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Jefferson, Mixed Bloods and Frontier Defense
Posted By Judy On In Alabama,Georgia,Mississippi,Native American,Tennessee | No Comments
By the beginning of the nineteenth century at least two major changes had altered the political environment affecting the Choctaw Indians. Within the Choctaw tribe several countrymen were beginning to exert influence in tribal decisions. Although not yet accepted as equals to the chiefs, white men such as Nathaniel Folsom and John Pitchlynn were respected and utilized as counselors in negotiations between the tribe and American officials. External to the tribe, the United States had negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795 with Spain and assumed economic hegemony over the tribes which mainly resided on lands north of the thirty-first parallel.
Because this 1795 treaty agreed to American control of Indians within the newly recognized borders, the following year President Washington named Benjamin Hawkins, a senator from North Carolina and Revolutionary War veteran, to the post of Superintendent of Southern Indians. Washington’s successor, John Adams, later oversaw the creation of Mississippi Territory and named a puritanical, New England Federalist, Winthrop Sargent, to be its governor and share with Hawkins the responsibility for Indian matters in the region.
The state of world affairs was in great flux at the turn of the new century: France exerted efforts to reacquire its Louisiana territories lost to Britain earlier in the French and Indian War; the United States was on the brink of war with revolutionary France which resented Jay’s Treaty in 1795 with England; and Spanish officials in West Florida continued to oppose American expansion into the Gulf region. In essence the United States was just beginning to feel the economic pressures created by the Anglo-French clash brought about by the French Revolution and the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte to leadership in France. Since the United States actively traded with England as well as France the growing strife in Europe was economic bad news.
The presidential election of 1800 added another element of tension to foreign and domestic American affairs. President Thomas Jefferson’s successful campaign to unseat the Federalist Party from control of the presidency and the Congress resulted in an overwhelming number of Jeffersonian Republicans being elected to the national legislature. As his Republican government began to address its newly assumed obligations in Mississippi Territory it became apparent that lingering boundary misunderstandings with the tribes within the territorial boundaries would have to be resolved. Jefferson also desired permission from the Indian tribes to build and improve roads from the commercially critical New Orleans area to American settlements further north in Tennessee and the Carolinas. He was also keenly aware that the free navigation of the Mississippi River and the unhampered access of the major port terminus at New Orleans were crucial to the economic health of Americans living beyond the Appalachians. Indeed this “Mississippi question” would be a major concern of his first administration.
The president expressed his accord with earlier Federalist policies when he decided to expand the system of Indian factories, or trading houses, so as to interdict commerce between Southern Indians and commercial trading firms in Spanish West Florida along the southern border of Mississippi Territory. He knew that the British firm of Panton, Leslie and Company, controlled by John Forbes after Panton’s death in 1801, had extensive and effective trade relationships with the bordering tribes, relationships that Spain encouraged and subsidized in order to maintain influence with the tribes. Accordingly Jefferson entered into a series of four treaty talks with the Choctaw tribesmen in a multi-purposed effort to achieve his desire for stability and harmony. In keeping with his stated goal of only replacing Federalists who were less than effective in their government positions, Jefferson replaced the unpopular Winthrop Sargent with a republican, William Charles Cole Claiborne as governor of Mississippi Territory. But he allowed Benjamin Hawkins to remain on as agent to the Creeks, naming Republican Silas Dinsmoor as agent to the Choctaw tribe in 1802.
The new president demonstrated his trust in Hawkins by naming him along with General James Wilkinson as commissioners to treat with the Southeastern Indians1801. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn advised the commissioners that:
“After completing your negotiation with the Chickasaws, you will proceed to Natchez to hold a treaty with the Choctaws. The Choctaws may be considered one of the most powerful nations of Indians within the limits of the United States: and a pacific and friendly disposition in and towards them should be cultivated as well as from principles of policy as of humanity…. The ill humor which propositions for further cessions sometimes awaken in them may be in greater or less degree excited by those which you are herein charged with making. It will therefore be incumbent on you to introduce the desires of the Government in such a manner as will permit you to drop them as you may find them illy received, without giving the Indians an opportunity to reply with a decided negative, or raising in them unfriendly and inimical dispositions. You will state none of them in the tone of demands ….”
