Archive for the ‘James Wilkinson’ Category

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards by Jay Feldman

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.

Don Diego de Gardoqui

Don Diego de Gardoqui, Spanish ambassador

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.”

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, scoundrel extraordinaire

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.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana

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.

Clearing the river after the New Madrid earthquakes

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:

The Spanish Conspiracy

An Artist in Treason

William Clark and the New Madrid Earthquakes

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An Artist in Treason by Andro Linklater

An Artist in Treason by Andro Linklater

I recently finished reading Andro Linklater’s fine biography of General James Wilkinson, An Artist in Treason. What a smooth operator Wilkinson was! Throughout his life, Wilkinson knew how to curry favor with powerful patrons. Despite decades of being in secret collusion with the Spanish government – he was known in Havana as “Agent 13” – Wilkinson still  managed to hang on to his post as commanding general  of the U.S. Army through four different changes in administration. The tale of how he did that is something worthy of Shakespeare.

Wilkinson was born in 1757 to an aristocratic Maryland family fallen on hard times. His father, a wealthy planter, fell into disastrous debt and died at the young age of 33, leaving his family to survive on the charity of relatives. Wilkinson idealized his father as the perfect country gentleman, seeming to harbor both resentment at the family’s diminished status and a ravenous desire to recreate his father’s wealth.

General Horatio Gates, by Gilbert Stuart

General Horatio Gates, by Gilbert Stuart

Wilkinson’s army career began during the Revolution, where he made a habit of cultivating powerful patrons who helped advance his own career. A smart and charming young man, brimming with confidence, young “Wilky” comes across as an 18th-century version of Eddie Haskell. Ironically, Wilkinson’s first mentor was the soon-to-be-turncoat Benedict Arnold, whom he dropped in favor of Horatio Gates when Arnold’s star began to fade. Gates became something of a surrogate father to Wilkinson, but that relationship also soured. When the young officer’s indiscretion inadvertently revealed the existence of a group of high-ranking generals known as the “Conway Cabal” who were conspiring to remove George Washington as head of the Continental Army and replace him with Gates, Gates tried to discredit Wilkinson to save himself. Wilkinson responded viciously, and the two men’s friendship ended in an ugly and theatrical duel.

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

Anybody but Wilkinson would have been cashiered at this point, but his charm and confidence – not to mention a modicum of ability, rare in the army in those years—made his military career all but unsinkable. After some time in civilian life following the revolution – a time when he made contact with Spanish officials in New Orleans and agreed to help advance The Spanish Conspiracy in exchange for cash – he rejoined the army in 1791, assuming he would end up its commander. Instead this job fell to “Mad Anthony” Wayne, whom Wilkinson hated as a bitter rival and relentlessly sought to undermine. It was not until Wayne’s death in 1796 that Wilkinson finally got his wish, ascending to the coveted post of “commander-in-chief” of the U.S. Army.

It is astonishing to realize that every president Wilkinson served under, from George Washington to James Madison, was well aware of Wilkinson’s vanity, treachery, and allegiance to the Spanish crown. In a time when the mere existence of a standing professional army was a matter of extreme controversy, Wilkinson’s predictability was a valuable asset. The men in the White House banked on the fact that if you stroked Wilkinson’s ego nicely enough, he would ensure that the army remained party-neutral and under civilian control.

The president who seems to have had the most smug certainty about Wilkinson’s pliability was Thomas Jefferson, who might have felt differently had he known that Wilkinson had tipped the Spanish government off to the fact that the Lewis & Clark Expedition would be passing through Spanish territory. The Spanish sent out three attempts under Captain Pedro Vial to kill or capture Lewis & Clark’s party. Had they succeeded, the history of U.S. western expansion might have played out much differently.

Aaron Burr

Aaron Burr

Even Jefferson’s certainty was shaken in 1806, when the president found himself waiting in trepidation to see whether Wilkinson would keep the army loyal to the United States or throw it behind the empire-building conspiracy of former Vice President Aaron Burr. Burr connived with Wilkinson and others in a scheme to raise a military force to separate the western states from the U.S. and invade  Mexico. This was no pipe dream, but a well though-out plan that had the backing of political and military luminaries such as Andrew Jackson. But when plans went awry and Wilkinson knew his involvement was about to be exposed, he unceremoniously decided to save his own hide. Declaring himself the savior of the nation, Wilkinson threw Aaron Burr under the bus and exposed the conspiracy to the world.

