Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father of Indian Removal
By Mark Hirsch
"Our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural," Jefferson proclaimed, "and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America."
The problem was that America's "vacant lands" were populated by thousands of American Indians, whose notions of freedom rested on maintaining their tribal traditions and ancestral territories. Acquiring Indian lands became a crusade for Jefferson, one that led the United States toward the slippery slope of removal.
When the American Revolution ended in 1783, Jefferson was already dreaming of expeditions to the West. He looked forward to the day when the United States would overstretch the entire continent and emerge as an "Empire Liberty." The West of Jefferson's imagination moved a giant step closer to reality in 1893, when the United States acquired the vast Louisiana Territory, which stretched from the Mississippi to the Rockies. When Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their epic expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific, he instructed them to gather all the information they could about the new territories and the Native peoples who inhabited them.
As Lewis and Clark explored the West, Jefferson began hammering out a policy for acquiring lands from tribes living east of the Mississippi. The plan rested on alternately encouraging, cajoling, bribing, tricking and pressuring Indians into signing treaties that ceded tribal lands to the United States.
Jefferson first instructed his agents to persuade Indians to adopt agriculture. That new way of life, the agents explained, would require less land than hunting. With no need for their vast forests, the Indians were encouraged to sell their uncultivated territories for 25 cents per acre, the profits of which Indian farmers could use to purchase agricultural tools and manufactured goods. To stimulate Indian consumerism, Jefferson increased the number of government trading houses located near Native villages, arguing publicly that the establishments enabled Indians to share in the fruits of white "civilization." But it was a ploy. His real motive, he confided in 1803, was to lure Indians into spending themselves into debt, obligations that would be paid off through the sale of tribal lands.
The weapons in Jefferson's arsenal of dispossession were many and varied, and they worked to perfection. As the historian Colin Galloway has observed, Jefferson's strategy yielded some 30 treaties with approximately a dozen tribes, who ceded some 200,000 square miles of land in nine states.
Some Indian peoples, including many Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Creeks, chose to heed Jefferson's call to adopt the ways of white society, adopting governments modeled on the United States, churches and schools producing high literacy. But other Natives rejected the white road. For them, Jefferson had little patience. Given his principles, Indians had two choices: full assimilation or removal.
Jefferson began raising the specter of Indian removal in private letters written in 1803. Native resistance to European-style farming and to land sales, as well as white settlers' disrespect for Indian property rights, appears to have disposed Jefferson to doubt the feasibility of assimilating Native people into American life. Would it not be better to move Indians out of harm's way, he wondered, to exchange tribal lands in the east for lands west of the Mississippi?
President Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, 1803
By Julianne Jennings
In 1812, Jefferson said that American was obliged to push the backward Indians "with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains." One year later Jefferson continued anti-Indian statements by adding that America must "pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach."
These comments actually downplay the craven trickery used by Jefferson's agents to steal Indian land. Often they'd sign treaties with minor chiefs who had no authority to sell a tribe's land. Or worse, with chiefs from other tribes who really had no authority to sell a tribe's land. Basically, if the agents could cajole any Indian within a region to put an "X" on a piece of paper, they deemed the land sold.
And rather than treat each treaty as inviolable, they treated it as a starting point for further theft. Sellers would pour into the newly acquired land and the adjoining Indian land. America's agents would throw up their hands and say the influx was beyond their control. Their only "solution" was to cajole or trick the Indians into giving up more land.
Relocation = destruction
These comments also downplay the impact of relocating entire cultures hundreds or thousands of miles away. To be forcibly removed from the places where you developed your religion, language, hunting and farming skills, laws, arts, etc. is absolutely shattering. I can't think of any group except Jews who have gone through such a culture-crushing experience. And we rightly deem what happened to Jews a crime against humanity.
Even if tribes survived the relocation, they'd be subject to predictable onslaughts of hunger, disease, and poverty. They'd be decimated and devastated. Whether Jefferson realized it not, forcible relocation to a different country was a form of genocide.
And of course Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers envisioned an American empire extending from coast to coast. It was a convenient fiction that they'd leave the Indians alone once they were west of the Mississippi. All they were doing was postponing the "final solution."
If Jefferson weren't an intellectual coward, he would've admitted this. "In 50 or 100 years, we'll have to cheat, relocate, or kill the Indians again. But that's some future president's problem, not mine. As with my sex slaves, let's keep that out of the history books so I look like a noble hero."
For more on the subject, see American Empire from the Beginning and Fun Fourth of July Facts.
Below: The father of American genocide?