Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Louisiana Territory’ 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

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Location: The French Quarter in New Orleans

Highly desired for gracious living today, the courtyards in the French Quarter homes of the Creoles were more practical affairs, where you would find carriages parked and slaves working on household tasks.

In 1801, when Thomas Jefferson became president and Meriwether Lewis joined him at the White House as his private secretary, few could have imagined the dramatic turn that history was about to take. The United States was still a fragile experiment in representative democracy, and France dominated the North American continent, in possession of the entire central portion between the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, a place they called Louisiana. Not only that, but Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France, was on his way to conquering all of Europe, and planned to rebuild Louisiana as a breadbasket to service his empire with meat, wheat, leather, and fur.

What a difference a couple of years makes. By 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson’s envoys for the bargain basement price of $15 million (just $215 million even in today’s dollars — less than the cost of the new Batman movie!). And the United States found itself in possession of the most exotic city on the North American continent — the port of New Orleans. It was here that the deal finalizing the Louisiana Purchase was signed on December 20, 1803. Representing the U.S. were William C.C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and our old friend General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson and his colorful, checkered relationship with New Orleans figure prominently in our novel To the Ends of the Earth (yeah, click Buy Now at the top of the page. You know you want to).

Jefferson worried about assimilating New Orleans into the United States, and for good reason. New Orleans and the district surrounding it (the present-day state of Louisiana) brought over 50,000 new citizens to the United States who were French-speaking, Catholic, and last but not least, racially mixed. Free blacks and mixed couples abounded, with expectations of rights unheard of in the rest of the United States, such as going around armed and serving in the militia. The relations between the races were governed by an elaborate cultural code that was all but impenetrable by the Americans who arrived to take over governance. American ideas about separation of the races did not completely take hold in New Orleans until after the Civil War.

Creole woman with maid, by Edouard Marquis (1867)

Recently, we enjoyed a fantastic vacation in the Crescent City and had the opportunity to immerse ourselves for several hours in the lost world of Creole New Orleans. There are a lot of walking tours in the French Quarter, but Le Monde Creole (the Creole World) specializes in history tours focusing on the old Creole culture of the city through the lives of one family, the Locouls. As was typical, this family spent the growing and harvest seasons at their sugar plantation outside of town, then kicked up their heels all winter in their French Quarter townhomes.

Our tour guide was Bill, who is also the owner of Le Monde Creole Tours. The first thing we learned was worth the price of the tour, because Bill explained to us what a Creole actually is — something I’ve never understood.

As Bill explained, the confusion over the word Creole and the people it applies to arises because “Creole” has actually had three different meanings over the years. In the early 18th century, when Louisiana was first being settled by French and Spanish colonists, creole (from the Spanish criar – “to breed” or “to raise”) meant anyone or anything that was born in the New World. A person of French, Spanish, or African descent born in the New World was a creole. It was as simple as that. A horse or a dog or even a plant could be a creole as well. Over the decades, a caste system began to develop in which creoles were denied plum positions of leadership over newcomers sent from the mother country; this was one of the factors that led to revolutionary wars in Central and South America.

When the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, the meaning of creole shifted. The Creoles of Louisiana had developed a culture that was utterly unique, an amalgam of music, food, lifestyle, marriage customs, and social mores that bore no resemblance to that left behind in France, Spain, or Africa, let alone the brash American culture that abruptly descended on them. At that point, the word Creole came to mean anyone of any race who had been in Louisiana before the Purchase and followed the old lifestyle.

This lifestyle included a degree of racial mixing that left the Americans speechless and set the stage for the tortured race relations that still plague Louisiana today. As Bill took us through shady courtyards and down every little street you can imagine, we learned how elite white Creole men traditionally had two families: a white family headed by a white wife, and a black family headed by a mistress of mixed race. These arrangements were formal and worked out in detail, generally by the girl’s mother, who ensured that the daughter was provided for materially with a home, clothes, jewelry, and support for any children born to the marriage. An entire vocabulary described the children born to these unions: mulatto (half white and half African), quadroon (one-fourth African), octoroon (one-eighth African), griffe (one-fourth white), and sacatra (one-eighth white).

