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No one owns it. I just learned (shouldn’t I have learned this in grammer school?) that most native American Indian tribes held land in common. No individual held title to any property, nor were any of the communal lands alienable (transferrable). Now the English settlers in the American colonies were by no means saintly, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they would have exercised aggression against the Indians under almost any circumstances, but I must admit to thinking that the communal land ownership of the Indians led to some of these problems.

Since all land was held in common, no one had the right to transact with the English settlers, thereby incentivizing white aggression against the Indians for land that they hoped to acquire. Second, since there was not a system of formal land titleing in Indian societies, much of the land that they must have claimed as “Indian Lands” were nothing of the sort. As barbaric as the English settlers were, they well were versed in Common Law traditions, and understood that homesteading land that was not already put into production was a legitimate way to take ownership of that land. Large tracts of so-called Indian territories had remained in their natural, undisturbed state, leading the English settlers to believe that all they needed to do was to make improvements on the land and use the land in order to make it their own.

Claiming that “all of Virginia” is a hunting ground, without so much as marking a boundary for the hunting area, or having a clearly and continually used network of hunting cabins and other amenities, does not make that land yours. For example, would anyone legitimately recognize American claims to ownership of Mars right now?

This problem of communal ownership not only contributed to the expropriation of Indian lands by white settlers, but it surely contributed to the stagnating living standards many native Americans experienced. After all, a large portion of Indian tribesman at the time of English settlement were eager for interaction with and trade with the strange white men – not at all like the romantic, self-sufficient lifestyles portrayed in the social studies texts of our youth.

One Response to “When Everyone Owns Something”

  1. skh.pcola says:

    The first English settlers in North America tried the communal thing. It failed miserably and people starved. When Gov. Bradford allocated farmland to each family/individual instead of expecting every person to share equally in the harvest, there were surplusses of harvest that could be bartered for other goods. Of course, some people make better farmers than coopers than smiths than carpenters, so this was an early example of division of labor being a net benefit to all.

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