Scholars of institutionalized racism have used the term "settler colonialism" to characterize the development of the United States—and many other countries. While this has been a useful concept leading to the asking—and answering—of productive questions, it has often, perhaps too often, been deployed at a level of abstraction that seems remote from the ways that indigenous people, white people, immigrants, and African Americans have lived their lives and interacted with each other.
Jane Henderson's research engages the conversation around American slavery in the North within the framework of the expansion of the U.S. nation state through the frontier. Fort Snelling, the first white American settlement in the Minnesota territory, was also the site of the first Black community in the state. Henderson's research draws on letters of prominent military officials, merchants, and others involved in "Indian business." She probes the letters and records of Lawrence Talliaferro, an Indian agent for the Federal Government tasked with administering annuity payments to Dakota and Ojibwe peoples, in exchange for claims to their land. Talliaferro was one of the largest slave owners in the Minnesota territory. Henderson uses these sources to trace the life of Harriet Robinson, who was owned by Talliaferro and held at Fort Snelling. In 1836/37, she met and married Dred Scott, who 20 years later would earn a place in history by suing for his freedom, his case reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Henderson uses Harriet (and Dred) Scott's lives not only as pathways into reconstructing the lives of enslaved women and men at Fort Snelling but also to illuminate the shifting political economy of the region from centering the fur trade toward an economy based on the commodification of land, the commercialization of trade, and the exploitation of labor, both enslaved & free.