Wilkinson’s talent for flattery and play-acting is on great display in these two passages from Linklater’s book, describing Wilkinson’s role as star witness in the trial of Aaron Burr. The first encounter between Wilkinson and Burr – betrayer and betrayed—was electrifying. Here is how author Washington Irving described the scene:

Wilkinson strutted into court and took his stand in a parallel line with Burr on his right hand. Here he stood for a moment, swelling like a turkey cock and bracing himself for the encounter of Burr’s eye. The latter did not take any notice of him until the judge directed the clerk to swear General Wilkinson; at the mention of the name Burr turned his head, looked him full in the face with one of his piercing regards, swept his eye over his whole person from head to food, as if to scan its dimensions, and then cooly resumed his former position, and went on versing with his counsel as tranquilly as ever. The whole look was over in an instant, but it was an admirable one. There was no appearance of study or constraint in it; no affectation of disdain or defiance; a slight expression of contempt played over his countenance.

Thomas Jefferson by St. Memin

Thomas Jefferson by St. Memin

And here is how Wilkinson described it, and a letter to President Thomas Jefferson:

I was introduced to a position within the bar very near my adversary. I saluted the bench and inspite of myself my eyes darted a flash of indignation at the little traitor, on whom they continued fixed until I was called to the Book; her, sir, I found my expectations verified—this lion-hearted, eagle-eyed Hero, jerking under the weight of conscious guilt, with haggard eyes in an effort to meet the indignant salutation of outraged honor; but it was in vain, his audacity failed him. He averted his face, grew pale, and affected passion to conceal his perturbation.

Despite Wilkinson’s testimony, Burr was acquitted. And in  keeping with his reputation as a general who “never won a battle but never lost a court-martial,” Wilkinson survived an inquiry into his own role in the matter. But he fooled no one. The Burr conspiracy left an indelible stain on his high-flying but sordid career, which ended only when the U.S. military was completely overhauled after the War of 1812.

Linklater does a great job using Wilkinson’s life as an indictment of the entire era he represented – an era when the U.S. Army was amateurish, starved for cash and leadership, and heavily politicized.  Of Wilkinson’s final court-martial –an inquiry into military blunders on the Canadian frontier during the war of 1812 – Linklater gives us this damning summation:

…with the hindsight of history, what seems overwhelmingly obvious is that the wrong accusations were leveled against him. Even the one charge of which he was certainly guilty, covert treachery to the United States, was less damaging than his overt and repeated betrayal of the army. Yet no court could try him for acquiescence in its political neutering and financial strangulation because the instigators were Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

These words are a fitting capstone to this shabby life story which is both tragedy and farce. It makes you give quiet thanks for our modern-day, well-trained, professional U.S. Army.

Order "The Fairest Portion of the Globe"

For more interesting reading on Wilkinson, I recommend our two novels, To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Wilkinson appears as a major character in each. I must say, I was gratified to read Linklater’s book and confirm that our characterization of Wilkinson was right on the money. It’s hard to get enough of this fascinating “finished scoundrel.”

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Location: One mile east of Metropolis, Illinois (also the home of Superman)

Fort Massac. Foundations of original fort in foreground; reconstruction in back.

Fort Massac State Park is a reconstruction of a fort that was a major control point on the Ohio River for decades. The first historically documented fort here was constructed by the French in 1757 and called Fort Ascension or Fort Massiac; some historians believe the Spanish may have fortified this spot even before that date. In any case, the fort was turned over to British control in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s. The Chickasaw Indians burned the fort to the ground before it was ever occupied by British troops.

In July 1778, George Rogers Clark chose this spot to begin his memorable march across southern Illinois to seize control of the occupied British frontier forts. In my opinion, Clark is easily the most underrated figure of the American Revolution, and the Illinois campaign illustrates why. At the beginning of the Revolution, Kentucky was extremely sparsely populated and under siege by Native Americans backed by the British. Most people thought the territory would have to be evacuated. In retrospect, the alternate history that might have unfolded from this retreat is almost unfathomable. If the United States had ended the American Revolution without possession of the territory west of the Alleghenies, westward expansion might never have happened.

A young officer named George Rogers Clark volunteered to defend the Kentucky territory and much more. With authorization from Virginia’s governor Patrick Henry (Kentucky was part of Virginia at the time), Clark raised a regiment of 150 men. Not one to adopt a purely defensive posture, Clark then went on the offensive to seize the British-occupied forts in the remote west.

George Rogers Clark overlooking the Ohio, by Leon Hermant

Clark’s first target was the village of Kaskaskia, near modern-day Centralia, Illinois. Ordinarily, frontier Kaskaskia was reached by paddling up the Mississippi River, but Clark obviously wanted the element of surprise. He staged a 120-mile march across southern Illinois. The starting point of that historic march was the ruins of old Fort “Massac.”