The talks with the Choctaw Indians began with the Treaty of Fort Adams in 1801 which reaffirmed the 1765 cession of the Natchez District by the Choctaw chiefs to the English after the French and Indian war. The treaty also cleared up a boundary misunderstanding near the Yazoo River’s junction with the Mississippi, and acquired Choctaw permission for the improvement of the Natchez Trace for use by the Americans traveling between New Orleans and Nashville, Tennessee. Since the road also passed through Chickasaw lands in the northern sector of the territory, a separate treaty had been held earlier with that tribe to obtain permission to improve the path. However, Jefferson had more on his mind than boundaries and permission for a road. He was keenly aware of the influence exercised upon the Indians by the large British trading firm of Parton, Leslie and Company operating out of Pensacola and Mobile with the approval of the Spaniards.
Evidence of discussions concerning the American desire to limit Choctaw trade with Mobile and Pensacola trading houses occurs in part in a reply the Choctaw chief Buc-Shun-Abbe made to the commissioners at Fort Adams:
Buc-Shun-Abbe: I am a factor, and have been so for a long time; my merchant is in Mobile; I have traded for him till I am become old. I am a man of one heart, and of one mind. White people make a number of fine things; my mind is not to be changed for these fine things; and, if the people at Mobile are not able to supply us, I do not wish to look to other people to supply us. We are old; we cannot take all the supplies that may be offered to us; the trade of the Choctaw nation is my object; I do not look for any trade from this quarter. We wish that no people may, from this quarter, cross the road we have granted, with trade to us; we receive our supplies from another quarter, and must make our remittances there. There are a number of people wanting to trade, from this quarter. We do not wish the people of Bayou Pierre, and Big Black, and Walnut Hills, to purchase skins from the red people. We do not apply for that trade; ’tis a trade interfering with ours, and stealing our property, who trade from other places. These people may introduce a trade of liquor amongst us, that may cause the death of red people, which has happened lately, at Natchez, for which we are sorry. I want our father to send us iron wedges, and hand-saws, and augers.
The chief almost contradicted himself in an effort to remain loyal to his Mobile trade connections and still obtain presents in the form of tools for agreeing to the proposed road requested by the United States. Another chief, Mingo Hom-Massatubbey, also desired American implements and know-how, stating:
“I understand that such things are to be furnished us; I wish, therefore, as we have half breeds, and others accustomed to work, that ploughs may be sent us, weeding hoes, grubbing hoes, axes, hand-saws, augers, iron wedges, and a man to make wheels, and a small set of blacksmith’s tools, for a red man. Father (the President of the United States:) We have a number of warriors who use their guns for a living; I understand your goods are cheap; I wish you to send us on a supply trade; I do not want this trade here; this is a strange land; I want the store at Fort Stoddart, or Fort St. Stephens. Father: I hold your talks strong, I hope you will hold ours fast, also; (i. e. grant what we ask.)”
Hom-Masstubbey apparently was more open to the introduction of a factory and probably had no commercial ties with Panton, Leslie and Company. The Choctaw delegation also included several countrymen (traders themselves) and mixed bloods who were allowed to state their positions for the record. Edmond Folsom stated that:
“Mingo Hom-Massa-Tubba’s [spelling varies throughout the document] talk is mine, except, that he has forgot to ask for cotton cards; my people already make cloth; I know the advantage of it, and request that good cotton cards may be sent us.”
The countrymen and mixed bloods were demonstrating a growing interest in the production of cotton, a crop which would soon produce gigantic profits for some of them and ironically set the stage for a demand for cotton land which would help lead to Indian removal three decades later. A self-professed mixed blood, Robert McClure was even more explicit in asking for tools with which to process cotton:
“A gin is a thing I asked for long ago; it was once offered to my nation, and refused by our chiefs; I asked for it last July, but have received no answer; I now ask for it again; if this will be granted, I wish to know, soon. I am glad to hear it is the wish of our father, the President, to teach us to do such things as the whites can do. The sooner those things are supplied, the better, for, by long delay, they may grow out of our young people’s minds. We, half-breeds and young men, wish to go to work, and the sooner we receive those things, the sooner we will begin to learn. I want a blacksmith sent to the Lower town district, with a good set of tools, which may not be at the disposal of the smith, but remain with us, should he go away. Some of our young people may learn to use these tools, and we wish them to remain for the use of the district. My reason for asking this, is, that our interpreter may die, and our agent be recalled by his superior, and another sent us, who may not live at the same place, and may wish to remove the tools; we wish them to remain to us and our children. We red people do not know how to make iron and steel; we wish our father to send us these, with the smith, &c. And when presents are sent on, we wish a true inventory of all the presents, that we may know when we are cheated, and that the invoice may be lodged with one of our chiefs.”