Creole men of New Orleans in a vintage photograph

If the mother of one of African families was a slave, it was common for the children of the relationship to be freed. As you can imagine, Americans were generally horrified by the presence of these free blacks, as it was impossible to know how to treat them. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of elite ruling families and expected to be treated with similar courtesy as that accorded to whites. Even more unnerving from the American point of view, it was often impossible to tell whether someone was of African descent just by looking at them. The danger of intermarrying with a black person was viewed with such distaste that eventually, an entire legal code was written to try to prevent that from happening.  Bill told us about extremely elaborate laws that involved having to produce birth certificates going back for generations to prove that you were white.

I was surprised to learn that Canal Street, the major New Orleans thoroughfare that divided the French Quarter from the Garden District, had its roots in the hostility between the Creole world and the American newcomers. Americans were blocked from building anywhere in the city (today’s French Quarter) and had to establish their own settlement next to it, which they called Lafayette or “the American Quarter.” There was very little assimilation or intermarriage between the two peoples until after the Civil War.

After that point, with massive German and Irish immigration into the city and military occupation, the old Creole culture faded — except for one group that strongly upheld the old Creole ways. These were the descendants of the Creole black families. Faced with a racially divided world in which they could never be white, yet abhorring the notion of mixing with the throngs of freed slaves flocking into the city, they clung to their unique culture for dear life, thus preserving it for future generations to discover again. For this reason, when most of us hear the world Creole today, we think of the French-speaking black families of New Orleans and their culture.

We spent several hours in the delightful company of Bill, learning about the multi-cultural origins of voodoo, jazz, and New Orleans’ infamous Storyville. A huge highlight was getting to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1, the famed above-ground cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of the Creole families.

So as not to give away the tour, I’ll refrain from gushing about the storytelling thread that ran through the entire trek about the Locoul family and the many secrets, lies, and tribulations that emerged to illuminate these fascinating historical times. But as you can probably tell, I highly recommend that you spend a morning with Bill the next time you are in New Orleans (you might even get to meet a parrot), and also take a ride out to Laura Plantation, where the tour of the house and sugar plantation of the same family will illuminate the other side of the story.

Le Monde Creole Tours

Laura Plantation

Read Full Post »

Location: Charlottesville, Virginia, about two miles from Monticello 

View of Ashlawn Highland, home of James Monroe

James Monroe’s Ashlawn-Highland is a stark contrast to Mr. Jefferson’s intellectual pleasure palace just two miles down the road. The home is beautiful, but quite small, and reflective of the gifts of its owner. As a president and a man, Monroe strikes me very much in the mold of Harry Truman or Gerald Ford. To his detractors, he was a partisan hack who put political loyalties first. To his admirers, he was a good and decent man on whom his country leaned in times of crisis without ever fully appreciating him.

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Monroe’s connections with Thomas Jefferson ran deep. When the Revolution broke out, Monroe was one of the young students at the College of William and Mary who raided the Governor’s Palace and liberated the swords and muskets that were stored there. He enlisted in the Continental Army and was badly wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton, an incident recounted in fascinating detail in David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing. Back home in Virginia, he studied the law with none other than former governor Jefferson (himself a brilliant attorney). As a Jefferson ally, he was soon elected to the Virgina House of Delegates, the Continental Congress, and at age 32, to the United States Senate.

In 1794, Monroe was appointed U.S. minister to France at the height of the French Revolution. Like Jefferson, Monroe strongly favored the revolution but not the extreme bloody turn that it took. He acted quickly to rescue all the Americans who fell from favor and faced a potential turn at the guillotine, including Thomas Paine and Madame Lafayette. But his bent for the radical faction also earned him the ire of President Washington back home, who fired Monroe and ordered him to return home.

