Settler Colonial America

Only two of my eight great-grandparents claim settler colonial origins, with ancestors arriving within ten years of the Pilgrims’ landing in Plimoth. It would be easy to claim colonial ancestry alongside my Scottish, Italian, Swedish, Polish, and Irish heritage, and connect myself to historic moments in the founding years of the United States of America. However, the more central truth is that my ancestors were the settler colonists and contemporaries of the “Great White Men” history promotes at the expense of the Native people who lived on this land for centuries, the enslaved people whose forced labor built this country, and women, poor, and othered who are left out of the dominating narrative.[i]


Settler colonialism is a socially constructed narrative, as most historical narratives are, to forge a common American identity. Central to this identity is landownership, specifically the “legitimation of White possession of the land occupied by indigenous people.”[ii]

Settler colonists in New England saw themselves as the first “civilized” inhabitants, guided by “Divine Providence.” Throughout the texts used to construct the Coburn and Harrington genealogies, there is considerable explanation of the “wilderness” that early settlers encountered in America. In reality, this land had been inhabited for generations by Indigenous peoples, who had thriving societies throughout New England.[iii]

Left out of many settler colonial narratives is the atrocities, such as enslavement and violence that made contemporary measures of success possible.[iv] For most of U.S. history, Native people have been eradicated from the wanted land through genocide (both disease and war), displacement to reservations, and cultural assimilation by banning traditions.[v] If our forefathers experienced uninhabited wilderness or thought that indigenous people were few in number, the reality is that it was our own doing, not the truth from the beginning.

The “land ownership” that my ancestors Edward Coburn and Robert Harrington had was diametrically different than the Indigenous peoples’ concept of land. Europeans saw law as something to be owned in order to restrict access to and benefit from economically, whereas the Indigenous people saw land as a community resource. Therefore, when a settler colonist claims to have bought or traded for ownership of land, the Native people were actually forced off of the land.[vi] The focus on landownership is prominently featured in Early Generations of the Family of Robert Harrington of Watertown, Massachusetts 1634 and Some of his Descendants by Frederick Lewis Weis. Weis describes Harrington’s land at length, highlighting the acres of land he owned, which makes up a considerable amount of the current city of Watertown.

The construction of Indigenous people as “violent” or “savage” evolved from a marked difference in culture with European settler colonists and the Native Americans survival. As settler colonists were typically seeking religious freedom in the New World, their belief that they were acting in God’s favor excused the suffering of Native people as heathen. Additionally, religion at the time was hyper-focused on distinguishing man from animal, making the Indigenous peoples’ foreign culture easy to reduce to savagery, rather than attempt to understand.[vii]

With settler colonists arriving from Europe consistently throughout the 1600s, Native peoples were forced out of their lands, continuing to die from disease and violence. It is only understandable that the Native people reacted with violence as a necessary part of their survival. However, the settler colonists elected to erase their own violent role from history, focusing only on the injustices imparted on them by the “savages.”[viii]

While this is the primary narrative of settler colonists, the reality is much more complex. In the early years of settlement, Europeans were ambivalent to their indigenous neighbors, interacting with them out of necessity for trade. Some settlers appreciated the skills and knowledge of the Native people, but seldom to a level that would promote them to equals.[ix]

By the early 1700s, settler colonists in New England claimed that hostilities had ceased. In reality, King Philip’s War had forced the Native people into submission. On a per capita basis, this was the deadliest war in American history, with 800 settler and 3,000 Native deaths. When Pumetacom (“King Philip”) died in battle and a treaty was signed, the Native people had little left. Certainly, settler communities were devastated, but Indigenous people were now a staggering minority. Despite political peace, Native people were threatened by execution, enslavement, and elimination of political power. Settler colonists, who claimed triumph over savagery, beheaded Pumetacom and displayed the head as a trophy in Plymouth Colony for twenty years.[x]

