Thomas Jefferson viewed Indigenous North American peoples as subjects of intellectual curiosity, as enemies in war, as partners in peace and, in political terms, as people to be assimilated into white Anglo-American culture. Jefferson's long public career during a formative time period allowed him to shape the relations between the United States and various tribal nations in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and beyond.


As he reviewed the reports of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Thomas Jefferson read of encounters with the Oceti Sakowin, Mandan, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and various other Native American communities. Although these Indigenous Nations were relatively new to Jefferson, Native Americans were not, as his personal encounters with Indigenous people began during his boyhood in Virginia and extended through his public career and into his retirement

Native Americans and the Enlightenment

When Jefferson spoke in terms of the "civilization" of Native American people, he was borrowing from Enlightenment philosophy. The "Enlightenment" is the term used by both historians and contemporaries to describe the sweeping intellectual changes of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The great scientific revolution of the seventeenth century led to the belief that the same principles of scientific inquiry could be used to understand human behavior, both in the individual and in entire populations.

A theory that grew from this was that of "environmentalism," which held that a human's environment - climate and geography, especially - shaped human appearance, culture, and political organization. European naturalists used the theory of "environmentalism" to argue that plants, animals, and the Native peoples of America were inferior to that of Europe due to climate and geography. Jefferson refuted these notions in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, and defended Native American culture. He appended to the Notes the speech of the Mingo chief Logan, who mourned the loss of his family in an attack by a white settler. Jefferson held up "Logan's Lament" as an example of great and powerful oratory, the equal of any European orator, classical or modern. "I beleive [sic] the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman," Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Chastellux.[1] Jefferson believed that only their environment needed to be changed to make them fully American.

Even though many Native American people lived in villages and almost all engaged in some form of agriculture, hunting remained a common practice that many Native peoples held sacred. Hunting, a semi-nomadic life, a refusal to adopt Western European monoculture, and a denial of an individual right to exploit land and labor led Jefferson and others to consider Indigenous people inferior to Western Europeans and referred to them offensively as "savages." Jefferson believed that if American Indians were made to adopt European-style agriculture and live in European-style towns and villages, then they would quickly "progress" from "savagery" to "civilization" and eventually be equal, in his mind, to white men. As President, Jefferson would try to make these changes a reality. Of course, most Native American people had no interest in abandoning their cultures to satisfy any European or Euro-American concept of “progress.”

Jefferson the Virginian

In his retirement years, Jefferson recalled the Indigenous people he had encountered as a boy in Virginia, noting especially the Cherokee warrior, Ostenaco (ᎤᏍᏔᎾᏆ, identified as Outassete by Jefferson). But such events would have already been fairly rare in the Virginia of Jefferson's boyhood. By the time of his birth in 1743, the Indigenous presence in Virginia had been greatly diminished by disease and warfare with white settlers, and interactions between the remaining Indigenous people and European settlers were often fraught. The Native American Nations remaining inside Virginia were mostly small in size and population during this period. Often categorized by language family, these groups included the Algonkian-speaking nations that were remnants of the once-powerful Powhatan Confederacy, such as the Mattaponi, the Pamunkey, the Chickahominy, the Rappahannock, the Nansemond, and the Patawomeck, the Siouan-speaking nations such as the Monacan, whose homelands encompassed Monticello, the Saponi and Tutelo, and a group of Iroquoian-speakers, including the Meherrin, the Cheroenhaka, Nottoway, and in deep southwest Virginia, the Cherokee, among others. Other tribal groups surely had descendants in Virginia at the time, and people moved frequently as the impacts of ongoing colonization forced change over time. As their populations dwindled, Virginians became less concerned with these most Native American communities within the state and more preoccupied with the powerful Indigenous Nations outside their borders, as settlements of white and Black Virginians now extended to the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.

In 1744, Virginia signed a treaty with the Haudenosaunee (The Six Nations of the Iroquois) that granted land on the west side of the Appalachians to Virginia. The Haudenosaunee claimed to have conquered all of the Tribal Nations of the Ohio Valley, so the Virginians could, in turn, claim land rights to all the Ohio Valley and the area around the Great Lakes. The Indigenous Nations of the Ohio Valley, particularly the Shawnee and the Miami, did not acknowledge such claims and violently resisted the attempts of Virginians to settle in what is today West Virginia, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania.

