Ian Saxine is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Bridgewater State University. This interview is based on his recent book Properties of Empire: Indians, Colonists, and Land Speculators on the New England Frontier (New York University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Properties of Empire?
IS: During the course of my early graduate research, I was surprised by the extent to which British would-be colonizers in northern New England centered their own property claims on deeds from the Indians. I was struck by the irony of building an empire on the legal foundation of Indigenous land ownership, especially as I discovered that—for various and usually self-interested reasons—major land speculators took this process seriously, with profound implications for Anglo-Indian relations for close to a century. Indigenous Wabanakis’ success in driving debates about land ownership in the region spoke to my larger interest in how early modern people managed to often profoundly influence empires not designed for their benefit.
JF :In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Properties of Empire?
IS: Properties of Empire argues that for over a century, Wabanakis, colonists, and land speculators on the northern New England frontier engaged in a sustained struggle to re-interpret seventeenth-century land transactions, each driven by different beliefs about the nature of land ownership. The clash of those ideas led to the rise and eventual demise of a relationship between Wabanakis and elite land speculators based on a shared reliance on Indigenous land rights.
JF: Why do we need to read Properties of Empire?
IS: An important part of colonial history is the story of property creation— in types of labor, finance, and land. Indigenous people and their property systems (broadly defined) have always been a significant part of that history, albeit a generally neglected one. Properties of Empire highlights how Native Americans and different groups of colonists struggled to define the nature of land ownership, and what responsibilities that entailed. The book therefore presents a more detailed picture of how ordinary people shaped both the formation of property and how the British Empire functioned.
Looking over broader span of American history, settlers have tended to justify their dispossession of Native people by denying the reality of Indigenous systems of property and resource use. At the same time, there has been a widely-shared tendency to generalize centuries of Indigenous-settler interaction as unchanging, whether to indict current U.S. policy or to excuse it. Properties of Empire isn’t arguing that the British Empire was a force for good in Indian Country, but it emphasizes that the U.S. policy of nullifying Native property rights was a radical departure from British practice, rather than an unthinking continuation. Properties is therefore not just the story of how Indians, colonists, and speculators tried to reconcile different concepts of landownership, but vital context for understanding United States Indian policy and Indigenous responses to it.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
IS: I consider myself an early modernist who specializes in North American and Atlantic history, as opposed to an American historian. From an early age, I was fascinated by stories from the past that seemed more incredible than anything in fiction. It helped that I was raised by two schoolteachers who fostered my intellectual curiosity early on. Studying with James Merrell as an undergraduate at Vassar College gave focus to generalized interests while showing me the rewards of intensive attention to detailed research.
JF: What is your next project?
IS: There are two in the works!
Kristalyn Shefveland and I have started work on an edited volume arguing that the half- century from c.1675-c.1725 deserves study as a distinct era of North American and Atlantic history. The project involves over a dozen scholars specializing in regions from New Mexico to the Netherlands, and argues that the fifty years of wars, revolutions, and upheavals among European Atlantic empires and Native American nations stemmed from related factors, playing a pivotal role in fostering the eighteenth-century conditions of more hierarchical imperial societies, an interconnected Atlantic World, Anglophone commercial hegemony at sea and corresponding demographic ascendency in North America.
Alongside this collaborative project, I’ve been working on the first scholarly monograph about a 1720s war in the American northeast with many unsatisfying names (Dummer’s War is the most common) and fascinating implications. The working title is The End of War, and it frames this sprawling conflict between the Wabanaki Confederacy and its allies against several British colonies as the final, violent working out of the consequences of the great European Peace of Utrecht (1713) and the resolution of a half-century of instability and bloodshed in the American Northeast. The book argues that Massachusetts—which led the colonial belligerents—was ultimately forced to the peace table due to what today would be called public relations concerns. I see it as continuing my interest in the ways early modern empires often functioned in ways that frustrated the plans of colonists on the ground.
JF: Thanks, Ian!