Thomas McKenney and the Indians


Thomas L. McKenney, 1856, by Charles Loring Eliot


From 1816 to 1830, Thomas Lorraine McKenney (1785-1859) was Superintendent of Indian Trade, and then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, of the United States, and so it happened that there were often Indians at Weston, McKenney’s farm on Georgetown Heights.

Frequent interaction with the so-called “civilized” Southern tribes had persuaded McKenney that Indians were able to adopt white values, and so McKenney conducted several experiments to that end himself, bringing young Indians to Washington to be educated at government expense. This was in keeping with McKenney’s view that Indians who did not assimilate, or move beyond the Mississippi River, were doomed. (Stuart Banner, How The Indians Lost Their Land, p.209)

In 1818, James Lawrence MacDonald, son of a Choctaw woman and a white man, raised by Baltimore Quakers, came to Weston, boarded there with McKenney at government expense, and worked for him at the War Department. He then took up practice of law in Jackson, Mississippi, and returned to Washington in 1824 as a negotiator for a Choctaw delegation. It had been hoped that MacDonald would become a Choctaw leader, but the obstacles of racism, and the burdens of expectation and change, were too great, and he declined into alcoholism. In 1831, when the parents of a young woman in Mississippi forbade marriage, McDonald took his own life.  (Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830, Chicago, 1974)

Elijah Hicks, a young man who stayed at Weston in 1824, did become a Cherokee leader. Hicks was buried in Claremore, Oklahoma, in 1856, where his tombstone shows that he lead his people during the forced migration from the American South. “Elijah Hicks was born June 21, 1797, in the old Cherokee Nation east of the Miss. R. Was educated in S. Car. He assumed a high position as a leader in 1832 and 33. Succeeded E.C. Boudinot as Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix in 1838 and 39. Was commander of the Cherokees to their present home. Was one of the framers of the constitution and laws of the Nation. Filled a number of appointments as delegate to Washington City, D.C. to attend to the tribe with U.S. Grant.”





Dougherty (Winchester) Colbert (1810-1880), whose mother was Chickasaw, was raised in the home of Levi Colbert, a Chickasaw chief. The young man came to live at Weston when he was about fifteen, and took classes in Georgetown with James McVain for two years. In Georgetown he also received some preliminary training in land surveying. In 1828, his education still being directed by McKenney, Colbert enrolled in the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky. In 1837 Colbert was part of the forced migration to Oklahoma. During the Civil War, in which the slaveholding Chickasaws were allied with the Confederacy, Colbert was the governor of the Chickasaw Nation. Governor Colbert returned to Washington in 1865 and 1866 at the head of the Chickasaw treaty delegation. Although the young Colbert was praised by McKenney for “losing the Chickasaw language”, a later account reveals that the loss was temporary: “Although he spoke English, he preferred the Chickasaw language.”  (John Bartlett Meserve, Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol.18, No.4, December, 1940, p.348; Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830, Chicago, 1974)

In 1827 Colonel McKenney negotiated a treaty with the Creeks. Before he left the chiefs agreed to let McKenney take two of their sons back to Washington to be educated in the white man’s schools. One was William Barnard, of English and Muskogee descent, and raised as a son of Major Timpoochee Barnard, an ally of Andrew Jackson in the Creek War. After his return to his people the young Barnard became a Creek chief himself, and at the time of his death, in 1833, he owned 640 acres in Chambers County, Alabama, of which his heirs were defrauded. Creek Indians were removed from East Alabama in 1836. William Barnard’s companion was a nephew of the Creek chief Yoholo Micco. Formerly named Arbor, this young man was now called Lee Compere, after a missionary to the Creek nation of the same name. These two boys remained with McKenney for three years.  (Butch Fuller, “The William Barnard Log Cabin”, Trails In History, Official Newsletter of the Lee County (Alabama) Historical Society, Vol.46, No.2, April 2013; Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830, Chicago, 1974)

McKenney’s experiments in acculturation ended in 1830, when the Jackson administration dismissed him for not being in harmony with its Indian policy, and ordered the War Department to remove William Barnard and Lee Compere from school, and to return them to their people.