Ultimately the heroism of Clark and his tiny band would lead to the possession of modern-day Illinois and Indiana by the state of Virginia. The vast territory needed to be defended, as the British, Spanish, and French continued to plot to wrest the western territories from the struggling new nation (this international intrigue is quite thrilling and forms the background for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and isn’t today the day to click that “Buy Now” tab for some exciting summer reading? Thanks.). As a result, the Americans rebuilt Fort Massac. At the height of the Indian Wars of the 1790s, the fort had the largest garrison of any United States fort. It served as the port of entry into the United States for goods coming up river from the Mississippi (under Spanish control).

By November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (George’s little brother) stopped at Fort Massac, under the command of Daniel Bissell. Probably to his dismay, Bissell had orders from President Jefferson to allow Lewis and Clark to recruit as desired from his garrison. He could not have been pleased about allowing the Expedition leaders to cherry-pick his best men. John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse would become the first two active-duty military personnel to enlist in the Corps of Discovery. In addition, Lewis recruited the indispensable George Drouilliard at Fort Massac. The half-Shawnee hunter and interpreter possessed frontier skills and knowledge that would make him one of the most valuable members of the Corps.

Recruitment at Fort Massac, 1803, by Michael Haynes

In June 1805, about the time Lewis and Clark were struggling to make their epic portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri, Fort Massac was the site of an intriguing meeting between disgraced former vice-president Aaron Burr and none other than our old friend, General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson outfitted Burr with a barge and letters of introduction to his wide circle of international acquaintances in New Orleans. It is believed that Burr and Wilkinson drew up plans to launch a treasonous expedition of conquest into the American Southwest; Wilkinson would later betray Burr’s plan and order his arrest.

Fort Massac was heavily damaged in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It was, however, used as a training center during the War of 1812 before being closed at the end of the war in 1814. By 1833 it was described as a “ruin.” The fort’s site was purchased by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1903, and became an Illinois state park in 1908. Interesting archaeological research has been taking place at the fort site since the 1930s.

The current replica fort lies just beside the archaeological site and provides an accurate model of the fort as it existed in 1802. Visiting the fort is a total blast for buffs of the period. It consists of a four-sided wooden fort surrounded by trenches and palisades. Inside are wooden buildings and barracks. The design and construction of Fort Massac would have been typical of other frontier forts such as Fort Washington, the Cincinnati-area fort where Lewis and Clark first met in the 1790s. Lewis & Clark’s smaller Expedition forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop, would have followed the same model.

There’s a good introductory film at the visitor’s center. We especially enjoyed the quaint 1930s statue of George Rogers Clark and spending lots of time exploring the outline of the original fort.

More great reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I

Lewis & Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod


The Four Sergeants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

George Drouillard: Wanted for Murder


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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.

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, traitor extraordinaire

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.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana

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.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

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.

Port of New Orleans, engraved by D.G. Thompson

Port of New Orleans, engraved by D.G. Thompson after a painting by Alfred Waud

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.

Citizen Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

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.

Chickasaw Bluff #1

Chickasaw Bluff #1, along the Mississippi River

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…

Jay's Treaty (1795)

Jay's Treaty (ratified 1795)

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.

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When we first started researching early American exploration, we learned that Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame, was a contemporary of Lewis & Clark. Pike conducted his expedition to the Southwest at about the same time as Lewis & Clark were blazing the trail to the Pacific. He has a small “cameo” appearance in our forthcoming book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Although his career intersected with Lewis & Clark, Pike was anything but an equal. To tell the truth, he was a bit of a putz.

Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike

The National Park Service has an excellent website that compares and contrasts Pike’s expedition with that of Lewis & Clark. The essential point is that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were highly trained military officers who possessed expertise in diplomacy, field science, navigation, and cartography, not to mention leadership. To assist them, they were allowed to recruit a corps of the best soldiers the frontier army had to offer. They were sent west under a presidential commission to understand the Louisiana Territory, find a practical route across the continent, and establish relations with the Indians along the way. At this they succeeded to a remarkable degree.

By contrast, Captain Pike was sent out west with virtually none of the education or abilities that Lewis & Clark had. Though considered a crack shot and an efficient officer (if a bit of a martinet), he was an ordinary, mediocre man who seemed destined to live and die without making much of a mark. That is, until he became the protégé of none other than James Wilkinson. And thereby hangs a tale.