McClure only understood the economic necessity of constructing a gin, he also realized the practicality of having a resident blacksmith. His pragmatism was further displayed by his shrewd demand for ownership of the tools to remain with the tribe and his request for inventories. Obviously Wilkinson and Hawkins were not dealing with a group of simple natives.
Shortly after the Treaty of Fort Adams was signed secretary Dearborn wrote W. C. C. Claiborne, then governor of Mississippi Territory, explaining the administration’s policy and stressing the need to carry on trade with the Indians as mandated by the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1802:
“It is the ardent wish of the President of the United States, as well from a principle of humanity, as from duty and sound policy that all prudent means in our power should be unremittingly pursued for carrying into the benevolent views of Congress relative to the Indian nations within the jurisdiction of the United States. The provisions made by Congress, under the heads of intercourse with the Indian Nations, and for establishing trading houses among them &c, have for their objects not only the cultivation and establishment of harmony and friendship between the United States and the different nations, but the introduction of civilization, by encouraging and gradually introducing the arts of husbandry and domestic manufactories among them.”
Later that year Jefferson again commissioned James Wilkinson to untangle similar boundary questions further east along the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers in the Tensaw region. Wilkinson met with Choctaw leaders in 1802 at Fort Confederation (old Fort Tombeckbe) on the Tombigbee River and received the approval of the attending Choctaw chiefs (appearing in the treaty as Tuskona Hoopoio, Mingo Pooskoos, Mingo Pooskoos 2d, and Poosha Mattahaw) to reaffirm the area earlier ceded to Great Britain in 1765 and later held by Spain. Wilkinson also obtained the chiefs’ agreement to “make such alterations in the old boundary line near the mouth of the Yazou river, as may be found convenient.”
The following summer, in 1803, Wilkinson again met with a Choctaw delegation and more precisely delineated the bounds of the Tombigbee area which was claimed by the United States. This Treaty of Hoc Buckintoopa (the Choctaw name for the bluffs at Fort St. Stephens) actually took very little land from the tribe, and like the preceding treaties with the United States cannot reasonably be considered a cession treaty. Jefferson moved very cautiously in his negotiations with the Choctaw tribe and during his first administration did not seek major land cessions. Actually he placed a higher premium on peace with the Indians than on the acquisition of land, although he definitely wished to pursue land cessions and stated in a letter to Andrew Jackson in 1803 that “I am myself alive to the obtaining, of lands from the Indi1ndiansall HONEST and PEACEABLE means…” [emphasis Jefferson's].
At the time Jefferson was already forming a strategy of obtaining Indi1ndiands along the Mississippi River in order to have the free acreages necessary to attract a population large enough to support a militia. Fearing war between France and Great Britain, Jefferson explained to Claiborne that he wanted to:
“…press on the Indians…the extension of our purchases on the Mississippi from the Yazoo upwards; and to encourage settlement along the whole length of that river, that it may possess on its own banks the means of defending itself, and presenting as strong a frontier on our western as we have on our eastern border.”
During the summer of 1803 General Wilkinson wrote to Choctaw agent Silas Dinsmoor that “the president wants land on the Mississippi to form a barricade of hardy yeomanry on that so1itary frontier….” Jefferson’s concern over the French re-acquisition of Louisiana and possible future friction with Napoleon should he colonize the territory and control the port of New Orleans was pronounced and Jefferson went so far as to consider an alliance with Great Britain should the French move in the direction of Louisiana. Jefferson felt that in such circumstances war with France would be inevitable and acted on several fronts to deter the event and to be amply prepared for it should its prevention be impossible. Added to this concern over France was the abrupt revocation of the right of deposit at the port of New Orleans by local Spanish officials in 1802, an event which caused Jefferson great political concern as his frontier constituents along the “Western waters” raised a republican ruckus over the economic situation inflicted upon them by the Spaniards.
