Allan Greer is Professor of History and Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America at McGill University. He has published seven books on the history of Quebec, New France and colonial North America which have won a number of national and international prizes. The most recent, La Nouvelle-France et le monde, seeks to situate the history and historiography of New France in a broad Atlantic and hemispheric context.
Greer’s current research examines questions of property formation in New France, New Spain and New England. This synthetic and comparative study analyzes the processes by which settler forms of land tenure emerged and natives were dispossessed from the 16th to the 18th century. Research has been supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the Killam Foundation.
When European monarchs claimed the right to rule over portions of the New World, it did not automatically follow that the indigenous peoples living there would be dispossessed and that their land would fall into the hands of settlers from overseas. Spanish, English and French colonizers brought to North America a welter of legal concepts and cultural prejudices which they drew on as they confronted an alien environment as well as Native Americans who had their own complex concepts of land and property. Out of this confrontation emerged new, American, forms of tenure in the various colonies. Property was not simply imported from the Old World, it was invented and reinvented in the New World; that process of invention, as elaborated in New Spain, New England and New France (ca. 1600-1800), forms the subject of my study.
I deploy a modified comparative method that brings three major empires and their respective American zones of colonization into the analysis. The aim is to overcome the effects of national parochialisms that continue to structure and limit so much scholarship in this area. My project also departs from other work in the field by its commitment to a balanced and inclusive approach encompassing indigenous property forms and native responses to new colonial tenures. Finally, my interest is in property as practice, rather than as theory. I seek to explore, not the justifications for dispossession, but rather the actual processes by which property and proprietors were constructed. This implies attention to seemingly mundane procedures, such as the mapping and recording of title, the fencing of fields, customs surrounding the grazing of livestock, and the regulation of riverine access.
Drawing on primary documents from Mexico, the United States and Canada and synthesizing the rich specialist literatures on aspects of property in the various regions involved, this project addresses a range of themes. Among these are: the property systems of hunting-gathering peoples, the commons, both indigenous and colonial, the connection between property formation and the establishment of colonial jurisdictions, place and space, the uneven development of mathematical surveying.