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, traitor extraordinaire

It never ceases to amaze me how far Wilkinson’s reach extended and how many people became his pawns. Certainly his machinations in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe and his attempted “seduction” of Lewis in To the Ends of the Earth are entirely realistic. At any rate, Pike became a lackey for Wilkinson, then the commanding general of the United States Army and the first Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory (Meriwether Lewis was the second). Wilkinson also happened to be a traitor, and one of the worst scoundrels in American history.

In 1805, Wilkinson dispatched Pike to explore the upper Mississippi River. Pike was to find the headwaters of the Mississippi, stop the illicit fur trade, persuade the Indians to come meet with Wilkinson, and produce useful maps. At all this Pike failed utterly. He and his hastily assembled ragtag crew set off with no medical training, no interpreter, and no scientific instruments. The expedition was a disaster, with the men saved from freezing to death only by the kindness of British traders, still our enemies at this time.

Nonetheless, Wilkinson sent Pike on an even more difficult mission the following year. Supposedly, Pike was to head west to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers to their sources. But the exploration was only a cover story. Pike’s real job would be to spy on the Spanish, determine their strength and the location of their forts, and report on how hard it might be to invade the southwest.

The story takes an astonishing turn when you learn that, at the same time, Wilkinson (who was a double agent) tipped off the Spanish that Pike was going to be traveling illegally into their territory! Though it is known that Wilkinson had earlier betrayed the route of Lewis & Clark to the Spanish (who failed to catch up with them), this time he betrayed his own man! Some historians believe that Wilkinson’s plan from the beginning was to have Pike captured so he could get an inside look into Spanish territory.

It is difficult to say whether Pike knew what was going to happen. At times he certainly behaved like a man who wanted to be found, rather than a man protecting the interests of his supposed mission and the welfare of his men. He and his men bumbled their way west with no warm clothing, no scientific instruments, and insufficient horses. They made it to Colorado, starving and desperately cold, where they found the mountains that include Pike’s Peak. Pike never successfully reached the summit of the famous peak that bears his name; his rations ran low and he turned back after two days of slogging through waist-deep snow.

Pike's Peak in Colorado

Pike's Peak in Colorado

In February, 1807, Pike’s party was arrested by Spanish authorities and escorted to Santa Fe. Here Pike was able to take notes on the Spanish forts and settlements, the real purpose of his expedition all along. The Spanish escorted Pike across Texas and expelled him back across the border into Louisiana. The incident led Spain to break off diplomatic relations with the United States. Eight of Pike’s men were held by the Spanish for two years before finally being released.

After this adventure, Pike returned to more routine duty in the Army. A better officer than he was an explorer, he won a series of promotions and wrote a book about his adventures, which, though poorly written and inaccurate, provided Americans with the first accounts of the Spanish southwest.

Pike's death

The death of General Pike at the battle of York, April 1813

Pike was promoted to brigadier general during the War of 1812. He died at the Battle of York (now Toronto) in April 1813, ironically after leading his men in a successful attack. As the town’s surrender negotiations were going on, the retreating British garrison blew up its ammunition without warning, and Pike was killed by flying rocks and other debris. His body was brought by ship back to Sackets Harbor, where his remains are buried.

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Sunday, October 11, is the 200th anniversary of the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Was it suicide or murder? Lewis’s death and the mystery surrounding it are the subject of our historical novel To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark. We are remembering Lewis all week here on “American Heroes,” including posting excerpts from the book.

False River, Point Coupee, Louisiana Territory
October 5, 1809

unmarkedgraveWilkinson bent over, wheezing, and gathered the papers up off the floor. His only regret was that Lewis hadn’t been there to receive the insults in person. Perhaps he’d have the chance to tell him about it in Natchez in a few days—along with the news that the West was buzzing with talk of his rebellion.

He glanced at the paper again, suddenly struck by something he’d missed the first time.

His Excellency the Governor and the General of the Militia being absent from the City

Egad! Clark on the move too? Surely he and Lewis weren’t traveling together! He skimmed the story over, but there were no further details.

No matter. There were big days ahead, and he needed to rest. He climbed into the soft downy bed and arranged the mosquito netting. To force his brain to stop cogitating, he turned his mind to pleasant visions of barrels of flour and crates of apples, bobbing across the sea to Cuba.

He imagined Meriwether Lewis walking the streets of Havana, living out his traitor’s life in exile. Or perhaps rotting forgotten in a prison in Mexico City, bearded and mad. Or dead, in an unmarked grave by a lonely road…

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