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In almost every real historical case, settlers live on land previously home to long-established peoples, known as indigenous people (often called "natives", "Aborigines" or, in the Americas, "Indians"). In some cases (such as Australia), as colonialist mentalities and laws change, the legal ownership of some lands is contested by indigenous people, who either claim or seek restoration of traditional usage, land rights, native title and related forms of legal ownership or partial control.
The word "settler" was not originally usually used in relation to unfree labour immigrants, such as slaves (e.g. in the United States), indentured labourers (such as in Colonial America), or convicts (such as in British America, c. 1615–1775; Australia 1788-1868). More recently descendants of these immigrants may argue that they have as much right to use the word "settler" as the descendants of free immigrants.
In the figurative usage, a "person who goes first or does something first" also applies to the American English use of "pioneer" to refer to a settler—a person who has migrated to a less occupied area and established permanent residence there, often to colonize the area; as first recorded in English in 1605. In United States history it refers to those people who helped to settle new lands.
In this usage, pioneers are usually among the first to an area, whereas settlers can arrive after first settlement and join others in the process of human settlement. This correlates with the work of military pioneers who were tasked with construction of camps before the main body of troops would arrive at the designated camp site.
In Imperial Russia, the government invited Russians or foreign nationals to settle in sparsely populated lands. These settlers were called "colonists". See, e.g., articles Slavo-Serbia, Volga German, Volhynia, Russians in Kazakhstan.
Although they are often thought of as traveling by sea—the dominant form of travel in the early modern era—significant waves of settlement could also use long overland routes, such as the Great Trek by the Boer-Afrikaners in South Africa, or the Oregon Trail in the United States.
Anthropologists record tribal displacement of native settlers who drive another tribe from the lands it held, such as the settlement of lands in the area now called Carmel-by-the-Sea, California where Ohlone peoples settled in areas previously inhabited by the Esselen tribe (Bainbridge, 1977).
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In the Middle East, there are a number of references to various squatter and specific policies referred as "settler". Among those:
The reasons for the emigration of settlers vary, but often they include the following factors and incentives: the desire to start a new and better life in a foreign land, personal financial hardship, social, cultural, ethnic, or religious persecution (e.g. the Pilgrims and Mormons), political oppression, and government incentive policies aimed at encouraging foreign settlement.
The colony concerned is sometimes controlled by the government of a settler's home country, and emigration is sometimes approved by an imperial government.