Ashlawn Highland's incredible white oak was planted in Monroe's day

Politics had taken an ugly, paranoid turn as the political class, once united as the “Founding Fathers,” split apart into Hamiltonian (Federalist) and Jeffersonian (Republican) parties. As a leading Jeffersonian, Monroe was elected governor of Virginia; outside the state he was criticized by Hamiltonians as a French dupe, a Jacobin, and occasionally, a traitor. The election of 1800 was disputed between Jefferson and Aaron Burr and came down to a narrow vote in the House of Representatives. Many believed that Monroe and other middle state governors were prepared to arm their state militias and attempt to overthrow the government if Burr somehow won the election.

What makes Ashlawn-Highland a “Lewis & Clark” stop is, of course, Monroe’s next act, a critical role in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. As detailed in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click “Buy Now,” folks), Louisiana had been the pawn of France and Spain for decades, and a major impediment to the dreams of Americans like Jefferson who dreamed of westward expansion.

Around 1800, the master French diplomat Talleyrand became concerned about Spain’s weakness in North America. It was easy to see that the Americans were a rising people and would eventually overrun the Spanish territory, with or without their government’s consent. Talleyrand negotiated the cession of Louisiana back to France, though for the most part it continued to be administered by Spanish officials.

Liz touring the outbuildings of James Monroe's Ashlawn Highland

As president, Jefferson was trying to maintain cordial relations with both European powers, but the French takeover of Louisiana was a setback to say the least. It seems that Talleyrand and his boss, Napoleon, had big dreams for reestablishing a true French colonial presence in Louisiana. As Jefferson wrote to his minister to France, Robert Livingston, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our habitual and natural enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market … France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us the attitude of defiance…” A inveterate hater of all things British, Jefferson began to reluctantly eye an alliance with Britain as the only way to ensure that U.S. commerce could travel freely on the seas … unless …

In 1802, Jefferson sent his old friend James Monroe to France with $2 million and an order to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and “West Florida” (the present-day Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle) from the French. Even as Monroe was crossing the Atlantic, things were happening fast. The plans of Napoleon and Talleyrand had collapsed in the face of an unexpectedly bloody and costly uprising in Santo Domingo (Haiti). When Monroe arrived on the scene, he found the French leaders ready to smash it all for cash — not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory, almost one million square miles of land.

Many historians believe that Napoleon and Talleyrand believed they could simply lift the Americans’ wallets, then take the territory away again by force when they got back on their feet. In any case, in a whirlwind succession of secret meetings, and without any authority whatsoever except their faith that Thomas Jefferson had their backs, Monroe and Livingston concluded the deal, purchasing Louisiana for a cool $15 million — surely one of the greatest real estate bargains in world history.

Statue of James Monroe at Ashlawn Highland

Historian John W. Foster wrote of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase this way: “It made the acquisition of Florida a necessity. It brought about the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the thirst for more slave territory to preserve the balance of power, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery. It led to our Pacific Coast possessions, the construction of the transcontinental lines of railway and our marvelous Rocky Mountain development, the demand for the Isthmus Canal, the purchase of Alaska, the annexation of Hawaii … it fixed our destiny for world power.”

 Not bad for two weeks’ work in a long and storied political career. Thanks, James Monroe.

Read Full Post »

This 1806 cartoon skewers both Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Jefferson is portrayed as one of the newly discovered prairie dogs. Stung by the hornet (Napoleon), he's spewing gold coins at the feet of a dancing Spaniard eager to palm off the Floridas on the greedy Jefferson. Courtesy Library of Congress.

You probably have a friend or two who is fanatical about their politics. Someone who never stops waxing/ranting about the virtues/evils of Obama/Palin. (Yeah, it’s just as annoying in any permutation.) Someone who works politics into every conversation. Someone who can’t really be friends with someone of the opposite political persuasion; someone who will back you right into a corner in a political argument; maybe even someone who gets in trouble at work because they can’t keep their opinions to themselves.