Jefferson also remained sensitive to the need for amity with the Southern Indians. Hearing of their possible confederation in order to negotiate as a group he wrote Benjamin Hawkins:
“From your communication and from information derived from other sources it appears that a cession for certain general purposes is contemplated by the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Chickasaws — it is doubtful whether we ought not to oppose by all the prudent means in our power such a combination and confederacy, as it will undoubtedly render those nations much more formidable than they otherwise would be, and they would have less to fear in their own opinions from a war with the United States, and would consequently render a general peace between them and us less secure. It would be much more desirable to see them dividing their respective territories among the people of their several principle towns with Boundaries distinctly marked, and that each town should have complete control over their lands respectively, and then that a division should take place of certain proportions of each town sufficient for the purposes of cultivation among the individual families thereof — Prior to such divisions it would on many accounts be very desirable that the boundaries between the respective Nations should be ascertained and marked.”
Beset by this array of problems Jefferson immediately acted to resolve them. An early and obvious goal was to pacify and befriend the populous Indian tribes in Mississippi Territory and surrounding areas. Any country which had the alliance of the Indian tribes would undoubtedly be in a superior strategic position should either war or increased border tension occur. A second goal addressed the necessity of obtaining Indian lands to attract a militia-minded population; this was a delicate undertaking because the primary goal of Indian amity could not be jeopardized and therefore land cessions took on a secondary priority. Thirdly Jefferson sought to ease the growing tension with both France and Spain by diplomacy and began a series of talks with the Spanish government aimed at opening Mississippi Territory rivers to free navigation into the Gulf of Mexico and also began to discuss with French officials the possible purchase of West Florida and the port city of New Orleans.
Aside from treaty negotiations and international diplomacy Jefferson continued to pursue the policy of establishing trading factories in the Indian nations in order to secure their friendship and allegiance, knowing it would be impossible for the United States to restrict Indian trade with the West Florida trading houses unless an alternative entrepot was established by the Americans in proximity to the Indian settlements. After some deliberation Jefferson decided to place the Choctaw factory at Fort St. Stephens approximately fifty miles north of the thirty-first parallel on the Tombigbee River. In so doing he set the stage for a series of border incidents between American shipping bound up the Tombigbee River for Fort Stoddert and Fort St. Stephens and the Spanish officials at Mobile. These incidents would eventually play a major role in Jefferson’s seeking the purchase of West Florida and New Orleans from France.
Although Spanish officials in West Florida agreed to the placement of the factory on the Tombigbee River, they began a consistent policy of slowing and disrupting the passage of ships and boats through Mobile. They also exerted economic pressure in the form of tariffs as high as twenty-five percent on cargo bound for the American citizens north of the boundary who were dependent on the Tombigbee River for commerce. This Spanish pressure on Mobile River trade increased after the Louisiana Purchase when Jefferson insisted that West Florida, as far east as the Perdido River, was a part of that purchase. From 1802, when the Choctaw factory was authorized, until the War of 1812, the Americans residing on this political island — surrounded by the Choctaw and Creek Indians to the North, West, and East and Spaniards to the South — reacted to Spanish economic leverage with strident petitions to the territorial and national legislatures as well as blatant threats to overrun the sparsely manned outpost at Mobile.
The Spanish government maintained that the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo did not guarantee navigation of the Rivers flowing through West Florida from Mississippi Territory to the Gulf, and that the Spaniards were only extracting legal import/export duties on goods passing through Mobile. Officials of the United States countered that the treaty did allow provision of the Indian factory and troops garrisoned along the border at Fort Stoddert on the Tombigbee River.
The Spaniards also continued to maintain intercourse with some elements inside the Choctaw and Creek nations in violation of the 1795 treaty. They entertained delegations from those tribes in Mobile and Pensacola from time to time and were not without fault in the resulting tensions between American settlers (both white and mixed-blood) and some Indi1ndiantions, especially the Creek Red Sticks.