In addition to the young Southern Indians boarding at Weston, there were also, from time to time, the delegations of Western tribes with business to transact before the government. Generally the Indian dignitaries that came to Washington were offered hotel rooms––with beds removed to accommodate their known preference for sleeping on the ground––but many also came to Weston (perhaps, one imagines, to get a good night’s sleep under the stars).

So it is that Sans Nerf (“Without Sinew”), a chief of the Great Osages, and two companions, visited Weston in 1820. In the winter of 1821-22, when  a delegation of Pawnee, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Miami, Sioux, and Chippewa Indians came to Washington to confer with President Monroe, they were all at Weston.

Their likenesses have come down to the present because McKenney took the opportunity of their stay in the capital to commission James Otto Lewis and Charles Bird King to paint their portraits. During the years McKenney worked in the War Department he had, in fact, made it standard procedure that members of Indian delegations would have their likenesses recorded in oil paint, at War Department expense, to be “preserved for the information of future generations and long after the Indians will have been no more.”   (Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney: Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830, Chicago, 1974)



Bureau of Indian Trade, 1807-1822, 3210 M Street, N.W., Georgetown D.C.



Thomas Loraine McKenney started in life as a merchant, and by 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.

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.  The fact that McKenney’s view, that Indians who did not assimilate, or move beyond the Mississippi River, were doomed,  does not seem to differ substantially from the views associated with Andrew Jackson, did not prevent the Jackson administration from dismissing McKenney for not being in sufficient harmony with its Indian policy. The widely-held view, that Indians must be “civilized” if they were to survive, was apparently not in dispute, but while McKenney hoped that the relocation of the Indians could be achieved by persuasion, Jackson preferred force. (Stuart Banner, How The Indians Lost Their Land, p.209)

McKenney’s dismissal ushered in the second phase of his career. Perhaps as early as 1816 McKenney had imagined an Indian archive, and 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.





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.

Thomas L. McKenney, Memoirs, Official and Personal; Sketches of Travels among the Northern and Southern Indians; Embracing a War Excursion, and Descriptions of Scenes Along the Western Borders, 1846:

Liberalism in the Americas: Plenary Lecture by Nicholas Guyatt




Additional Notes 


Thomas Loraine McKenney –– born 1785, Somerset County, Maryland –– arrived in Washington by 1809.

In the War of 1812 he served as a lieutenant of the District of Columbia militia (Intelligencer, May 11, 1813), and participated in Battle of Bladensburg as an aide to Gen. Walter Smith; began to be called “Colonel” after that.

“Thomas L. McKenney – Merchant––commission – Georgetown, commission store near the ferry wharf at Georgetown, corn for sale”, (Alexandria Gazette, June 19 and 30, August 3, 1815; T. Michael Miller, Artisans and Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia, 1780-1820, Vol.1)

Board of Directors, of Bank of Columbia, with John Cox, John Threlkeld, and Henry Foxall (Intelligencer, April 4 and 25, 1815; March 27, 1817)

The Bank of Columbia built the building at 3210 M Street, N.W., and occupied it from 1796-1806. (Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 24:104)

The bank moved in 1806, and in 1807 the Bureau of Indian Trade –– in charge of the Indian fur trading posts –– moved in. The Bureau occupied the premises until 1822.

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.



April 2 1816

 The President of the United States of America,

To all who shall see these presents, Greeting:

Know Ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the integrity, ability and diligence of Thomas L. McKenney, of the district of Columbia, I do appoint him Superintendent of Indian trade, and do authorise and empower him to execute and fulfil the duties of that office, according to law; and to have and to hold the said office, with all the powers, privileges and emoluments, to the same of right appertaining, unto him the said Thomas L. McKenney during the pleasure of the President of the United States for the time being.

 Given under my hand at Washington, this second day of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixteen, and in the fortieth year of the Independence of the United States.