By the 1800s, New England histories begin to claim “extinction” of Native people, when in reality they lived as slaves, assimilated into settler society (by necessity or force), or migrated to the West, where future generations would continue to experience continued racialized violence.[xi]


Oppression of Indigenous people is inextricably linked to enslavement of Africans. While history constructs enslavement as restricted to the South, enslavement of Native people occurred in New England throughout the 1600s and 1700s. In fact, indigenous people enslaved after the Pequot War (1636-1638) were exchanged for African slaves from the Caribbean, marking the first record of enslaved Africans in New England. Enslaved Africans never made up more the 5% of the New England population, concentrated in port cities of Boston and Newport.[xii]

“All White New Englanders were complicit in and benefitted from enslavement,” Doane writes, a statement I agree with as I have written pages of settler colonial history of my own ancestors. While my ancestors may or may not have owned slaves, they did benefit from the slave trade. New England ships carried livestock, wood, and fish to the Caribbean, returning with sugar, molasses, and other goods. Often, rum was distilled into rum, a major business in New England, which was then traded for slaves in Africa, who would be forced into labor in the Caribbean or southern states. By the Revolutionary War, New England had one of the highest standards of living in the world. Though slavery was illegal throughout the region by that time, the society benefited from trade networks in which slavery was essential.

As the Industrial Revolution swept New England, a new trade network emerged where Southern cotton, cultivated by the forced labor of Africans, would be woven into cloth in Northern textile mills. One of the mills major products was “Negro cloth,” a cheap fabric sold to Southern plantation owners to clothe their enslaved workers. My Swedish ancestors participated in this network, as Fred Hedenburg found work in the Beoli Mills in Fitchburg, MA.[xiii]


Intimately tied to the hierarchy of ownership, both of land and human capital, is gender. Throughout early American settler colonial history, only White men could own property, a point that was key in differentiating them from Indigenous people. Therefore, maleness was central to settler colonial identity.

In practice, women were denied independent identities. A woman’s property, autonomy, and surname were dictated by her husband.[xiv] Many nineteenth and twentieth century genealogies reinforce this erasure by not recording the lives of female ancestors and assuming unmarried women were childless. Histories were often left untold for families for whom male children died before adulthood, but female children married.[xv]

A woman’s role in a married household can also be revealed through the most common genealogical records. Throughout setter-colonial genealogies, mine included, we see a large number of children in families. In families where no servants are present, we can assume that child-rearing was the primary function of a mother.[xvi] Religion played a central role in the concept of motherhood, promoting “excessive procreation” and “presenting motherhood as women’s only purpose in life.” Therefore, many stories of women are centered only around child-bearing, losing all sense of personhood. What is missing from these narratives is the negative health consequences women experienced as a result of consistent pregnancies, from miscarriages to death in child birth to post-partum depression. These traumas are erased and negated from the story, replaced with the religiously-charged “joy of motherhood.”[xvii]

A woman’s expected role is further showcased by the number of women whose profession was recorded as “keeping house” in census records. This phrase does not represent the full scope of work and contributions to the family’s wellbeing, such as selling handmade goods or tending a garden of crops to sell.[xviii]

European settler colonialism also brought with it a strict gender binary, which imposed a male/female binary. Because of this, contemporary American society has inherited and continues to perpetuate such a binary. As settler colonial ancestors did not have the language of gender beyond the binary, historical records seldom reflect the authentic, nuanced gender our ancestors may have experienced.[xix]


Throughout the histories used to construct my own genealogy, authors, typically descendants themselves of the original settler colonists, construct a narrative of perseverance in the face of great challenge in the early years of European-settled America.[xx] Many genealogy authors in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries sought to preserve a sense of kinship and identity as the country expanded and culture rapidly changed. Connecting their present to a distinguished history grounded them in American nationalism and provided a sense of historic morality, if not divine right, during a time of abundant social mobilization for people of all races, ethnicities, and genders.[xxi]

