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The Sequence of Plunder: A Case Study of Housing Dispossession in Detroit

Property is power. And some people used to be property. Any history of dispossession in the United States must begin with the recitation of these facts. The historical legacy of European settler colonialism in the United States is one of achieving the accumulation of private property by all means necessary, including war, genocide, coercion, enslavement, and otherwise systemically disadvantaging the descendants of those once deemed “property” (albeit not without their resistance). In this first blog post of a series that seeks to illuminate the patterns of land/housing dispossession in the United States vis-a-vis a case study of the dispossession crisis in contemporary Detroit, Michigan, I will enumerate a brief history of U.S. expansionism and place the acquisition of southeastern Michigan in chronological context.

  1. In 1607, English settlers appeared on the shores of North America and established the colony of Jamestown, VA, beginning a centuries long project of European colonial expansion in the “New World.” These populations of English, French, Spanish, and Dutch settlers, though different in their own right, would go on to enact “civilizing” policies of religious conversion and consistently encroach further upon the centuries-old land holdings of Native communities.
  2. For its part, Detroit was settled in 1701 by French colonists. Although often portrayed as a simple French fur trading hub, the slave labor of indigenous and black people was central to the economic vibrancy of the outpost, not to mention its domestic maintenance. Enslaved men of the time period often performed physical labor in shipyards and similar settings, while enslaved women often provided childcare, home upkeep, and sexual labor. Sexual violence against these women (and at times the men) was rampant.
  3. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson completed a deal with French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to acquire the Louisiana Territory, an enormous land mass spanning more than 820,000 square miles in the heartland of modern day America. This was the largest victory to date for Americans who increasingly viewed it as their divine mandate to populate the entire continent, Native sovereignty and health be damned.
  4. Four years after the Louisiana Purchase in 1807, Michigan territorial governor William Hull signed the Treaty of Detroit with four local Indian nations, acquiring most of southeast Michigan and part of what would become northeast Ohio for the United States. This was one of more than 350 land cession treaties signed between the United States and Native American tribes, many of which went unobserved by the US.
  5. In 1831, U.S. President Andrew Jackson signed the infamous Indian Removal Act and implemented it in defiance of the US Supreme Court, forcing five tribes - the Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles - to be removed from their homelands and placed on an effective death march. This march, which became known as the Trail of Tears, led to the deaths of up to 6,000 Native Americans and the incalculable indignity of indigenous peoples being unable to live where they chose. As a result, more land in the American southeast was cleared for white settlers to inhabit.
  6. Five years later, in 1836, a collection of white US settlers living in sovereign Mexican Texas agreed to declare independence from Mexico, establishing the independent Republic of Texas. In effect, this paved the way for the considerable landmass of Texas to be accumulated by the United States, which - after nearly a decade-long fight over whether Texas would be a slave state or free state - finally incorporated Texas into the union in a slave state.
  7. Shortly after the annexation of Texas in 1846, the United States took on one of its most audacious ventures into expansionism when President James K. Polk sent troops into a disputed border region largely controlled by Mexico in order to provoke an extended military conflict. Polk’s plan worked and by the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the victorious United States gained the territory for eventual southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, and California. With new jurisdiction over these areas, Anglo-American settlers began flooding the western US, subordinating Catholic Mexicans and indigenous people in the process.

            With some changes, this is the United States of America that Detroit found itself in as it entered its industrial golden age some seventy years later in the 1920s. It was an America that had dehumanized indigenous people and people of color, had used warfare and illness and coercion to decimate Native populations and their ancient claims to land, and placed great value in the accumulation of property for white, wealthy men, even if this meant disaccumulation for all others. In the next post, I will focus on this thriving Detroit just as phenomena such as deindustrialization, white flight, and budgetary shortfalls begin to bring the thriving city to its knees.

Troy Distelrath is an undergraduate IPPSR Policy Fellow pursuing an academic career in public policy.