Thomas Jefferson and the Native Americans

Nov 4, 2009

As one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is best known for his role as one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of the Land of the Free as we know it. What many do not realize, however, or refuse to acknowledge all together, is his role on campaigns for the removal of Native Americans - “Indians” they call them - from their homelands. 

As president, he served in a political system that relentlessly viewed native tribes as international sovereign entities. During his term of 8 years, Jefferson relentlessly pushed for expansion, as he believed that the fate of the country belonged in “white hands”. In a book entitled Thomas Jefferson and the Changing West , James Rhonda wrote that Jefferson exhibited a passion for land, which became a central feature of the drafted federal Indian policy. US President Jefferson referred to this policy as their “final consolidation”, which pertained to the acquisition of lands east of the Mississippi River and uprooting of Native Americans to territories in the West. His Indian policy, in particular, had to main ends. First, Thomas Jefferson wanted to secure America’s freedom and formation, which can accomplished through binding the Indian nations to the United States through the use of treaties. The principal goal of these treaties was to acquire lands and enable trade, but the underlying implication means that these Indians would be allied with the United States instead of the powers of Europe. Secondly, these treaties created networks, and Jefferson used these to further the progress of what they referred to as gradual “civilization”. His predecessors instigated this program and Jefferson paid heed to their legacy through the use of commerce and treaties. Here, Jefferson remained hopeful and focused on gaining the trust of the Native Americans, where they would adopt into an agricultural life instead of hunting. No hunting would mean free grounds, and free grounds meant more land for settlement for the whites.

This program on civilization further raised the stakes for desire of land. As the strategy pressed on, Jefferson told his agents not to resort to coercion, never pressuring the Indians to sell their lands. According to Jefferson, the lands were already theirs as long as they wished, but his desire to accelerate the process prevailed. Jefferson, in a letter addressed to William Henry Harrison, actually suggested that the Native Americans could be persuaded to purchase through credit, where they would likely fall into debt, forcing them to sell their lands to the government. We can safely assume, then, that the civilization was merely a ploy, made to further white interests. 

It is important to note that Jefferson, along with his contemporaries, never pretended that the West of what was to be America was empty. They referred to the lands as the “crowded wilderness”, which refers to both the indigenous population thriving in the areas, along with the fantasy that acquiring the West would mean economic progress for his people. History further notes that it was Jefferson who invented what the Americans know now as the “American west”. Although his land expansion never ventured west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Thomas Jefferson grasped on the vision of a land of “boundless fertility”, where Americans could “thrive and remain free forever”.

Many argue that Jefferson’s actions were justified, which merely insured the economy and security of his people. However, as he pushed westward, Jefferson said that should the Indians resist, they would need to be “dealt with”. He first wrote about Indian uprooting in 1176, 15 years before he became president. As the settlers and Cherokee grew into conflict, he sought work at the Continental Congress, where he reacted harshly. He wrote that he would not stop at war, and will never cease pursuit as long as a single Native American remained on the either side of the Mississippi. Many believe that this declaration solidified his campaign about the Indians, which would later give birth to his harshest strategy yet.

As the term of his presidency nears its end, and the looming War of 1812 lingered in the air, Jefferson offered two remaining options for the Indians – be absorbed into the republic of United States as citizens, or face obliteration by the military. Furthermore, as a response to a growing resistance lead by the Shawnee and other tribes, Jefferson invited the Native leaders to Washington. Here, he warned them all that every tribe who would call for war against the whites would be destroyed and driven away, to the point that none would be able to reach them ever again.

He further stated that, in time, they would become one with their white blood, and that they will thrive together in this “great land”.

Looking into the current situation of our times, we can surmise, unfortunately, that the Native Americans have lost their lands forever. Driven away by plagues and violence, they were forced to give up their lands. Today, they continue to be driven away and discriminated – and most people seemed to have forgotten that America, before the conquest, rightfully belonged to these people they called “savages”. Blood is the price of greed disguised as progress.

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