Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to the Senate and the House of Representatives, 18 January 1803

To the Senate and the House of Representatives


Gentlemen of the
Senate and
of the House of Representatives.

As the continuance of the Act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes will be under the consideration of the legislature at it’s present session, I think it my duty to communicate the views which have guided me in the execution of that act; in order that you may decide on the policy of continuing it, in the present or any other form, or discontinue it altogether if that shall, on the whole, seem most for the public good.

The Indian tribes residing within the limits of the US. have for a considerable time been growing more & more uneasy at the constant diminution of the territory they occupy, altho’ effected by their own voluntary sales: and the policy has long been gaining strength with them of refusing absolutely all further sale on any conditions. insomuch that, at this time, it hazards their friendship, and excites dangerous jealouses & perturbations in their minds to make any overture for the purchase of the smallest portions of their land. a very few tribes only are not yet obstinately in these dispositions.   In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs, and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient. First,1 to encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising stock, to agriculture and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land & labour will maintain them in this, better than in their former mode of living. the extensive forests necessary in the hunting life, will then become useless, & they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, & of increasing their domestic comforts. Secondly2 to multiply trading houses among them, & place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort than the possession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds. experience & reflection will develope to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare & we want, for what we can spare and they want. in leading them thus to agriculture, to manufactures & civilization, in bringing together their & our settlements, & in preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our government, I trust and believe we are acting for their greatest good.   At these trading houses we have pursued the principles of the act of Congress, which directs that the commerce shall be carried on liberally, & requires only that the capital stock shall not be diminished. we consequently undersell private traders, foreign & domestic, drive them from the competition, & thus, with the good will of the Indians, rid ourselves of a description of men who are constantly endeavoring to excite in the Indian mind suspicions, fears & irritation towards us. a letter now inclosed shews the effect of our competition on the operations of the traders, while the Indians, percieving the advantage of purchasing from us, are solliciting generally our establishment of trading houses among them.   In one quarter this is particularly interesting. the legislature, reflecting on the late occurrences on the Missisipi, must be sensible how desireable it is to possess a respectable breadth of country on that river, from our Southern limit to the Illinois at least; so that we may present as firm a front on that as on our Eastern border. we possess what is below the Yazoo, & can probably acquire a certain breadth from the Illinois & Wabash to the Ohio. but between the Ohio and Yazoo, the country all belongs to the Chickasaws, the most friendly tribe within our limits, but the most decided against the alienation of lands. the portion of their country most important for us is exactly that which they do not inhabit. their settlements are not on the Missisipi, but in the interior country. they have lately shewn a desire to become agricultural, and this leads to the desire of buying implements & comforts. in the strengthening and gratifying of these wants, I see the only prospect of planting on the Missisipi itself the means of it’s own safety. Duty has required me to submit these views to the judgment of the legislature, but as their disclosure might embarras & defeat their effect, they are committed to the special confidence of the two houses.

While the extension of the public commerce among the Indian tribes may deprive of that source of profit such of our citizens as are engaged in it, it might be worthy the attention of Congress, in their care of individual as well as of the general interest to point in another direction the enterprise of these citizens, as profitably for themselves, and more usefully for the public. the river Missouri, & the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desireable by their connection with the Missisipi, & consequently with us. it is however understood that the country on that river is inhabited by various tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs & peltry to the trade of another nation carried on in a high latitude, through an infinite number of portages and lakes, shut up by ice through a long season. the commerce on that line could bear no competition with that of the Missouri, traversing a moderate climate, offering, according to the best accounts, a continued navigation from it’s source, and, possibly3 with a single portage, from the Western ocean, and finding to the Atlantic a choice of channels through the Illinois or Wabash, the lakes and Hudson, through the Ohio and Susquehanna or Potomac or James rivers, and through the Tennissee and Savanna rivers. an intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprize and willing to undertake it, taken from our posts, where they may be spared without inconvenience, might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean, have conferences with the natives on the subject of commercial intercourse, get admission among them for our traders as others are admitted, agree on convenient deposits for an interchange of articles, and return with the information acquired in the course of two summers. their arms & accoutrements, some instruments of observation, & light & cheap presents for the Indians, would be all the apparatus they could carry, and with an expectation of souldier’s portion of land on their return, would constitute the whole expence. their pay would be going on, whether here or there.   While other civilized nations have encountered great expence to enlarge the boundaries of knowledge, by undertaking voyages of discovery, & for other literary purposes, in various parts and directions, our nation seems to owe to the same object, as well as to it’s own interests, to explore this, the only line of easy communication across the continent, and so directly traversing our own part of it. the interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress, and that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent,4 cannot but be an additional gratification. the nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit which it is in the habit of permitting within it’s dominions, would not be disposed to view it with jealousy, even if the expiring state of it’s interests there did not render it a matter of indifference.   The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars ‘for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the US,’ while understood and considered by the Executive as giving the legislative sanction, would cover the undertaking from notice, and prevent the obstructions which interested individuals might otherwise previously prepare in it’s way.

