Thomas Jefferson and the Native Americans
Many know Thomas Jefferson as one of the Founding Fathers and the third president of the United States. Jefferson had a reputation as a protector and supporter of slaves during his time. This established his positive image; attributing him to democracy, freedom, and equality. However, Jefferson also had a relationship with Native Americans that contradicted his image as a supporter of equality. Thomas Jefferson’s goal to expand westward drove the native settlers away from their lands, creating conflict between the U.S. government and the Native Americans.
Thomas Jefferson possessed a duality that can often lead individuals to perceive him as hypocritical. Jefferson applies this duality to many topics, most importantly slavery and the Native Americans. For instance, Jefferson was a supporter of the fight to free the slaves. Additionally, he had a relationship with an African woman, which some claim produced a child. However, Jefferson was also a slave owner, owning over 600 slaves during his lifetime, and supported the westward expansion of slavery (Ellis, 2022; Thomas Jefferson, n.d.). Some argue that Jefferson’s support for the slaves came from his romantic relationship. While critics argue that Jefferson had a non-consensual relationship with the African woman, implying his unequal treatment of slaves.
This duality then extends to Jefferson’s approach to Native Americans. Jefferson received the title “man of Indian enlightenment” as he had an admiration and curiosity toward Indian culture since he was a boy. He studied their language, supported archaeological research, and engaged in other activities to exercise his academic interest in the culture (cited in Landy, 2018). However, when Jefferson became a U.S. president, his main interests were national security and land expansion. He wanted to increase the country’s territory to gain more resources and protect the citizens from any possible threats. Unfortunately, these goals conflicted with Native Americans’ interests. This shifted Jefferson’s academic interest to an aggressive acquisition that made him an enemy in the eyes of the Native Americans.
However, some may argue that Jefferson’s academic interest in Native Americans did not imply his willingness to conserve their culture. According to Kupperman (2001), Jefferson’s interest in Native Americans came from the fact that the culture was vanishing. Jefferson may have wanted to learn about the vanishing culture before all the evidence of their existence is gone. There is also the fact that Jefferson deemed Native Americans who assimilated into European-American settlements as culturally corrupted (Wallace, 1999, cited in Kupperman, 2001). Jefferson had no interest in the assimilated Native Americans, implying that his curiosity was limited to the vanishing culture and not its preservation.
When the U.S. began to expand westward, the Native Americans resisted to preserve their land and culture. In various letters, Jefferson expressed his persistence in removing Native Americans from the west. In one of his letters, Jefferson stated that he would not stop pursuing Native Americans, which he referred to as “wretches”, in Mississippi and that he was willing to engage in armed conflict until they exterminated the resisting tribes (Landry, 2018; Thomas Jefferson, n.d.). This showed Jefferson’s commitment to westward expansion and his attitude towards resistance. He referred to Native Americans as “wretches” and individuals to exterminate, implying that he views those who resist as his and the nation’s enemies. He wanted to provide security to the U.S. and he was willing to forcefully remove Native Americans from their home.
Despite Jefferson’s aggressive move against the Native Americans, he provided them the opportunity to survive and assimilate with the non-natives. In 1809, Jefferson talked with the Native leaders and told them that they will extirpate the tribes who will resist the expansion. He further stated that the Native Americans will be part of the U.S., with the Natives’ blood mixing with the non-natives’ (Landry, 2018). By offering a peaceful solution to the growing conflict between the Native Americans and the non-natives, Jefferson aimed to prevent a war that would lead to the extermination of Native Americans and the deaths of many U.S. citizens. Jefferson’s statement also shows that he was willing to work with Native Americans and accept them as members of the U.S.
Jefferson’s Indian Removal Strategies
Jefferson utilized various strategies to remove the Native Americans from the west. One of these was the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the United States’ size but also forced many Native Americans to leave their land (Kupperman, 2001). Since the Louisiana Purchase was a legal agreement, the natives lost their authority over their lands. Some tribes resisted, resulting in war. Despite this, Jefferson also conducted 33 treaties with Native American nations, which allowed for more peaceful negotiations with certain parties.
Aside from treaties and armed conflicts, Jefferson utilized ominous strategies to achieve his goal. One of these was forcing Native Americans to incur debts, leading them to pay with their lands (Landry, 2018). Jefferson established trading posts where Native Americans slowly incurred debts that they could not pay. Jefferson noted that the Native Americans became compliant in giving away their lands as payment for their debts. This ominous strategy allowed Jefferson to acquire land from resistant natives using financial coercion instead of force.
Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the Native Americans began with his fascination with their vanishing culture. Jefferson wanted to learn about the seemingly foreign culture of the country’s original inhabitants. However, his duties as U.S. president required him to utilize aggressive strategies to secure the nation’s welfare. He had to wage war to expand westward and use ominous methods to coerce the unwilling; allowing the U.S. to grow and become a powerful nation. Jefferson’s removal of Native Americans from their lands was not an act of discrimination or hate but a means to progress the country.
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Britannica.com. (n.d.). See How the Louisiana Purchase Led to the Forcible Removal of Indian Tribes and Fueled Slavery Debate [Video]. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/video/167171/Overview-Louisiana-Purchase. Accessed: September 12, 2022.
Ellis, J. (2022). Thomas Jefferson. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Jefferson. Accessed: September 8, 2022.
Kupperman, J. (2001). Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Review). Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol 31(3). Available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/16104. Accessed: September 8, 2022.
Landry, A. (2018). Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Indian Removal Policy. IndianCountryToday. Available at https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/thomas-jefferson-architect-of-indian-removal-policy. Accessed: September 12, 2022.
loc.gov. (n.d.). Thomas Jefferson. Library of Congress. Available at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffwest.html . Accessed: September 8, 2022.