David Barton’s Capitol Tour: Did Thomas Jefferson Spend Federal Funds to Evangelize the Kaskaskia Indians?

This week, Michael Coulter and I are going to present a series of reactions to an eight minute YouTube video of David Barton’s Capitol Tour. Sponsored by the Family Research Council, the video provides narration from Barton speaking in the Rotunda of the Capitol. First, I am going to revisit Barton’s fable about Jefferson and the Kaskaskia Indians. I wrote about the Kaskaskia treaty last year and we cover it in our book Getting Jefferson Right.  In his book The Jefferson Lies, Barton uses the Kaskaskia story as evidence that Jefferson supported missionary work to Indians. Barton also points to the Kaskaskia treaty as an indication that Jefferson supported government sponsored religious activities. Here is the video (this version has 3.7 million views):

In his Capitol tour, Barton makes a little different claim about the Kaskaskia treaty than he does in The Jefferson Lies. On the tour at 6:45, Barton says:

Most people have no clue that Thomas Jefferson in 1803 negotiated a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians in which Jefferson put federal funds to pay for missionaries to go evangelize the Indians and gave federal funds so that after they were converted we’d build them a church in which they could worship.

One reason people have no clue about this story is that it didn’t happen that way.

First of all, the treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians was negotiated by William Henry Harrison with a date of August 13, 1803. As noted below, Jefferson provided guidance for Indian negotiations, but it is incorrect to say that he negotiated it. Beyond this technical point, there is a set of facts that can be verified by simply reading the treaty. The entire treaty can be found here. I have included the relevant Article below. The relevant section is in bold print; nothing else in the treaty relates to religion.


The annuity heretofore given by the United States to the said tribe shall be increased to one thousand dollars, which is to be paid to them either in money, merchandise, provisions or domestic animals, at the option of the said tribe: and when the said annuity or any part thereof is paid in merchandise, it is to be delivered to them either at Vincennes, Fort Massac or Kaskaskia, and the first cost of the goods in the sea-port where they may be procured is alone to be charged to the said tribe free from the cost of transportation, or any other contingent expense. Whenever the said tribe may choose to receive money, provisions or domestic animals for the whole or in part of the said annuity, the same shall be delivered at the town of Kaskaskia. The United States will also cause to be built a house suitable for the accommodation of the chief of the said tribe, and will enclose for their use a field not exceeding one hundred acres with a good and sufficient fence. And whereas, The greater part of the said tribe have been baptised and received into the Catholic church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office and also to instruct as many of their children as possible in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church. The stipulations made in this and the preceding article, together with the sum of five hundred and eighty dollars, which is now paid or assured to be paid for the said tribe for the purpose of procuring some necessary articles, and to relieve them from debts which they have heretofore contracted, is considered as a full and ample compensation for the relinquishment made to the United States in the first article.

Beginning with Marquette, the Kaskaskia tribe had been evangelized by Catholic missionaries. The Indian leaders who negotiated the treaty with Harrison asked the government to help pay for their priest and to build a church. For reasons which will become clearer later, they needed financial help because of debts they had incurred. The tribe was “much attached” to the Catholic faith before the treaty was negotiated. Contrary to what Barton says on his Capitol tour, the treaty does not describe federally funded missionaries sent in to convert the Kaskaskia tribe with subsequent federal funds spent in order to build a church building for newly converted Indians. Instead, the treaty depicts a very devoted group of Indians who were broke and unable to financially support the religious institutions they already had.

To fully grasp how far off Barton’s story is, one must consider Jefferson’s stance toward negotiating with the Indians, and particular the Kaskaskia tribe. The tribe was small but they had claim to the highly desirable region of central Illinois between the Kaskaskia and Illinois rivers. Jefferson was keen to expand the borders of the United States and developed a strategy to attain land from the Indians without war. As indicated by at least two letters, one to Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, and the other to territory Governor William Henry Harrison, Jefferson wanted to get the Indians into debt; and then when they could not pay their debts, negotiate a treaty favorable to the United States. In an August 13, 1802 letter to Dearborn, Jefferson wrote:

If we could furnish goods enough to supply all their wants, and sell them goods so cheap that no private trader could enter into competition with us, we should thus get rid of those traders who are the principal fomenters of the uneasiness of the Indians: and by being so essentially useful to the Indians we should of course become objects of affection to them. There is perhaps no method more irresistible of obtaining lands from them than by letting them get in debt, which when too heavy to be paid, they are always willing to lop off by a cession of land.*

I should point out that Jefferson’s stated policy was to respect the sovereignty of the Indian tribes over their lands. He also expressed hope that Indians would intermarry with whites and become assimilated into the United States. To hasten the process of parting the Indians from their lands, he engaged in a kind of economic campaign to compromise the Indians economically with a subsequent offer of a solution to their problem.

