Peach on Witgen, 'Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America'

Michael John Witgen
Steven Peach

Michael John Witgen. Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, 2022. 384 pp. $29.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4696-6485-9; $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6484-2.

Reviewed by Steven Peach (Tarleton State University) Published on H-AmIndian (November, 2022) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of South Carolina Lancaster)

Printable Version:

Race, Plunder, and Colonialism in the Nineteenth-Century American Midwest

In his first book, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (2012), Michael John Witgen furnished a “Native counternarrative” to the Eurocentric concept of a “new world” by arguing that European colonialism took shape in a world generated and controlled by Indigenous peoples. The Anishinaabeg (Anishinaabe), who consisted of the Odawaag (Ottawas), Ojibweg (Ojibwes/Chippewas/Saginaws), and Boodewaadamiig (Potawatomis), were the progenitors of what he termed the “Native New World.”[1] They remain under analysis in his second monograph, Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America. Witgen shifts the chronology forward to examine US colonial policy toward the Indigenous populations in the Ohio River valley and Great Lakes region. Following the American War for Independence in 1783, in particular, the US government designated Anishinaabewaki (the Anishinaabeg homeland) the “Northwest Territory” and carved from it the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Witgen studies an assortment of subjects ranging from US racial ideology and mixed-race peoples to the methods with which US officials expropriated land and resources from the Anishinaabeg. His central argument is that the early US government devised a colonial policy meant to steal “Native land to generate wealth for white citizens”; moreover, this policy was “not an aberration [but] a feature” of American governance that continues today (p. 346). To illuminate this sobering tale, Witgen investigates nearly a dozen treaties that federal agents, Anishinaabe ogimaag (leaders), and other Native groups in the Northwest Territory negotiated from the 1795 Treaty of Fort Wayne to the 1855 Treaty of Detroit. While some treaties extracted land cessions from Indigenous emissaries, all contained annuity payments that, in part, flowed to white Americans. He asserts that traders were the “ultimate beneficiaries” in a fledgling “political economy of plunder” that enriched whites at the expense of Native populations (p. 253). Monies from the federal government subsidized traders who belonged to the American Fur Company and other concerns or who operated independently. The 1836 Treaty of Washington authorized three hundred thousand dollars of debt payment to the Ottawas’ and Ojibwes’ traders, for instance, while the federal government purchased from the same traders goods destined for Anishinaabeg towns (pp. 205-6).

The true heart of Seeing Red lies in its extensive discussion of the Métis or mixed-race peoples or, in nineteenth-century US parlance, the “half-breeds” (p. 23). According to Witgen, missionaries affiliated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), federal authorities, and other white Americans cast mixed-race peoples as archetypes of the US “civilizing mission” (p. 165). Straddling the cultural and racial border between so-called civilization and savagery, mixed-race men and women walked in two worlds. They shared kin ties with Anishinaabeg leaders, white American and French Canadian traders, and federal authorities, such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who served Michigan Territory as federal agent and married an Ojibwe woman who adopted the name Jane Schoolcraft. In particular, they attended Anishinaabeg-US treaty councils with their relatives to secure land grants, money, and other concessions. By examining letters and reports from agents like Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Lewis Cass, Witgen asserts that the United States viewed mixed-race peoples as “nominally white” and therefore “civilized” (p. 144). These racial labels enabled them to be counted in territorial and state censuses, serve on juries, and vote in elections. Simultaneously, federal officials deemed them Native and thus eligible for private land grants resulting from treaties.

Gender and the family are additional themes in Seeing Red, especially in chapter 3, “The Civilizing Mission, Women’s Labor, and the Mixed-Race Families of the Old Northwest.” Witgen reminds us that mixed-heritage women were “crucial figures in [the] struggle for Indigenous inclusion” in the US political and legal system that took shape in the Northwest Territory (p. 156). These women claimed the role of cultural broker, acting as translators, assistants, and laborers for white male traders, missionaries, federal agents, and other white American authorities. For instance, ABCFM missionaries Sherman Hall and William Boutwell hired mixed-race women as translators and married mixed-race women whose household labor proved critical to the missions’ survival on Anishinaabeg lands. Boutwell married Hester Crooks, a woman of Ojibwe and Scottish descent, to dedicate his time to running the mission at Leech Lake and proselytizing to the Anishinaabeg. Similarly, Edmund Ely married Catherine Bissell, a graduate of Mackinaw Mission School and a mixed-race Ojibwe woman. Crooks, Bissell, and other women like them shaped the “complex networks” of missionization and colonialism that bound diverse peoples together in the continental interior (p. 180).

