The History of United States Settler Colonialism

Colonization, Dispossession, Genocide
Forms the Core of US History,
the Very Source of the Country’s Existence

Will It Be The Future As Well?   The Choice Is Ours

American Progress

An 1872 painting by John Gast called “American Progress” shows a white woman floating across the plains of the United States. The female figure is a depiction of Columbia. She wears the Star of Empire on her forehead, carries a School Book under her right arm, and is the herald of techno-logic perceptional reality, driving Indigenous people, bison, and other animals out of the picture and into oblivion. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, writing in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014), describes the significance of the Columbia persona:

The Columbus myth suggests that from US independence onward, colonial settlers saw themselves as part of a world system of colonization. “Columbia,” the poetic, Latinate name used in reference to the United States from its founding throughout the nineteenth century, was based on the name of Christopher Columbus. The “Land of Columbus” was—and still is—represented by the image of a woman in sculptures and paintings, by institutions such as Columbia University, and by countless place names, including that of the national capital, the District of Columbia.

Within the theology of Western civilization’s industrial progress—and belief in its intrinsic goodness that indoctrinated generations of Europeans—rests the justification for the wanton destruction of the great civilizations existent in the Western Hemisphere long before the arrival of Columbus. Throughout her book, Dunbar-Ortiz explores the driving process of settler colonialism that was and continues to be the global foundation of this destruction and how “To learn about this history is both a necessity and responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties.”

A compilation of segments from An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States are at: <>. Excerpts from this compilation follow:

What historian David Chang has written about the land that became Oklahoma applies to the whole United States: “Nation, race, and class converged in land.” Everything in US history is about the land—who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (“real estate”) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.

US policies and actions related to Indigenous peoples, though often termed “racist” or “discriminatory,” are rarely depicted as what they are: classic cases of imperialism and a particular form of colonialism—settler colonialism. As anthropologist Patrick Wolfe writes, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life.”

The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. . . .

Writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative. That narrative is wrong or deficient, not in its facts, dates, or details but rather in its essence. Inherent in the myth we’ve been taught is an embrace of settler colonialism and genocide. The myth persists, not for a lack of free speech or poverty of information but rather for an absence of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative of the origin story. How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society? That is the central question this book pursues.

The above excerpts are reprinted with permission from An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Beacon Press, 2014, pages 1-2 and 4.

Speaking about the book in December 2014, Dunbar-Ortiz describes connections between the centuries-long genocidal program of the settler-colonialist regimen and the US military today. It is critical to understand the continuity between the unrelenting frontier wars that began in the early seventeenth century and which moved overseas after the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890, symbolizing the end of Indigenous armed resistance in the continental US.

The next chapter is called “Bloody Footprints” and it’s about how the U.S. Army was formed in the wars against native people east of the Mississippi. This is a quote from a military historian, John Grenier, in a book called The First Way of War:

For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war that contemporary professional soldiers supposedly abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy non-combatants; and assassinating enemy leaders. . . . In the frontier wars between 1607 and 1814, Americans forged two elements—unlimited war and irregular war—into their first way of war. [ The First Way of War, American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814, John Grenier, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 5, 10]

I make throughout the book, connections between the U.S. military today and its foundation in these unrelenting wars that actually went up through 1890 and then moved overseas to the Philippines and the Caribbean with the same generals in the Philippines who had been fighting the Sioux and the Cheyenne in the Northern Plains. And interestingly enough, also, who were called in (one division of them) to fight striking workers in Chicago. So I think there [are] very interesting interconnections with the use of the military in the United States that we don’t always put together.

The Second Amendment and the irregular warfare, these were mostly settler militias who could organize themselves. Andrew Jackson started that way as the head of the Tennessee Militia. [For] his militia’s war against the Muskogee Creeks, driving them out of Georgia, he was made a Major General in the U.S. Army. So it was a career builder as well to start a militia. But these were also used, especially after U.S. independence, as slave patrols, these militias, self-appointed militias. These militias would form to police – free – they weren’t paid to do it – and we still see the ghosts of this performing, actually today.

