Settlers as Conquerors: Free Land Policy in Antebellum America

In early America, the notion that settlers ought to receive undeveloped land for free was enormously popular among the rural poor and social reformers. Well into the Jacksonian era, however, Congress considered the demand fiscally and economically irresponsible. Increasingly, this led proponents to cast the idea as a military matter: Land grantees would supplant troops in the efforts to take the continent over from Indian nations and rival colonial powers. Julius Wilm's book, published in the GHI's series “Transatlantische Historische Studien” with the Franz Steiner Verlag, examines the free land debates of the 1790s to 1850s and reconstructs the settlement experiences under the donation laws for Florida (1842) and the Oregon Territory (1850). Both laws promised to bring the interests of poorer whites and their government into a more harmonious relation – to the exclusion of African Americans and for the explicit purpose of displacing Native peoples. Drawing on new records, Wilm details the trajectory of settlements and shows how the settler-imperialist experiments fell apart and undermined the rationale of the donation laws. After home seekers fled Florida due to malaria and militias in Oregon triggered uncontrollable violence, settlers came to be seen as unreliable agents of government aims.

Settlers as Conquerors: Free Land Policy in Antebellum America by Julius Wilm is available from the Franz Steiner Verlag in GHI’s series “Transatlantische Historische Studien.”