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“Financing Dispossession”: A Conversation

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Certificate for twelve shares in the New York and Mississippi Land Company, one of several joint-stock companies established by Wall Street financiers to speculate in native lands. The certificate made the investment more palatable to northern investors by picturing a leaping stag and a stack of cotton bales rather than dispossessed Native Americans and enslaved laborers. Image courtesy Lewis Perry Curtis Family Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

In the September 2019 issue of the Journal of American History, Claudio Saunt shows that investment bankers from the northeastern states and abroad were essential to the process of moving eighty thousand people across the Mississippi River. In “Financing Dispossession: Stocks, Bonds, and the Deportation of Native Peoples in the Antebellum United States,” he argues that financial capital shaped both the speed of dispossession and the extent of the losses borne by Native Americans and transformed the native South from a region of family farms to a land of sprawling slave labor camps.

In this piece, Robert Lee, Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and Saunt discuss the piece and its implications.

“Financing Dispossession” reveals how Indian removal in the South functioned as an investment vehicle. How would you characterize the financiers involved? Should they be classified as architects of removal, naked opportunists, something in between, or something else entirely?

One of the surprising discoveries I made while working on the larger subject of native dispossession in the 1830s is that northern financiers played a significant role in the process.  Though I would not call them the architects of the operation—there were many other interest groups that must share the responsibility—it is clear that without their capital, dispossession would have unfolded quite differently. Whether they were naked opportunists or savvy investors depends on one’s perspective, but either way, it is striking is that they never commented on the morality of their investments. They eagerly insured cotton produced by the South’s enslaved laborers, and they just as happily speculated in native dispossession.

How did you settle on the three financial instruments explored here: joint-stock companies, municipal bonds, and covered bonds? Are there others we should know about?

These three instruments served to organize the essay because they predominated in the sources I examined. But there were other instruments at work, including bills of exchange, mortgages, dividends, and post-notes. It might be argued that dispossession would have occurred whether or not financial instruments were employed. But surely the process would have unfolded very differently, in ways that changed the cost to native peoples in lives and property.

There’s a dizzying array of sources, some archival, some microfilm, and some available from databases. Could you comment on the process of pulling them all together? Where did you start? Where did you finish?

“Financing Dispossession” is part of a larger project on the deportation of native peoples in the 1830s. I initially stumbled across some sources that pointed me in the direction of Wall Street, and I followed the trail as far as I could without getting too far from the story I’m telling in the book Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (2020). Exploring the trail, I desperately wanted to find a collection of Eli Shorter’s personal papers, but none exists. I also wanted to discover the records of the Mississippi Union Bank; no such luck. The papers of the New York and Mississippi Land Company and of Lewis Perry Curtis (J. D. Beers’s heir) are fortunately voluminous and proved to be extraordinarily informative. In addition, I scoured WorldCat for other bits and pieces, and when I discovered single items in distant archives, I didn’t hesitate to call up the local history department to find someone willing to take on the job of photographing the material for me.

Some of the evidence in “Financing Dispossession” derives from investigations into schemes like Eli Shorter’s use of debt, intimidation, and identity theft to dispossess Creek landholders. Could that same evidence be used to write a parallel history to this story about how financiers leveraged dispossession, one that emphasizes how—and how effectively—Indian nations or their allies counteracted third-party efforts to profit from removal?

It is true that native peoples fought back against the financiers and their agents. They refused to sell their property, appealed to U.S. Indian officers and even to President Andrew Jackson himself for relief. In the case of the Creeks, they took up arms. If “Financing Dispossession” comes across as a story about the victory of Wall Street, that’s because I think any reasonable accounting of how many hundreds of thousands of acres and how many millions of dollars native families lost in the 1830s suggests exactly that. It’s worth underscoring that financiers wielded not just massive amounts of financial capital; they also had the power of the state at their services, specifically U.S. troops who fought against the Creeks and Seminoles and who pushed out the Cherokees at the point of a bayonet.

It’s apparent that some time-consuming Geographic Information System work went into the article’s maps. How did you integrate spatial analysis into your research?

As a matter of course, I map just about everything I can, even though a fraction of the effort—as with all kinds of historical research—proves useful in the end. In this instance, the determination of the federal government to survey and measure native lands in six-by-six-mile townships and the scale of the land speculation demanded some sort of visualization. (I wish the JAH printed color maps!) The mapping itself took many hours, but there is still much more to be done on this front. I can imagine additional layers of data that would reveal the relationship between, say, specific Creek villages and particular speculators, or between speculation in the 1830s and land ownership and plantation slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, or between removal-era speculation and Reconstruction-era farm sizes.

This piece focuses on the South, where financiers helped convert Indian Country to plantations, but it briefly points toward a related history set in the North that connects removal to investments in internal improvements. Can you elaborate on that untold story, and, if it’s relevant, explain how it relates to your new book?

The political pressure for removal really emanated from the South. Over the winter of 1826–1827, three southern senators conspired to formulate a strategy to dispossess native peoples.  They decided that they could use state law to compel their departure, and this strategy proved essential to the dispossession of the subsequent decade. Nonetheless, there were plenty of northern collaborators who supported the effort, and some did so because they had personal interests in promoting canals or railroads in the North. I have not dug into these stories as deeply as I have in the South, but Emilie Connolly, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth, has done great work on this subject.

With the bicentennial of the Indian Removal Act (1830) a decade off, I expect we’re going to be reading more and more about Indian removal in the coming years. How would you like to see future historians build on this work?

Indian removal was a human tragedy, but too often narratives of the event stop there. It’s easy to see it as just another example on the long list of injustices committed by colonists.  Dispossession in the 1830s, however, was extraordinary because it was overseen and administered by the small but growing federal bureaucracy and financed by national and international investors. It also shaped U.S. history more profoundly than we have understood, giving rise to the Antebellum South and creating a westward-moving frontier between native peoples and U.S. citizens. More broadly, it was among the first state-sponsored mass deportations in the modern era and ought to be understood in the context of the more infamous deportations of the twentieth century.

For more on this topic, read Saunt’s article in the September 2019 issue of the Journal of American History.


Robert Lee is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Selwyn College. He recently published “Land-Grab Universities” with Tristan Ahtone. Data from the investigation tracking how Indigenous land funded land-grant universities can be explored at landgrabu.org.

Claudio Saunt is the Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia, where he teaches and writes about Native American history.  His most recent book is Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (W.W. Norton, 2020).

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