Thomas Jefferson viewed American Indians or Native Americans as subjects of intellectual curiosity or saw them in political terms as enemies in war or partners in peace. Jefferson's long public career during a formative time period allowed him to shape the relations between the United States and the various Indian 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 Sioux, Mandan, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and various other Native American communities. Although these Indian Nations were relatively new to Jefferson, American Indians were not, as his personal encounters with Indians began during his boyhood in Virginia and extended through his public career and into his retirement.
Indians and the Enlightenment
When Jefferson spoke in terms of the "civilization" of American Indians, 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 American Indian 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 Only their environment needed to be changed to make them fully American in Jefferson's mind. Even though many American Indians lived in villages and many engaged in agriculture, hunting was often still necessary for subsistence. It was this semi-nomadic way of life that led Jefferson and others to consider Indians 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.
Jefferson the Virginian
In his retirement years, Jefferson recalled the Indians he had encountered as a boy in Virginia, noting especially the Cherokee warrior, Outassete. 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 Indian presence in Virginia had been greatly diminished by disease and warfare with white settlers. The Indian nations remaining inside Virginia were small in size and included the Algonkian-speaking nations that were remnants of the once-powerful Powhatan Confederacy, the Siouan-speaking nations such as the Monacan, Saponi and Tutelo, and a group of Iroquoian-speakers, the Meherrin, among others. As their populations dwindled, Virginians became less concerned with these Indian communities and more preoccupied with the powerful Indian 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 Iroquois that granted land on the west side of the Appalachians to Virginia. The Iroquois claimed to have conquered all of the 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 Indians 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 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" was not atypical of the manner in which many mid-eighteenth-century white Virginians viewed the Indians. Yet as Governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, Jefferson welcomed a delegation from the Kaskaskia Indians. 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 Indian nations, including the Kaskaskia of the Illinois country, and then attacked the British and the Indians allied with them at villages in present-day Illinois and Indiana. This warfare put Virginia's government into direct contact with western Indian 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 American Indian 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 American Indians in the decades to come. They worried about Indians 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 Indian culture resemble that of the Anglo-Americans.
President Jefferson and the Indian Nations
It was as President of the United States that Thomas Jefferson had the greatest impact on the Indian nations of North America. He pursued an Indian policy that had two main ends. First, Jefferson wanted to guarantee the security of the United States and so sought to bind Indian 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 American Indians 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 Indian 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 "civilization program" would thus aid the Indians in accordance with Enlightenment principles and at the same time further white interests. American Indian 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 war leader Tecumseh took a different course and led the formation of a pan-Indian resistance movement against the United States government in the years prior to the War of 1812. Some of the Indian nations in the South also accepted the "civilization program" and eventually became known as the "Five Civilized Tribes." Many in the Creek and Cherokee nations built towns and plantations, and some individuals held African-American slaves just as their white neighbors. Yet many southern Indians remained skeptical of "civilization" and joined Tecumseh's movement. Among the Creeks, a distinct anti-white resistance movement called the Red Sticks rose against the United States and the Creek nation itself during the War of 1812.
- Leonard Sadosky and Gaye Wilson, Monticello Research Report, 2003
Tokens of Friendship: Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and American Indians
In every encounter Lewis and Clark had with Indian 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. Indian and white relations on the American frontier were 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 presents that Lewis and Clark distributed and received along the trail were designed to symbolize the opening of relations between western tribes and the new American republic. The gifts they received from the tribes they met provided members of the Corps with examples of Indian art and culture, but Lewis and Clark did not systematically "collect" Indian objects as they did plant and animal specimens. As important new 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 Indians 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 Indians
1780 October. Cherokee Chief, Postclay at Williamsburg.5
1781 May. An Indian Chief from the Kaskaskia nation at Charlottesville.6
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, in PTJ:RS, 5:122-25. Jefferson answers Adams' questions about books about American Indians and their priesthood, and describes some of his childhood experiences with Indians.
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.