The trading firm of Panton, Leslie and Company also added pressure on the Jeffersonian administration when John Forbes attempted to obtain a land cession from the Choctaw nation for debts due the company. Forbes realized that he would be unable to compete with the United States for the Choctaw peltry trade and began seeking a settlement from the tribe for accumulated debts in excess of forty thousand dollars.
Using an earlier land cession with the Creek Indians as a model, Forbes suggested that the Choctaw tribe might cede to his company enough land to satisfy their obligation. Late in 1804 the secretary of war advised Choctaw agent Dinsmoor that the tribe desired to make a cession of land to satisfy Forbes’ request. The secretary suggested that the fair value of land might be assessed at fifty times the amount of the value of peltry the tribe had taken from it annually. During a meeting in Washington, D. C. between Jefferson and a Choctaw delegation the president stated:
“It is at the request which you sent me in September, signed by Puckshanubbee and other chiefs, and which you now repeat, that I listen to your proposition to sell us lands. You say you owe a great debt to your merchants, that you have nothing to pay it with but lands, and you pray us to take lands, and pay your debt. The sum you have occasion for, brothers, is a very great one. We have never yet paid so much to any of our red brethren for the purchase of lands. You propose to us some on the Tombigby, and some on the Mississippi. Those on the Mississippi suit us well. We wish to have establishments on that River, as resting places for our boats, to furnish them provisions, and to receive our people who fall sick on the way to or from New Orleans, which is now ours in that quarter therefore we are willing to purchase as much as you will spare.
Jefferson in this talk clearly indicated his preference for land along the Mississippi River, land upon which he hoped to raise a militia for defensive purposes. The fact that the Louisiana Purchase had already been consummated did not allay his fears for the safety of the Mississippi valley. This was still nearly a decade before the War of 1812 and British troops and influence had not yet been uprooted from the upper Mississippi watershed, plus the vagaries of the war in Europe caused Jefferson to add caution to his frontier policy.
If Jefferson had hoped to remove Spanish obstacles to navigation on the Mobile River with the Louisiana Purchase he was soon disillusioned as Spain emphatically reasserted its claim to that region and began reinforcing her troops in Spanish territory west of the Mississippi River along the vaguely defined watershed between the Mississippi and the Sabine Rivers. Spain fully intended to defend its borders with the United States; Jefferson requested in late 1805 a solution to the West Florida problem and even favored military action against Spain. Louisiana Territory governor Claiborne had been advising Jefferson that Spain had territorial ambitions which included the west bank of the Mississippi River and had recommended military action against Spain in West Florida. Jefferson went so far as to consider the establishment of a military colony in Louisiana because he feared Spanish incursions into the area.
All of these conflicts along the United State!’ southern and western borders buttressed Jefferson’s desire for an in-place militia settlement along the Mississippi River. In a far-ranging letter to William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indi1ndianaritory, Jefferson wrote as early as 1803:
…be prepared against the occupation of Louisiana, by a powerful and enterprising people [the French], it is important that, setting less value on interior extension of purchases from the Indians, we bend our whole views to the purchase and settlement of the country on the Mississippi, from its mouth to it northern regions, that we may be able to present as strong a front on our western as on our eastern border, and plant on the Mississippi itself the means of its own defense. We now own from 31 [degrees of latitude] to the Yazoo, and hope this summer  to purchase what belongs to the Choctaws from the Yazoo up to their boundary, supposed to be about opposite the mouth of the Acanza [Arkansas].”
Jefferson thus articulated the interesting policy change whereby the United States would relax its efforts to acquire interior lands from the tribesmen and begin to seek lands on its borders. Even after the Louisiana Purchase Jefferson had reason to fear possible incursions into the Mississippi valley from Spain, France, or England and never ceased his program of seeking Indi1ndiansions along the Mississippi River region. He further stated to Harrison that:
“We wish at the same time to begin in your quarter, for which there is at present a favorable opening. 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 case…. Thus possessed of the rights of these tribes, we should proceed to the settling of their boundaries with the Poutewatamies and Kickapoos; claiming all doubtful territory….”
