In the winter of 1802-03, Thomas Jefferson told Delaware and Shawnee delegates in Washington that he would “pay the most sacred regard to existing treaties between your respective nations and ours, and protect your whole territories against all intrusions that may be attempted by white people.” At the same time, Jefferson was implementing plans to dispossess the Indians of their lands.
Jefferson and others easily solved the dilemma of how to take Indian lands with honor by determining that too much land was a disincentive for Indians to become “civilized.” Ignoring the role of agriculture in Eastern Woodland societies, they argued that Indians would continue to hunt rather than settle down as farmers unless their options were restricted. Taking their lands forced Indians into a settled, agricultural, and “civilized” way of life and was, therefore, good for them in the long run. As Indians took up farming, Jefferson wrote in 1803 to William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, “they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families.” To promote this process “we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals run into debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” In this way, American settlements would gradually surround the Indians “and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi.” … The government could do little to regulate the frontier and protect Indian lands, causing Indians to fight for their land. The government would have no choice but to invade Indian country, suppress the uprising, and dictate treaties in which defeated Indians signed away land. […]
Jefferson’s strategy for acquiring Indian lands resulted in some thirty treaties with a dozen or so tribal groups and the cession of almost 200,000 square miles of Indian territory in nine states. Jefferson regretted that Indians seemed doomed to extinction, but he showed little compunction in taking away their homelands.
— First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History by Colin Calloway
I realize that Jefferson’s 19th-century-speak may be a little hard to parse, so allow me to offer a summary of his plan to take Indian lands:
1. Promote trading between whites and Indians.
2. Encourage Indians to buy lots of stuff, causing them to rack up huge debts.
3. Indians are driven to sell off bits of their land to pay off their debts.
4. White settlers move into sold-off lands and live next to Indians.
5. Indians get exposed to and assimilated into
the Borg white culture.
5b. Or they pack up and move away, conveniently leaving their land empty.
5c. Or alternatively, they get pissed off at the encroachment and use force to defend their home.
6. Oh dear, now that you’ve resorted to violence, we have no choice but to send in the US army and fight a war against you. Why did you make us do that? :(
7. Now that we’ve beaten the shit out of you, you have to do whatever we say. And we say, give us the rest of your land.
Yep, that Thomas Jefferson was pretty smart guy. So smart that he got his face carved onto the side of Mount Rushmore aka the Black Hills aka the location that Lakota people venerate in the same way that Muslims venerate Mecca or Jews venerate Jerusalem. Talk about adding insult to injury.
My least favorite rationale for stealing Indian land: We’re doing it for your own good!
My other least favorite rationale for stealing Indian land: Those greedy Indians are hogging way more land than they actually need! (Even though the whites were practically addicted to land-grabbing like it was some alternate form of crack cocaine.)