Such a person was Meriwether Lewis. As a young man and junior officer, Lewis was known as an outspoken, combative Jeffersonian Republican, not above exchanging “hot words” with fellow officers on the matter of politics. The 1790s were one of the most bitterly partisan eras in American history. Jeffersonians warned urgently of the “Federalist terror” to come, while Federalists worried that Republicans would bring about the rule of “the worthless, the dishonest, the rapacious, the vile, the merciless, and the ungodly.”

A silhouette of Meriwether Lewis. Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello

In other words, politics as usual to the practiced and world-weary eye of a 21st-century American. But it didn’t seem so in the atmosphere of the fragile young republic whose very survival was still in doubt. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he selected Captain Lewis, then 26 years old, to detach from Army service and become his private secretary in the White House. Jefferson had a very special job in mind for Lewis, and no, it wasn’t leading an expedition into the unknown West. It was leading a purge of Federalist officers from the Army.

Lewis had been an army paymaster for several years, a job which required him to travel throughout the back country to remote forts, becoming intimately acquainted with most of the country’s officer corps. Now Jefferson asked Lewis to put that knowledge to good use. As his first project as Jefferson’s closest aide, Lewis produced a roster listing all commissioned officers. Next to each name he wrote a simple symbol, which categorized the officer according to their competence and politics. If lucky, an officer might be an “officer of the 1st class, so esteemed from a superiority of genius and military proficiency” or “a professional soldier without a political creed” or best of all, “Republican.”

Others weren’t so lucky, though as it turned out, there were all kinds of ways to be a Federalist, and some were worse than others. Lewis carefully differentiated between those “opposed to the administration, otherwise respectable,” those “most violently opposed to the administration and still active in its vilification,” and worst of all, those “unworthy of the commissions they bear.” Jefferson used the list judiciously, retaining the Federalist officers whom Lewis deemed competent while axing those “violently” opposed. It was a piece of extraordinary influence for such a young officer.

Thomas Jefferson by Jamie Wyeth

It is interesting from this distance to take a look at what Jefferson, and presumably Lewis, actually believed and advocated. As Jefferson wrote in his First Inaugural Address, Americans deserved:

a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to regulate their pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

In practice, this meant that Jefferson favored a minimalist government to a degree that might surprise even the most ardent Libertarian today. Jefferson believed that government was inherently corrupt, that any interference with the activity of the private individual was inherently invasive, and that Americans could stay united just fine without the government’s foot on their necks. This was in direct opposition to the Federalists, who were convinced that the young republic would collapse without strong central authority to lead the way.

A bedrock principle of Jefferson’s was that a government was only legitimate if its power sprang organically from the people. To Jefferson, the best government was local, in the town or ward where the citizen lived. State legislatures and the House of Representatives were all right; he had no use for either the Senate or the judiciary. As for the presidency, he thought so little of it that when he wrote his own list of achievements for his tombstone, he did not even list “President of the United States” among them.

American Sphinx, by Joseph J. Ellis (1996)

Even for his day, Jefferson was quite a radical thinker, and the nation owes a debt of gratitude to James Madison for helping the Sage of Monticello come down from some notions that probably would have wrecked the country (such as the idea that all laws should expire every few years). It is one of history’s great ironies that this most libertarian of presidents undertook the most sweeping executive decision of all time. When Thomas Jefferson laid out $15 million for the Louisiana Purchase, he doubled the country’s size and assumed autocratic rule over an additional 530 million acres of territory — all without a word of consultation from Congress.

As Joseph Ellis writes, “When history presented him with an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to eliminate forever the presence on America’s western border of any major European power… it triggered his most visionary energies, which then overrode his traditional Republican injunctions.” Jefferson himself didn’t waste a moment worrying about whether buying the West was the right thing to do. Using the kind of rhetoric guaranteed to have Federalists all over the country clutching their pearls and spitting out their morning coffee, he wrote:

Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic or Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this.

In other words, the West was the future, even if it broke up the country. Jefferson was soon to send his young enthusiast Meriwether Lewis off to explore its wonders (along with another good plain Republican, William Clark). As it turned out, the Louisiana Purchase was one of the greatest achievements by any American president, cementing Jefferson’s place in history. A little inconsistency was a small price to pay.