Even by 1805 Jefferson had not ceased to worry about the Spanish forces on both sides of New Orleans and wrote Natchez planter William Dunbar that: “In the present state of things between Spain and us, we should spare nothing to secure the friendship of the Indians within reach of her.” In that statement Jefferson addressed the Indians west of the Mississippi, but his dilemma of needing Indian land while all the time having to be very sensitive to Indian feelings is plainly evident and applicable as well to the Indians in Mississippi Territory. Jefferson restated in general his Indian policy in a letter to Doctor Hugh Williamson, a North Carolina politician, not long before the Louisiana Purchase:
“Although I do not count with confidence on obtaining New Orleans from France for money, yet I am confident in the policy of putting off the day of contention for it till we have lessened the embarrassment of debt accumulated instead of being discharged by our predecessors, till we obtain more of that strength which is growing on us so rapidly, and especially till we have planted a population on the Mississippi itself sufficient to do its own work without marching men fifteen hundred miles from the Atlantic shores to perish by fatigue and unfriendly climates. This will soon take place.”
Blaming his Federalist predecessors for allowing the nation to remain dangerously in debt, Jefferson explained how planning and strategy could economically allow an adequate defense of the Mississippi valley by encouraging settlement on soon to be obtained Indi1ndiands in the region. Jefferson was even more direct in a letter to Orleans Territory governor Claiborne in May of 1803:
“I think it also all important to press on the Indians, as steadily and strenuously as they can bear, the extension of our purchases on the Mississippi from the Yazoo upwards; and to encourage a settlement along the whole length of that river, that it may possess on its own banks the means of defending itself, and presenting as strong a frontier on our western as we have on our eastern border. We have therefore recommended to Governor Dickinson taking on the Tombigbee only as much as will cover our actual settlements, to transfer the purchase from the Choctaws to their lands westward of the Big Black, rather than the fork of Tombigbee and Alabama, which has been offered by them in order to pay their debt to Panton and Leslie. I have confident expectations of purchasing this summer a good breadth on the Mississippi, from the mouth of the Illinois down to the mouth of the Ohio, which would settle immediately thickly; and we should then have between that settlement and the lower one, only the uninhabited lands of the Chickasaws on the Mississippi; on which we could be working at both ends.”
Jefferson plainly spells out his policy of peripheral land acquisition while cautioning his territorial officials to move slowly and sensitively when seeking cessions from tribes within their jurisdiction.
Jefferson’s desire to attract a population to the Old Southwest as a defensive measure was matched by the sentiments of local settlers in the Tombigbee district who submitted in the fall of 1803 a petition to the national legislature praying that lands in the region be granted to local settlers in small tracts rather than be sold. Their memorial read in part:
” …an effective militia is the pride and dependence of American freemen….But your memorialists regret, that we cannot boast of such means of protection….if the lands are sold , they will be held in large quantities by the rich, which will render the settlement thin and exposed to invasion; whereas, if they are granted to actual settlers, they will be held in small tracts by the poor, which will render the settlement more compact and impenetrable.”
Of the memorial’s more than five hundred signers at least a dozen are known countrymen and mixed bloods of the Creek and Choctaw tribes; many other names appearing on this document have the same surnames as mixed bloods in the area, but have not been positively identified as members of those families. The appearance of mixed-blood signers of such memorials demonstrates the dual role played by these frontiersmen — on the one hand they advised the Choctaw chiefs in their relations with the American government, on the other they considered themselves American citizens and utilized fully their right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Future research should uncover the mixed-blood identities of many more of these southern yeomen and further demonstrate their widespread influence in both worlds.
Although Jefferson outlined most of his Indian land acquisition policy prior to the fruition of the Louisiana Purchase he did not change direction after obtaining that territory from Napoleon, rather he continued to seek Mississippi River cessions throughout both terms as president. In his second inaugural address Jefferson expanded on his logic of settling the Mississippi valley:
I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union. But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family? With which should we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?