 James Madison


By command of the President of the United States…

Wm. H. Crawford, Secretary of War


(William Harris Crawford to James Madison, April 2 1816, Founders Online, Archives/University of Virginia Press)



“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)

“I was bred a merchant, and had all the advantages of information arising out of a large business, and frequent intercourse with our principal cities, as well since as during my initiatory progress in the counting-house of my father. From this, the committee may infer my competency to conduct a business entirely mercantile, as was the Indian trade.” (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)


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).  (T. Michael Miller, Artisans and Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia, 1780-1820, Vol.1)


SIR—I will thank you if you will take the trouble to make inquiries in your city after the following articles, and of the following descriptions: Northwest Company blankets—so called—three points, to measure six feet six inches long, and five feet six inches wide; to weigh, per pair, eight pounds and a half. Two and a half points, to measure six feet three inches long, and five feet two inches wide; to weigh, per pair, seven pounds and a half. Strouds, from six to seven quarters wide, to weigh, per yard, from one and half to one pound and three-quarters.

If these goods can be had, please inform me at what prices.
Respectfully, &c., THOS. L. MCKENNEY, S. I. T.

(McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)


1823, McKenney was accused by Thomas Hart Benton of enriching himself at public expense, possession of Weston being seen as proof, but was cleared after a house investigation. (Intelligencer, March 19, 1824)

The charges against him were: purchasing supplies of merchants in the District of Columbia, instead of from merchants in other cities, collusion with those with whom he dealt, “and the being paid certain douceurs, as the price of my alleged corrupt contracts”. (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)

“The reason why the Georgetown market was the best, is plain: it was the place where the demand existed; and he must be a novice, indeed, in mercantile matters, who does not know the first principle of trade, “that where a demand is, there will be also a corresponding ability to supply it.” (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)

“It was not an “abuse” or corruption of office that led me to make purchases to so large an amount in Georgetown, but the capacity in that market to supply the demand.” (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)

“But implications are made, and suspicion has been busy, because the great body of the leading articles for Indian supplies were bought at Georgetown; and because two persons, Colonel Cox and Thomas C. Wright, and not two hundred, had greater means, were better provided, and of course sold more to the Indian Office, than others.”  (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)


But, that John Cox was the endorser of Mr. McKenney on notes, and loaned McKenney money with Weston as security:


Testimony of John Cox: “I have been an importing merchant during the time Colonel McKenney has been superintendent. My importations generally have been (since 1817) with a view to the Indian trade. I have supplied Colonel McKenney with goods to the amount of about $50,000 annually. I sold the goods in currency, without reference to sterling cost. Considered I sold them as low as they could be purchased at fair sale. I have not made Mr. McKenney any compensation, in any way, with a view to obtain the trade. I have endorsed some notes for Mr. McKenney, and Mr. McKenney has likewise endorsed for me. I am now on Mr. McKenney’s paper as endorser, but am secured by his property.” (McKenney, Thomas L., Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney, 1846)


McKenney edited a newspaper, the Washington Republican and Congressional Examiner, from August 1822 until the end of May 1823, and then served as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1824–30.

1824, appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Office of Indian Affairs, War Department, under John C. Calhoun. From 1824 to 1830, McKenney was was paid at the salary of a clerk, Congress having never authorized higher pay. (Drinnan, p.173)



Weston, Heights of Geo:town March 20th. 1824


I was honored, in 1815, by an expression of your confidence. You gave in charge to me the very responsible duties of Superintending the U. S. In. Trade, with the Indian Tribes—To those duties I superadded other voluntary exertions in behalf of their Civilization. The system to which the Trade was confined, I soon discovered to be too feeble to sustain itself against the active interests of the private traders. Unrestrain’d in their intercourse they kept the power over the Indians, and over their property of Furs &c by means of ardent Spirits, which were by law—and very properly—excluded from their intercourse with the Government Factories. I thought it my duty to propose remedies for what I considered to be, evils; & I suggested to the Congress, from time to time, on calls made upon me by the Committees, such checks as appeard to me to be the most likely to overcome the private influence. Those who were concerned as companies, & private traders became alarmed, and a resolve was adopted to move upon the system, thro’ the Congress, and abolish it. It was carried. This was all in opposition to what the reflecting parts of the community deemed to be just & sound policy, especially those who had indulged the feelings of Humanity & Justice towards our Indians, and those who knew how bloody the track had been, from the landing of our Fathers at Plymouth & Jamestown, of those who hold personal and interested intercourse with the Indians. But it was a powerful array of interest, working a Capital of at least two millions, and spread over all our Northern & western regions: The impulse from such a combination was resistless.