Recording of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz at Green Apple Books in San Francisco on 4 December 2014. Produced by Time of Useful Consciousness Radio in Parts One and Two.

Detailing the ways in which the conquest of lands that are today called the United States came to be claimed and owned by European men, reveal the processes and characteristics of settler colonialism. This specific brand of colonial usurpation is founded upon institutionalizing extravagant violence through unlimited war and irregular war. Extreme violence was carried out by Anglo settlers against civilians to cause the utter annihilation of the indigenous population. The goal of this extermination was to enable the settlers’ total freedom to acquire land and wealth.

To say that the United States is a colonialist settler-state is not to make an accusation but rather to face historical reality. (p. 7)

Settler colonialism, as an institution or system, requires violence or the threat of violence to attain its goals. People do not hand over their land, resources, children, and futures without a fight, and that fight is met with violence. In employing the force necessary to accomplish its expansionist goals, a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence. The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by the colonized and the colonizer, blurs the nature of the historical processes. Euro-American colonialism … had from its beginnings a genocidal tendency. (p. 8)

In the beginning, Anglo settlers organized irregular units to brutally attack and destroy unarmed indigenous women, children, and old people using unlimited violence in unrelenting attacks. During nearly two centuries of British colonization, generations of settlers, mostly farmers, gained experience as “Indian fighters” outside any organized military institution. Anglo-French conflict may appear to have been the dominant factor of European colonization in North America during the eighteenth century, but while large regular armies fought over geopolitical goals in Europe, Anglo settlers in North America waged deadly irregular warfare against the indigenous communities….

The chief characteristic of irregular warfare is that of the extreme violence against civilians, in this case the tendency to seek the utter annihilation of the indigenous population. “In cases where a rough balance of power existed,” observes historian John Grenier, “and the Indians even appeared dominant—as was the situation in virtually every frontier war until the first decade of the nineteenth century—[settler] Americans were quick to turn to extravagant violence.”

Many historians who acknowledge the exceptional one-sided colonial violence attribute it to racism. Grenier argues that rather than racism leading to violence, the reverse occurred: the out-of-control momentum of extreme violence of unlimited warfare fueled race hatred. “Successive generations of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, made the killing of indian men, women, and children a defining element of their first military tradition and thereby part of a shared American identity. Indeed, only after seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Americans made the first way of war a key to being a white American could later generations of ‘Indian haters,’ men like Andrew Jackson, turn the Indian wars into race wars.” By then, the indigenous peoples’ villages, farmlands, towns, and entire nations formed the only barrier to the settlers’ total freedom to acquire land and wealth. Settler colonialists again chose their own means of conquest. Such fighters are often viewed as courageous heroes, but killing the unarmed women, children, and old people and burning homes and fields involved neither courage nor sacrifice. (p. 58-9)

US history, as well as inherited indigenous trauma, cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against indigenous peoples. From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the twenty-first century, this has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, and removals of indigenous children to military-like boarding schools. The absence of even the slightest note of regret or tragedy in the annual celebration of the US independence betrays a deep disconnect in the consciousness of US Americans. (p. 9)

Robert Williams is an author, legal scholar, and member of the Lumbee Indian Nation. In his 2012 book, Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization he discusses the anxiety-producing imagery of the “savage” from the time of Greek colonizers to its influences today. Anglo settlers projected their own inner savagery outside themselves onto Indigenous people whose way of life was perceived to be so different that they could be branded as “other” and then destroyed. One instance of the savagery practiced by Anglo settlers was in the way scalp hunting came to be practiced. The roots of scalp hunting pre-date the Settler Colonialism project in North America.

During the early 1600s the English conquered Northern Ireland, and declared a half-million acres of land open to settlement; the settlers who contracted with the devil of early colonialism came mostly from western Scotland. England had previously conquered Wales and southern and eastern Ireland, but had never previously attempted on such a scale to remove the indigenous population and “plant” settlers. The English policy of exterminating Indians in North America was foreshadowed by this English colonization of Northern Ireland. The ancient Irish social system was systematically attacked, traditional songs and music forbidden, whole clans exterminated and the remainder brutalized. A “wild Irish” reservation was even attempted. The planted settlers were Calvinist Protestants, assured by their divines that they had been chosen by God for salvation (and title to the lands of Ulster). The native (and Papist) Irish were definitely not destined for salvation, but rather the reverse, both in the present and hereafter.