Jefferson switched from a one-bank to a two-bank policy of land settlement along the Mississippi River. He applied similar logic toward a possible cession from the Ottawa Indians in the upper Mississippi Valley in 1808. And when commissioners Silas Dinsmoor and James Robertson, at the Treaty of Mount Dexter in 1805, failed to obtain Choctaw cessions along the Mississippi River and obtained lands along the Tombigbee instead, Jefferson refused to offer the treaty to the Senate and pigeon-holed it until other defense-minded considerations caused him to resurrect it early in 1808 when it was finally ratified. Then in the middle of an economic war between France and England, Jefferson declared his famous embargo and further stiffened his defenses along the Great Lakes and further south along the Thirty-first parallel, a move which included acceptance of the vast Choctaw land cession from the old Natchez district eastward to the Tombigbee River.
Although the approximately four million acre cession at Mount Dexter was not ratified until 1808 and not surveyed until 1809-1810 it nevertheless attracted a wave of settlers into the Tombigbee region and added measurably to the size of the militia forces in Mississippi Territory in the War of 1812.
Between 1801 and 1809 the Jefferson administration negotiated and approved thirty-one treaties, thirteen with the Southeastern Indi1ndians eighteen with other tribes, mainly in the upper Mississippi valley. The only treaties ceding significant areas of land along the Mississippi were with the Kaskaskia at Vincennes in 1803, the Piankshaw at Vincennes in 1804, the Sauk and Fox Indians at St. Louis in 1804, and the Great and Little Osage Indians at Fort Clark, Louisiana Territory, in 1808. The major river stretch from the Yazoo northward was not obtained from the Choctaw tribe until later at the Treaty of Doaks Stand in 1820. Although Jefferson continued to pursue his stated goal of Mississippi River settlement, he accepted many cessions in the interior, especially along the demographic frontiers in both the Old Northwest and Southwest Territories.
There were other areas of Jeffersonian Indian policy where results diverged from stated goals. In a famous letter to Indiana Territorial governor William Henry Harrison in 1803 Jefferson stated:
“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, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by cessions of lands.”
Historians have misconstrued this statement by Jefferson as evidence of his design to drive Indians into debt in order to immorally extract land from them. In the Old Southwest there is little evidence to support this practice. To the contrary, factors were actually admonished to limit debt. When Thomas Peterkin was chosen as factor for the Chickasaw factory secretary Dearborn advised him:
“The price of the several articles of merchandize [sic] should be as uniform as possible, and to avoid disputes and ultimate loss, no credit should be given, excepting in extraordinary cases and to men of note and distinction.”
Indeed among the Choctaw patrons of the St. Stephens factory there were very few debts allowed, and strict business practices were followed by the factors there. It is important to remember that Jefferson was in the midst of negotiating a cession of land from the Choctaw tribe in order to repay debts due to the house of Panton, Leslie in Pensacola and Mobile. These debts definitely were not American in origin, but had been accumulated mainly by the old trader and countryman Ben James and his family over a period of years. Jefferson was also aware that the Spanish officials in West Florida had earlier given permission to Panton. Leslie, and Company to accept a land cession from the Creeks as satisfaction for outstanding debts.
Some two and a half years later, in 1805, when such a policy would doubtlessly have been in full operation, secretary Dearborn wrote Hawkins about factory “debts due from the Creeks, including white people in the Creek country,” and instructed him to “take proper measures, in concert with the Chiefs of the Creek nation, for collecting said debts….” Since the Creeks had just signed a treaty in New York two weeks prior to this letter and did not sign another until the Treaty of Fort Jackson after the Creek War it is not likely that Hawkins coerced them with outstanding debt.
Though Jefferson may have recognized an interesting and legal method of obtaining lands for defensive purposes through Indian debt, a further reading of his letter to Harrison yields evidence of other considerations. In the very next sentence following his suggestion to allow Indians to run up debts he says:
“At our trading houses, too, we mean to sell so low as merely 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 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.”
From the above statement Jefferson obviously desired to obtain 1ndian lands, but not at the expense of amity. He also identified the private trader as a “pest” and indicated that the government factory system has as one of its primary goals the eradication of private trade influence among the tribes. It is imperative to realize that Jefferson was mainly referring to traders out of West Florida and Canada in the above statement, because private American traders were granted licenses and did conduct business with some tribes. So it is necessary to read foreign traders where Jefferson merely says traders, although American traders were often guilty of providing illegal liquor and otherwise “corrupting” the Indian’s morals. Evidently the overriding concern with private traders was their possible connections to foreign powers.
