A conversation came up between me and a friend where my friend is really overgeneralizing everything about the colonization of America as he is trying to put everything in terms of oppressive Europeans and victim Native Americans. I try to do what I can to separate the different peoples and events to the best of my knowledge, but this point still comes up:

What right did the Europeans have to settle in North America?

I think on the surface it seems like a silly question, but I find it a little interesting on a low level as it can be adjusted more generally to be something like:

"What right do people have to own property if other people have a claim on that property but do not physically occupy it?"

I find this version of the question more interesting because it could apply to monopolies which own everything (Standard Oil?) and squatter laws. It could also involve questions of when it is justified to use force to actually own something. I find myself arguing in favor of theft if there seems to be no recourse for a person to be anything other than a serf indefinitely, but I feel at this point that my arguments become pretty weak. Probably the conversation just became too wide open to handle, but I am curious what people smarter than I would think about all of this.

  • Is your question about settlement or conquest? The distinction is important, since while many individual Europeans coming to the US may mainly have been interested in having a place to live (free of certain issues in Europe), the evidence suggests that from the earliest stages the European governments and their agents wanted political control and domination over the continent and its societies. Thus the morality of Europeans settling in the US is not necessarily the same thing as the morality of Europe's actual actions.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 5:00
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    @JackJ What is the definition of "settlement" you are relying on? "Settling" precisely where? Where a sovereign nation already existed? Have any native peoples been referred to as "settlers"? Where and when? Why are not the people migrating from South and Central America to the U.S. called "settlers"? What do you mean by "acceptable"? The answers thus far have been relatively tame. Not as in "Tamed a Continent". There are no "sensitive areas", native people have been dealing with invading Europeans for at least 400 years. "Colonial settlement" was and is a bloody affair. Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 6:37
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    You say that your friend "puts everything in terms of oppressive Europeans." It doesn't sound to me like your friend is arguing about the rights of people to use unoccupied or underutilized land at all, and I think they grasp that that's not the most pertinent factor here. The history of European settlement in the Americas is largely one of conquest, not of peaceful but separate villages. Whether it would have been acceptable for European immigrants to come and build towns, trade and not bother anyone is an interesting but ultimately counterfactual question, because that's not what happened.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 6:59
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    @JackJ "a place where a new foreign people settle." Again "a place" are sovereign nations. In the case of the European colonies in the western hemisphere, who invited those people? "I find myself arguing in favor of theft if there seems to be no recourse for a person to be anything other than a serf indefinitely" The second part is somewhat understandable given 1/2 the population of Germany were killed during the 30 Years War. People were trying to get the hell out of Europe any way they could. Re "sensitive"; not possible: intentional genocide is evident in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 14:28
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    @JackJ Re "to be anything other than a serf indefinitely" For your own edification, the historical record reflects that the European business and ruling classes still had no issue exploiting the common European in a "New World" (White Cargo The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh) under bonded labor regimes; carefully read The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1 Racial Oppression and Social Control by Theodore Allen. Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 14:51

6 Answers 6


A common fallacy in history is to judge past events by contemporary standards. The concept of a right is a construct of a society, and will vary according to the conditions under which that society functions.

The Europeans had no right to take N America, if one applies the concept as it is understood today. It was simply the norm of the time. You took what resources you could, where you could find them, to make your nation stronger and less susceptible to being conquered. Europe had been in a perpetual state of warfare from the initial tribes up through the two most destructive wars in history in the early to mid 1900's. There isn't a European nation that hasn't been conquered and subjugated at some point in history. Being in a state of war, fighting for one's survival, tends to foster a rather survivalist mentality. That is all the justification they needed... at that time. The whole purpose of colonization was to obtain more resources for the colonizing nation's economy and defense.

To put it simply: the European colonizers never stopped to consider whether what they were doing could be justified under the social standards of a prosperous and relatively peaceful time. They did what they had been doing for centuries: taking what they could, to make their own nation stronger, so it could better withstand the next war with another European nation.