Genealogy was used to establish a pedigree in conversations of eugenics and racial fitness, throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Primarily White, Protestant Americans in the Northeast sought to establish their superiority through lineage to the original American settler colonists, rather than immigrants.[xxii] As a bourgeoise emerged during the Industrial Revolution, genealogy helped the prosperous establish a connection between lineage and class.[xxiii] Therefore, many of the genealogies produced at the time provide an exclusive history, focusing on the most accomplished settler colonial ancestors, leaving out the majority of ancestors who were commoners, illiterate, non-landowning, or otherwise humble.[xxiv]

The emergence of heritage societies such as the Sons of the American Revolution (1889), Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), and Mayflower Descendants (1897) established a specific class that spanned industries, geography, gender, and politics, while also restricted people of color and immigrants from participation.[xxv] To ensure only specific individuals could join these societies, additional membership requirements not tied to genealogy were enforced, such as invitation-only memberships, requiring signatures from current society members, banning people of color, or requiring all ancestors be legitimate.[xxvi]


While certainly the historic genealogies of settler colonists were written through rose-colored glasses, our settler colonial ancestors no doubt possessed determination and intelligence that allowed them make a life in America. However, that is not the complete truth, as these authors and many others would like us to believe. Our ancestors were complicit in, if not actively involved with, the oppression of Indigenous people, enslavement of African people, and perpetuating a history that ignored these truths.[xxvii]

The ancestors of my Young and Pitcher great-grandparents were not necessarily more or less complicit in Indigenous erasure, slavery, and other matters of social construction than my Scottish, Swedish, Italian, Polish, and Irish ancestors, either upon arriving in America or in their homelands. Just as we are complex beings, certainly some were active participants, other passive observers, and even passionate protesters. However, the White, settler colonist privilege they held and I inherited is undeniable, necessitating continuous critique. The societies they benefited from “created social and ideological structures that continue to evolve and to reproduce systemic racism.” It is my responsibility to acknowledge, interrogate, and take ownership of this narrative and portray a more comprehensive truth of my settler colonial heritage.

Further Reading

Doane, Ashley. “From the “Beginning”: Anglo-American Settler Colonialism in New England”

Weil, Fancois. “Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America.” Harvard University Press, 2013.

Sources & Footnotes

[i] Morgan, Francesca. (2010). A Noble Pursuit?: Bourgeois America’s Uses of Lineage. 10.1057/9780230115569_9. Page 135.

[ii] Doane, Ashley (Woody). “From the “Beginning”: Anglo-American Settler Colonialism in New England.” Genealogy 2021, 5(4), 97. (Retrieved April 18, 2022 from MDPI).

[iii] Doane.

[iv] Doane.

[v] Nakano Glenn, Evelyn. “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, I(1). DOI: 10.1177/2332649214560440

[vi] Nakano Glenn.

[vii] Doane.

[viii] Doane.

[ix] Doane.

[x] Doane.

[xi] Nakano Glenn.

[xii] Doane.

[xiii] Doane.

[xiv] Nakano Glenn.

[xv] Morgan 138.

[xvi] Sleeter Christine. “Family History and Gender.” 2013. (retrieved April 22, 2022 from

[xvii] Rantala, Teija. “Reading Storylines of Religious Motherhood with Ethics of Joy.” Geneaology 4(3), 89. 27 August 2020.

[xviii] Sleeter.

[xix] O’Sullivan, Sandy. “The Colonial Project of Gender (and Everything Else).” Genealogy 5(3), 67. 2021.

[xx] Doane.

[xxi] Weil, Fancois. “Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America.” Harvard University Press, 2013.

[xxii] Hjorthén, Adam. 2022. “Reframing the History of American Genealogy: On the Paradigm of Democratization and the Capitalization of Longing.” Genealogy 6: 21.

[xxiii] Morgan 135.

[xxiv] Morgan 136.

[xxv]Morgan 141.

[xxvi]Morgan 144.

[xxvii] Doane.