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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Tarnished Warrior

by
James Ripley Jacobs

published by
The Macmillan Company,
New York, 1938

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p187 Chapter VIII
Federal Commissioner in the Reach for Dominion

By the first part of the year 1799 Wilkinson had completed the work that had fallen to the Army as a result of the Pinckney and the Jay treaties. The administration was eager to learn directly from him just what he had done, and what was the political sentiment in the Southwest, especially since the United States was in turmoil over the Alien and Sedition Acts and was openly threatened by some of the most powerful countries of Europe. France was particularly objectionable. She had demanded loans and adherence to an outworn treaty. Angry at failure, she had then insulted the United States Minister and begun the capture of American vessels upon the high seas. The American reply had been, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." Measure after measure had been passed, strengthening the harbor defenses and mobile forces. An army of 10,000 men had been authorized, plus an "additional force." To raise and train these new troops was as formidable a task as to employ them properly. Wilkinson was needed to help solve the complicated problem; he was therefore requested to come to Philadelphia without delay. At the prospect of his departure, Ann became greatly distressed and pleaded to accompany him in spite of the fact that the trip would be a trying one for her and the boys.1 Since he expected to return by autumn he felt that she had better not go, and hence made arrangements for her to stay at Concordia in the care of a certain M. Walker, who was employed there as a sort of overseer and general manager. That she might see more clearly the reasons for remaining behind, he wrote to Gayoso requesting:

"Would you take the trouble to point out the dangers and the p188incommodations of the voyage, it would have great weight with my Ann, and will oblige me, but the thing must appear like a suggestion of your own — you perceive I treat with the intimacy and unreserve of a Brother."2

Wilkinson knew the value of argument originating outside the family circle. Apparently Sargent had helped before; now he called on Gayoso, who could comply with much better excuse.

As a sort of recompense for this favor, Wilkinson declared that he would promote Gayoso's views with "my own court and your ambassador — and nothing will be left undone."3 About two weeks later he reverted to the same topic and promised that some of the Governor's letters would be faithfully reported to the President with a "viva voce."4 Since Carondelet had not spoken well of Gayoso, praise from some one else of importance might prove decidedly helpful. Wilkinson also promised that he would defend the clouded title of Concordia "against all the subtleties and chicanery of Lawyers and Judges."5 Maybe Judge Tilton was thought of; he had come down the river a few months before and had made disparaging remarks about the property.6

Meanwhile, yielding to masculine argument, Mrs. Wilkinson and the boys moved to Concordia, and here the General lingered with them for a while. He was very loath to leave them. During the last week in May he wrote Gayoso and explained why he had not reached New Orleans:

"The anxiety of my wife at the idea of our separation, gives us both agony, and so sensibly affects her whole frame, that I shall not be able to tear myself from her as soon as I expected, but yet hope to embrace you around the 1st. proximo."7

After arriving in New Orleans, he was still disturbed about her. She was constantly in his mind, and he could not keep from mentioning her in a letter to Ellicott. So it read:

"I left Mrs. Wilkinson with our friend Walker at Concord House, in tolerable health but deep affliction — my own solicitude exceeds anything I have before experienced on Her account and my absence will be shortened by every means in my power. I shall find pleasure p189in reporting your progress to the President, and rendering you any service in my power."8

Thus both Gayoso and Ellicott were to have a friend at the seat of government. Mrs. Wilkinson and the children were to be the only losers. She was very lonely and had only a few persons in the neighborhood to whom she might intimately turn. She was nearly forty, often indisposed, and within the last few years had suffered the loss of an affectionate brother and her eldest son. Now her husband was on the eve of a long and dangerous voyage, leaving her behind in a sickly climate with the responsibility of caring for two growing boys. She wanted to go with him to Philadelphia, where she had spent her youth and had many friends. There she could find her people, and pass her days in comfort and content.

