European recessions and Native American conflicts

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Marco Del Angel, Gregory D. Hess, Marc Weidenmier May 08, 2022

Recessions in Europe have often caused Europeans to migrate to the United States in search of better economic opportunities. This column examines the effect of this on the conflict with Native Americans in the western United States in the late 19th century. The authors find that a recession in Europe greatly increased the likelihood of conflict between American soldiers and Native American tribes. As they were often driven from their lands and moved to areas with lower land and rainfall, European immigration to the American West likely had long-term negative effects on the economic conditions of Native Americans.

European immigration to the United States is widely regarded as a significant contributor to the development of the American economy over the past 250 years. Recessions in Europe have often pushed Europeans to cross the Atlantic Ocean and migrate to the United States in search of better economic opportunities (Sequeira et al. 2017). Many European migrants settled in the western United States, particularly in the 1870s, when transcontinental railroads such as the North and Central Pacific reduced the cost of traveling west from the states States and California. In the absence of the railroad, immigrants had to cross the Rocky Mountains using horses and wagons. The journey was often dangerous given the rugged terrain and could take months before settlers reached their final destination. With the construction of the transcontinental railroads, settlers could move west in a matter of weeks.

We contribute to the literature on economic shocks and conflict by examining the impact of European recessions on Native American conflict in the western United States in the late 19th century from 1869 to 1890 (Bazzi and Blattman 2014, Miguel and 2004, Besley and Persson 2008, Fisman and Miguel 2008). Our study also stems from the well-known work of Acemoglu et al. (2001) which emphasizes the role of institutions in economic development. In the case of Native Americans, the westward movement of European migrants led to the defeat and dislocation of the native population and established different institutions in the United States that radically altered the path of development in the west and in all the countries. Our findings also contribute to the literature that examines the link between immigration and conflict (Salehyan 2008, Fearon and Laitin 2011).

Our empirical analysis uses recession dates for England to instrument European immigration to the United States to solve the problem that immigration is an endogenous variable. Burns and Mitchell (1947) dated British recessions to the late 19th and early 20th centuries using various macroeconomic series from the period.

Our results show that immigration, when interacting with railroad miles, significantly increases the likelihood of a Native American conflict – that is, a conflict between American troops and a Native American tribe – three, six, nine, 12 and 15 months after the start of a European recession. The delay likely reflects how long it took for a European to decide whether to move, and then actually move, to the western United States. Empirical analysis also demonstrates the importance of the railroads in increasing Native American conflict. Railroad access combined with recession-induced immigration increased the likelihood of Native American conflict by about 46% from 1869 to 1890.

In Figure 1 below, a one standard deviation increase in rail miles increases the likelihood of conflict by 0.07, or 7 percentage points. Figure 2 shows that a one standard deviation increase in immigration flows increases the likelihood of conflict by 0.35, or 35 percentage points.

Figure 1 Average marginal effects of rail miles per capita

Figure 2 Average marginal effects of immigration flows

As with the other control variables in the empirical specifications, we find that rising commodity prices only negligibly increase the likelihood of Native American conflict. Our analysis also suggests that neither gold and silver mine discoveries nor the size of the US military had a significant impact on the likelihood of Native American conflict.

Overall, our results demonstrate that European immigration had very negative consequences for Native American tribes. European recessions were an exogenous factor that greatly increased the likelihood of Native American conflict. Time and again, Native Americans were driven from their lands and often moved to areas with lower land and rainfall. As such, European immigration to the American West likely had long-term negative effects on the economic conditions of Native Americans.

References

Acemoglu, D, S Johnson and J Robinson (2001), “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation”, American Economic Review 91(5): 1369-1401.

Bazzi, S and C Blattman (2014), “Economic shocks and conflicts”, American Economic Review 6:1-38.

Besley, T and T Persson (2008), “The incidence of civil war: Theory and evidence”, NBER Working Paper No. 14585.

Burns, A. and W. Mitchell (1947), Measure economic cycles, New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Del Angel, M and G Hess, and M Weidenmier (2022), “European recessions and Native American conflict”, NBER Working Paper No. w29812.

Fearon, J and D Laitin (2009), “Sons of the Soil, Migrants and Civil War”, Global development 39: 199-211.

Fisman, R and M Edward (2008), “Does conflict cause poverty, or vice versa? », VoxEU.org, 29 November.

Miguel, E, S Satyanath and E Sergenti (2004), “Economic Shocks and Civil Conflicts”, Journal of Political Economy 112(4): 725-753.

Salehyan, I (2008), “The Externalities of Civil Conflicts: Refugees as a Source of International Conflict”, American Journal of Political Science 52 (4): 787–801.

Sequeira, S, N Nunn and N Qian (2017), “The immigrants who made America”, VoxEU.org, 17 May.

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