This is the third in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Thomas Jefferson is perhaps best known for his role as principal author of the Declaration of Independence. But the third president of the United States was also the first to propose broad policies that called for the removal of Indians from their homelands.
Jefferson took office in March 1801 and served two terms as president in a political system that viewed tribes as international sovereign entities. During his eight years in office, however, Jefferson pushed relentlessly for westward expansion, believing “Indian country belonged in white hands,” James Rhonda wrote in his 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and the Changing West.
As president, Jefferson exhibited a “passion for land,” Rhonda wrote. That passion became the central feature of federal Indian policy—what Jefferson called “our final consolidation” or the acquisition of lands east of the Mississippi River and removal of Indians to territories in the West.
Yet Jefferson and his contemporaries never pretended the West was empty, Rhonda wrote. In fact, they referred to it as “the crowded wilderness,” signaling both concern about the indigenous population and a fantasy about the West that would fuel everything from homesteading to dude ranches in the coming centuries.
“Jefferson invented much of what we call ‘the American West,’” Rhonda wrote. Although he never ventured west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jefferson held on to a vision of a “garden of boundless fertility” where “the American republic would thrive and remain forever free.”
Born in Virginia in 1743, Jefferson gained a reputation as an attorney who defended freedom-seeking slaves. He retired from law to serve on the Second Continental Congress, where he quickly emerged as a leader and helped draft the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson later served as state legislator and governor of Virginia, minister to France and secretary of state under President George Washington. A member of the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party, Jefferson came in second to John Adams during the election of 1796 and served as vice president before being elected as president in 1800.
Jefferson was known as a “man of Indian enlightenment,” said Gaye Wilson, a senior historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, Jefferson’s historic plantation home in Virginia, which now operates as a museum and education center. As an intellectual outside the public sphere, Jefferson sought a deeper understanding, Wilson said.
“From his boyhood in Virginia, he was fascinated by Indians,” she said. “He had a curiosity, an admiration. He had a romantic streak and the Indians caught his imagination, so he was interested in studying them, being with them, collecting languages and determining their origins.”
But as a leader, Jefferson wrangled with the conflicting interests of Indian nations and white settlers. Removal of the Indians was his answer to questions of national security, Wilson said.
“Overall, Jefferson had to do what was best for security, the economy,” she said. “He was pushing westward and if the Indians resisted, they would have to be dealt with.”
Jefferson first wrote about Indian removal in 1776, 15 years before he was president. Frustrated by growing conflicts between settlers and the Cherokee, Jefferson, then at work with the Continental Congress, reacted harshly.
“Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country,” he wrote. “But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.”
In 1803, two years into his presidency, Jefferson was more succinct. He outlined his administration’s policy toward Indians with two objectives: “The preservation of peace” and “obtaining lands.”
During his presidency, Jefferson orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase (nearly doubling the size of the United States), sent four groups of explorers on western expeditions (including the famous cross-country journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) and oversaw 33 treaties with Indian nations.
Jefferson was also the author of a more ominous strategy to acquire Indian land: the use of trading posts to drive Indians into debt, forcing them to relinquish acreage to pay their bills. The result was treaties with a dozen tribal groups that ceded to the United States nearly 200,000 square miles of land in nine states.
Jefferson outlined this plan in a letter to William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor of Indiana: “To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want… we shall push our trading uses and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt,” he wrote in February 1803. “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.”
Near the end of his presidency—and as the War of 1812 approached—Jefferson offered only two options to Indian people, Clifford Trafzer wrote in his 2009 book American Indians/American Presidents. Indians could “be absorbed” into the United States or face military obliteration.
In response to growing resistance among the Shawnee and other tribes in the Great Lakes region, Jefferson in January 1809 invited Native leaders to Washington. There, he warned that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”
Jefferson left office in 1809 and was succeeded by James Madison. He died in 1826 at age 83.