In order to reduce the ensuing violence along the frontier, King George III issued a proclamation in 1763 that prohibited any British settlements west of the Appalachians. But as agents employed by the British ministry continued trading with Native Americans in the Ohio Valley Indians, colonists tended to view their conflicts with the Shawnee and Miami Indians coupled with the King's proclamation as a plot to curtail their rights. These issues became embedded in the Declaration of Independence when Jefferson wrote that the King had "endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions." Jefferson's description of American Indian warriors as "merciless savages" clearly demonstrates the prejudices common among mid-eighteenth-century white Virginians.

Yet as Governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, Jefferson welcomed a delegation from the Kaskaskia. This followed a campaign in the Ohio Valley of Virginia militia led by George Rogers Clark, older brother of William Clark. There, Clark made alliances with some of the Native Nations, including the Kaskaskia of the Illinois country, and then attacked the British and the Indigenous Nations allied with them at villages in present-day Illinois and Indiana. This warfare put Virginia's government into direct contact with western Native Nations and precipitated the visit of the Kaskaskia delegation with Virginia's governor. In an exchange of speeches with the leader of the Kaskaskia, a chief of partial French ancestry named Jean Baptiste du Coigne, Jefferson expressed his ambitions for the future of the Anglo-American and Native American relationship. He looked forward to the day when the Indians would adopt white American ways and the two groups would live together in peace.[2]

Jefferson's speech prefigured the manner in which he, and most white Americans, would view Native Americans in the decades to come. They worried about Indigenous Nations becoming enemies in times of war, and they sought to keep them at peace through treaties and through a project of "civilization" that would try to make Native American cultures resemble that of the Anglo-Americans.

President Jefferson and Native American Nations

It was as President of the United States that Thomas Jefferson had the greatest impact on the Native American Nations of North America. He pursued a policy towards Indigenous people that had two main ends. First, Jefferson wanted to guarantee the security of the United States and so sought to bind Indigenous Nations to the United States through treaties. The aim of these treaties was to acquire land and facilitate trade, but most importantly to keep them allied with the United States and not with European powers, namely England in Canada and Spain in the regions of Florida, the Gulf Coast and lands west of the Mississippi River. Secondly, Jefferson used the networks created by the treaties to further the program of gradual "civilization." His Federalist predecessors had begun this program, but it was completely in keeping with Jefferson's Enlightenment thinking. Through treaties and commerce, Jefferson hoped to continue to get Native Americans to adopt European agricultural practices, shift to a sedentary way of life, and free up hunting grounds for further white settlement.

The desire for land raised the stakes of the "civilization program." Jefferson told his agents never to coerce Indigenous Nations to sell lands. The lands were theirs as long as they wished, but he hoped to accelerate the process. In a letter to William Henry Harrison, written as the diplomatic crisis leading to the Louisiana Purchase unfolded, Jefferson suggested that if the various Indian nations could be encouraged to purchase goods on credit, they would likely fall into debt, which they could relieve through the sale of lands to the government.[3] The Louisiana Purchase itself would forever change the fate of many nations, and opened up the west for Jefferson’s vision of expanding white settlement and Indigenous acculturation or removal.

During The Corps of Discovery Expedition, Lewis and Clark would carry Jefferson’s vision to the Tribal Nations of the west. Recognizing their extreme vulnerability, Jefferson urged diplomatic caution when Lewis and Clark were treating with distant Tribal Nations, and his scientific and cultural interests led to his excitement in receiving shipments of diplomatic trade items from those western Nations. He later displayed many of these at Monticello, preserving them as examples of Indigenous ingenuity and artistic quality. But he still considered Native cultures in need of “civilization,” and sought to enact policies that would encourage Native peoples to adopt Euro-American practices, including debt accrual and the sale of land in exchange for what he considered would be their betterment. The "civilization program" would thus aid the Native Americans in accordance with Enlightenment principles and at the same time further white interests. Indigenous peoples were divided as to how to respond to Jefferson's policies. The Shawnee chief Black Hoof embraced the "civilization program," and he and many Shawnee settled within the state of Ohio and lived as farmers, while the Shawnee leader Tecumseh took a different course and led the formation of a Confederation of Native Nations and a large scale resistance movement against the United States government in the years prior to the War of 1812. Some of the Indigenous Nations in the South also accepted the "civilization program" and were labeled the "Five Civilized Tribes" by the United States government. Individuals from the Muscogee, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations emulated white practices, building settler-style towns and plantations, and some Native individuals held even enslaved Black people.