And this isn't really a European thing, it's a survival thing. The Middle East has been at war in some form longer than Europe has... largely because civilization formed there first. And, yes, they did colonize for the same reasons, although the Europeans eventually drove them out of Spain.

One might just as easily ask what 'right' the Vikings, Romans and Normans had to invade the British islands. Or what 'right' Homo Sapiens had to push out the Neanderthals.

It's a judgment that simply isn't applicable to the time in which the events happened.


"What right do people have to own property if other people have a claim on that property but do not physically occupy it?"

There are three things going on here: ownership, occupation, and statehood.

A key complication is that European property ownership structures do not map cleanly to the pre-existing social structures. The Plains Indians had territorial areas, but they weren't assigned to individual ownership and behaved more like state claims of land area. The plains were also pretty thinly occupied, because nomadism requires a large land area.

So if we were to regard the Indian tribes as nation-states, on an equal footing with Britain or France or Spain, then the question is about the legitimacy of the right of conquest. Traditionally this was accepted up to about WW1, after which there were movements to establish international law preventing acquisition of land through war as a means of avoiding hugely destructive wars. It is now pretty much settled international law, although not without big ongoing problems such as the post-1967 borders of Israel. (Israel is in some ways the last of the "settler states")

Part of the unfortunate history is that the American settlers by and large did not regard the Indians as an equal form of state, preferring instead to use military superiority to confiscate land.

It might be interesting to compare with New Zealand, and the Kīngitanga movement. There the military victory was less decisive and the Maori more able to negotiate as equals.

As for unwinding it, after WW2 there was a huge effort to restore all the individual ownership disrupted by the Nazi conquest of Europe. This was only partly successful. Few movements have managed to reach further back in history to redeem their claims.


Same exact reason/right by which Lacota/Siux took over Black Hills from previous tribes that owned that land (only to claim nobody else is allowed to take it from them). Or for that matter 95%+ of human population, who live in lands that were previously occupied by someone else. Namely, they had the means to take and hold the land by force.

Most of the current "native" US tribes were not actually first settlers of any area they inhabited, and in turn took the area from someone else. Sometimes in distant past (going back to original Beringian migrants who were indeed the first settlers but were displaced by later tribes).

Sometimes in not-so-distant past (yes, Cortez took away land held by Aztecs/Mexica... except that the Aztecs in turn conquered that land fairly recently before Cortez arrived, by methods so brutal that most of the area's populace sided with Cortez in his war against Tecnochitan).

Sometimes in very recent past, such as Lacota/Siux conquest of Black Hills in 1765 (ironically, while most people blame Europeans for pushing them there, much of the blame is on Iroquis who took over Lacota's previous land).


The Right of Conquest was and is well-understood by European powers. Specific to the colonization of the "New World" by European powers, the authority can be traced to several Papal Bulls, the most significant of which is Dum Diversas.

We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

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    That is their justification but because they said it was "Right" does that actually give them the "Right" to do that? In my opinion that just boils down to might makes right
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:38
  • @JoeW Yes, the principal is might makes right. One could also cite the Monroe Doctrine, etc. That is based on natural law. Posted a comment to another answer referencing Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss, which should be insightful re the subject matter. The idea survives today, and can be observed, for example, within the Preamble to the Constitution of the American Legion "to make right the master of might". Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:39
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    I think you missed my point, based on might equals right the fact that they could settle the Americas like they did make it right. What you are quoting from is what they used to justify it and make them feel better about it. After all it is better to enslave a population to save their eternal souls then to enslave it because you have the power to.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 19:47
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    I disagree, that it is not justification. It may have been written as an order but it was also used as justification. The simple fact is that during that period of time countries where expanding their empires in order to gain power and compete against fellow countries. Because of this the conquering and enslavement of the new world was going to happen regardless not to mention that there was many countries besides Spain and Portugal that where doing it one of the biggest was the people leaving England to escape religious persecution.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:27
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    @JoeW Your disagreement is noted. "justification" to whom? Perhaps your disagreement is rooted in your as yet undisclosed religious beliefs? Do not practice any religion here; thus am able to view religions as simply political organizations. "escape religious persecution" is one reason recited for mass migration of common European to a "New World". Far more Germans and Prussians migrated to the colonies in what is now the U.S. than any other European population reflected in the fact that there are more individuals who claim to be of German descent in the U.S. than any other foreign nation. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 20:34


