I head in a few days to Columbus, Nebraska for an NEH workshop on the Legacies and Landmarks of the Plains Native Americans. One of the books I’m reading in preparation is “I Am a Man”: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice, by Joe Starita. Standing Bear was a Ponca Indian chief whose efforts to return his son for burial to Ponca territory in Nebraska, after the U.S. had forcefully removed the tribe to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, gave rise to the landmark US District Court case Standing Bear v. Crook (1879). In the court’s decision, for the first time, American Indians were delcared to be “persons within the meaning of the law.” Starita’s prose is fine and evocative, and his story researched to a revelatory degree.
Because the Ponca were encountered by Lewis and Clark and their land included in the Louisiana Purchase, Starita offers foreshadowing background in the attitudes and policies of Thomas Jefferson. The whole Native American story is one of uncanny realities emerging frightfully out of the foreshadows. For instance, there is no American president rightfully more reviled in Native America than Andrew Jackson, for his brutal campaigns against the Southeastern tribes and as signer and enactor of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Starita tells us that Jackson was enacting a policy conceived before him, by a man once again revealed to be a complex of contradictions.
For much of his life, Jefferson’s views on the country’s native inhabitants had swung back and forth, vacillating between soft, sentimental stereotypes and a hard-edged pragmatism.
In Jefferson’s instructions to the leaders of the great expedition,
He had made it a point that Lewis and Clark, among their multitude of duties, were to return with linguistic records of each tribe they visited. And in his writings, Jefferson offered a more resolute defense of the nation’s native people than all but a few of his contemporaries.
[O]n June 20, 1803, his formal instructions to Captain Lewis conveyed many of the same sentiments. “In all your intercourse with the natives,” he wrote, “treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S…. If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them … If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct, and take care of them.”
In his good will toward the Indian, Jefferson, even when insightful about earlier errors, still to be repeated, was a condescending patron from the civilized world.
In public remarks to his citizens, he had articulated those views clearly: “Now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter’s state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts, to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existences and to prepare them in time for that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals.”
In writing, he laid out, step by step, how such a transformation might occur:
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 Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe are their first delight.
Eventually, however, a sharp split developed between Jefferson’s public and private views on the matter. Within the private confines of the White House, where romantic push evolved into pragmatic shove, he came to see the native people as an entrenched impediment in civilization’s path—one that would have to be removed, ruthlessly if necessary, for Jeffersonian Democracy to prosper.
On February 27, 1803, two months before the Louisiana Purchase, more than a year before the Corps of Discovery left St. Louis, Jefferson wrote a long, detailed letter to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory….
“this letter being unofficial, and private, I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians.”
Then, in specific detail, Jefferson went on to tell the governor how to purge the eastern United States, one by one, of every remaining Indian tribe. Once they’re lured onto a small piece of land “they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests,” and want to give them up in exchange for government assistance to sustain their farms and families. High-pressure trading posts near Indian encampments, he said, would create debt to help leverage their lands. The government will “be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” Gradually, Jefferson wrote, American settlements will squeeze natives out and they will “either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States or remove beyond the [Mississippi].” Resistance would be futile. “Should any tribe be fool-hardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe and driving them across the Missisipi [sic], as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.”
And this is precisely the manner over the next century by which the indigenous population of the Southeastern United States, the Ohio River Valley, and the Indian Territory was seduced, ensnared, corrupted, betrayed and made war upon by that civilized culture for which the reading of “Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe are their first delight,” having itself already achieved “that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals.”
- Thomas Jefferson Created a Version of the Bible that Cut Out All the Parts He Didn’t Like (todayifoundout.com)
- Why Did President Thomas Jefferson Send an Expedition Across The United States? (socyberty.com)
- Thomas Jefferson: The Liberal, Slave-owning, Founder of the Constitution (Yes I did Say Liberal) (secularjustice.wordpress.com)