And as for politics? As the Army purge suggests, Jefferson could be as hard-boiled as they come. Coincidentally or not, the vast majority of Westerners proved to be freewheeling Republicans, setting the stage for decades of dominance by Jefferson’s political party.

Lewis’s List of Army Officers (from the Library of Congress)

Read Full Post »

Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

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!

André Michaux left Philadelphia on July 15, 1793, accompanied by two non-commissioned French officers of artillery. On August 14, he took a keelboat down the Ohio to Limestone (now Mayesville), Kentucky, observing plants and animals along the way. There Michaux he took leave of his companions, got horses for his journey, and headed into the interior of “Kaintuck.”

American oak documented by Andre Michaux

American oak documented by Andre Michaux

Michaux started visiting the people Citizen Genet had instructed him to see, for whom he had letters of introduction. On his way to Lexington, he spent time looking at the deposits of fossil shells and bones at Buffalo Lick, an area of bitter saline springs. On September 13, Michaux presented himself to Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby. Michaux did not record Shelby’s reaction in his notes, but later Shelby sent a letter to Jefferson expressing his opposition to the Louisiana Scheme and predicting its collapse.

On September 16, Michaux reached Louisville and finally made contact with George Rogers Clark. Unlike Shelby, he found Clark “very eager for the undertaking.” Michaux waited a month for Clark to frame a reply to Genet, spending his time botanizing around Lexington and Danville. On October 21, 1793, he finally received Clark’s note to Genet, in which he enthusiastically accepted his commission and concluded: “I will surmount every obstacle and pave my way to Glory which is my object.”

But there was one problem – “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Though Clark was confident he could recruit as many men as they needed, first he had to get boats and provisions, and he needed cash. “Without it our Scheams may be Ruined, and for so fair a prospect to meet with any difficulty of that nature would be lamentable,” he told Michaux. Michaux got busy soliciting donations from merchants in Lexington and Danville. “They have all promised to advance me so much money as possible,” he wrote Clark, but for immediate funds “I shall be in the necessity to have recours to Philadephia.”

On November 10, Michaux set out once more for the East. He traveled the 130-mile Wilderness Trail to Cumberland Gap and down to the Tennessee settlements on the Holston River, noting plants and ferns along the way. He arrived in Philadelphia in December to find that all hell had broken loose. The city was recovering from a terrible outbreak of yellow fever and thousands had fled, leaving government offices, newspapers, postal services, and businesses almost at a standstill. Michaux also learned that across the sea in his native France, the Reign of Terror was taking its fearful toll, with Robespierre in control, a civil war raging, and the French army embattled on every front.

Robespierre's Reign of Terror

Robespierre's Reign of Terror took a fearful toll

As for Genet, he’d spent the last four months in New York, desperately trying to commandeer for his Louisiana scheme the ships of the French fleet which had fled to New York harbor in the wake of the terrible insurrection in Santo Domingo. Genet was chagrined and disappointed when the ships returned to France, but this was nothing compared to his shock when he learned that the Washington administration had formally requested his recall. The official document, prepared by none other than Thomas Jefferson, had reached Paris in October. The French Committee on Public Safety agreed without protest, already well-aware of Genet’s indiscreet behavior. They did, however, agree to allow Genet to stay in his post until a replacement arrived.

Ever optimistic, Genet received Michaux and his report about events in Kentucky enthusiastically. He instructed Michaux to report to George Rogers Clark that the plan was on, but would have to be deferred until the spring of 1794 because of the difficulty of obtaining the needed French ships. Michaux wrote Clark about this, telling him excitedly about recent French military successes (“All the Troops under Duck of York taken prisoners … the Queen of France paid for her treasons of her head”). He enclosed 400 dollars for the cause, all he could pry loose from Genet.

With the liberation of Louisiana postponed, Michaux had hopes of resurrecting his plans for his journey to the Pacific. He visited with Jefferson and others in the American Philosophical Society to discuss the planned Western journey. He seems to have been broadening his interests during this time to include birds and animals.