On February 27, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Harrison with the plan. I am including much of the letter because the Kaskaskia are mentioned. This letter was written nearly six months before the treaty with the Kaskaskia was completed with Harrison (read the entire letter here):

…from the Secretary at War you receive from time to time information and instructions as to our Indian affairs. There communications being for the public records are restrained always to particular objects and occasions. But this letter being unofficial, and private, I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians, that you may better comprehend the parts dealt out to you in detail through the official channel, and observing the system of which they make a part, conduct yourself in unison with it in cases where you are obliged to act without instruction.

Jefferson wrote Harrison outside of official channels so he could be more candid about the way to secure Indian lands. When in doubt, Jefferson advised, these instructions could serve as a guide.

Our system is to live in perpetual peace with the Indians, to cultivate an affectionate attachment from them, by every thing just & liberal which we can do for them within the bounds of reason, and by giving them effectual protection against wrongs from our own people.

Jefferson wanted to avoid war and hoped for a peaceful relationship. However, as the rest of the letter makes clear, the peaceful relationship was not on equal terms.

The decrease of game rendering their subsistence by hunting insufficient, we wish to draw them to agriculture, to spinning and weaving. The latter branches they take up with great readiness, because they fall to the women, who gain by quitting the labours of the field [for] these which are exercised within doors. When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, 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 & families.

Jefferson wanted the indigenous people to take up farming and the domestic arts in order to confine them to smaller tracts of land. Then, Jefferson hoped, the Indians would sell their lands in order to get goods for their farms and families. While one might expect such cultural changes to be slow, Jefferson expressed his scheme to speed up the process.

To promote this disposition to exchange lands which they have to spare and we want for necessaries, which have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in 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.

Cause the Indians to go into debt and then they will sell their lands to pay their bills. Off the record, so to speak, Jefferson directed Harrison to get the Indians in a compromised position and then take advantage of it. To Dearborn, Jefferson complained of the for-profit traders. However, Jefferson’s plan had a provision to get rid of those “pests.”

At our trading houses too we mean to sell so low as merely to repay cost and charges so as neither to lessen or enlarge our capital. This is what private traders cannot do, for they must gain; they will consequently retire from the competition, and we shall thus get clear of this pest without giving offence or umbrage to the Indians. In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States or remove beyond the Missisipi. The former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves. But in the whole course of this, it is essential to cultivate their love.

Jefferson drove the for-profit traders out of business by selling goods at cost. Essentially, Jefferson hoped that eventually, the Indians would abandon their sovereignty and become part of the United States. Short of that, they would have to move. The other option was war, but he would engage in it only against those tribes foolish enough to start one.

As to their fear, we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only. Should any tribe be fool-hardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe and driving them across the Missisipi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.

Next, Jefferson specifically mentioned the Kaskaskias. Reading this letter, along with the treaty negotiated later in August of 1803, it is clear that the strategy of getting Indians into debt worked well.

The Kaskaskias being reduced to a few families, I presume we may purchase their whole country for what would place every individual of them at his ease, and be a small price to us: say by laying off for each family wherever they would chuse it as much rich land as they could cultivate, adjacent to each other, inclosing the whole in a single fence, and giving them such an annuity in money or goods for ever as would place them in happiness; and we might take them also under the protection of the United States. Of the means however of obtaining what we wish you will be the best judge; and I have given you this view of the system which we suppose will best promote the interests of the Indians and of ourselves, and finally consolidate our whole country into one nation only, that you may be enabled the better to adapt your means to the object.

Notice that Jefferson did not mention a church or a priest. Instead, he told Harrison, “of the means however of obtaining what we wish you will be the best judge.” Jefferson gave Harrison freedom to negotiate creatively with the Kaskaskia but Jefferson’s plan was not to send in missionaries. In fact, he did not mention specific religious incentives to the man who did the negotiating.

Since the Kaskaskia were not citizens and the tax dollars were paid to get land, there are few, if any, First Amendment issues raised by this treaty. The priest and church were bargaining chips in a land deal.

Furthermore, the facts provide no support for Barton’s claim that Jefferson had an interest in evangelizing this tribe. When one spends money to evangelize, one pays a missionary to preach and and win souls, not tracts of land. The claim as presented in the Capitol tour is quite misleading in that it presents a sequence of events. First, Barton says missionaries (more than one) were paid by the federal government for the purpose of making Christian converts of the Kaskaskia tribe. Then, according to Barton, more tax money was spent to build a church for the fresh converts.

Gentle reader, is that what happened?

*The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Barbara Oberg, ed. 2011, 38:209-210

**The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. H.A. Washington, 1854, 4: 472-475.