Document Type


Publication Date



This article demonstrates that the histories of conquest and slavement are foundational to U.S. property law. Over centuries, laws and legal institutions facilitated the production of the two commodities, or forms of property, upon which the colonial economy and the United States came to depend above all others: enclosures of Native nations’ land and enslaved people. By describing the role of property law in creating markets for lands and people, this article addresses the gap between the marginal place of these histories in the contemporary property law canon and the growing scholarly and popular recognition that conquest and enslavement were primary modes of property formation in American history.

First, this article describes how the field of property law has come to omit these histories from its common understanding of what is basic to its subject by examining property law casebooks published over 130 years. For most of their history, it shows, such casebooks affirmed the racial logic of conquest and slavery and contributed to these histories’ suppression in pedagogical materials. Early treatises avowed the foundational nature of conquest, but after the first property law casebook appeared, at the time of the close of the frontier, casebooks for more than half a century emphasized English inheritance, rather than acknowledging colonization’s formative impact on the property system. In the same period, the era of Jim Crow, casebooks continued to include many cases involving the illegal, obsolete form of property in enslaved people; when they ceased to do so, they replaced them with cases on racially restrictive covenants upholding segregation. After several decades, during which the histories of conquest and slavery were wholly erased, casebooks in the 1970s began to examine these histories through a critical lens for the first time. However, the project of understanding their consequences for the property system has remained only partial and highly inconsistent.

The central part of this article focuses on the acquisition of property, which, properly understood, comprises the histories of conquest, slavery, expropriation, and property creation in America. It examines the three main theories of acquisition—discovery, labor and possession-- beginning with the United States’ adoption of the Discovery Doctrine, the international law of conquest, as the legal basis of its sovereignty and property laws. In this context, it shows that the operative principle of the doctrine was not that of first-in-time, as commonly taught, but the agreement of European nations on a global racial hierarchy. Second, it turns to the labor theory, which was selectively applied according to the hierarchy of discovery, and firmly linked ideologies about non-whites and property value. It then reframes the labor theory’s central question—property creation—as a matter of legal and institutional innovation, rather than merely agricultural labor. It examines the correlation between historical production of property value in the colonies to show how the main elements of the Angloamerican land system developed through the dispossession of nonwhites-- the rectangular survey, the comprehensive title registry, headrights and the homesteading principle, laws that racialized the condition of enslavement to create property in human beings, and easy mortgage foreclosure, which facilitated the trade of human beings and land as chattel to increase colonists’ wealth. Third, it assesses how the state organized the tremendous force required to subvert others’ possession of their lands and selves, using the examples of the strategy of conquest by settlement and the freedom quests that gave rise to the fugitive slave controversy. Its analysis highlights the state’s delegation of violence and dispossession to private actors invested in the racial hierarchy of property through the use of incentives structured by law.

This article concludes by summarizing how the laws that governed conquest and slavery established property laws, practices, and institutions that laid the groundwork for transformations to interests in land after the abolition of slavery, which I will address in a future companion article. This article aims throughout to offer a framework for integrating the study of English doctrines regulating relations between neighbors-- the traditional focus of a property law course—into an exploration of the unique fruits of the colonial experiment -- the singular American land system that underpins its real estate market and its structural reliance on racial violence to produce value.