"A new map of the United States"
Forced migration in the early American republic reflected ideas about citizenship.

Historians often refer to the years following the Revolutionary War as “the critical period.”

“It’s such an exciting and important period in our history, and it still has repercussions today,” said Samantha Seeley, an assistant professor of history who focuses her research on that era. “Government and politics, and even who was considered a citizen, were still up in the air.”

Seeley is writing her first book about this period, focusing on forced migration in the early U.S. republic. Her working title is Race and Removal in the Early American Republic.

“I argue that controlling people’s movements was central to the question of who was considered to be free and who was considered a citizen,” she said.

She’s focusing on migrants pushed beyond the boundaries of individual states, or the nation itself, in the period between the end of the American Revolution and the 1820s. An 1806 Virginia law, for example, tried to exile newly freed blacks from the commonwealth within a year of their emancipation. In the same period, American migrants and Native Americans fought over land rights in the Northwest Territory.

United States officials pursued forced migration because the people affected “were considered to fall outside the category of citizen,” she said.

Access to legal records and legislative documents at the Library of Virginia helped her with the Virginia section of her research, but studying the Northwest Territory conflict from Virginia has been more challenging; relatively few records are digitized.

With the help of two research fellowships — from the Newberry Library in Chicago and Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition — Seeley will spend this fall and spring traveling to Chicago and Yale, where she’ll have access to the primary documents necessary for her research.

“These laws and treaties were the testing grounds for later removal projects in the antebellum U.S.,” she said. “Freedom of movement [for American citizens] included the power to remain in place.”