In mid-January 1794, news of Citizen Genet’s official recall reached Philadelphia. By this time, much of Genet’s rude and insolent conduct toward the U.S. government had been made public. Michaux recorded nothing in his journal about this, but he did report a meeting in which he returned all the blank commissions entrusted to him. Genet, still in his post until a replacement arrived, permitted Michaux to return home for a visit to Charleston, promising to send him on another mission to Kentucky in the spring.

With a sigh of relief, Michaux headed toward Charleston and home. He was not on hand for the February 1794 arrival of the new French minister to the U.S., Jean Fauchet. Almost immediately, Fauchet quashed Genet’s Louisiana plans. Responding to protests by the Washington administration and disturbed by wild rumors of large-scale military recruitment by Clark in Kentucky, Fauchet issued a proclamation in March 1794, canceling all commissions conferred by Genet and instructing French citizens in America to abide by American neutrality. The Louisiana scheme was officially dead.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

As for Michaux, he was probably glad to lay down his role as secret agent and go back to what he loved best: botany. He set out on one more major American expedition, in the spring of 1795, traveling across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Tennessee. Near Nashville, he stopped at the plantation home of Andrew Jackson, then an obscure lawyer. He visited Kentucky and dined with Governor Shelby, and discussed with him the idea of an overland journey to the Pacific. He traveled through Indiana and Illinois. During the following autumn, he roamed the Mississippi as far north at St. Louis, and as far south as Fort Massac. One night, he camped on the shores of the river where the Belle Riviere falls into the Mississippi. On the opposite shore was the camp of the Spanish Governor of Natchez, Don Manuel Gayoso. Gayoso sent a boat to find out who he was, and told him the news of the peace between France and Spain. Michaux probably didn’t tell Gayoso of his involvement in the late plot to dispossess him and take Louisiana for France.

Weathering harrowing winter storms, Michaux’s last port of call before turning for home was Louisville, where he conferred for the last time with George Rogers Clark, who was still trying to obtain reimbursement from the French government for all his expenses raising and equipping an army on their behalf. Michaux couldn’t help him out there, as he himself hadn’t been paid in years, and had all but exhausted his own estate supporting his country’s enterprise.

Flora Boreali Americana, by Andre Michaux

Flora Boreali Americana, by Andre Michaux

It is no doubt with regret that André Michaux turned his back forever on his dream of exploring the Missouri River. He arrived back in Charleston in early summer. In August 1796,  he sailed for France. Though many of his specimens were tragically lost in a shipwreck, upon returning home he produced two landmark books on North American plants, the Histoire des chenes de l’Amerique septentrionale (“Oaks of North America,” 1801) and the Flora Boreali-Americana (“Flora of North America,” published posthumously in 1803). Michaux never returned to American shores. He died during an expedition to Madagascar in 1802.

Michaux’s contributions to botany cannot be overestimated. He is credited with the discovery and description of over 300 plant species, and his work and that of his son Francois, also a famous botanist, is still well-known today. He was an outstanding scientist, a loyal Frenchman, and an able diplomat. I wonder how the history of North American exploration might have been different if this brilliant botanist had blazed the trail up the Missouri River, instead of Lewis & Clark?

Previous: André Michaux Part I: The King’s Botanist

André Michaux Part II: The Reluctant Secret Agent

Read Full Post »

Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

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!

Citizen Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

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.

George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark

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.

Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby

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.

Previous: André Michaux Part I: The King’s Botanist

Next: André Michaux Part III: Scientist and Patriot

Read Full Post »

The North West Company crest - "Perseverance"

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stayed at the Mandan villages during the late fall and winter of 1804-1805, they were surprised to find that they were not the only white men there. Clark wrote in his journal in November 1804, “Cap lewis visit the Me ne tar rees, the 25th and returned the 27th of Nov. with 2 Chiefs &c. &c. and told me that 2 Clerks & 5 men of the N W Company & Several of the hudsons Bay Company had arrived with goods to trade with the indians    a Mr. La Roche & Mc Kinzey are the Clerks.” Lewis had just met Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque of the North West Company. And he wasn’t happy about it.