Th: Jefferson
Jan. 18. 1803.

RC (DNA: RG 233, PM, 7th Cong., 2d sess.); entirely in TJ’s hand; endorsed by clerks as “Confidential” and “Message from the President of the United States, inclosing a letter relative to the concerns of the United States with the Indian tribes, and the establishment of a new settlement”; also endorsed as read in the House on 18 Jan. “and referred to the Committee appointed on so much of the President’s message of the 15th. ultimo, as relates to the same objects,” and endorsed that the committee reported on 31 Jan. PrC (DLC). RC (DNA: RG 46, LPPM, 7th Cong., 2d sess.); in Meriwether Lewis’s hand, signed and dated by TJ; endorsed by clerks. Recorded in SJL with notation “Indian affairs. Missouri. confidential.” Enclosure: Extract of Matthew Ernest, collector of customs at Detroit, to Gallatin, 1 Nov., reporting that British merchants who have traded with the Indians through Detroit intend to close their operations because the reduced price of goods offered by the United States trading house “must effectually ruin them, as well as the American traders”; reporting too that the merchants approve of the prohibition on sale of spiritous liquors to the Indians (Tr in DNA: RG 233, PM; in Joshua Wingate, Jr.’s hand, attested by him on 17 Jan.).

In April 1802, Congress revived and extended an expired act for establishing trading houses. The law, first passed in April 1796, authorized the president to establish facilities for trade with Indian nations and to appoint agents to run them. The act also appropriated funds for the enterprise. The revived act was due to expire on 4 Mch. 1803 (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States…1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855-56, 8 vols. description ends , 1:452–3; 2:173; Vol. 36:440–3).

carried on liberally: according to the 1796 statute, the president could establish trading operations at such places “as he shall judge most convenient for the purpose of carrying on a liberal trade with the several Indian nations.” Prices at the stores would be regulated to ensure that the capital stock invested by the United States would not be diminished (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States…1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855-56, 8 vols. description ends , 1:452, 453).

trade of another nation: that is, Great Britain. Employees of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies, as well as some independent traders, traveled through Canada to reach the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians on the Missouri River (W. Raymond Wood and Thomas D. Thiessen, eds., Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders Among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818 [Norman, Okla., 1985], 2, 24–30, [299–308]).

nation claiming the territory: Spain. In the latter part of November or very early in December, TJ had a conversation with Carlos Martínez de Irujo to sound out the possible reaction of the Spanish government to an exploration by the United States of the course of the Missouri River. The nominal objective of the expedition would be the advancement of commerce, TJ explained, since Congress could not appropriate funds for the actual purpose of the undertaking, which was the advancement of geographical knowledge. Irujo replied that he did not believe Spain would approve of the undertaking. TJ, according to Irujo’s report to his government, then stated that he could not see why there would be any objection to learning more about the territories lying between 40 and 60 degrees north latitude. New information, he urged, in conjunction with the discoveries of Alexander Mackenzie, might establish a route to and from the Pacific. Irujo countered by naming several explorations of the Pacific Coast that confirmed there was no Northwest Passage, and he pointed out that Mackenzie had reached the sea only by traveling much of the way by land. The Spanish minister thought his arguments dampened TJ’s enthusiasm for the venture, but he cautioned his government that he did not know what the president’s decision would be on the matter. TJ, Irujo reported, might be motivated to extend the influence of the United States to the shores of the Pacific. Irujo learned by late January that TJ had brought the subject to the Senate’s attention. Apparently unaware that the House of Representatives had also received the president’s message, Irujo thought the Senate would probably quash the expedition (A. P. Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785–1804, 2 vols., [St. Louis, 1952], 2:712–16).

A one-sentence act of Congress approved on 28 Feb. made an appropriation of $2,500 “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States” (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States…1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855-56, 8 vols. description ends , 2:206).

cover the undertaking from notice: the House of Representatives put an injunction of secrecy on this communication from the president, and the journals of the House’s proceedings on 18 Jan. made no reference to the receipt of the message. The injunction was lifted on 26 Feb. To keep its actions confidential, the Senate went into executive session when Meriwether Lewis delivered the message on 18 Jan. (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1826, 9 vols. description ends , 4:291–3, 369; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States…to the Termination of the Nineteenth Congress, Washington, D.C., 1828, 3 vols. description ends , 1:437–9).

1TJ wrote this word in a larger and more ornate hand. Lewis wrote it in a larger hand in RC in RG 46.

2TJ wrote this word in a larger hand.

3Word interlined in place of “perhaps.”

4Preceding seven words interlined in place of “the interests of science.”

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