Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration. Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!
When Edmond Charles “Citizen” Genet arrived in the U.S. in April 1793 to take up his duties as French minister to America, King Louis had met his death on the scaffold. After a long and stormy voyage on the French frigate Embuscade, Genet disembarked in Charleston. France had by this time declared war on both England and Spain, so Genet immediately set about outfitting and arming four privateers in the Charleston port. He gave little care to how the U.S. government would react to such actions.
Cheered by enthusiastic crowds, Genet set out for Philadelphia, being wined and dined all along the way. Meanwhile, the Embuscade, which he had sent on ahead, arrived in Philadelphia with a fat war trophy: a British merchant ship, captured in Delaware Bay. The sight was greeted with jubilation, and Genet received a hero’s welcome.
As an ardent French patriot, André Michaux probably shared in the initial enthusiasm at his compatriot’s arrival. Shortly thereafter, Genet informed Michaux of his new “assignment.” Genet had a plan for liberating Louisiana and Florida—then under the control of Spain—and required a liaison and courier who could carry instructions between the ministry in Philadelphia and American frontier leaders. Michaux was clearly the man for the job. He was an intrepid explorer and seasoned traveler, was the soul of loyalty to France, spoke English, and had the cover of being a known and respected scientist. No one would question his departure.
Michaux’s feelings about his new role were doubtless mixed. On the one hand, he was loyal to his native country. On the other hand, he must have felt chagrined that his planned botanizing trip up the Missouri was now delayed. Not to mention that Genet’s complicated and extralegal military and political schemes were far outside the botanist’s usual line of work.
Genet provided Michaux with letters to 20 prominent western leaders, including George Rogers Clark (William Clark’s older brother). Clark had already written to Genet in February 1793, offering to recruit an army of 1500 Kentuckians and take Louisiana from the Spanish garrison, asking only for financial support and two or three frigates from the French government to provide support in New Orleans. Genet was prepared to take him up on his offer.
Genet was coolly received by George Washington in May 1793, but this didn’t dampen his ardor. Before Michaux had even left for Kentucky, Genet wrote home to France: “I am inciting the Canadians to throw off the yoke of England; I am arming the Kentuckians, and I am preparing an expedition by sea to support the descent on New Orleans,” boasting that his success was in spite of “Old Washington” who had hindered his progress “in a thousand ways.”
Genet set up a private meeting with Jefferson, who proved to be a wary if sympathetic ally. Genet revealed his plans for recruiting an army in Kentucky to Jefferson, and confided the role he wanted André Michaux to play in the scheme. Worried, Jefferson warned Genet that “his enticing officers and soldiers from Kentucky to go against Spain was really putting a halter about their necks, for that they would assuredly be hung, if they commenced hostilities with a government at peace with the United States.” Despite of his fears, Jefferson privately supported Genet’s cause and agreed to write Michaux a letter of introduction to Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby.
Amidst all this turmoil, Michaux was preparing for his trip. Genet provided him with a formal commission as an agent of France, a five-page Memoir of Instructions, and authority to confer with George Rogers Clark as to how the mission would be conducted. He was to cultivate the Indians in the area with gifts. Genet entrusted him with commissions en blanc for Indians and frontiersmen who agreed to join the cause. Clark was promised the rank of brigadier general in the French army. In sum, Michaux was empowered to raise, in the name of the French Republic, “an Independent and Revolutionary Legion.”
Michaux didn’t show it, but he must have had doubts about this grandiose mission. Living in “half a world of fantasy,” Genet had been able to come up with only about $750 to finance the Kentucky venture. His own salary unpaid for many years, Michaux knew all too well how much trust to put in government promises. This was the burden he carried when he finally set out for Kentucky in July 1793.