The “plantation” of Ulster followed centuries of intermittent warfare in Ireland, and was as much the culmination of a process as a departure. In the sixteenth century, the official in charge of the Irish province of Munster, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, ordered that:

The heddes of all those (of what sort soever thei were) which were killed in the daie, should be cutte off from their bodies and brought to the place where he incamped at night, and should there bee laied on the ground by eche side of the waie ledying into his owne tente so that none could come into his tente for any cause but commonly he muste passe through a lane of heddes which he used ad terrorem…[It brought] greate terrour to the people when thei sawe the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and freinds. [Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialsim, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 168.]

Bounties were paid for the Irish heads brought in and later only the scalp or ears were required. A century later, in North America, Indian heads and scalps were brought in for bounty in the same manner. Native Americans picked up the practice from the colonizers. The first English colonial settlement in North America had been planted in Newfoundland in the summer of 1583, by Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

From “The Grid of History: Cowboys and Indians, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Monthly Review, 2003, Volume 55, Issue 03 (July-August).
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

In Chapter 4 Dunbar-Ortiz explains more about how scalp hunting became routine amongst Anglo settlers starting in the mid 1670s and cites John Grenier making the point that with settler authorities offering bounties for scalps, “they established the large-scale privatization of war within American frontier communities.” Understanding the savagery visited upon the nations and communities of Indigenous peoples at the hands of Europeans bent on taking their lands by extirpating them provides a more holistic understanding of how the commonplace violence expressed today throughout the United States has its historical roots in the founding centuries of this settler colonialist state.

Indigenous people continued to resist by burning settlements and killing and capturing settlers. As an incentive to recruit fighters, colonial authorities introduced a program of scalp hunting that became a permanent and long-lasting element of settler warfare against Indigenous nations. [Grenier, First Way of War, pp. 29-34, 36-37, 39.] During the Pequot War, Connecticut and Massachusetts colonial officials had offered bounties initially for the heads of murdered Indigenous people and later for only their scalps, which were more portable in large numbers. But scalp hunting became routine only in the mid-1670’s, following an incident on the northern frontier of the Massachusetts colony. The practice began in earnest in 1697 when settler Hannah Dustin, having murdered ten of her Abenaki captors in a nighttime escape, presented their ten scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women, and six children. [Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Viking, 2001, p. 290.]

Dustin soon became a folk hero among New England settlers. Scalp hunting became a lucrative commercial practice. The settler authorities had hit upon a way to encourage settlers to take off on their own or with a few others to gather scalps, at random, for the reward money. “In the process,” John Grenier points out, “they established the large-scale privatization of war within American frontier communities.” [Grenier, First Way of War, pp. 39-41.] Although the colonial government in time raised the bounty for adult male scalps, lowered that for adult females, and eliminated that for Indigenous children under ten, the age and gender of victims were not easily distinguished by their scalps nor checked carefully. What is more, the scalp hunter could take the children captive and sell them into slavery. These practices erased any remaining distinction between Indigenous combatants and noncombatants and introduced a market for Indigenous slaves. Bounties for Indigenous scalps were honored even in absence of war. Scalps and Indigenous children became means of exchange, currency, and this development may even have created a black market. Scalp hunting was not only a profitable privatized enterprise but also a means to eradicate or subjugate the Indigenous population of the Anglo-American Atlantic seaboard. [Ibid. pp 41-43.] The settlers gave a name to the mutilated and bloody corpses they left in the wake of scalp-hunts: redskins.

This way of war, forged in the first century of colonization—destroying Indigenous villages and fields, killing civilians, ranging and scalp hunting—became the basis for the wars against the Indigenous across the continent into the late nineteenth century. [Ibid. p 52.]

It follows that the commonplace violent nature of today’s culture in the United States would have as its roots, generations of US Americans who were raised within a tradition of killing indian men, women, and children as part of the genesis of a shared American identity as well as the shared experience of engendering profitable privatized enterprises resulting from such extravagant violence.