George Washington Papers

Memorandum from Henry Knox, 1790

Memorandum from Henry Knox


Governor St Clairs proposal of obtaining a cession of territory from the Wabash Indians at this peculiar time, seems liable to several objections.

1st It is not for the interest of the United States to extend their territory at present. They possess abundantly more Land, than they can profitably sell.

But was there a market for more Land the policy of scattering our people in distant thin settlements may be justly disputed. It will be our true wisdom to condense our population instead of dispersing it. Besides the expence of protecting such distant settlements greatly exceeds the value of them, whether considered as purchasers of the Land, as consumers of articles contributing to the revenue, or as constituting a strength of any real use to the empire.

2dly To grasp at additional territory will give the expedition an avaricious aspect. In this point of view it will disgrace the government.

The motives of the expedition ought to appear as they really are—A clear and uncompounded dictate of Justice to punish a bandetti of robbers, and murderers, who have refused to listen to the voice of peace and humanity, and as a terror to warn other tribes against the commission of similar crimes.

It will not materially lessen the charge to assert the United States propose to pay the Indians for the lands. Because it is a well known fact, that unless they could be civilized, and learn the arts of agriculture, the taking away their lands for the usual pitiful considerations, is taking away the means of supporting their lives.

But it would be a difficult circumstance to convince the people of the United States, of the propriety of paying any considerable sums to the obnoxious tribes, whose enormities have caused the expence of so much treasure, and blood.

To obtain Lands of the Wabash Indians at this time, either by conquest or by purchase would afford such of the people of Georgia, as are dissatisfied with the creek treaty, and the Yazous and Tennessee companies, with cause for impeaching the rectitude of the General Government for extending its own territory and circumscribing the States.

If deputies from the hostile tribes should be sent to Fort Washington as the Governor supposes, they must be fed while they remain at that post, and upon their departure they might receive some blankets. But nothing more at present. They ought to be made to feel the inconveniencies of their conduct.

It would have an absurd appearance, to raise an army at great expence to destroy the Indians corn, and upon the objects being effected, to replace the corn which had been so Destroyed.


Knox wrote this undated memorandum, which was presented to GW, in response to a proposal apparently made by Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, to negotiate a purchase of land from the Wabash Indians. No document written by St. Clair making such a proposal has been found, nor any reply from GW regarding it. A bracketed notation on the manuscript in a later hand dates the document 10 Dec. 1790; Carter, Territorial Papers, description begins Clarence Edwin Carter et al., eds. The Territorial Papers of the United States. 27 vols. Washington, D.C., 1934–69. description ends 2:313–14, places the document at that date but notes that the assignment is “arbitrary.” In fact it seems implausible that the document was written in December. Internal evidence suggests that St. Clair made the proposal in late August, and that Knox drafted this memorandum at that time or shortly thereafter. Knox’s comments in the third paragraph echo ideas about the future of the western country expressed during the summer debates over funding and assumption and the location of the Federal City. The document was plainly written after the completion of the treaty with the Creeks, signed by GW on 13 Aug. 1790, and before Josiah Harmar marched from Fort Washington on 26 Sept. 1790. St. Clair was in New York on 20–24 Aug. 1790 and may have made his proposal to GW, who returned from his Rhode Island trip on 21 Aug., at that time. Knox’s memorandum on the proposal was probably written between 21 Aug. and 15 Sept., when Knox left New York for Boston, but since no letter of transmittal has been found, it seems most likely that the document was presented to GW before his departure for Mount Vernon on 30 Aug. 1790.

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