Readers familiar with the vast literature on the fur trade in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Lakes region may be hard-pressed to spot Witgen’s historiographical interventions. He is in conversation with two generations of scholars, ranging from Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer S. H. Brown to Anne Hyde, Brenda Child, Susan Sleeper-Smith, and Lucy Eldersveld Murphy. Further, Witgen joins the ranks of Catherine Denial, Lori Daggar, and Alisse Portnoy by examining the interrelationship among gender, religion, and colonialism in the nineteenth-century US, particularly in the Midwest. His penetrating analysis of individual missions and the diverse peoples who lived there add flavor to ongoing scholarly discussions about the impact of missionization on Native North America. Perhaps because Seeing Red is his second book, Witgen has crafted a writing style that is driven by narrative and designed for both an academic and a popular audience. The book also provides its readers with the option to probe the historiography in footnotes that include direct quotes from the historical scholarship.

Likewise, Witgen embeds Seeing Red in a settler colonialism framework that produces nuances about the US colonial state, settler ideology, and land swindles at and subsequent to the treaty table. Chapter 1, “A Nation of Settlers,” and chapter 4, “Justice Weighed in Two Scales,” capture the complexities inherent in colonial regimes. He asserts that federal officials viewed Indian Country, including Anishinaabewaki, as empty space or terra nullius, a vast wilderness devoid of civilization. Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson admitted that Indigenous peoples claimed a “right of occupancy,” to be sure, but they refused to see that those same peoples held “dominion” over land and resources (p. 38). It is uncertain to me that Witgen accounts for exceptions to US ideology regarding Native land possession, for in a few cases, US policymakers explicitly acknowledged Native “land and property” or Native peoples’ “occupancy and control of the soil” (pp. 57, 312). Are these exceptions to or part and parcel of US colonial ideology? And if policymakers recognized Native title and dominion, how indeed did they justify expansion and conquest to themselves, to colleagues, and to the US body politic? These questions will surely inspire debate among scholars of settler colonialism studies.

Seeing Red also raises the perennial question of Native co-optation by the US colonial state. Although the Indigenous and mixed-race peoples of the Anishinaabeg strove to defend lands, resources, and cultural autonomy, they often worked against those interests. Witgen demonstrates that mixed-race Anishinaabeg and even Anishinaabeg leaders amassed wealth at the expense of community members. At the treaty negotiations in Saginaw in 1819, for example, an Ojibwe ogimaa named Neome collaborated with one trader in a “scheme to secure additional land grants” for himself as well as fee simple land for his mixed-race children (p. 143). Soon “all” Anishinaabeg leaders in attendance made backroom deals with federal agent Lewis Cass (p. 144). Witgen’s evidence thus prompts a question with no easy answer: to what degree did Native peoples participate in and influence the political economy of plunder? US colonial officials like Cass and US settlers are squarely to blame for an economy of plunder in the Northwest Territory, but the agency, creativity, and even opportunism of Native Americans in this story should have been acknowledged and discussed with greater finesse. Native leaders in the Southeast, such as the Creeks and Cherokees, exploited similar economic opportunities. Indigenous American history is fraught with contradictions, of course, but perhaps Seeing Red could have teased them out some more.

These questions notwithstanding, Seeing Red is a searing critique of US colonialism that presents new research and poses new questions about US expansion in the long nineteenth century. It would make for spirited debate in upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses on Indigenous history, settler colonialism, political science, and women’s and gender studies. The book is also a poignant artifact of its time. Witgen wrote it partially as “a love letter” to his ancestors and partially to remind all Americans that the connections between past and present in places like Ferguson or Standing Rock are more evident (and disturbing) than people may recognize (p. vii).


[1]. Michael John Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 7, 16.

Citation: Steven Peach. Review of Witgen, Michael John, Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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