Every time I think I have read the last about James Wilkinson’s depredations during the days of the early republic, I turn over another rock and there he is. Our favorite scoundrel, heavily featured in our novels To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe, had his sticky fingers in every land scheme and empire-building enterprise on the early American frontier. I recently came across another vintage Wilkinson story in a book by Jay Feldman entitled, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes.
The founding of New Madrid is an interesting story in itself. The settlement was the brainchild of Colonel George Morgan of New Jersey, a merchant, Indian agent, and land speculator who had been thwarted by the U.S. government in his attempts to claim and colonize millions of acres of valuable land in what is now northern West Virginia and Illinois. Frustrated in his attempts to make a killing as a western empresario, Morgan was disgusted with the U.S. government and national allegiances were highly negotiable. When Spain came calling, he bit.
In the summer of 1788, Morgan was approached by Spanish ambassador Don Diego de Gardoqui, who had been dispatched to New York by the Spanish king to do what he could to counter America’s westward expansion. As owner of the vast Louisiana Territory, Spain was concerned about the horde of American settlers streaming over the Alleghenies and settling along the east bank of the Mississippi. In hopes of creating a buffer zone on the sparsely populated Spanish west bank, Gardoqui’s was authorized to offer Americans free land and free trade on the Mississippi in exchange for allegiance to Spain.
Gardoqui knew of Morgan by reputation, and contacted him to float the idea that Morgan apply for a colony grant in Louisiana. After weighing Gardoqui’s offer, Morgan decided he had nothing to lose. He crafted an application for about two million acres of land in Spanish territory, opposite the mouth of the Ohio River. He promised to recruit a large number of Americans to populate the colony, who would bring with them their families, slaves, livestock, and farm implements. Morgan proposed that he himself would command the new colony, and that freedom of religion and self-government would be a condition of its founding. Most importantly, he would be allowed to profit from the sale of land to any settlers he recruited.
It is perhaps a measure of Gardoqui’s desperation that he endorsed this proposal and assured Morgan that speedy approval from the Spanish king would be forthcoming. On January 3, 1789, Morgan embarked down the Ohio River with his first recruits, seventy men on four flatboats. Both to honor and flatter his Spanish patrons, he decided to name his new colony New Madrid. Six weeks of perilous river travel later, he reached the Mississippi and beheld the lovely, fertile prairie he intended to build into a personal empire. Confident of success, he began laying out a town and surveying the land he declared to be “superior to every other part of America.”
Enter James Wilkinson. Wilkinson was already a year or so into his own machinations to align Kentucky with the Spanish crown in exchange for exclusive trading rights in New Orleans. When he got wind of George Morgan’s New Madrid project, he rightly concluded that Morgan was an intolerable threat to his plans. If a Spanish-aligned New Madrid became a trading port for Kentucky by which they could sell their goods bound for foreign ports, his monopoly on trade in New Orleans would be useless.
There was no time to lose. Wilkinson dashed off a letter to Spanish Governor Esteban Miro in New Orleans, claiming that Gardoqui had “hurried into confidential communications with Persons undeserving of trust.” He cast aspersions on the settlers Morgan had recruited, insisting they were “generally Debtors & fugitives from Justice—poor and without priniciple.” In a subsequent letter, he went on to smear George Morgan himself: “This Colonel Morgan … is a man of education and understanding, but a deep speculator. He has been bankrupt twice, and finds himself at the present moment in extreme necessity.” Ironically, he questioned the sincerity of Morgan’s allegiance to Spain and asserted that Morgan was “ruled by motives of the vilest self-interest.” He cautioned that the settlers in New Madrid would not make good Spanish subjects, saying they would undoubtedly retain “their old prejudices and feelings” and would “continue to be Americans as if they were on the banks of the Ohio.”
Self-serving or not, the allegations stuck. When an unsuspecting Morgan arrived in New Orleans in December 1789, he found Governor Miro not at all favorably disposed towards his colony at New Madrid. Miro informed Morgan curtly that he would not, after all, be allowed to sell land in the colony for his own profit. It would be given to settlers for free. Furthermore, while settlers were free to practice their own religion at home, the only public observance of religion allowed would be Roman Catholic. He expressed offense that Morgan had named the settlement New Madrid without the king’s express permission. Finally, he informed Morgan that he was appointing a Spanish commandant to rule New Madrid, instead of Morgan himself.
Morgan left New Orleans cursing Wilkinson’s name and returned back east, never again to see the colony he founded. He did, however, have the chance to strike his enemy one last glancing blow. In 1806, George Morgan was visited in Pennsylvania by Aaron Burr, who made veiled references to a bizarre scheme to raise a private army to seize Mexico and the Louisiana Territory. Morgan immediately wrote to Thomas Jefferson, warning him about the scheme, and Burr was arrested. The subsequent scandal led to a court-martial for General Wilkinson, in which his alleged involvement in the scheme was publicly discussed. However, both Wilkinson and Burr were acquitted. George Morgan died in 1810, without ever seeing Wilkinson brought to justice.
As for Morgan’s colony at New Madrid, it soldiered on in spite of the setbacks. Although Morgan’s utopian plan for the layout of the city was quickly discarded, the settlement continued to grow at a respectable pace. When the Treaty of San Lorenzo opened the Mississippi River to U.S. trade in 1795, boats coming down from the Ohio River were required to stop at New Madrid to be inspected and pay duties on their cargo, making New Madrid a key location for trade between the U.S.’s western settlements and the port of New Orleans. By 1791, there were 200 new settlers in New Madrid. By 1803, the town had over 800 residents.
As it turned out, however, what had seemed initially like the perfect location for a town turned into a swampy nightmare. The wild, unpredictable Mississippi often overflowed its banks, tearing away yards of riverbank at high water and taking part of the town with it. Heavy rains turned the flat prairielands of New Madrid into a stagnant swamp, rife with water-borne diseases. When the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, New Madrid lost its strategic position in Mississippi trade. With both sides of the river now in U.S. hands, New Madrid became just another frontier river town.
The final coup de grace came in 1811 and 1812. As it turned out, New Madrid was situated directly above an active seismic fault zone, three miles deep in the earth. A series of four devastating earthquakes between December 1811 and February 1812 literally shook the town to ruins.
More interesting reading: