Colonial Geology and Being Critical of Critical Minerals

Gustave Lester

Cutaway engraving of a mine showing a shaft going down through the ground into a cavern, bolstered by wood, with figures climbing in and out.

Illustration from David Dale Owen, Mineral Lands of the United States: Message from the President of the United States, in reply to a resolution of the House of Representatives of the 6th of February last, [1839] concerning the mineral lands of the United States (Washington, DC: Blair & Rives, print, 1845), RB 33089, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Many prominent approaches to decarbonization today are predicated on the continuation or intensification of harmful extractive practices. These include the increasing number of environmental injustices that are looming or are being enacted in the name of securing supplies of mineral resources deemed critical to produce renewable energy technologies or to achieve “national security” in the context of climate change.[1] The Potawatomi scholar and activist Kyle Whyte has described the many ways that such unjust approaches to decarbonization get framed as urgent responses to the climate crisis while actually perpetuating some of the colonial relations that helped create and maintain the modern landscape of climate vulnerability.[2] The work of geoscientists has long functioned as an important guide in the uneven development and expansion of extractive projects around the world. As recently described by the Red River Métis scholar Max Liboiron, “The current mechanisms of colonialism might look different but non-Indigenous entitlement to Indigenous land, life and knowledge still characterizes everyday relations in science. In the geosciences, samples are collected from Indigenous land without Indigenous consent and mining and extraction continue as Indigenous groups protest the developments.”[3]

In my own work, I show how geology—as a discipline and evolving set of scientific practices—developed under the patronage of what Whyte has called “settler–industrial states,” including the United States, referring to polities that serve to protect and incubate the transformation of Indigenous homelands into settler homelands using industrial means.[4] In the nineteenth century, state-funded geological surveys of North American borderlands played an increasingly important role in guiding the environmental, territorial, and economic trajectories of an industrializing U.S. empire. To ensure renewable energy projects—and the mineral supply chains upon which they depend—alleviate rather than exacerbate harm, we need to reckon with the colonial roots of sciences at the forefront of decarbonization efforts.

There have been many “critical minerals” in the history of U.S. settler colonialism. “Lead,” wrote the historian Walter Johnson, “was to the military-industrial complex of the nineteenth-century United States what rubber, then oil, then uranium, would be to the military-industrial complex of the twentieth century: an indispensable extractive resource.”[5] Like many mineral resources in early Anglo America, lead was overwhelmingly imported from overseas—mainly from Britain—until the mid-nineteenth century. After two wars with their principal lead supplier, U.S. officials turned their attention toward the finding and exploiting of continental sources of the material. In the 1820s and 30s, this included the lead lands owned and mined by the Sauk, Mesquakie, and Ho-Chunk nations of the upper Mississippi Valley. With encouragement from the federal government, white settlers and miners flooded this region in the 1820s. Indigenous resistance to this trespass culminated into state-sanctioned violence and land seizure, including what has become known as the Black Hawk War.

In the antebellum United States, many political leaders combined longstanding settler-colonial ambitions with a political economy of national industrial self-sufficiency (“economic independence”) that relied on the anticipated resources of a territorially expanding nation. The territorial priorities of the state created a market for certain kinds of expertise to systematically investigate, appraise, and “improve” continental environments. As the historian Cameron Strang put it, “the history of natural knowledge in the United States was inseparable from the continuous warfare driven by territorial expansion, racial oppression, and commercial competition.”[6] Thus, the decades following the War of 1812 saw an increasing number of earth scientists working for federal and state governments. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, for example, gained employment with the federal government in the 1820s after visiting multiple lead-rich regions of the Mississippi Valley and sending copies of his published observations to U.S. officials. For decades, he continued to supply U.S. leaders with information about the natural resources of Indigenous nations in the Great Lakes region while simultaneously facilitating the coercion of land cessions as a federal Indian agent. In the wake of the Black Hawk War, the federal government funded an ambitious survey of the Upper Mississippi Valley led by the geologist David Dale Owen to facilitate its disposal to white settlers and miners. By 1840, 93 percent of annual lead production in the United States came from these newly expropriated mines. The U.S. lead-smelting industry flourished and lead imports—previously the far-and-way dominant share in the U.S.—steadily declined, reaching a near-vanishing point in 1844.

The survey and expropriation of the mineral wealth of the Sauk, Mesquakie, and Ho-Chunk nations of the Upper Mississippi Valley was far from an exceptional event in the parallel histories of U.S. settler colonialism and industrial development. In fact, these same decades saw U.S. support for geological surveys into several other Indigenous territories rich with raw materials deemed critical to the political, economic, and technological futures being imagined for the United States. This pattern would continue across and beyond the nineteenth century as the U.S. continental empire became a leading source of most industrial mineral resources and as greater government patronage of the geosciences propelled their public legitimation and professional elaboration. Conscientious approaches to renewable energy technologies today means reckoning with and undermining such practices of colonial entitlement in the sciences that help drive the extractive inequities of critical industrial raw materials.


[1]. Thea Riofrancos, “Shifting Mining from the Global South Misses the Point of Climate Justice,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 7, 2022,; Jack Healy and Mike Baker, “As Miners Chase Clean-Energy Minerals, Tribes Fear a Repeat of the Past,” New York Times, Dec. 27, 2021,

[2]. Kyle Whyte, “Against Crisis Epistemology,” in Handbook of Critical Indigenous Studies, ed. Brendan Hokowhitu et al. (New York, 2021), 52–64,

[3]. Max Liboiron, “Decolonizing Geoscience Requires More than Equity and Inclusion,” Nature Geoscience 14, no. 12 (Dec. 2021), 876–77,

[4]. On “settler–industrial states,” see Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Food Systems, Environmental Justice, and Settler-Industrial States,” in Global Food, Global Justice: Essays on Eating under Globalization, ed. M. Rawlinson and C. Ward (Cambridge, UK, 2015), 143–56,

[5]. Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (New York, 2020), 54,

[6]. Cameron B. Strang, “Perpetual War and Natural Knowledge in the United States, 1775–1860,” Journal of the Early Republic 383 (Fall 2018), 387–413,

14 August 2023

About the Author

Gustave Lester is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University.

Share this Post