Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

By Romero, R. Todd | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans


Romero, R. Todd, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. By Anthony F. C. Wallace. (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 394. $18.95, paper.)

Anthony F. C. Wallace's Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans is an evenhanded and beautifully written account of Jefferson's contradictory attitudes toward American Indians and the development of his Indian policy. Thomas Jefferson, the author argues, "played a major role in one of the great tragedies of recent World history, a tragedy which he so elegantly mourned: the dispossession and decimation of the first Americans" (p. viii). Jefferson could serve as both author and mourner of this tragedy because of his ability to contain seemingly incompatible strands of thinking. For Wallace, jeffersonian contradictions are particularly epitomized by "Logan's Lament," a speech by the Mingo leader John Logan that was included in Notes on the State of Virginia and that was reportedly delivered to the Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore at treaty negotiations with the Shawnees in 1774.

Logan's experiences with Anglo-Americans certainly exemplified the culture of violence in the Virginia backcountry. Despite friendly relations with whites, his family was brutally murdered by settlers in 1774 in a fit of misplaced frontier retribution. Transformed from friend to foe, the Mingo leader struck at frontier settlements with enough success to offer Virginia a pretext to start Lord Dunmore's War-a conflict that was ultimately, Wallace contends, "about the taking of Indian land" (p. 80). In his famous speech, Logan reported that long peaceful relations with whites failed to protect his family from murderous settlers and explained that facing a world without relations fed his thirst for revenge. Considering the awful realities that he faced, Logan posed this rueful rhetorical question: "Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one." While serving as a useful tool in Jefferson's ongoing campaign to refute the Comte de Buffon's assertions that all things American, including Indians, were deficient, "Logan's Lament" served as more than a prime example of Indian eloquence and capability to disprove the Frenchman's contentions. Wallace forcefully argues that the speech came to embody "a paradigm for Indian-white relations, not only in Jefferson's time but for later generations as well." "Logan's Lament" was symbolic of a "tragic, self-fulfilling philosophy of history," where Indian Nations, like Logan himself, became inevitable, if noble victims, of white progress, which was necessarily premised upon Indian dispossession and white acquisition of Native lands (p. 2).

Jefferson's abiding interest in studying ancient America formed one strain of his attitudes towards Indians and is the source of much of what appears contradictory in his thinking. Wallace spends a great deal of time detailing Jefferson's ongoing interest in certain aspects of Indian life. As he notes, Jefferson's archaeological dig of a Piedmont Indian burial mound was highly sophisticated. His studies of Indian languages were similarly advanced for the time. Despite such sophistication, Jefferson was neither as acute of an observer of American life as J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeour nor was he as skilled at ethnography as either the French Jesuits or the rising generation of Enlightenment-influenced scholars. Jefferson never fully comprehended the complexity of Indian culture. This scholarly weakness was due to other Jeffersonian obsessions-he simply did not focus on subjects that did not fall within his larger aims. (Indian kinship, for instance, a central concern for modern anthropologists and ethnohistorians, never interested him.) As Wallace reminds us, Jefferson most frequently focused on the customs of distant or long extinct Indian groups and often wrote about Indians with a specific agenda in mind. …

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