By nature Humans want to take as much as they can to survive, thrive and propagate. You only need enough reason to convince others around you that you have the right to take it without them all teaming up against you and taking back your new acquisitions and maybe everything you own.

Most answers here have good points but complicate the question. I believe that in the vast majority of civilizations and societies there was a general belief of right to property and the differences were in who had the right and for what reason(s). To take another persons property you only had to differentiate why one has that right and the other does not possess that right.

For example regarding 'western' powers you might say it was believed that God created the earth and it was given to man. There was usually a strict definition of a man in this context. At one time you had to be of noble blood. At another time you had to be a Christian. You might have had to be truly a man and not a savage, as at one time the savages were thought to be less than men. Part of the justification behind conquest of the Americas was because it was believed that the savages were not capable of being civilized even if they converted to Christianity. It was up to the settlers (aka conquerors) to be stewards to the savages and their descendants, which makes sense if the race they belong to can never be educated to the level of 'true' men.

It was also taken into consideration that you were not an 'upstanding' citizen, maybe if you commit certain crimes against the people or the state, then you forfeit your right to property.

In the end it is always a statement: We need more property and an assertion: We can take that property because current holders don't have a right based on ________________ reason. Fill in the blank and get it approved by an authority like a king or pope (Which usually only happens with general support of the people).

Examples I have read about:

Might makes right / survival of the fittest / right of conquest because God will ensure that the right side wins.

Heathens do not have the right of property and allowing them to thrive in their own lands is a threat to us, our lands and an insult to God. If we don't do our duty onto God and destroy the heathens then we will go to hell. Once they are destroyed it makes sense that God is rewarding the conquerors with said property.

This land belonged to our ancestors 2000 years ago and we are taking it back.

The people are savage and need us to take care of them and as they are like children they do not have the right to property.

The vast majority of the land is empty and not used. I have heard this is an argument used by politicians and people in power in reference to the Americas and Palestine. Combine that argument with some of the above and you may feel justified.


Several things helped the Europeans settle/conquer America without too much guilt:

Bold ignorance, stupidity and error:

  • Columbus thought he was in Asia, (or perhaps wished his sponsors to believe it), and hoped to find those endless quantities of gold that Marco Polo claimed were in Cipangu (Japan).
  • Some settlers were, or became, ruthless criminals that would do most anything for gold.
  • European settlement was populated with bigoted religious fanatics who were quick to oppress anyone anywhere (European or native) not of the correct faith. See also guest271314's answer.
  • European settlement was administered by ignorant racists who considered the native populace to be savages mainly useful as slave labor, or inconvenient animals if not.
  • Some settlers were very macho sexists, for whom certain forms of violence and excitement were their own rewards.

Weaponry and a history of ill will. Europeans had the deadliest weapons, and a bitter history of warfare with each other. Each paranoid group of national settlers must have felt that if they didn't grab as much land as possible, then settlers from other rival empires must. Better for the naive natives if the better nation's settlers conquered them than the worse.

Opportune biohazards. The germs and viruses of the natives were not as destructive to Europeans as vice versa. The settlers religious fanatics glibly inferred the resulting plagues signaled divine wrath and mercy.

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    I guess we were not sending our best people. ;) While some of your points are easily verifiable, please try adding some sources.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 6:30
  • Sometimes (not usually, but occasionally) the diseases were intentionally spread as part of early biowarfare.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 6:33

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