Could Native Americans own land in America in the years between 1700-1900?
July 26, 2011 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Could Native Americans own land in America in the years between 1700-1900?

I'm having trouble Googling this because I get a lot of "Indians didn't believe in owning land".

I'm doing genealogy for a man who lived in 1780 Virginia. He was supposed to be Native American. And yet he owned land. Was he legally allowed to own land? He had a pseudonym "Thomas Christian" and I am wondering if he invented that just in order to own land. Because part two of my question is, if he could own land, could he own land legally with an "Indian" name like "Black Wolf" or one word in Shawnee "Benewiska" (and no last name)?

The third part of my question is, I think his adoptive European father (as his bio father was murdered), may have given him a parcel as a gift. Would that be a way around ownership for a Native American - if they were given the land or inherited it and if no one challenged them they could keep it on the down-low, keep it hush-hush, and keep their land?
posted by cda to Law & Government (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am not an expert, but here is one treaty signed in 1786 that gives 3 tribes rights to land.
No citizen of United States shall settle on Indian lands and Indians may punish violators as they please.
posted by desjardins at 12:27 PM on July 26, 2011

(obviously, these treaties were systematically violated, but you didn't specify how long the person may have owned the land)
posted by desjardins at 12:30 PM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thomas Mastin (adoptive father) bought the land in Virginia in 1773. I have the adoptive son, Thomas Christian, owning land in that same area in 1785. I do not know if he bought it or inherited it or if it was a gift.

I do know that in that year, 1785, Thomas Mastin sold and gave away parcels of his Virginia land and moved to Tennessee. Thomas Christian stayed put and all his sons either inherited or bought land in the same place (called Indian Creek).

It makes sense that he would give some land to his adoptive son. But not if he was Native American as we believe and they were not legally allowed to own or inherit land. Unless he could have passed as European.

Reading everyone's links now, thanks. Keep them coming please.
posted by cda at 12:57 PM on July 26, 2011

Individual Native Americans could always buy land the same way that American citizens could, afaik. You buy a deed and a house and so on. They just lost their tribal lands.
posted by empath at 1:03 PM on July 26, 2011

Many Cherokee, for example, made an effort to assimilate. They changed their names to Anglicized versions, converted to Christianity and dressed in white people clothing, not that it helped endear them to whites.
posted by desjardins at 1:35 PM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: As far as the Indian removal (aka Trail of Tears) in the 1830s, I don't know how to factor that in either. Unless he was allowed to stay because he owned land. He lived at the same place, Indian Creek, all his life until 1853. He was not forced to move. One of his sons died in Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory in 1823. But that was before forced removal.

I believe that Thomas Mastin was given the ability to buy the land in the first place because he fought in the Indian Wars. It was a kind of land grant.

So that's another question. All the European men I read about in that area were veterans of the Indian Wars. Would Thomas Christian be able to buy land in 1785 if he was not a veteran. (He was never in the military.)
posted by cda at 2:26 PM on July 26, 2011

He was supposed to be Native American. And yet he owned land. Was he legally allowed to own land?

I'm not quite clear on why you're questioning the records you have. I mean, you have prima facie evidence that he could own land, because he did.

If you're looking for a motivation for changing his name, I would presume that the adoption was in fact with the purpose of Christianization, and that was the primary reason for taking a European name.

Unless he could have passed as European.

Well, you see, that suggests -- if you have hard evidence, of course -- a completely separate motivation. In that era it was common for children born out of wedlock to be legitimated by adoption. It would be more likely that he would have taken the adoptive father's last name, though, in that case.

As to the Trail of Tears, do you have evidence that there were forced removals in that particular area? While there were other informal removals, the primary "trail of tears" refers to particular treaty lands in the area of North Georgia and environs. And again, you have prima facie evidence that he was not "removed".

As an historian and genealogist I can assure you that unless you have documents referring to him specifically you will only be able to speculate. I do not believe the speculations you are adding here are useful, as they explain something you surmise rather than something that was true and provable. If you feel these are important questions, you may not be able to satisfy yourself with answers.
posted by dhartung at 5:35 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thomas Christian was adopted with 3 of his siblings and they were each given new, different last names. We have some written evidence that they were adopted (a pension application, for example). The only thing we have about the bio parents is oral tradition.

My question is still open. Could a Native American own property in 1785, Southwest Virginia?

I thought someone who knew about civil rights might pop in here.
posted by cda at 7:50 PM on July 26, 2011

dhartung has given you a very good answer.

The reason we can't specifically answer your question is that the civil rights issues surrounding Native Americans are an absolute, utter, tragical mess.

The best answer is that:
1. Your ancestor was Native American
2. You have proof he owned land
3. Thus, your specific Native American owned land, was not dispossessed of it, was not murdered for purposes of "claiming" (stealing) his land, was not kidnapped, was not deported or otherwise forcibly removed, or any other myriad abuses that befell other Native Americans who owned land during that period of time.

If you're interested in Native American history, I can recommend two books to start with. Mine their bibliographies for more:
- Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects by Russell Thornton
- Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas by Ronald Wright. He has chapters specific to the Cherokee in this historical, very well-documented work.
posted by fraula at 12:28 AM on July 27, 2011

Response by poster: I don't have proof he was Native American. Only stories passed down orally. If I found out that under absolutely no uncertain terms a Native American could not own property in 1785 Southwest Virginia, then it would disprove the oral tradition.

If a Native American could receive land as a gift, or could own land if he was favored by those in charge (we do have evidence he was favored), then that supports the oral tradition.

If a Native American was adopted by a prominent white citizen (he was) could he inherit more rights than other Native Americans?

I'm making a list of facts that either support or disprove the story passed down in oral tradition.

Now I am wondering if any other Native Americans owned land at that time anywhere in the US.

Thank you for the book recommends, fraula.
posted by cda at 6:36 AM on July 27, 2011

Indians weren't all living in tribal communities then--there were many instances of "praying Indians" living in towns in the Northeast. And there weren't reservations, so I don't know why individuals couldn't own land. Some states, in the mid 1800s, did outlaw land ownership by Native Americans, but I didn't find any references to either Virginia or any laws this early.

The Brothertown Nation of Indians Land Ownership and Nationalism
in Early America, 1740-1840

posted by Ideefixe at 6:07 PM on July 27, 2011

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