Martin Case begins and ends his book, The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property, with the American Myth — a predominant belief that America was settled by rugged pioneerism, justified and predestined by the founding principles and values of the United States despite any obstacles in the way. The myth has survived any challenges against it and now holds a notable place at the center of American history and culture. Case, however, sufficiently dismantles the American myth, demonstrating to readers how political and economic systems worked to absorb indigenous lands and resources while creating wealth for a small class of American elites. These elites were the treaty signers—men with political and business interests who manipulated the bureaucratic treaty system for the benefit of themselves and their close friends and family members.
“Removal of indigenous people from their homelands was a necessary condition for expanding the U.S. property system and the fortunes that grew with it, and their removal was imagined before it was accomplished.”
I recommend reading The Relentless Business of Treaties for a variety of reasons. Foremost, the book adequately exposes the reality of U.S. expansion. Although it may challenge the narrative you’ve been taught, it is important to acknowledge the sad truths behind American history. From its inception, America instituted a land grab without any consideration for the people already living there. Over the years, the systems in place, and the men who controlled them, stripped indigenous people of their land and culture while causing great suffering along the way. This is the legacy that we now live with.
I would also recommend The Relentless Business of Treaties because of its format and readability. Case organizes his argument both chronologically and by topic. He begins shortly after the American Revolution, leading readers forward through the treaty making period which began with John Marshall’s Doctrine of Discovery (1823) and ended when Congress cut off funding for future Indian treaties (1871). Case also makes clear the various interests that were involved in treaty making and U.S. expansion. This includes, as separated by chapter, the land speculators, fur traders, men of industry, political and personal boundaries, bureaucrats, and mythmakers. Essentially, Case is able to demonstrate that each of the men who signed treaties with indigenous nations had either ties to each other, ties to political and business interests, or both. At times, the examples provided by Case become monotonous, but this does not detract from the overall lessons of his research.
“In this mare’s nest of conflicting political interests—federal, settler, business—the only consistent theme was aggressive support for U.S. expansion.”
Finally, I would advise readers that, despite my glowing recommendations, The Relentless Business of Treaties should not be the only source that informs your awareness of these topics. I am skeptical of Case’s overall argument because it lacks nuance. It is undeniable that the system of treaty making with indigenous nations was fraught with greed and corruption, but Case’s evaluation lacks depth. It is a concise history of a broad topic that fails to consider the lives of the treaty signers within the context of their time and own personal histories. Also, Case states facts about the Dakota treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota that appear either untrue or unverifiable. I do not argue his conclusions, but I do believe a closer analysis is necessary.
“In creating history, many of these treaty signers were telling their own stories. And because they occupied prominent positions in society at large, and in the vanguard of aggressive U.S. expansion, their stories shaped the American myth and affected the way that American history has been told.”
The Relentless Business of Treaties by Martin Case, published by the Minnesota Historical Society, is an outstanding historical work that rightfully debunks the American Myth. Although narrow in its interpretation, its presentation is informative and readable and its conclusions are invaluable toward righting the wrongs upon which America was founded.