The United States treated Native American tribes as sovereign states. Relations with various tribes were governed by a series of (often broken) treaties.

At the same time, however, general territorial claims in North America were resolved between the United States and other powers as if the Native American tribes didn't exist. The Louisiana Purchase wasn't negotiated with the individual tribes living in the Missouri River watershed; it was negotiated with France. Territorial settlements with Great Britain, Russia, and Mexico were negotiated without input from Native Americans occupying the territories in question.

Did the US government regard some Native Americans as sovereign, and some as not-sovereign? In cases where the Native Americans were not sovereign, why weren't the Native Americans regarded as citizens? Was there any debate about this at all, or were these questions resolved on the ground on an ad hoc basis?

  • 2
    I'd like to answer this when I have time. But in the meantime, know that its easiest to understand early US/Native relations in terms of a legal screen for acquiring and protecting the land of (white) US citizens. Don't make the mistake of taking exact legalities of the native position more seriously than the USA did at the time.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 15, 2018 at 11:01
  • 2
    T.E.D., that's part of the basis for my question. Even if you assume the most cynical possible position on the part of the United States or on the part of individual states or territories, it seems like there should have been some disagreement over how best to achieve the aims of that position. Simply declaring the natives of the territories US citizens, and requiring them to register individual (and not tribal) land claims, would have brought their lands into the title system much faster than the incremental approach that was actually used.
    – tbrookside
    Oct 15, 2018 at 12:16
  • 3
    To an extent the revolutionary war was such a debate - one of the rebels' underlying grievances were treaties that stopped their expansion.
    – user31561
    Oct 15, 2018 at 12:16
  • 4
    @tbrookside - What you describe (formally known as allotment) was exactly what was done in Oklahoma in the early 20th century. That's how Oklahoma, originally the USA's dispossessed tribe dumping ground, and the state with the most Native Americans today (depending on how you count), ended up having 0 reservations. You can't just start with that though; the indigenous nation has to be softened up a bit first.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 15, 2018 at 12:55
  • 3
    @T.E.D.: Re "...legal screen for acquiring and protecting the land ...", you might consider how this differs from say Napoleon's attitude towards the rest of Europe (and Egypt)? Seems that's most of history: those with power taking from those with less.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 15, 2018 at 19:00

1 Answer 1


Nation states are sovereign, but they don't necessarily own much of the land within their borders; most land is held by individuals, or organizations, such as the medieval church, etc.

The conquest of the Americas brought the laws of European nations, most of which derived ultimately from either Roman law, or the English common law. Under these codes, any land with no recognized owner was property of the state. Such land is often barren, and thus unused, and thus not significant, except to nomadic peoples, such as the herders of the northern reaches of Europe and Asia, or by the aborigines of Australia, or the hunter-part time farmers north of meso-America.

The concept of sovereign ownership of land by the natives of North America follows from these issues, as a legal purchase of land from a sovereign group, or a collection of sovereign groups with over-lapping seasonal claims, was used to extinguish the native titles, and thus prepare the land for sub-division and future sale to European-descended settlers.

You can see this in action in the Detroit area of Michigan, from the time of Cadillac's arrival, and purchase of land for Fort Pontchartrain, at "De Troits", the straits. The English continued this policy, and extended the area of settlement slightly, and permitted the local "habitants" to privately extend the claims, as long as there was a proper Indian deed; see for example Grosse Ile, purchased in 1776 by the Macomb brothers. The American's continued this process after they took control in 1796. Negotiations often followed armed conflicts, such as Wayne's victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and after the War of 1812.

The typical purchase price for cession of land rights was (1) continued usage for hunting and fishing, (2) an annuity, paid annually in money, but mostly in goods, and (3) creation of a reserved area, which was to be limited to Indian use, with traders as permitted.

Two other points: the local Indian tribes used their traditional laws for intra-tribal disputes, and the federal courts for disputes between tribal members and Americans; also, those living in tribal areas were untaxed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.