The miserableness of truth

Indiana Terr. Gov. Wm. Henry Harrison

William H. Harrison

William H. Harrison (1773-1841) was the youngest son of Benjamin Harrison.  (You may recall that Benjamin was one of the signatories on our Constitution.)

Following service in the Army, William Harrison relocated to the Northwest Territory to fight against The Nations.  In 1799, he was elected the Territory’s first Delegate to Congress.  After Congress split the Territory into two separate territories (in 1800), President John Adams appointed him Governor of Indiana Territory.

During his eleven-plus years as Governor, Harrison displaced untold numbers of Indians, acquired over sixty million acres of their land, and worked (unsuccessfully) to get the legislature to approve slavery for the territory.  He was, however, successful in 1803 convincing Congress to approve a ten-year suspension of Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, allowing  indentured servitude in Indiana Territory.

President Thomas Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson

The year 1803 was notable for yet another reason.  In February that year, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Governor Harrison, the first two paragraphs of which were rather innocuous.  As for the remaining text, that is entirely another matter.

Although somewhat lengthy, I have chosen to provide that remaining text below.  And I do encourage you to read all of it, including Jefferson’s admonition to Harrison that the letter was not for consumption by the public nor by the Indians.

 “Dear Sir,

… from the Secretary of War you receive from time to time information and instructions as to our Indian affairs. These communications being for the public records, are restrained always to particular objects and occasions; but this letter being unofficial and private, I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians, that you may the better comprehend the parts dealt out to you in detail through the official channel, and observing the system of which they make a part, conduct yourself in unison with it in cases where you are obliged to act without instruction…The decrease of game rendering their subsistence by hunting insufficient, we wish to draw them to agriculture, to spinning and weaving. The latter branches they take up with great readiness, because they fall to the women, who gain by quitting the labors of the field for those which are exercised within doors. When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive 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 and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and 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. At our trading houses, too, we mean to sell so low as merely to repay us cost and charges, so as neither to lessen or enlarge our capital. This is what private traders cannot do, for they must gain; they will consequently retire from the competition, and we shall thus get clear of this pest without giving offence or umbrage to the Indians. In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi. 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 and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only…

The Cahokias extinct, we are entitled to their country by our paramount sovereignty. The Piorias, we understand, have all been driven off from their country, and we might claim it in the same way; but as we understand there is one chief remaining, who would, as the survivor of the tribe, sell the right, it is better to give him such terms as will make him easy for life, and take a conveyance from him. The Kaskaskias being reduced to a few families, I presume we may purchase their whole country for what would place every individual of them at his ease, and be a small price to us, — say by laying off for each family, whenever they would choose it, as much rich land as they could cultivate, adjacent to each other, enclosing the whole in a single fence, and giving them such an annuity in money or goods forever as would place them in happiness; and we might take them also under the protection of the United States.  Thus possessed of the rights of these tribes, we should proceed to the settling their boundaries with the Poutewatamies and Kickapoos; claiming all doubtful territory, but paying them a price for the relinquishment of their concurrent claim, and even prevailing on them, if possible to cede, for a price, such of their own unquestioned territory as would give us a covenient northern boundary. Before broaching this, and while we are bargaining with the Kaskaskias, the minds of the Poutewatamies and Kickapoos should be soothed and conciliated by liberalities and sincere assurances of friendship. Perhaps by sending a well-qualified character to stay some time in Decoigne’s village, as if on other business, and to sound him and introduce the subject by degrees to his mind and that of the other heads of families, inculcating in the way of conversation, all those considerations which prove the advantages they would receive by a cession on these terms, the object might be more easily and effectually obtained than by abruptly proposing it to them at a formal treaty…The crisis is pressing; whatever can now be obtained must be obtained quickly. The occupation of New Orleans, hourly expected, by the French, is already felt like a light breeze by the Indians. You know the sentiments they entertain of that nation; under the hope of their protection they will immediately stiffen against cessions of lands to us. We had better, therefore, do at once what can now be done.

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

I pray you to accept assurances of my esteem and high consideration.

[signed by Thomas Jefferson] “ 



  1. Pray for USA Said:

    Excellent! I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy. Your book is well documented. I am impressed with the great detail as well as the time span covered. Amazing information.

  2. […] as the Governor of Indiana Territory.  The February 1803 letter can be read in its entirety here. Your attention is specifically directed to Jefferson’s continuation of the same line of thinking […]

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