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Thomas L. McKenney Historic Author of 3-Volume Set of "History of the Indian Tribes" Letter to Dolley Madison

THOMAS L. McKENNEY (1785-1858). Superintendent of Indian Affairs under President James Madison in 1816 and famous American Author the historic 3-Volume "History of the Indian Tribes".

December 29, 1848-Dated, Historic Content Autograph Letter Signed, "Tho L McKenney" addressed to Dolley Madison (Prior First Lady as Wife of President James Madison), New York City, 3 pages, measuring 7.5" x 10", Choice Very Fine. Mention of reporting to President, "Mr. Madison ... on any subject connected with General Armstrong, was on F. Street, (he being on horseback) when I was Commissioned by General Smith, in Company with Major Williams to report to the President, the state of revolt in which the Troops on Windmill Hill, were thrown, on the appearance of General Armstrong among them, after the Conflagration of the Capitol...". This quite personal and historic content Handwritten Letter reads, in part:

"... I hope to be excused for taxing your memory... the only Interview I ever had with Mr. Madison, upon any subject connected with General Armstrong, was on F. Street, (he being on horseback) when I was Commissioned by General Smith, in Company with Major Williams to report to the President, the state of revolt in which the Troops on Windmill Hill, were thrown, on the Appearance of General Armstrong among them, after the Conflagration of the Capitol... It is for History I ask this Information -- as well as to shew before it shall have passed to the final record, the falsehood of connecting me with this 'Hanson and Bavie' Committee..."

Aside from some expected light even tone, one small perforation this important Letter is in very nice overall condition. A few unrelated pencil notations and a brief red manuscript biography of McKenney appear on the blank back panel. The Handwritten text and signature are very clear and easily readable being upon clean period wove paper. A wonderful addition to any historical Autograph collection combining Thomas L. McKenney's Handwritten Letter and sent to none other than Dolley Madison!

Additional Information:

Thomas Loraine McKenney (1785-1859) started out his career as a merchant. In 1815 he ran a commission store near the ferry wharf in Georgetown. He was also on the board of directors of the Bank of Columbia, in Georgetown, with John Cox, John Threlkeld, and Henry Foxall. In 1816 McKenney secured a Federal appointment as Superintendent of Indian Trade. The Bureau of Indian Trade had its office in the old Bank of Columbia building at 3210 M Street, N.W.

McKenney was appointed by President Madison to be Superintendent of Indian Trade, April 2, 1816, to replace John Mason, who had resigned (Intelligencer, April 9, 1816); he knew nothing of Indians, but was well-versed in trade.

"My commission bears date the 2d day of April, 1816. I entered upon the duties of my office on the 12th of the same month. I had for some time, nearly two years before, disposed of my mercantile establishments, of which I was owner of two in Georgetown, and held an interest, till about the period of my appointment, in a store in Washington, under the firm of J. C. Hall & Co." (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)

In those days delegations of Indians that came to Washington generally stayed in hotel rooms; the beds had been removed to accommodate their preference for sleeping on the ground. Some of these representatives of southern and western tribes also visited Weston, McKenney's farm on Georgetown Heights.

In 1820, Sans Nerf, a chief of the Great Osages, and two companions, were there. In the winter of 1821-22 a delegation of Pawnee, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Miami, Sioux, and Chippewa Indians came to the farm, and in 1824, Cherokee chief Elijah Hicks was there.

The Factory System of government trading posts involved commodities as coffee, sugar, lead, salt, penknives, northwest blankets, calico, and strouding (coarse woolen cloth used in the Indian trade). What came back were furs. "Thomas L. McKenney " furs, peltries for sale at the Superintendant of Indian trade in Georgetown". (Alexandria Gazette, March 19, October 16, 1817; November 10, 1818)

The Factory System ended in 1822, over opposition by the John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, and by manufacturers and merchants who resented McKenney, and the Georgetown merchants he favored. One such merchant was John Cox, importer and banker, and later mayor of Georgetown. Cox loaned money to McKenney to buy Weston, and McKenney bought from Cox for the Indian trade, nearly to the exclusion of other merchants. (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)

From 1824 to 1830, McKenney served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. While his upbringing as a merchant had no doubt prepared him for the earlier position, supervising the Indian Trade, his qualifications to be an architect of Indian policy are harder to picture.

