In June during a visit to the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis, Mo., which opened July 3, 2018, I learned details of Thomas Jefferson’s desire for and efforts toward westward expansion in America. Jefferson’s endeavors had serious implications for indigenous people and African Americans.
He had a lifelong interest in the American West and knew much about the region based on personal study. Information in a museum panel stated that by 1803 Jefferson had one of the most extensive libraries on the subject and was very knowledgeable on American western geography. Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, was one of the first farmers to move to western Virginia. He was one of those who surveyed the colony and created the Jefferson-Fry map published in London in 1755.
In 1749 Peter Jefferson, Dr. Thomas Walker, James Maury and Joshua Fry founded the “Loyal Land Company” to increase land purchases west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and send explorers all the way to the Pacific.
According to a panel at the museum, “Walker was the first non-Indian to cross the Blue Ridge into Kentucky.”
Jefferson compiled research on American Indian tribes in well-organized tables and charts. He listed quadrupeds, and their weights, that were in North America — listing bison, bear and red deer.
According to a panel at the museum, Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase and developed the idea for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Before Jefferson became the third U.S. president, he asked four men to lead expeditions westward, but for various reasons none of these plans came to fruition. Time was of the essence to claim these lands because Alexander Mackenzie, from Montreal, was also seeking to explore the west to secure the Pacific Northwest for Great Britain.
This news prompted Jefferson, then president, to again organize an expedition. Meriwether Lewis, 29, a career army officer, agreed to lead a U.S. expedition to establish claim to western lands. Lewis, who was also Jefferson’s personal secretary, used Jefferson’s extensive library on the subject to prepare for his journey west. However, a museum panel stated that he “later discovered on his expedition with William Clark that much of what was written in these books was untrue.”
A panel at the museum stated that Jefferson was curious about the ancestry of indigenous people in North America. He gathered vocabulary lists of Indian words in 1780 and sought through comparative linguistics to determine their origins.
Jefferson wrote to John Adams June 11, 1812, “[As a boy] I knew … the great Outasseté, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees … his sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated action, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration.”
In a June 7, 1785, letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, Jefferson wrote, “I am safe in affirming, that the proofs of genius given by the Indians of North America, place them on a level with whites.”
However, in later years, Jefferson became less positive about American Indians.
Another historical panel said, Jefferson wrote to Adams “that despite the progress of some tribes, like the Cherokee, many ‘will relapse in barbarism and misery, lose numbers by war and want, and we shall be obligated to drive them, with the beasts of the forest into the Stony mountains.’”
In another revealing passage, Jefferson wrote to Henry Dearborn the Secretary of War Aug. 13, 1802: “[We obtain American Indian land] by letting them get in debt, which when too heavy to be paid, they are always willing to lop off by a cessation of land.”
Jefferson continued a practice begun by other European explorers to appease indigenous people — giving peace medals.
American Indian chiefs wore peace medals given by Jefferson while he was president.
Per the official Monticello website, “the Jefferson Indian peace medal was designed and engraved by John Reich and was the first to bear the image of an American president. Thomas Jefferson was depicted in profile on the obverse side of the medal, with the inscription: “TH. JEFFERSON PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. A.D. 1801.” The inscription on the reverse, “PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP,” was symbolized by the image of clasped hands and a crossed tomahawk and peace pipe.
“Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, described the policy in 1793 as an ancient custom. He went on to write: ‘The medals are considered as complimentary things, as marks of friendship to those who come to see us, or who do us good offices, conciliatory of their good will towards us, and not designed to produce a contrary disposition towards others. They confer no power, and seem to have taken their origin in the European practice of giving medals or other marks of friendship to the negotiators of treaties, and other diplomatic characters, or visitors of distinction.’”
The medals were very useful in diplomatic situations.
In fact Lewis and Clark gave peace medals to Indian chiefs on their expedition, carrying a large supply with them.
A museum panel said, “Missouri chiefs who visited the city of Washington in the winter of 1805-1806 wore their Jefferson peace medals on their chests, and were given silver chains to suspend them by the governor of Massachusetts.”
So great was Jefferson’s influence on westward expansion, that this period came to be known by historians as the Jeffersonian period — tied to the Doctrine of Discovery — a time when American settlers and bureaucrats used this doctrine to justify taking lands of the west.
A panel at the museum said, that the doctrine had its roots in international law, which gave Europeans who “discovered” a region the first right of purchase from the occupiers of the land (instead of outright conquest). Ownership was to come from purchasing the land from the original inhabitants. This is why treaties were made with American Indian tribes, the panel explained.
The Osage were the most powerful tribe in the lower Midwest in the late 1700s because of its established relationships with French fur traders and Spanish government officials in St. Louis, which enabled them to trade for firearms. Intermarriage between the French fur traders and the Osage women also strengthened those alliances.
Over time, however, the Osage fell out of favor with white men.
One historical museum panel stated: “Although the Osages were key to the early commercial success of St. Louis, in 1808 Gov. Meriwether Lewis suddenly suspended trade with them, accusing them of killing white settlers. Threatening to send their many Indian enemies against them in a war, Lewis forced several Osage chiefs to sign the Treaty of Fort Osage, which ceded over 52 million acres of land. By one of the provisions of the treaty, a government trading post, called a factory, was established at Fort Osage.
“The United States, unlike the French and the Spanish, had little desire to partner with the Osages in the deer hide trade. By 1830 the Osages were the first western tribe dispossessed of their ancestral homelands as new settlers searched for available land in Missouri.”
Another panel stated that by the 1830s, [shortly after Jefferson’s death in 1826], the U.S. government abandoned the Doctrine of Discovery and began dispossessing eastern tribes from their lands.
One more aspect of Jefferson’s westward expansion efforts was a place for African Americans.
According to a museum panel, “Jefferson believed that slavery was unnatural and degrading for the enslaved as well as the enslavers. He wished for an end to slavery, yet he also thought that free blacks should not live along whites, and they should not be citizens. …
“Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1784 called for a ban on slavery in the west, not necessarily as a beneficial measure for blacks, but as an attempt to set geographical limits on the institution. Although his proposal was rejected, it was later adopted by Congress for territories north of the Ohio River in the Ordinance of 1787. This measure created tensions between slave states and free states tested many years later with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Dred and Harriet Scott decision of 1857.”