Daily Jefferson: June 21, 1808 Letter From Thomas Jefferson to James Pemberton About Relations With Native Americans

David Barton sometimes tells his audiences that Thomas Jefferson edited the Gospels in order to give just the words of Christ to the Indians for their instruction. However, there are many words of Jesus which Jefferson did not include in his work. Another fact that makes Barton’s claims even more of a fantasy is that Jefferson believed learning English and reading the Bible was the last thing Indians should do to become civilized. In this letter to James Pemberton, Jefferson gives a summary of his agenda to make the Indians more like the English. He begins by saying learning letters is the last step:

I wish they may begin their work at the right end. our experience with the Indians has proved that letters are not the first, but the last step in the progression from barbarism to civilisation.   
Our Indian neighbors will occupy all the attentions we may spare, towards the improvement of their condition. the four great Southern tribes are advancing hopefully. the foremost are the Cherokees, the Upper settlements of whom have made to me a formal application to be recieved into the Union as citizens of the US. & to be governed by our laws. if we can form for them a simple & acceptable plan of advancing by degrees to a maturity for recieving our laws, the example will have a powerful effect towards stimulating the other tribes in the same progression, and will chear the gloomy views which have overspread their minds as to their own future history. I salute you with friendship & great respect.

In our rebuttal to Barton in World magazine in 2012, we said this about Jefferson’s views on missionaries to Indians.

In his response, Barton created several straw men—that is, he attacked his misrepresentations of our work. He claimed we deny the role of Congress in using religion to civilize the Indians. That is not true. Although peripheral to our purposes, we acknowledge the unfortunate abuse of Indians via religion by the federal government. However, we don’t focus on U.S. relations with Indians because our purpose was to examine Barton’s claims about Thomas Jefferson and the Indians. On point, Jefferson did not hide his thoughts about Indians and missionaries. In a letter to physician James Jay, Jefferson asserted in 1809:

“The plan [Jay’s plan] of civilizing the Indians is undoubtedly a great improvement on the ancient and totally ineffectual one of beginning with religious missionaries. Our experience has shown that this must be the last step of the process.”[iii]

Jefferson added that the Indians preferred Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe and outlined several steps to civilization before religious matters could be introduced. Yes, the government occasionally paid missionaries to work with Indians, but Jefferson expressed reservations about the policy.[iv]