But my object is to remark upon the attacks which it was thought proper to make upon me; and upon the fashionable, tho’ cant cry of “corruption,” in order the more effectually to carry this measure; & then to refer you to the accompanying paper, shewing the issue of that very responsible & delicate agency. This is due to you as my first patron, and also to my own feelings, in their relation to the obligations under which the expression of your confidence in the trust confided to me, laid me.

It certainly affords me very sincere pleasure to be able, after all the noise & bustle which have been kept going on this Indian subject, to point to its close in the manner in which I now do; and if it shall tend further to confirm your good opinions of me, it will be additionally grateful to me.

I am again entrusted with a Government trust. I have had assigned to me, in subordination to the Secty. of War, the Indian bureau, (a new arrangement) which takes in all that relates to an intercourse with these people. I feel, therefore, that I have in the person of him who has been kind enough to call me to those duties another friend, whom I recognize as my Second patron. In the execution of my new duties, I shall not be exposed to the war which interest wages upon all who lie in its way; and I am not therefore likely to be scorched by the fires which avarice so industriously tended around the system entrusted to me, by you. Present me very particularly to Mrs. Madison, & tender to her the expression of my sincere regards; and accept for yourself, Sir, the undiminished respect & gratitude with which I have the honor to be Yr mo. Ob. Sert.

Tho. L. McKenney


(Thomas L. McKenney to James Madison, 20 March 1824, Founders Online, Archives/University of Virginia Press)





National Intelligencer, April 9, 1824



Treaty between US & Sauk and Fox tribes, August 4, 1824, at Washington City. William Clark, Supt. of Indian Affairs; witnesses including T.L. McKenney, Meriwether Lewis Clark. (National Intelligencer, January 21, 1825)

US-Choctaw treaty, at Washington City, January 20, 1825; T.L. McKenney, witness; J.L. MacDonald, one of the Indians (National Intelligencer, January 21, 1825)




Department of War Office of In Affairs

April 7, 1825



I have the honor to inclose for your acceptance the documents connected with the communication made to both Houses of Congress, at its late session, by the late President of the U. States, on the subject of locating the Indians, now within our States & Territories, West of the boundaries of Missouri & Arkansas. I accompany them with the assurance of my highest respect & esteem.


Tho. L. McKenney


(Thomas L. McKenney to James Madison, 7 April 1825, Founders Online, Archives/University of Virginia Press)




1826 John C. Calhoun no longer Secretary of War; McKenney offers Weston for rent

A later transaction with John Cox: DC Liber WB19 (1826-7) ff.167/111

1827, negotiator of treaty with Chippewa, Menominee, Winnebago

1827, negotiator with Creek and Chickasaw, helped persuade to migration west of Mississippi

1828, Weston in foreclosure, sale at auction, bankruptcy.


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)


Thomas L. McKenney removed as head of Indian Bureau (National Intelligencer, September 1, 1830)


1830 When President Jackson ousted McKenney from office he ordered the War Department to remove the Indian boys from school and return them to their people. (Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997, p.187)

Valuable furniture at auction at the residence of Col. McKenney, on 1st street, Georgetown, he being about to leave this district. Thomas Wright, auctioneer. (National Intelligencer, October 11, 1830)

1835, Editha Gleaves McKenney dies.


McKenney’s dismissal ushered in the second phase of his career, as a lecturer and author.

Thomas McKenney & James Hall. History of the Indian Tribes of North America. Philadelphia: 1837-1844. Folio. 120 (121) hand colored lithographs.

1846, Memoirs, Official and Personal: Thomas L. McKenney.

Portrait of Thomas L. McKenney, 1856, by Charles Loring Eliot, Corcoran Gallery of Art. (The Corcoran auctioned this work off?)

Thomas McKenney died February 21, 1859 in a Brooklyn boarding house.







Carlton Fletcher

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