Jefferson On Native Americans

By Tom Jewett

Thomas Jefferson, our icon of freedom and personal liberty set the national policy toward Native Americans that would last for over one hundred years. He began the trail of tears which would destroy cultures and result in the reservation system.

Always a man of dichotomies, Jefferson admired and lauded the American Indian. As a man of the Romantic Era he saw them as unspoiled; the "noble savage". As, also, a man of the Enlightenment, with its analytical detachment, he knew that the Indian way of life could no longer exist in an expanding United States.

Jefferson's attitude toward the Indian population of the United States always seemed as profoundly paradoxical as his attitude toward slavery... On several occasions he went out of his way to describe the Indian people of North America as a noble race who were the innocent victims of history....One senses in so many of Jefferson's observations on Indians an authentic admiration mingled with a truly poignant sense of tragedy about their fate as a people...On the other hand, it was during Jefferson's presidency that the basic decisions were made that required the deportation of massive segments of the Indian population to land west of the Mississippi..."the seeds of extinction" for Native American culture were sown under Jefferson. (Ellis, 1997).

Jefferson had known and been interested in Native Americans all of his life. He had been associated with them during his boyhood in Albemarle County and his college days in Williamsburg. He had heard his father's tales of journeys into the wilderness and his interactions with the Indians, but no Native Americans roamed the forest near Jefferson's boyhood home. The only Indians he saw, as a boy, were "civilized". They were romantic characters to the young lad when they stopped at the Jefferson home on their way to Williamsburg.

Peter Jefferson's house was a popular way station for the friendly Cherokees whose embassies were bound for Williamsburg. Jefferson long after reflected on his early attachment to Indians, writing John Adams of his presence in the warrior-orator Outasette's camp on the eve of that Indian's journey to England: "The moon was in full splendor...His sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated action, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration, altho' I did not understand a word he uttered," Jefferson was impressed by the Indian's use of words to make a noble display of his humanity, to move others. (Burnstein, 1997).

Jefferson further expounded on the Indians' ability to speak in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

I may challenge the whole orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, and of many more prominent orators, if Europe has furnished any more eminent, to produce a single passage, superior to the speech of Logan, a Mingo chief, to Lord Dunmore when Governor of this State. (As cited in Chinard, 1964).

Referencing and comparing Native Americans to classical cultures was a theme which runs throughout Jefferson's musings on Indians. "Aboriginal Homeric concepts of human behavior had early become real and concrete to him in the simple dignity of American Indians." (Lehmann, 1994).

Perhaps this comparison with Europe's heroic era was to buttress his defense of all things American. For, it was then contended, by France's Count Buffon, that all flora, fauna, and men of the New World were degenerate. Jefferson contested Buffon's statement about the notion that the Native American "savage" was "feeble," "timid and cowardly," with "no vivacity, no activity of mind." On the contrary, stated Jefferson, the Indian "meets death with more deliberation" than any other race on earth; "his friendships are strong and faithful to the uttermost extremity." (Burnstein, 1997).

"As for happiness, he thought it probably greater among the American Indians than among the great body of people in Europe."(Malone, 1951).

Dumas Malone, Jefferson biographer, feels that the statements relating to Indians in the Notes on Virginia can be matched in passion only by those extolling freedom. Jefferson stoutly defended them against charges of deficiency in sexual ardor and lack of familial affection, and praised them for their courage and sense of honor.

In Notes, perhaps Jefferson's greatest scientific work, he listed the tribes with a fullness and precision which were uncommon of his era. He discussed the Native Americans with an objectivity which was also rare for his time. Nevertheless, many biographers feel that sentimentalism blurred his scientific view. He had always been interested in Indian folklore and the origins of Native Americans. In his personality there was a natural archaeologist. In the course of excavating an Indian mound on his property he invented the method of "stratigraphical" observation, which is the basic principle of modern archeological investigation.

His lifetime interest in Native Americans can also be seen in his long term effort to collect and catalogue Indian vocabularies. He worked on this extensively during his Presidency, perhaps as way of relieving the stress of office. But, the office, also, gave him new resources. On July 4, 1801, his first year as president, Jefferson held a reception for five Cherokee chiefs where he queried them for his vocabularies study. When he sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition of the Louisiana Territory he tasked them to collect linguistic records of all the tribes they encountered.

