Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith, 29 January 1780

To Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith

Wmsburg Jany. 29th 1780


As we propose this Spring to take possession of and fortify some post as near the mouth of Ohio as the ground will admit, it becomes very important for us to know the exact latitude thereabouts. I take it for granted that your present Line will be stopped before you get there by unpurchased Lands. We therefore wish extremely that one of you would take a trip to the mouth of the Ohio with your instruments immediately on finishing your present work. I suppose it will be best for you to go to the falls of the Ohio where Colo. Clarke has orders to furnish you with Assistants, an Escort and all necessaries. You will first find the point at which our Line strikes the Missisippi or Ohio, and fix it by some lasting immoveable natural mark if there happen to be any on the spot, or if not, then by its course and distance from some such natural mark, noting such course as corrected from the errors of variation, and the distance reduced to horizontal measure. The reason of requiring this accuracy in fixing the point where our Line strikes is, that in future, with common instruments it will be easy to find it which may perhaps be of importance. When you have found this point if it be on the Missisippi run from thence along up the river to the mouth of Ohio, and by protraction fix the point of the forks or if it be on the Ohio, run up that river to where good Clifts for fortification shall make in and as you go along note the high ground points or Clifts on the river which appear to you capable of Works of defence and at the same time to command a view of the river. This done I would ask the favor of you to return one plat of your work to Colo. Clarke and another to me. Colo. Clarke has in his eye a particular Cliff on the Missisippi which he expects is the nearest good ground for fortification. This he will describe to you, and you will please to note it particularly. I am in hopes that it will suit one of you to undertake this business. We think to have the fort begun, which cannot be till we are assured that the ground we should pitch on is within our own Country. The disappointment will therefore be of the greatest moment should you decline the Service.

I am Gentl. with the greatest respect Your most obedt. Hmble Servt.

RC? (WHi); in a clerk’s hand, presumably signed by TJ, but signature has been cut out. At foot of text, in TJ’s hand: “Messrs Thomas Walker & Daniel Smith.” Bears a docketed summary in a later hand. This or another copy of TJ’s letter to the commissioners to extend the Virginia-North Carolina boundary was enclosed in TJ’s letter to George Rogers Clark of the same date, q.v.

The fort erected near the mouth of the Ohio in pursuance of these orders, implementing a favorite scheme of Gov. Henry and of Clark himself, had a short and stormy history. It was located, under Clark’s supervision, at the “Iron Banks” five miles below the mouth of the Ohio and was named Fort Jefferson; efforts were made to attract settlers, and the place was named “Clarksville.” In the fall the post was attacked by hostile Indians. Their grievance was that the fort and settlement had been located on their land without their consent (TJ’s orders to purchase the site from the Indians-see his letter to Joseph Martin, 24 Jan. 1780—having been overlooked). It proved impossible to supply the post adequately, and it was abandoned in June 1781. (See John Dodge to TJ, 1 Aug. 1780, and James, G. R. Clark, p. 195–7, 215–16, 244–5, and references there.) TJ was early blamed by historians for this unsuccessful venture, and he justified himself by amplifying Girardin’s account of these events before it was published in 1816. In PPAP there is an undated paper in TJ’s hand reading as follows:

“pa. 174. 1. 13. from bottom. Delete ‘ever attentive &c.——’ to ‘emissaries’ in the bottom line and insert ‘with a view to secure, on that principle, by actual possession, the right of Virginia in it’s whole extent to the Missisipi, sent proper persons, under an escort, to ascertain by celestial observation, the point on that river intersected by the latitude of 36½ degrees, the Southern limit of the state, and to measure it’s distance from the mouth of the Ohio. And Colo. Clarke was directed, as soon as this should be done, to select a strong and commanding position on the river, near the Southern limit and there to establish a fort and garrison: in the mean time to advance his establishments towards the lakes, erecting forts at different points, which might be an actual possession, as well as protection of that portion of the country also. Under these orders Fort Jefferson, on the Missisipi, a few miles above the Southern limit, was erected and garrisoned. This measure gave great umbrage to the Chickasaws, a friendly and faithful tribe of Indians, who claimed these as their hunting grounds. But full explanations being given of the object of the measure, and of it’s necessity as well for their own security as for that of Virginia, they became satisfied; insomuch that when the fort and garrison were afterwards beleaguered by hostile Indians, the Chickasaws came to it’s relief, and drove off the besieging force. The place was afterwards restored, and is still held by them. On the Northern quarter, Clarke proceeded with his usual judgment, combining policy with enterprize, encouraging peace among the friendly tribes, and directing, against the hostile, the force of those who could not be persuaded to remain inactive.’ It was thus that the Kickapoos &c.”

This correction of Girardin’s MS was adopted in full by him and will be found in Burk-Girardin, Hist. of Va., iv, 371–2.

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