This Day in History, Feb. 27, 1803: President Jefferson’s private plan to swindle Indigenous lands

On this day in history, Feb. 27, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a private letter William Henry Harrison outlining his plans to gain control of massive amounts of Indigenous lands.

At the time, Harrison was serving as the first Governor of the Indiana Territory, the frontier of his day. The Territory included an expansive area that would later become the states of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and parts of Michigan and Minnesota. Harrison was dealing with many Indigenous nations. Jefferson wrote him privately that “I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians.”

Thomas Jefferson, 1800. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Jefferson’s letter lays out plans to get Indians indebted to the U.S. government so they would be forced into selling their lands. He writes candidly to Harrison about U.S. plans to acquire more Indigenous lands in the matter-of-fact and chilling passages that follow.

Parts of the letter are printed verbatim below, from the National Archives, including Jefferson’s punctuation and spelling.

Jefferson tells Harrison: “our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by every thing just & liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason, …”

(It sounds well and good, but note that Jefferson uses “affectionate attachment” in a manipulative way; it’s a one-way street. He writes the goal is for Indians to cultivate an “affectionate attachment” towards white settlers, but apparently not for white settlers to cultivate an “affectionate attachment” for Indigenous peoples.)

The ulterior motives soon follow. Jefferson writes Harrison that the amount of game available to Indians to hunt will be reduced, and the plan is to draw them into “agriculture, to spinning & weaving” … He continues:

when they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will percieve how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms & families. to promote this disposition to exchange lands which they have to spare & we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare & they want, we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good & 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 th[em off] by a cession of lands. …

in this way our settlements will gradually circumbscribe & approach the Indians, & they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the US. or remove beyond the Missisipi. the former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves. but in the whole course of this, it is essential to cultivate their love. as to their fear, we presume that our strength & their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, & that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only. should any tribe be fool-hardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe & driving them across the Missisipi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.

Keep this to yourself

In closing, Jefferson writes:

I must repeat that this letter is to be considered as private & friendly, & is not to controul any particular instructions which you may recieve through the official channel. you will also percieve how sacredly it must be kept within [your] own breast, and especially how improper to be understood by the Indians. [for] their interests & their tranquility it is best they should see only the present age of their history.

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