The Roots of Environmental (In)justice in the Early Republic: Development and Dispossession as a Two-Pronged Conquest

John William Nelson
Lithograph os a river flowing from a lake through a prairie with a few houses on the banks and some boats.

Chicago Lithographing Company, “Chicago in 1820” Circa 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The literature of Indigenous dispossession has rarely been paired directly with studies of infrastructure, or what those in the early United States called “internal improvements.” It is time to re-entangle those separate historiographies while exploring how such projects of state-backed settler infrastructure directly degraded Indigenous environments and in so doing, threatened Native political ecologies to the point of dispossession. Looking specifically at the Old Northwest, we can see clear examples where U.S. officials knowingly worked to alter landscapes and waterways in efforts to disenfranchise Native polities while promoting canal construction, wetland drainages, river dredging, and harbor improvements. These projects, in turn, undermined Indigenous lifeways and Native peoples’ abilities to resist land cessions and forced Removal by the 1830s. By exploring the interconnectedness of Indigenous dispossession and environmental exploitation during the infrastructure projects of the early United States, we can trace the roots of environmental justice crises that we continue to witness around the world today between governments and Indigenous communities. By exploring the precedent of this two-pronged settler-colonial approach to Native environments in the context of early America, perhaps we can even find tools with which to address environmental injustices on larger scales in the twenty-first century.

Lewis Cass, the long-running territorial governor of Michigan and eventual Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson, served as one of the main architects of what I describe as a two-pronged settler conquest over both the landscapes of the continental interior and the Native people that called the region home. He expressed this connection in explicit terms in various treaties with Native peoples in the Old Northwest. According to Cass and other eventual advocates of Indian Removal, internal improvements stood as one of the major justifications for the policy of Native dispossession on a national level. Meeting with the Potawatomis of Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana in 1821, Cass argued that Indigenous occupation of the land was preventing proper “communication” between various American settlements across the Northwest. Cass made clear this need for a communications network went beyond information transfer and included public roads and other routes that could facilitate commerce and encourage further settlement. In essence, the Native communities he met with were in the way of developing such infrastructure, and as Cass pitched it, the only solution was land cessions and eventual Native removal.[1]

Cass understood all too well the association between public works projects and Native dispossession. In the fall of 1826, Cass coordinated with the governor of Indiana, James Ray, to negotiate for a new road project connecting the fledgling capital of Indianapolis to Lake Michigan’s coastline. But the road would run through and adjacent to Potawatomi lands. Cass and his collaborators made the explicit argument that internal improvements such as this “Michigan Road” could serve as the strategic method for ensuring more land cessions and even removal in the future. As Cass and his co-signers put it in a letter to the Secretary of War, “what is more important to us, it will sever their possessions and lead them at no distant day to place their dependance upon agricultural pursuits or abandon,” making this road’s eventual importance twofold in both a “pecuniary or political view.”[2] In other words, these government officials understood what they were doing. As they undermined Native lifeways by overhauling Indiana’s landscape, they believed their public works projects would play a direct role in conquering the region’s Potawatomis and eventually push them towards removal.[3] Internal improvements became not only a justification for small-scale dispossession to support public works projects—these projects in turn would serve as a tool to escalate the process of dispossession into the future.

As Cass simultaneously negotiated land cessions in treaties with Native peoples in the region, he and others promoted projects to reshape the landscape—a new road promised to connect the Ohio River to Lake Michigan by way of Indianapolis, and drainage projects in the Black Swamp of Ohio and the Kankakee Marsh of Indiana and Illinois that opened up new farmland and undercut Indigenous means of production. Harbor improvements across the Great Lakes negated canoe travel and opened ports to steam-powered ships for the first time. Across the region and beyond, federal orchestrated Indigenous land cessions marked the first step in the state-sponsored internal improvement projects that American settlers clamored for.[4]

Black and white portrait of Lewis Cass.  He is sitting facing the camera with a stern look on his face.

Lewis Cass in 1855. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Cass and his collaborators were, from a strategic sense, correct in their predictions. This transformation of the Old Northwest’s environs significantly reshaped the balance of power between the region’s Native peoples and incoming settlers, tipping the scales in favor of government officials and eventually, eastern land speculators, businessmen, and migrating white settlers. By overhauling the local geography, and in turn, the regional patterns of movement and sustenance, American officials sought to impose a topography better suited to settler economic success in the Old Northwest. This made the landscapes of the region more legible for governance while simultaneously threatening Indigenous sovereignty and lifeways. By spending government dollars to shoehorn the region’s patterns of productivity into a settler-state future while simultaneously undermining Native lifeways and older transportation networks, the United States refashioned its western territories and states after its own image.

By viewing the region’s transformation in this way—as a two-pronged conquest of both the local people and the local space—we can better understand U.S. efforts, and eventual successes, in subjugating the North American continent. Very few historians have taken these two processes—internal improvements and Indigenous dispossession—as parts of the same whole: a fundamental alteration of the interior environments, backed by state investment and authority, that served to undercut Indigenous power on the continent and eventually transformed spaces from sites of Native hegemony to places of American authority and settler exploitation.[5] In the Old Northwest and beyond, historians must consider the implications of Native dispossession and internal improvements as mutually reinforcing strategies that shifted the balance of power in favor of the United States, ultimately ushering in an era of increased industrialization, environmental exploitation, and capitalism that brought about our own anthropogenic crisis of the modern era. Only in this way can we begin to engage in conversations that address climate change, resource and energy competition, and environmental justice together as multiple facets of the same concerning whole even now.


[1] See “Proceedings of the Treaty of Chicago” (Aug. 29, 1821), Potawatomi Subseries, Box 6521, Great Lakes and Ohio Valley Ethnohistory Collection, Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

[2] Lewis Cass, James Ray, and John Tipton to James Barbour, Oct. 23, 1826, in The John Tipton Papers, ed. Nellie Armstrong Robertson and Dorothy Riker, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: The Indiana Historical Bureau, 1942), 1: 602–603.

[3] For how the “Road Band” of Potawatomis in Indiana manipulated these road-building projects and land cession demands to their own advantage, see Ben Secunda, “The Road to Ruin? ‘Civilization’ and the Origins of a ‘Michigan Road Band’ of Potawatomi,” Michigan Historical Review 34, no. 1 (2008), 118–49.

[4] These developments were not unique to the Old Northwest. For southern parallels in infrastructure projects (mostly roads) during the early republic, see Thomas Dionysius Clark and John D. W. Guice, Frontiers in Conflict: The Old Southwest, 1795–1830 (Albuquerque, NM, 1989), esp. ch. 5 and the discussion of the Natchez Trace; Henry deLeon Southerland and Jerry Elijah Brown, The Federal Road Through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806–1836(Tuscaloosa, AL, 1989); Angela Pulley Hudson, Creek Paths and Federal Roads: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010).

[5] For two notable exceptions to this, see Aley Ginette, “Bringing About the Dawn: Agriculture, Internal Improvements, Indian Policy, and Euro-American Hegemony in the Old Northwest, 1800–1846,” in The Boundaries Between Us: Natives and Newcomers along the Frontiers of the Old Northwest Territory, 1750–1850 (Kent, OH, 2006), 196–218; Gregory Ablavsky, Federal Ground: Governing Property and Violence in the First U.S. Territories (Oxford , UK, 2021). John Larson’s recent book, while not dealing with Indigenous dispossession, does examine the environmental implications of expanding settler capitalism in the interior. See John Lauritz Larson, Laid Waste!: The Culture of Exploitation in Early America (Philadelphia, 2019).

11 July 2023

About the Author

John William Nelson is assistant professor of history of Texas Tech University.

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