Thomas Jefferson Papers

Proclamation Offering a Reward for Murderers of a Cherokee Woman, 30 November 1801

Proclamation Offering a Reward for Murderers of a Cherokee Woman

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation:

Whereas information has been received that an atrocious murder was in the month of August last committed on an Indian Woman of the Cherokee Tribe in the peace and friendship of the United States, in the County of Knox in the State of Tenessee, aggravated also by the consideration that it was committed at a moment when a friendly meeting was about to be held by Commissioners of the United States with the Chiefs of the said Tribe of Indians, for the purpose of making certain arrangements favorable to the tranquility and advantage of the Frontier Settlers, as well as just and eligible to the Indians themselves; And Whereas the apprehension and punishment of the murderers and their accessaries will be an example due to justice and humanity, and every way salutary in its operation; I have therefore thought fit to issue this my proclamation hereby exhorting the citizens of the United States, and requiring all the Officers thereof, according to their respective stations, to use their utmost endeavors to apprehend and bring the principals and accessaries to the said murder to justice: and I do moreover offer a reward of one thousand dollars for each principal, and five hundred dollars for each accessary to the same before the fact, who shall be apprehended and brought to justice.

In Testimony whereof, I have caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these Presents and signed the same with my hand,

Done at the City of Washington the thirtieth day of November in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the twenty sixth.

Th: Jefferson

MS (DNA: RG 11, Presidential Proclamations); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ; at foot of text: “By the President,” followed by signature of James Madison alongside “Secretary of State” in the clerk’s hand; endorsed by Jacob Wagner: “Proclamation offering a reward for the apprehension of the murderers of the Indian Woman in Knox County Tennessee. 30 Novr. 1801.”

The woman of the cherokee tribe, whose name does not appear in the documents, was killed near Knoxville on 12 Aug. The Cherokees had already expressed concern over the government’s failure to apprehend murderers, and this killing in August was mentioned by chiefs later that month and in September as a factor in their refusal to negotiate with the government’s commissioners. Newspapers reported that the woman’s murder was one reason the Cherokee leaders were “highly displeased.” The Cherokees suspected a man named Peter Wheeler of the crime. Benjamin Hawkins and James Wilkinson understood that Wheeler, who was “said to be of bad character,” had fled, but on 13 Nov., Return Jonathan Meigs wrote to Henry Dearborn that Wheeler had apparently been apprehended, examined at Knoxville, and released for lack of evidence. The Cherokees “are very apt to charge us with partiality in matters relating breaches of Law where they are concerned,” Meigs wrote to a federal judge in January 1802. “They are still complaining of the murder of the Indian Woman, & for want of knowledge of the value of our Laws, are apt to consider our prudent proceedings as a dereliction of Justice.” In language drafted by TJ, Dearborn had assured The Glass and other Cherokee chiefs visiting the capital in July 1801 that the government would “certainly punish” those who robbed or killed Cherokees, provided the wrongdoers could be caught (Foster, Hawkins description begins Thomas Foster, ed., The Collected Works of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796–1810, Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2003 description ends , 371, 373, 382, 383; Return J. Meigs, “Journal of [O]ccurences & c—relating to the Cherokee Nation,” 1801, Meigs to Dearborn, 13 Nov. 1801, Meigs to John McNairy, 1 Jan. 1802, all in DNA: RG 75, RCIAT; Philadelphia Gazette, 6 Oct. 1801; Washington Federalist, 12 Oct. 1801; Salem, Mass., Salem Impartial Register, 15 Oct. 1801; Vol. 34:505–6, 509, 511; Wilkinson and Hawkins to TJ, 1 Sep. 1801; TJ to Wilkinson, Hawkins, and Andrew Pickens, 16 Sep. 1801).

On 2 Dec., Dearborn sent Meigs a copy of this proclamation with the request that he have it published in Tennessee newspapers. Dearborn also asked Meigs to have “copies of it stuck up at public places, and use your best endeavours to have its contents explained throughout the Cherokee Nation.” On 25 Dec., Meigs reported that he was distributing copies of the proclamation. “It has been explained to some of the Chiefs, they say that it is Good,” Meigs informed Dearborn. “Will endeavor to have it explaind throughout the nation & the proper impression made, & have reason to believe that it will have a good effect on the Indians.” Exhorting the Citizens of the United States: several newspapers printed the text of the proclamation, and other publications summarized or took notice of it (Dearborn to Meigs, 2 Dec. 1801, DNA: RG 75, RCIAT, enclosing a copy of the proclamation attested by John Newman; Meigs to Dearborn, 25 Dec., Dft in same; National Intelligencer, 7 Dec.; Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, 8 Dec.; Gazette of the United States, 8 Dec.; New-York Evening Post, 9 Dec.; Boston Columbian Centinel, 16 Dec.; Norwich, Conn., Courier, 16 Dec.; Hartford, Conn., American Mercury, 24 Dec.).

When TJ issued this proclamation, he and Dearborn knew that the commissioners’ attempt to negotiate with the Cherokees had failed. TJ and Dearborn were probably not yet aware that the commissioners had successfully concluded talks with the Chickasaws (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Indian Affairs, 1:648–53; Hawkins to Dearborn, 6 Sep., 28 Oct., Wilkinson, Hawkins, and Pickens to Dearborn, 6 Sep., Wilkinson to Dearborn, 8, 28 Sep., 13 Oct. 1801, recorded in DNA: RG 107, RLRMS).

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