citizen of the United States (or an immigrant intending to become naturalized); and 4) a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months. The Homestead Act of 1862 essentially loosened the Preemption Act. It granted plots of usually 160 acres to any U.S. citizen who had not taken up arms against the U.S., and was willing to settle on and farm land for at least five years. It required a three-step procedure: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title.

I realized that my ancestor’s U.S. General Land Office patents mentioned above, issued in 1849 and 1853, followed the Preemption Act of 1841. At that point, I was not sure if any other ancestors had made use of the Homestead Act of 1862, although they certainly had benefitted from other processes of land transfer.

I knew, of course, that the land had originally been the home of the many Indigenous nations of North America. I began to wonder exactly whose land my ancestors got, and how that happened. My initial queries were fairly general. For example, with respect to the land in central Illinois, I sought information about which Indigenous nation had been there earlier (Kickapoo), and when they were expelled (1819).

The more I read about the violent dispossession and expulsion of Indigenous peoples in places where my ancestors settled, the angrier I became and the more specific my research became. For example, one set of great grandparents moved from Tennessee to the Steamboat Springs, Colorado area in the mid-1880s. On a visit to Steamboat Springs several years ago, I made copies of several writings about the history of the area, including the self-published 1972 book by Lee A. Powell entitled Steamboat Springs: The first forty years. A chapter entitled “The Removal of the Indians 1879” began with:

The Sioux and the Cheyenne had attacked the settlers and had done battle with the U.S. Army. Consequently, it was not difficult to justify decimating the tribes and removing survivors to land so poor no white would settle upon it. The Utes, however, posed a different problem. They accommodated the whites, sometimes to the point of forming alliances with them against other Indian tribes. The Ute problem, that is the problem of acquiring Ute lands, became acute in the 1870s.

It wasn’t until a few months ago, however, that I was able to document that these ancestors had homesteaded on Ute land just after the Utes were expelled.

In the newspaper Steamboat Pilot, published since 1885, I had been able to find records of my ancestors buying lots in the town of Steamboat Springs in the 1890s. Entering my great grandfather’s name into Google one day, I located it in the recently digitized book James H. Crawford’s 1889 Copybook: Business letters written by James H. Crawford during 1889 – 1892 Steamboat Springs, Colorado (Crawford founded Steamboat Springs). There I read that my ancestor had visited the area in 1881, then homesteaded a year later five miles east of the town of Craig.

I sought and acquired a copy of the best history of the Utes available, Virginia McConnell Simmons’s The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico (University Press of Colorado, 2000). In that book, I read about the stages in which the U.S. government pushed the Utes westward to take their land. I learned that the White River Indian Agent Nathan Meeker had taunted and browbeat the Utes until a group of them ambushed the agency in 1879. (The White River Agency administered the Yampa River Valley where Steamboat Springs is located.) The U.S. government immediately sent in troops, and in 1880 the Colorado State Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding expulsion of Utes from the state. Most white rhetoric in newspapers and such recommended complete extermination. The army took the Utes to Utah. The land, which included the Yampa River Valley, would have been surveyed immediately and advertised for homesteading.

There is no one set of references for documenting how the theft of Indigenous people’s land enriched white ancestors. In my case, I used a combination of documents available through, visiting the deeds records in county courthouses, reading digitized newspapers, googling my ancestors’ names, and reading tribal histories.

I believe it is important to document this history because the theft of Indigenous people’s land and its transfer to white people undergirds enormous disparities in wealth today. According to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2007 the median wealth of white non-Hispanic families in the U.S. was $170,400, while that of non-white families was only $27,800. I could not locate census data on American Indian household wealth. But the 2014 U.S. Census does report that 29.2% of American Indians live below the poverty level, while only 15.9% of the nation as a whole does so, and that American Indians have the highest poverty rate while whites have the lowest. White people need to confront our inherited basis for these unjust disparities.


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