Yet many southern Native American people remained skeptical of "civilization" and joined Tecumseh's movement. Among the Muscogee, a distinct anti-colonial resistance movement called the Red Sticks rose against the United States and the Creek Nation itself during the War of 1812. Ultimately, neither emulation or resistance resulted in a harmonious relationship with the fledgling United States government or kept a stronghold on traditional Tribal Lands, and even those Nations deemed “civilized” by the U.S. were eventually forced from their homes during the Removal Period of the 1830s, known as the Trail of Tears.

United States policies and practices during the Early Republic had profound impacts on the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, often permanently dividing Nations as individuals within communities made what choices they thought best to preserve their families and their homes. Jefferson’s writings and actions about and towards Indigenous people and Nations demonstrate the complexity of the times, the conflicts of colonization, the hardships endured by many, and presage policies of warfare and cultural genocide enacted by the United States government towards Indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, Native American people fought to hold on to their cultures, languages, and lands. With more than 570 federally recognized Tribal Nations today, and with more than 5 million Native American people living in the United States according to the 2020 Census, Indigenous peoples in the Americas continue to demonstrate their resolve to hold onto their values, their identities, and their ways of life.

- Leonard Sadosky and Gaye Wilson, Monticello Research Report, 2003, revised by Brandon Dillard, 2023

"Tokens of Friendship:" Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Native Americans

In every encounter Lewis and Clark had with Indigenous people, material goods played a significant role. Jefferson and Lewis recognized that large quantities of "Indian presents" were extremely important to the success of the mission. Indigenous and white relations on the American frontier were largely based on the mechanism of gift exchange, the idea being that the relationship would falter unless both sides demonstrated their commitment to alliance through the exchange of material goods. The trade items that Lewis and Clark distributed and received along the journey westward were designed to symbolize the opening of relations between western Tribal Nations and the new American republic. The gifts they received from the Tribal leaders they met provided members of the Corps with examples of Indigenous art and culture, but Lewis and Clark did not systematically "collect" Native American objects as they did plant and animal specimens.

As important research conducted by Dr. Castle McLaughlin at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University suggests, the Native American expedition objects that ended up in Jefferson's "Indian Hall" at Monticello and in Charles Willson Peale's museum in Philadelphia (the surviving examples from the Peale Museum are today in the Peabody Museum) should be understood as results of exchanges made in diplomatic and social contexts rather than as products of collecting in an anthropological sense. In this way, the objects represent the choices of their makers rather than those of explorers unfamiliar with the material culture of Native people. A letter Jefferson wrote to Lewis at the end of the expedition signals his understanding that the goods received by Lewis and Clark were diplomatic gifts, and not simply examples of the arts of Northern Plains Native Americans gathered by the explorers. When Lewis returned to the east in the last days of 1806, his party included Sheheke (Big White), a chief of the Mandan Nation. As their route to Washington would take him through central Virginia, Jefferson wrote Lewis before their arrival in the capital, "Perhaps while in our neighborhood, it may be gratifying to him [Sheheke], & not otherwise to yourself to take a ride to Monticello and see in what manner I have arranged the tokens of friendship I have received from his country particularly as well as from other Indian friends: that I am in fact preparing a kind of Indian hall."[4] 

- Text of this section by Elizabeth V. Chew, Monticello Research Report, December 2002