This great ethnological treasure, alas, was never finished. At the end of Jefferson's second term they were lost to a pair of ferrymen who thought that the President's baggage contained treasure.

Coming home from Washington: Among these effects was a trunk containing the Indian vocabularies, some fifty in number, that he had collected through thirty years. On the last leg of the journey, while ascending the James River above Richmond, this trunk was stolen. Towards the end of May a reward for its recovery was offered by his agents in Richmond. It was reported in June that the papers from the trunk had been discovered in the James below Lynchburg. Only a few defaced leaves of the vocabularies were saved. In some of his comments on this irreparable loss Jefferson seemed vindictive. Later in the summer after the culprit was caught and on trial he stated with apparent satisfaction that the thief would doubtless be hanged. (Malone, 1981).

Jefferson's use of political office to further his romantic study of languages is tempered by the rational politician. "As governor and President, he was to receive visits from Indians...He was to observe this race as a philosopher and to inquire into its languages; as a responsible statesman he was to grapple with the problem of depredations and massacres on the frontier." (Malone, 1948).

This balancing act caused, almost, a detachment by him concerning his actions toward Native Americans. On one hand, he had ordered Lewis and Clark to offer friendship, trade, education, and even to offer vaccination for smallpox to the Indians. (American Heritage, 1972).

On the other hand, as soon as Louisiana was purchased, during his first term, he embarks on a cold-blooded policy toward Native Americans. Jefferson, in a lengthy letter to William Henry Harrison, military governor of the Northwest Territory, explained the nation's policy "is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate their affectionate attachment from them, by everything just and liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason." Having said that, Jefferson then instructs Harrison on how to get rid of every last independent tribe between the Atlantic states and the Mississippi. (Montgomery, 2000). In secret messages to his cabinet and Congress, Jefferson outlined a plan for removal of all Native Americans east of the Mississippi to make sure that this land would never fall to the French or the British. Jefferson was even less sentimental and more direct during his second inaugural address in 1805. Even the area west of the Mississippi would no longer be available to the Indian.

This was certainly a very regrettable situation, but the idea of questioning the right of an overflowing population to occupy scarcely populated territories did not for a moment enter Jefferson's mind. To deny such a right would have been not only detrimental to the very existence of the United States, but also a denial of the "right" of "our Saxon ancestors" to settle in England. Furthermore, the President was confronted with a certain set of facts and not with theory. The territory of which the Indians had so long enjoyed undisturbed possession was growing narrower every day. With the recent acquisition of Louisiana, it was to be foreseen that they would not be able to roam freely much longer in the vast territories extending west of the Mississippi. (Chinard, 1964).

Thus, the Native Americans must change, become Europeanized, or become extinct. Even out of office Jefferson held this view. In his plan for the University of Virginia, he devised a scheme to "civilize" the Native American.

The plan of civilizing the Indians is undoubtedly a great improvement on the ancient and totally ineffectual one of beginning with religious missionaries. Our experience has shown that this must be the last step of the process. The following is what has been successful: 1st, to raise cattle, etc., and thereby acquire a knowledge of the value of property; 2d, arithmetic, to calculate that value; 3d, writing, to keep accounts, and here they begin to enclose farms, and the men labor, the women spin and weave; 4th, to read Aseop's Fables and Robinson Crusoe are their first delight. The Creeks and the Cherokees are advanced thus far, and the Cherokees are now instituting a regular government. (As cited in Mayo, 1972).

Even though Jefferson's plan never came to fruition, it did set the tone for relations with Native Americans. This, along with his governmental policies, laid the basis for the end of most Native cultures.


______. (1972). Thomas Jefferson And His World. American Heritage Publishing Company, New York, N.Y.

Burstein, Andrew. (1997). The Inner Jefferson. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Chinard, Gilbert. (1964). Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Ellis, Joseph. (1997). American Sphinx. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Lehmann, Karl. (1985). Thomas Jefferson American Humanist. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Malone, Dumas. (1948). Jefferson The Virginian. Little, Brown And Company, Boston.

Malone, Dumas. (1951). Jefferson And The Rights of Man. Little, Brown And Company, Boston.

Malone, Dumas. (1981). The Sage of Monticello. Little, Brown And Company, Boston.

Mayo, Bernard. (1972). Jefferson Himself. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Montgomery, M.R. (2000). Jefferson and the Gun-Men. Crown Publishers, New York.