How many of us remember what we learned in school about the early Federal period in American history? Probably not much — because little is actually taught about this fascinating period in which the United States was struggling to be born. In many ways, the emerging nation was just a pawn in a wicked game between European powers for control of the North American continent — and manifest destiny was anything but.
Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click the Buy Our Books tab at the top) centers around one such conspiracy in which both the Spanish and French were using (and being used by) some of the most famous Americans in the West in an attempt to break Kentucky loose from the United States and push the Americans back across the Alleghenies. George Rogers Clark, the brilliant, erratic, embittered hero of the American Revolution and beloved older brother of William Clark, was heavily involved in the French portion of the scheme. Its failure further blasted his reputation and led some in the United States to consider him something of a traitor.
Though the plot of Fairest has as many twists and turns as a John Le Carré novel (or at least it seemed that way when we were working on it and trying to to control the plot), I have to admit it is simplified from the real McCoy. In reality, Clark’s restless spirit could not be contained. Just two years after the failure of the plot described in our novel, he was involved in yet another French conspiracy, this one spearheaded by a military and political officer by the name of Georges Henri Victor Collot.
Tall, dark-haired, and intensely patriotic, Collot was in his 40s when he was recruited to undertake an intelligence mission for France to understand the political climate of the American West. If conditions were right, the French hoped they might learn enough to take possession, by either political or military means, of two key North American cities. Pittsburgh, under American control, and St. Louis, under Spanish control, were the keys to the interior of the continent. Eventually, the French hoped to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans and control the entire continent west of the Atlantic seaboard.
To that end Collot recruited an expert mapmaker, Joseph Warin, and several Canadian voyageurs and American boatmen. He set off down the Ohio River in March 1796 and made extensive notes on the topography, frontier settlements, Indians, and wildlife. Collot professed that geography was his true interest, but in reality he paid special attention to the placement and situation of American and Spanish forts throughout the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. He also stopped in for a chat with George Rogers Clark, to find out if the aging general might still be interested in leading a mercenary mission to storm down the Mississippi and seize New Orleans, as Clark had attempted to do earlier (read all about it in Fairest).
What Collot found when he arrived in Clark’s hometown of Louisville resulted in perhaps the most wrenching yet compassionate account of Clark ever written. Later printed in Collot’s book Journey in North America, it is worth relating in full:
We cannot leave Louisville without relating a circumstance which does honor to the American character, and which would not disgrace the annals of the finest days of Rome.
A person of great military talents, and who had acquired considerable reputation in the war which procured independence to America; who had also gained from the natives almost the whole of the immense country which forms now the Western States; the rival, in short, of General Washington; had retired to Louisville after the peace, either from caprice or discontent against the government at that time, in the hope of ending his days tranquilly in the middle of his family, and on the spot which had been the scene of his achievements.
But unhappily, idleness and listlessness, inseparable companions, followed him in his retreat. He who is conversant only with military affairs, who knows nothing of agriculture or commerce, and has no taste for the charms of nature, is soon wearied of still life. Drinking and intoxication became the sole resource of this officer, and he carried this degrading passion to such an excess, that he was often found lying in a state of stupified drunkness in the streets.
We were the witnesses of a scene the most humiliating for a man who once inspired sentiments of high veneration, but now excited only those of pity. We returned about seven in the evening from taking a walk in the environs of Louisville, when we perceived, in the midst of the square, a number of persons who were crowding around something that lay extended on the ground, on which a blanket had been thrown, and which a man was about to take up and carry off.
Drawing near to satisfy our curiosity, I asked the man, who appeared to me to be a shoemaker, what was the matter. He turned towards me with a look expressive of sorrow, and said, “Do you not see, sir, that it is that hero, that great man; he has forgotten at the moment the important services which he has rendered us; but it is our duty to remember them; I cover him thus, to preserve him from the contempt of the people.” He had, indeed, as soon as he saw him fall, run out of his shop with a woolen blanket, which he threw over him, and carried him into his house, where we were witnesses of the affectionate care with which he treated him.
By this time, Collot had begun to attract attention as a potential spy, with “Mad Anthony” Wayne, commanding general of the United States Army (and a major character in Fairest) issuing orders that he be detained and arrested. Collot was stopped at Fort Massac by Zebulon Pike (father of the explorer) and searched, but managed to talk his way out of the jam, especially since his papers were all written in French which no one at the fort was able to read. He proceeded down river, compiling what was then the most accurate and detailed description and maps of the river systems of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi. Along the way, Collot had adventures to rival his successors Lewis and Clark, including digging up fossils, being caught in titanic thunderstorms, being chased by bears, and enduring an Indian attack which gravely injured mapmaker Joseph Warin.
For his troubles, Collot was arrested again upon his arrival in New Orleans, this time by the Spanish governor. Warin was also arrested and died of his wounds while awaiting release. Eventually, Collot was allowed to leave. By the time he got back to France, the government had lost interest in his work. He died in 1805, but eventually the importance of his maps and manuscript were recognized. His Journey in North America was published in 1826. Collot’s writing is fascinating and delightfully acerbic. The book may be read in its entirety online thanks to the Wisconsin History Society and is available at their American Journeys site.
For more reading: