At the centre of Indian affairs

Jefferson and the Indians

June 16, 2000

Encounters with and thinking about America's indigenous peoples were a constant thread in Thomas Jefferson's life and career. In this rich and multi-faceted book, Anthony F. C. Wallace traces the private, political and scholarly dimensions of Jefferson's engagement with Indians, an engagement that shifted with time and circumstance and produced effects that were sometimes profound, often contradictory. All readers interested in the early United States's handling of what came to be called "Indian affairs" will find valuable food for thought here.

No single white American, with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, did more than Jefferson to shape the terms on which Indians would have to confront the existence and growth of the United States on their own lands. His engagement with them started early as, like many members of the Virginia gentry, he acquired interests in "western" land during the late colonial period. While rebellion against British rule gathered weight in the mid-1770s, Virginia frontier settlers were fighting the Cherokee. Atrocities in this war were reciprocal, but it was the conduct of "merciless Indian Savages" that Jefferson condemned in the Declaration of Independence and which he accused Britain of unleashing on settler families.

Wallace suggests that up to the 1780s Jefferson's attitude to Indians was generally unsympathetic. Native Americans were fated to dwindle and their cultures to die out. Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia , for instance, contained elisions and obfuscations that tended to justify their portrayal as "savages" without a history or accomplishments that deserved respect.

However, the revolution and his spell as Virginia's governor led Jefferson towards a more nuanced position. Unlike the most murderous settlers and soldiers, he distinguished between "hostile" and "friendly" Indians, and in correspondence he revealed his belief that, though their own ways of life were doomed, Indians were capable of being "civilised" and hence of becoming American citizens. He embarked on scholarly inquiries, digging up archaeological remains, collecting Indian vocabularies and corresponding with a network of contacts whose findings he sought to coordinate through the activities of the American Philosophical Society. Though public office kept him from scholarly work, he constantly sought information, instructing Lewis and Clark's expedition to report on the Indians they met, and spending so long with a delegation of Osages at one of his presidential receptions that the British minister stalked off, angry at being ignored. Above all, Wallace argues, Jefferson held to the principle that Indians were owners of the land they occupied and that the United States could acquire this land only by purchase or other legal means.

These themes shaped Jefferson's Indian policies while in office. The insistence on legitimacy led to diplomacy and the negotiation of Indian land cessions. The aim of "civilising" Indians and settling them as farmers rather than as hunters led to the exchange for land of capital goods such as ploughs and spinning wheels and to the establishment of missions. Wallace usefully summarises evidence of the extent to which members of trans-Appalachian tribes adopted new ways in the early 19th century. However, the policies were riddled with contradictions. "Civilisation" - turning hunters into farmers - was a recipe for poverty in territory without markets.

Jefferson was in any case most concerned with acquiring land for settlers; during his presidency perhaps 200, 000 square miles were transferred from Indian to US ownership. He was also concerned with keeping the British and Spanish out of the way. Though he shared his federalist opponents' abhorrence at frontier settlers' violence against Indians, his hatred of centralised power prevented him from using federal armies to restrain them. Many Indians resisted land cessions and "civilisation" and, as enmity with Britain deepened towards the end of Jefferson's administration, fear of Indian alliances with the former colonial power caused them to be regarded with great suspicion.

The Louisiana Purchase enabled Jefferson to contemplate the removal of "uncivilised" Indians to the west of the Mississippi, and although he also advocated the eastward relocation of Europeans, it was the policy of Indian removal that he bequeathed to his successors.

The actions of settlers, Indians and the British all ensured that, though Jefferson might formulate policies, events lay largely beyond his control. Yet the range of his diplomatic, political, intellectual and scholarly activities meant that he touched on all the dominant themes in early US encounters with indigenous peoples. Wallace neither debunks nor defends him. Underscoring his account is the significance of the belief that Jefferson shared with all-too-many "sympathetic" white Americans: the conviction that, one way or another - through removal, destruction or "civilisation" - Indians and their ways were fated to disappear. This, as Wallace notes, amounted to "cultural genocide", and he laments the fact that cultural diversity was not then something that was on offer.

Christopher Clark is professor of North American history, University of Warwick.

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Author - Anthony F. C. Wallace
ISBN - 0 674 00066 8
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 394

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