The need for an in-place militia in the lower Mississippi valley became even more evident to Jefferson during the Fall of 1806 when he had to take action against the infamous Burr expedition which was neutralized by a contingent of the Mississippi Territorial militia near Natchez. Burr took advantage of a parole and fled incognito to the Tombigbee area where he was recognized and re-arrested by county officials. Not only did Jefferson have to exercise vigilance against Indian nations and foreign powers, he also had to beware of frustrated politicians attempting to use regional unrest for their individual purposes.
There were also communications between Jeffersonian war department officials involved in Indian affairs in Washington, D. C. and factors at St. Stephens indicating that they were operating at a loss. After Jefferson invoked his embargo in 1808 the factories suffered losses and the factors were instructed to retain the easily spoiled deerskins rather than ship them. Secretary of Indian Trade John Mason advised the factors in a circular:
“Under the present depression of the general Embargo, sometime since laid by congress, it is hopeless to expect a sale at the sea Ports & to expect them is impracticable until times change then it is useless to accumulate them in the hands of our agents at Orleans and elsewhere, where they can not be so well taken care of as at the Factories. After receipt of this letter then you will be pleased to send off no more Deerskins from your Factory this spring or summer unless differently directed by me, but you will retain them…. The furs and other skins you will continue to send off as usual.”
For all practical purposes the embargo seriously hampered the business of the factories in the south where deerskins were a major part of the trade. Even though the embargo was repealed in the spring of 1809, secretary Mason was seeking, later that year, ways to dispose of the accumulation of deerskins. Mason wrote to Choctaw factor George S. Gaines:
“Under the present state of difficulty in selling at the sea port Towns our Peltries in the usual way…sell to Messrs. Forbes & Co. for Cash or on short credit if unquestionably secured, all the Deerskins you have on hand provided it can be done on terms to save the trading house — or [sell] to any other persons in your part of the country in which case you will remit proceeds to Joseph Saul at Orleans…. If you cannot make sales you must retain and preserve the skins at the factory till better times.”
Throughout the hundreds of letters exchanged between the Southeastern factories and Jeffersonian officials concerned with Indian trade there is nothing included which could be construed as a policy to lure Indians into debt. Rather there is an abundance of evidence suggesting instead that officials were sorely pressed to keep the system solvent and were quite reluctant to extend credit. Although debt is mentioned in the Treaty of 1825 and again in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, in neither case is it used as leverage by the government to effect the treaty. In 1825 factory debt was a bargaining tool apparently used by the Choctaw delegation, and its forgiveness was balanced by the American request of the tribe to release the government from obligations to erect a factory west of the Mississippi River. In 1830 the debt mentioned in the treaty refers to Choctaw debt contracted with George S. Gaines’ private trading house on the Tombigbee which had been opened when congress phased out the Indian factory system in the early 1820s. In the latter case the tribe retired the debt by selling two sections of the land it was ceding anyway. Again it seems that although Jefferson articulated several policy options in letters to such people as William Henry Harrison, there was a wide gulf between the theory and the practice.
Thus the Jeffersonian policy toward the Choctaw tribe was affected by several factors, chief among them the need for continued amity in the face of international tensions and economic coercica. Jefferson deliberately sought Indian lands as part of his militia strategy, but never at the cost of lost tribal friendships with his government. This militia strategy, like Jefferson’s plan to run Indians into debt, never reached full fruition. Yet, of the two, the militia concept was more fully pursued and more often discussed. Jefferson expended much time and energy planning a defense of the nation’s soft southern frontier. The Sage of Monticello obviously placed a high priority on the region’s geographical and economic importance and acted vigorously to secure it.
The president was aided in his program by the strong agreement of the southern settlers, many of whom were Choctaw countrymen and mixed bloods. This latter group, the mixed bloods, were also aware of the advantages to be gained from cooperation with the American government and acted as a cultural and political span between the two peoples.
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