Based in Montreal, the North West Company provided trade goods such as blankets, guns, powder and lead, knives, kettles and pots, cloth, jewelry, food, spices and whiskey to the Indians, in exchange for valuable furs for the European market. The Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered in London, played a similar role in the fur trade, though they also provided rifles to their best customers—including the Blackfeet. Lewis and Clark found that at least a dozen Canadian traders representing the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were ensconced in the earth lodge villages alongside them that winter.

Indian trade goods

Indian trade goods

It was a recipe for tension. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mandan Villages were technically American territory, and Lewis & Clark were not pleased to find the Canadians trading there. In reality, there was little they could do about it. Trade was one thing, but there was something else they simply could not tolerate. They believed the Canadians were giving British sovereignty medals to the Mandans and Hidatsas. As newly minted American subjects, only Jefferson peace medals were allowed.

On November 29, 1804, the captains attempted to lay down the law. Clark wrote, “Mr. La Rock and one of his men Came to visit us    we informed him what we had herd of his intentions of makeing Chiefs &c. and forbid him to give meadels or flags to the Indians, he Denied haveing any Such intention, we agreeed that one of our interpeters Should Speak for him on Conditions he did not Say any thing more than what tended to trade alone—    he gave fair promises &.”

Despite the tense rivalry, Charles McKenzie and François-Antoine Larocque were frequent callers at Fort Mandan that winter. Sergeant Patrick Gass concluded that the North West Company men were more interested in keeping an eye on Lewis & Clark than in enjoying the pleasure of their conversation. In fact, Larocque asked several times if he might accompany the Corps of Discovery when they resumed their journey west. Lewis & Clark politely blew him off. Struggling to plant the seed of American sovereignty in the Louisiana Territory, they saw little advantage in providing transportation, protection, and inside information on their discoveries to a Canadian merchant in the pay of the British.

Hudson's Bay Company crest

Hudson's Bay Company crest - "A skin for a skin"

Lewis, in particular, seems to have disliked the Canadian traders. As an inveterate Republican and the son of a deceased Revolutionary War veteran, Lewis seems to have curled his lip at all things remotely British. Charles McKenzie confirms this in his journal. “Mr. La Roque and I having nothing very particular claiming attention, we lived contentedly and became intimate with the Gentlemen of the American expedition; who on all occasions seemed happy to see us, and always treated us with civility and kindness,” McKenzie wrote. “It is true Captain Lewis could not make himself agreeable to us—he could speak fluently and learnedly on all subjects, but his inveterate disposition against the British stained, at least in our eyes, all his eloquence. Captain Clark was equally well informed, but his conversation was always pleasant, for he seemed to dislike giving offence unnecessarily.”

Hudson's Bay Company post, Lake Winnipeg

Hudson's Bay Company post, Lake Winnipeg

Offensive or not, Lewis and Clark were unsuccessful in discouraging the North West Company men, and they and their counterparts in the Hudson’s Bay Company were fixtures in the Indian fur trade network for decades to come. The North West Company endured through the 1810’s, when the destruction of a major fur trading post at Sault Ste. Marie by the Americans during the War of 1812, along with a decline in the beaver population due to over-harvesting, dealt a serious blow to their fortunes. In 1821, they merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Hudson's Bay Company Building, Montreal, Canada

Hudson's Bay Company Building, Montreal, Canada

As for the Hudson’s Bay Company, it still exists, the oldest commercial corporation in North America. Today the company is best known for operating popular department stores throughout Canada, including The Bay, Zellers, Home Outfitters, and Fields. The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, located in Winnepeg, Manitoba, is considered one of Canada’s national treasures. It is a treasure trove of information on the era of the fur trade and early exploration in North America, and contains fascinating, detailed records of the company’s activities from its chartering in 1670 to the present. Meriwether Lewis might take satisfaction in knowing that the company is now American-owned.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »