“This land is your land, this land is my land . . . this land was made for you and me.” I loved singing this song, without ever thinking much about what it meant or really listening to all the verses.  It’s been described as an alternative national anthem for the US, and the words have been adapted to many different countries.

Yet when Woody Guthrie composed it in 1944, it was after two hundred years in which “this land” that is now the United States had been claimed, surveyed, and settled by newcomers, as others claimed different parts of the Americas, Australasia, the Pacific, and Siberia, leading to the displacement and, in some cases, decimation of the former occupants.

In the 1970s, demands for some kind of reparations/recognition of earlier occupants accelerated. This prompted anthropologists and cultural studies scholars among others to deal with what had happened by developing concepts and terminology. Later these fed in to ideas about culinary appropriation.

In short, my exploration of  “the food of other people” has led back to the land from which that food came.

Now land tenure is one of those issues that I have always realized was important but that made my eyes glaze over.

Specific examples, I find, make it easier to conjure up what happened.  Here I look at two transfers that got under way in 1846-47.  One involved the land of the Hawaiian Islands. The other involved and area in central Texas called the Fisher Miller grant (from the two individuals who originally received the grant and then sold it).

Why do I pick these two?  I have lived in both places and have a mental picture of the land involved. I find the parallels between Hawaii and Texas illuminating. And not only did they being in the same year or so, but they involved about the same amount of land, 4 million acres give or take in each place.

What I found, which is what I will lead with, was not what at all what I expected.  Was it typical? In many ways, no. In others, I suspect yes.

Reflections on 19th century land transfers in Hawaii and Texas

First, both transfers occurred at places very remote from European or American imperial centers. Neither place apparently had much to offer in terms of rich agricultural land, mineral resources, strategic advantage, etc.  They were, however, places where competing empires would have preferred to have a stake just in case. In Hawaii, the potential players were the British, the French, and the Americans.  In Texas, they were the Spanish or Mexicans, the French, and the Americans.

Second, in both places, the local peoples were quick to adopt and master guns, horses, and other European technologies (see portraits), using them to expand their territory and their power over their own peoples (and in Texas over Mexicans and Americans) and to resist imperial expansion. The local rulers had been familiar with Europeans and Americans for at least a couple of generations.

Third, in both places the land transfers were done legally and not under the gun. Those who received the land in Hawaii were largely Hawaiian and to a lesser extent a motley collection of Americans, Mexicans, Europeans and even Africans who had ended up in the Islands. Those who received it in Texas were Germans.

What happened in Hawaii

Kamehameha III in military uniform painted in 1840 by Alfred Thomas Agate when the US Exploring Expedition visited the Hawaiian Islands. Wikimedia Commons

In 1846, the King of the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha III, and his Legislature authorized a redistribution of land.

The King, who had previously held all land, would now have rights only to a portion called the crown land.

The chiefs, who previously had held land in fief from the Kind, would now have the right to own land in their own right (fee simple).

The commoners, who previously have been given rights to work land in return for contributing labor and produce to the chiefs, would now be able to own their own small plots.

Aliens, it was decided four years later, could also own land.

To take advantage of the new law, chiefs, commoners, and aliens had to pay for a survey of the land they wanted and for the legal work.

The Land and Water and the Resident Inhabitants

Like any natural resource, land only becomes valuable to humans when it can be used. In spite of a mild climate and fresh water, Hawaii was no paradise. Water was much of the problem.

The Hawaiian Islands (about 6,500 square miles or a little more than 4 million acres) are the most remote inhabited lands on earth. Rain falls mainly on their rugged windward sides. The fertile gently sloping leeward sides are often dusty deserts.

Prior to the arrival of the first settlers, they also had essentially nothing edible except fish and seaweed.

Dry land on the island of Hawaii. Ken Lund, Licensed under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohala.

Quite when settlers from the South Pacific first reached Hawaii, and whether it was one wave of migration or more than one, is still being debated. It was probably some time between the 300 and 1400 AD.

The Hawaiian settlers brought with them a dozen or so edible plants, notably their staple, taro.

As the population grew, commoners labored to create paddies to grow the taro, irrigation ditches to bring water, and fish ponds to supply the chiefs. The population grew to somewhere between 250,000 and 800,000, the numbers still being hotly contested.

In 1778, Captain Cook set foot in the Islands. From 1800 on increasing numbers of Europeans and Americans followed.

By 1790, the chief of one of the Islands, Kamehameha, had acquired guns.

By 1800, just over twenty years since the British had arrived, Kamehameha had conquered the other islands. On the island of Oahu, his warriors forced 700 or 800 of their opponents over a thousand foot drop to their deaths. He gave the lesser chiefs from his island property rights on the island he had conquered.  He established himself as King, Kamehameha I.

The Transfer (the Great Mahele as it is called)

One of a series of four notebooks recording the division of land between the king and the chiefs in Hawaii

The perspective of many aliens, and there were probably between 1000 and 2000 in Hawaii, 1-15 of them advising the royal family, was that it was crucial to change the way land was held, and if possible to acquiring title to some of it.  Clearly they were not going to get all of it.

Some of the New England missionaries are said to have believed that the commoners deserved to be given their own plots like the yeoman farmers of New England.

Why did the Hawaiian rulers decide to sell the land?

To speculate, although religious and cultural shifts had been traumatic, the Hawaiians were not under immediate threat from the French, the British, or the Americans.

Population was falling and would plummet by the end of the century.  This meant that a lot of land was falling out of cultivation. It was no longer of value for supporting the chiefs.

The new luxury goods that the ruling class enjoyed cost money.  (From then until now trying to find anything that the Islands can do to support their economy has been a continual struggle).

The Outcome

Among the Hawaiians, 1 million acres went to the king, 1 ½ million to the state, and 1 ½ million to the chiefs.

Only 30,000 acres went to commoners.  Even though information was posted in churches, how would they have grasped the need to get their land surveyed and registered? How would they have paid the fees?

The aliens steadily acquired larger portions of land. They were a mixed bunch: New England missionaries, Mexicans from California, some small stake holders such as Louis Gravier, a French sailmaker, Dutch Harry Zupplien, a bar keeper, Gorge Hyatt, an African American clarinetist, and Portuguese Jo.

The monarchy was overthrown in 1893 and became a territory of the United States in 1888.  But that’s another story, as is Statehood, both times when land changed hands again. And so is the continuing battle over land and power in Hawaii. First plantations, then the military, and then tourism became the chief sources of income from the land.

What Happened with the Fisher-Miller Grant in Texas

In 1847, John Meusebach, born to a noble family in Germany and recently arrived in the Hill Country of central Texas, signed a treaty with seven Comanche chiefs.

Portrait of a Comanche chief on a horse with a Spanish-style bridle and saddle by Jean Louis Theodore Gentilz, a French painter who arrived in Texas in 1844. This was painted in the 1890s, fifty years after the transfer. Witte Museum, San Antonio.

In 1842, the short-lived Republic of Texas, newly independent from Mexico, and keen to get land settled by Europeans, had granted Henry Fisher and Burchard Miller a land grant in what is now called the Hill Country of central Texas. In order to claim it, they had to have it surveyed. They sold it to a German immigration company.

When, after various complications, a party of Germans landed on the Texas coast, many of them died from disease and lack of shelter. They discovered that the land they had been granted was part of the winter hunting grounds of the Comanches.

In desperate straits, to gain the right to survey, and hence occupy the land, Meusebach agreed on behalf of his group to pay the Comanches $1000.

Survey map of the Fisher Miller Land Grant. This map has been made publicly available for use in research, teaching, and private study by University of Texas at Arlington Library in partnership with The Portal to Texas History, a digital repository hosted by the University of North Texas Libraries.


The Land and Water and the Resident Inhabitants

The Fisher Miller tract in Central Texas (about 5,000 square miles or a little less than 4 million acres) is blisteringly hot in summer. When rain falls, it is often as a “gully washer” that strips the sparse soil off granite outcrops or hard limestone.

Early summer on a rural road in the Fisher Miller Grant.

The Comanches exploded across Texas in the 1740s. Their origins, it seems to agreed, were in the Great Plains. Soon after they acquired horses in the early 1700s, they moved into New Mexico. Their staple became meat, primarily bison, killed in mounted hunts.

For a hundred years, from the mid eighteenth to the mid nineteen centuries, they controlled the Texas plains. Their horsemanship and guns made them great warriors while their supply of horses to trade gave them economic leverage. They successfully held back the French, Spanish, and Americans vying for control of the region.

By the 1840s, the numbers of bison, on which their economy depended, dwindled. By the end of the decade they were facing severe hunger. Trading a small portion of their land for money perhaps seemed a good deal.

The Outcome

The settlers fought the Comanches into the 1870s.  Then the Comanches were driven out by the US Cavalry.

The area remains sparsely settled to this day. Many who live there are descendants of the original Germans.  Ranching and hunting are the main sources of income from the land.

Final Thoughts


To me these are extraordinary stories of remote places, not simple tales of all powerful colonizers.  I am glad not to have been part of any of the societies, not the British with their public hangings and penal colonies, not the Americans with slavery, not the Comanches with their capture and enslavement of all the peoples they encountered, not the Hawaiians with their rigidly hierarchical society, bloodlines of the elite maintained by incest, and lives hemmed in by rules about, say, women eating with men or men’s food that, if broken, meant death. Given the difficulties of living in those societies, given the weak institutional structures in both Hawaii and central Texas, I am amazed that these transfers were as smooth as they appear to have been.

To repeat. Are these typical episodes?  Probably not but they are warnings about simplistic overgeneralizations. Lots more posts on this issue to follow.



This is what I would call a citizen-level exploration, not a scholarly one: it depends on the available books and I have not delved into articles, let alone into manuscripts.  I justify it because that’s as much or more than any individual can usually carry out.  It’s turned out to be full of surprises and much more complex than I had imagined.

Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (2007) and Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska (2007) both published by Harvard. Detailed and fascinating studies of the different legal agreements by the Dean of the UCLA Law School.

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008).  A study of reversed colonialism.

Carl Zesch, The Captured. A True Story of Abduction on the Texas Frontier ( St Martin’s, 2005). Well researched story by the descendant of a German abducted by the Comanches in the Fisher-Miller Grant.

Gavan Daws, Shoal of Time: A  History of the Hawaiian Islands (University of Hawaii Press, 1968). Older, but still the most comprehensive account of the history of Hawaii.

Jonathan Osorio.  The Dismemberment of Lahui (University of Hawaii Press, 2002).  Careful study of what happened in Hawaii to 1887, though difficult to read for those not familiar with Hawaiian social and political structure and the words used to describe it.


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