Ceremonies of Possession


Cantino planisphere (1502), Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena, Italy (Wikimedia Commons)

Although European claims to North American lands all shared a common grounding in Western European legal traditions, known broadly today as the Doctrine of Discovery, France and England took very different approaches in justifying their occupation of Indigenous homelands. This chapter takes its name after Patricia Seed’s influential 1995 book Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. In that book, Seed compares Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Dutch approaches to claiming American lands. She demonstrates that in response to Spanish and Portuguese claims, which were rooted in the Catholic Church’s negotiation of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, France and Britain were required to think somewhat differently about how to legitimate their presence in a space altogether new to them. Here, we provide two documents written by two of the men most tightly associated with the founding of the colonies of New France and New England to illustrate these differences. They are followed by an article that reflects on the long-lasting influence of the Doctrine of Discovery on the Canadian legal system.

Historical Documents

  1. Samuel Champlain, Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604-1618, W.L. Grant, ed., (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1907), 207-212.
  2. John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, vol. 1 (Boston: Phelps and Farhan, 1825), 286-290.


  1. Jennifer Reid, “The Doctrine of Discovery and Canadian Law,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. 30, no. 2 (2010): 335-359.
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