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The Settlers Define Land Ownership

Another problem was the lack of property corners, fences, and boundaries in pre-Columbus North America. While the inhabiting tribes had vastly different cultures, they did have one thing in common: no permanent occupational boundary markers or written legal instruments for claiming ownership. In Native American culture, land was common property for everyone. “What is this you call property?” Massasoit, a leader of the Wampanoag tribe, asked the Plymouth colonists in the 1620s:

It cannot be the earth for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belong to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs to him? (Meinig 1986) Since the Native Americans had nothing but their beliefs, traditions, and culture to show that they owned the land, the Europeans thought they could appropriate it freely. The English settlers adopted a natural right of individual property rights that had been advanced by John Locke (1632–1704). Locke is credited with advocating “government with the consent of the governed” and “rights of life, liberty and property…”(this quote resurfaces later in this article in a different context). Land was the lure for the English colonists. In the seventeenth century the North American colonies were not settled by normal, everyday, cut-from-the middle Europeans. In fact, no prosperous Englishman would choose to take ship for America. Those that did make the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic, many of whom indentured themselves for a chance of owning their own land, saw firsthand mile upon mile of land without the stone markers or hedges that delineated parcel boundaries in the British Isles. These immigrant colonists gazed at the wilderness and envisioned new markers bounding the edges of their own fields and meadows.

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