Consciously or not, most American history we learn in school promotes the idea of “Manifest Destiny”—the belief that the United States was destined to expand from sea to shining sea across the North American continent. Unfortunately, this idea obscures what a very tenuous thing it was that the United States was able to obtain—and hold—the Louisiana Territory. Powerful European rulers stood in the way, scheming to gain control of the land Meriwether Lewis memorably called “the fairest portion of the globe.” A case in point was the scheme known as the Spanish conspiracy.
In July 1787, our favorite traitor James Wilkinson arrived in New Orleans to visit with Louisiana Governor General Esteban Miró, the Spanish king’s highest ranking officer in North America. A former brigadier general turned Kentucky merchant, Wilkinson offered Miró an extraordinary proposition. To circumvent the difficulties Kentucky had getting its goods to market, Kentucky would forge a vast (and exclusive) trade empire with Spain. Secretly, however, Wilkinson had bigger plans: to promote Kentucky’s separation from the United States and set it up as a “buffer state”—with himself at its head—between the United States and Spain.
Intrigued, Miró extended Wilkinson several thousand dollars in credit and the privilege of bringing his goods to New Orleans, duty-free. But except for Wilkinson’s exclusive privileges, Wilkinson asked Miró to keep the Mississippi River closed to Kentucky trade. In the meantime, Wilkinson would raise hell in the Kentucky assembly, demanding that the United States intervene to demand the opening of the river—something he knew George Washington could not do. This would make Kentuckians all too eager to drop their ties to America and accept any terms Spain proposed to bring their goods through New Orleans.
Our friend Manuel Gayoso, the newly appointed Governor of the Natchez District, was to play a critical role in the scheme. In 1789, Gayoso arrived in New Orleans and discussed plans for the Natchez District with Miró. He made tentative plans to visit the Cumberland, Kentucky, and other western settlements to promote the scheme. However, his illness and the death of his wife after their grueling journey from Havana caused a delay, and too many Westerners heard about the new Spanish governor for him to make the trip without arousing American suspicion. But Miró was undaunted. He recommended to the Spanish king that Gayoso conduct undercover work with Wilkinson and the Western settlers who were threatening to break away from the United States.
If they could pull it off, a Spanish-supported Kentucky would be a barrier to American expansion across the Mississippi River. Gayoso, who had seen world-class diplomatic maneuvering in the courts of Europe, quickly grasped the significance of Wilkinson’s proposals. Gayoso became the principal go-between in the conspiracy, meeting with Wilkinson at Natchez in fall of 1789. Correspondence between the two illustrates how readily Wilkinson was willing to sell out the United States, Kentucky, his friends, and anything else that stood in the way of his goal to become “the George Washington of the West.” Gayoso recognized him for what he was, writing, “I consider his ambition as a favorable circumstance which we may make use of for our own part.”
Wilkinson eagerly betrayed other Americans who had similar ambitions in the West in the name of protecting Spanish security. He also supplied the names of VIPs in Kentucky and Tennessee who could be corrupted by Spanish gold. Wilkinson himself enjoyed a Spanish pension of $2000 yearly beginning in January 1789, with the payments disguised as profits on tobacco sales in New Orleans.
Wilkinson’s plans received a rude jolt when the Spanish Council of the Indies authorized the opening of the Mississippi in 1789 for those Westerners willing to pay a duty on the goods they brought to New Orleans. In addition, the Spanish king decided to end tobacco purchases by the government, dashing the hopes of many Kentuckians who had planned to emigrate to Natchez and make a fat profit. Chagrined—at this rate he would never become the “George Washington of the West”—Wilkinson urged Miró to close the Mississippi and end all commerce between Kentucky and New Orleans, to force the Westerners to secede from the United States and seek an independent alliance.
Miró had no intention of agreeing to his proposals. Temporarily stymied, Wilkinson continued to draw his pension and continued to seek out opportunities to betray those Americans who placed their confidence in him, sometimes to the advantage of Spanish defenses in Louisiana.
Miró left the governorship of Louisiana in 1791 and returned to Spain. Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet, a former governor of El Salvador, was appointed in his place. Carondelet and Gayoso saw eye to eye on the threat to Spain’s holdings in the New World. Together, the two men embarked on a plan to prepare for eventual war with the Americans. They beefed up the Spanish defenses in the Louisiana Territory, outfitting ships, building forts, and raising a militia.
Enter Citizen Genet, the Minister Plenipotentiary of France, who arrived in America in 1793 with an implausible—and wholly serious—plan to forge an alliance with Kentucky, wrest Louisiana away from Spain, and return it to French control. At Carondelet’s desperate urging, Gayoso sent over 300 Natchez militiamen to New Orleans to help defend the port against “the Jacobin menace.” The movement of U.S. troops to the frontier in 1794 to counter Indian attacks increased the anxiety of the Spanish governors. Could not these same troops be used to force the opening of the Mississippi that Westerners continually demanded?
Frightened, Carondelet spent almost $300,000 in excess of the funds the king had granted for defenses. When he got wind of Citizen Genet’s plot, Carondelet issued numerous proclamations warning inhabitants of Lower Louisiana to avoid any contact with French agents. From Natchez, Gayoso issued a similar warning and beefed up Spanish defenses along the river. Ultimately, Genet’s plot fizzled, but Gayoso and Carondelet’s anxiety about the intentions of the Americans made them want to revive the idea of a Spanish-friendly buffer state between the U.S. and Louisiana.
Following his establishment of Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs, Gayoso sailed up the Mississippi to visit the Spanish settlements in Missouri. Ostensibly his mission was to inspect Spanish defenses there. In fact, Gayoso had highly secret instructions to rendezvous in Kentucky with certain prominent men who, according to Wilkinson, were known to favor the cause of separation. Inspired by reports of the Whiskey Rebellion and the general dissatisfaction with the federal government in the west, Carondelet gave Wilkinson a cash bonus and the promise of a raise, should the intrigue in Kentucky develop along favorable lines. But conditions “on the ground” proved to be disappointing. Gayoso found little support among the big bugs in Kentucky for separation from the United States.
Still, the outlook wasn’t all bad for Spain’s interests in North America. By the close of 1795, the Louisiana defenses were stronger than they had ever been. Spain’s friendly relations with the Indians gave them an advantage over the Americans. The Spanish empire in the New World was sitting pretty. Or so Carondelet and Gayoso thought…
As usual, they had underestimated the pinheads back home. Diplomatic intrigue proved their undoing. The signing of Jay’s Treaty in 1794 had sparked fear in Spain of an alliance between Britain and the United States. Fearing ultimate war with the United States, and not believing they could win, the Spanish king’s agents decided to open the Mississippi and surrender control to the United States of all Spain’s military posts in disputed territory north of the 31st parallel.
With the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckney’s Treaty) at the Spanish Court on October 27, 1795, all of the time, money, planning, and sacrifice of the Spanish frontier governors was undone with the stroke of a pen. The Treaty of San Lorenzo effectively destroyed Spain’s control over the Mississippi River, and with it, its power in the west. It also ended the Spanish Conspiracy, dashing Wilkinson’s hopes to be the “George Washington of the West.”
Gayoso was violently opposed to the treaty and attempted to do everything in his power to get it reversed. Despite his opposition, Carondelet went ahead. On March 16, 1797, the Spanish fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs—that Gayoso had worked so hard to build—was evacuated and turned over to the Americans. In one of the great twists of history, the new commander was a young American officer named Meriwether Lewis. A new era in the west had begun.