McKenney's transactions with the "civilized" southern tribes had, at one time, persuaded him that Indians might be able to adopt white values, and McKenney made several experiments along these lines of his own (albeit at government expense).

In 1818, James Lawrence MacDonald, son of a Choctaw woman and a white man, raised by Baltimore Quakers, came to Weston, McKenney's farm on Georgetown Heights, and worked for him at the War Department. In 1827 McKenney brought two Creek boys back to Washington to be educated. One was William Barnard, son of Major Timpoochee Barnard, an ally of Andrew Jackson in the Creek War. A boy named Lee Compere was William Barnard's companion. The boys remained with McKenney for three years. Finally, in 1828, Dougherty Colbert, age 15, the son of a Chickasaw chief, came to live at Weston, to attend school in Georgetown. Colbert was praised by McKenney for losing the Chickasaw language!

As wrong-headed as such experiments must appear to us, in McKenney's view the alternatives were worse: Indians who did not assimilate, or move beyond the Mississippi River, were doomed. In 1829 McKenney wrote: "We believe if the Indians do not emigrate, and fly the causes, which are fixed in themselves, and which have proved so destructive in the past, they must perish!" (Stuart Banner, How The Indians Lost Their Land, p.209)

Although these views would seem to conform to those generally ascribed to Andrew Jackson, in 1830 McKenney was dismissed for not being in harmony with the Indian policy of the Jackson administration. At the same time President Jackson ordered the War Department to remove McKenney's Indian boys from school and return them to their people.

McKenney's dismissal ushered in the second phase of his career. Perhaps as early as 1816 McKenney had imagined an Indian archive, which would be "preserved for the information of future generations and long after the Indians will have been no more". During the years McKenney worked in the War Department he had made it standard procedure that members of Indian delegations would, at War Department expense, have their likenesses recorded in oil paint. By 1830 the artist Charles Bird King had painted about a hundred and twenty portraits, which McKenney did not permit any other artists to copy; his intention, from the start, had been to publish them himself.

Shortly before being fired by President Jackson, McKenney announced plans for the portfolio of hand-colored lithographs of these portraits, "with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs". McKenney moved to Philadelphia, where his publisher was, and had the paintings sent to him one at a time, to be copied in oil for the lithographer to work from.

The text, which was to consist of history and individual biographies, was not written by McKenney "" who knew "knew nothing but the names", according to his co-author James Hall "" but by Hall, based on interviews with Indian agents, traders and soldiers, but not "" it need hardly be said "" with Indians.

The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, by Thomas McKenney and James Hall, which came out in three volumes between 1836 and 1844, is now considered a landmark of American ethnography, and one of the major American publications of the nineteenth century.

Sources: Historical Sketches of Glover Park, Upper Georgetown, and Georgetown Heights by Carlton Fletcher

Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America's Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830. Chicago: The Swallow Press Inc., Sage Books. 1974.

Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997

See also:

Herman J. Viola, Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City. Rivilo Books, 1995.

Herman J. Viola, The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King

Stuart Banner, How The Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, Harvard University Press, 2005

Christopher W. Lane, "A History of McKenney and Hall's History of the Indian Tribes of North America", from Imprint: Journal of the American Historical Print Collectors Society. Volume 27, Number 2; Autumn 2002

McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney. [1846] With Introduction by Herman J. Viola. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973.

McKenney, Thomas L. Memoirs, Official and Personal; with Sketches of Travels Among the Northern and Southern Indians; Embracing a War Excursion, and Descriptions of Scenes Along the Western Borders, Volume 1 . New York: Paine and Burgess, 1846. [format: book], [genre: memoir; travelogue]. Permission: Northern Illinois University. Persistent link:

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