Property and Sovereignty in America: A History of Title Registries & Jurisdictional Power

95 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2023 Last revised: 11 Apr 2024

See all articles by K-Sue Park

K-Sue Park

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: January 17, 2023

Abstract

This Article tells an untold history of the American title registry—a colonial bureaucratic innovation that, though overlooked and understudied, constitutes one of the most fundamental elements of the U.S. property system today. Prior scholars have focused exclusively on its role in catalyzing property markets, while mostly ignoring their main sources in the colonies -- expropriated lands and enslaved people. This analysis centers the institution’s work of organizing and “proving” claims that were not only individual but collective, to affirm encroachments on tribal nations’ lands and scaffold colonies’ tenuous but growing political, jurisdictional power. In other words, American property and property institutions did not issue from sovereigns with established authority to govern a territory—as in the understanding drawn from European legal traditions—but rather preceded and ushered in colonial and U.S. sovereign title to Native homelands.

Using established scholarship on the colonies and original research on county-creation for the United States, this analysis presents new questions about how the legal infrastructure of property furthered conquest, and how the progression of conquest on the ground produced the national jurisdiction and real estate market. It shows that in the haphazard process toward the American title registry, colonists borrowed the English legal forms of the registry and county to remake them into local nuclei of colonial territorial expansion—the key governmental forms that drew settlers into Native nations’ territories and encouraged them to claim lands by reassuring them that those claims would become real property. The United States adopted this colonial approach to perfecting the Discovery claims it inherited or acquired from other Empires. The timed map of county creation— not the creation of territories, nor states, nor treaties— most accurately tracks where the United States grew its jurisdictional power, and when. For between its plans to invade and ability to govern lands-- between mere white entitlement and actual title—it created counties and registries, before transitional territories and often before obtaining Native cessions to the lands by treaty. In this way, counties came to underpin the national jurisdiction and the local institution of the registry became the common and continuous infrastructure for the entire national real estate market.

This history of the title registry underscores the conceptual and practical stakes of redressing the erasure of race from our understanding of legal institutions and legal development. In particular, it also challenges us to recognize less obvious ways that the legacies of conquest and enslavement survive to structure our landscape and lives. Race works to shape law and legal outcomes in different ways, including through the familiar dynamics of exclusion from institutional protections and benefits and the predatory risks of formal inclusion. But the registry’s history also illustrates a third phenomenon: legal innovation spurred by the willingness to view racial violence as an economic resource, or the development of new institutions and practices that may appear to be facially “race-neutral,” but promote the production of property value through the dehumanizing logic of race. The minimal, low-accountability design of the title registry encouraged the proliferation of market claims without authenticating them, prioritizing the collective goal of building jurisdictional power at the direct expense of Native and Black communities whose lands and people colonists rapaciously claimed as property for that ever-growing market. The result was an institution that continues to privilege the production of property value above all—above protecting individual property interests, and above sustaining homes, communities, and life, in ways that now affect us all.

Keywords: Property, sovereignty, colonialism, race, legal history, legal theory, local government, county

Suggested Citation

Park, K-Sue, Property and Sovereignty in America: A History of Title Registries & Jurisdictional Power (January 17, 2023). 133 Yale L.J. 1487 (2024), Georgetown University Law Center Research Paper No. 2023/07, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4374259 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4374259

K-Sue Park (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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