Jefferson's Contact with Native Americans

1780 October. Cherokee Chief, Postclay at Williamsburg.[5]

1781 May. An Indian Chief from the Kaskaskia nation at Charlottesville.[6]

1802 January 7. Miamis, Pottewatomies & Weeanks.[7]

1802 February 10. Delaware and Shawnee.[8]

1803 January 8. Miami and Delaware.[9]

1805 November 2. Creeks.[10]

1805 December 22. Osage, Panis, Sacs, Sioux, Missouris, and Mississippis.[11]

1806 January 1. Osage.[12]

1806 January 10. Cherokees.[13]

1806 January 12. Chickasaws.[14]

1806 January. Shawnee.[15]

1806 December. Mandan Nation.[16]

1806 December 29. Five Osages, One Delaware, and Mandan chief.[17]

1807 February 19. Shawnee Nation.[18]

1808 December 21.  Miamis, Poutewatamies, Delaware, and Chippeways.[19]  

1809 January 10.  Wyandots, Ottawas, Chippeways, Pottawattomies, and Shawnees.[20]

1809 January 31.  Ottawas, Chippeways, Pottawattomies, Wyandots, and Shawnees.[21]

Further Sources

Native Americans and the Lewis & Clark Expedition: 

Letters and Documents

  • Thomas Jefferson to Congress, January 18, 1803, Library of Congress.
  • Thomas Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, December 4, 1783, in PTJ, 6:371.
  • Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, September 1, 1786, in ibid., 10:316-317.
  • Thomas Jefferson to Charles Carroll, April 15, 1791, in ibid., 20:214-25.
  • Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, February 18, 1803, Library of Congress.
  • Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803, Library of Congress.
  • Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin S. Barton, September 21, 1809, in PTJ:RS, 1:555-6.  Jefferson describes his collection of Indian vocabularies and informs Barton of the tragic loss of most of them.
  • Letter by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, June 11, 1812, Founders Online.  Jefferson answers Adams' questions about books about American Indians and their priesthood, and describes some of his childhood experiences with Indians.
  • Thomas Jefferson to Jedidiah Morse, March 6, 1822, Library of Congress.
  • Jefferson's Indian Addresses:  To the Brothers of the Choctaw Nation, To Brother Handsome Lake, To Brother John Baptist de Coigne, To the Chiefs of the Cherokee Nation, To the Wolf and People of the Mandan Nation.  Transcriptions from Yale Law School's Avalon Project.
  • Treaties Between the United States and Native Americans [1778-1868].  Transcriptions from Yale Law School's Avalon Project.

Books and Articles


  1. ^ Jefferson to Chastellux, June 7, 1785, in Founders Online.
  2. ^ "Speech to Jean Baptiste Ducoigne," Charlottesville, ca. June 1, 1781, in PTJ, 6:60-64.
  3. ^ Jefferson to Harrison, February 27, 1803, in L&B, 10:368-73.  Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress.
  4. ^ Jefferson to Lewis, Washington, October 20, 1806, in Ford, 8:476-7.
  5. ^ John Page to Jefferson, Rosewell, October 20, 1780, in PTJ, 4:52-53.
  6. ^ Jefferson to Jean Baptiste Ducoigne, ca. June 1, 1781, in ibid., 6:60-64.
  7. ^ See "Conference with Blackhoof" document group and editorial note, in ibid., 36:513-27.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ See Jefferson to Miami and Delaware Indians. Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress.
  10. ^ Sir Augustus John Foster, Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America, Collected in the Years 1805-6-7 and 11-12 (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1954), 23.
  11. ^ Washington, D.C., National Intelligencer, December 27, 1805; Foster, 38.
  12. ^ Foster, 22, and Smith, First Forty Years, 200.
  13. ^ Foster, 23, and Jefferson to Cherokees, January 10, 1809. Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.
  14. ^ Foster, 40.
  15. ^ Ibid., 41.
  16. ^ Ibid., 27-28; Jefferson to Wolf Indian Chief, December 30, 1806. File copy at the Library of Congress.
  17. ^ Foster, 29.
  18. ^ Jefferson, Address to Shawnee Nation, February 19, 1807. Copy at Library of Congress.
  19. ^ Jefferson, Address to Miamis et al, December 21, 1808. Copy at Library of Congress.
  20. ^ Jefferson to Indian Chiefs, of Wyandots, Ottawas, Chippeways, Pottawattomies, and Shawnees, January 10, 1809.  Copy at Library of Congress.
  21. ^ Jefferson to Ottawa Chiefs et al, January 31, 1809. Draft at Library of Congress.