Although the General had many faults, lack of affection for his "beloved Ann" was not among them. In New Orleans he often thought of her, and on leaving there he wrote Gayoso thanking him for his courtesies and asking that she be his particular care.9

While in the city, Wilkinson had been the house guest of Gayoso. Although the Governor possessed only a little real estate and a few slaves and pieces of furniture, his conversation was "easy and affable and his politeness was of that superior cast, which showed it to be the effect of early habit, rather than an accomplishment merely intended to render him agreeable."10 Wilkinson thought so highly of his culture and character that he had considered sending his eldest son, James Biddle, about fifteen years old, to New Orleans, where he believed that, under Gayoso's tutelage, his morals would be maintained, his manners improved, and his knowledge of the French language increased.11 The visit was not made, more on account of a change in plans than because of any diminished admiration for his Spanish friends. When his vessel was leaving the river and its sails began to fill with the clean, fresh breath of the sea, he sat down and wrote upon a July morning:

"We are all in health and spirits, eat without allowance and drink your own and Madame Gayoso's health daily."12

Three weeks later a robust youngster at Natchez took out his p190ink and a quill pen and copied down in a roundish, childlike hand the following note that his mother or tutor suggested:

". . . your polite and friendly letter enclosing three from my Father was handed me a few days since by Captain Vidal, for which mamma begs to offer her warmest acknowledgements.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"She is indisposed or would have done herself the pleasure of writing your Excellency and Madame Gayoso to [whom] she presents her most affectionate and respectful compliments."13

Gayoso did not read the last of these letters, perhaps not even the earlier one; he was stricken with fever, and on the 18th of July his record as Governor was forever closed.

By the last of August Wilkinson had reached New York after a tedious journey in a "clumsy ship" from New Orleans. Since his departure from the East in 1797 troubles with France had grown worse and efforts had been made to prepare the Army for any eventuality. For an increased number of federal troops, three major-generals had been authorized. Wilkinson felt badly that he himself had not received promotion, an act which Hamilton had urged but Adams and Washington, whose ears had been filled with tales of Spanish intrigues, seemed unwilling to support.14

However, they all knew that Wilkinson's knowledge of the frontier and of Army administration was extensive, and that he should be consulted when important decisions were to be made about either. They, therefore, very seriously considered a long report that he made to Hamilton on the 4th of September, 1799. In it he pointed out that the regular regiments were greatly under their authorized strength, and that many of the officers were absent from their commands. For example, the colonel of the 3rd had not seen his regiment for seven years. Besides, as he said, "the derangement and dispersion of the corps, and the separation of the men that are effective from the officers, and the officers from the men, tear up the fundamental principles of military institutions; they extinguish the pride of Corps, that powerfully operative impulse — they prevent emulation — they perpetuate ignorance — they produce insubordination and indiscipline, and they destroy responsibility, without which all multitudes become mobs, and an army the worst of all."15

p191 Such observations deserved and received more attention than those that he made governing the strategic disposition of the Army. In matters of strategy and tactics Wilkinson seldom carefully collected and weighed all the data that were necessary for correct conclusions. When he recommended that Oswego, Fort Fayette, Fort Washington, Fort Wayne, etc., be abandoned and their garrisons be removed farther south, Washington did not concur, partially because he believed that thereby the Northwest might be inadequately protected and the Spaniards disturbed by troop concentrations near their borders.16 These dispositions, however, would serve to checkmate the French, to whom the Mississippi region was reputed to have been ceded, and would foster any plan of the United States for taking Louisiana and Florida, perhaps "squinting at South America" — a project that was dear to the heart of Hamilton, who hoped that England and the revolutionists in the Spanish colonies would join him and his countrymen to promote it. In any such reach for dominion Wilkinson would have had an important command; perhaps no one was better acquainted with the territory through which offensive steps would first be taken. However, Washington and others clearly saw that a policy of peace would be better for the interest of the country, and their judgment fortunately prevailed.

After remaining about four and a half months in the East, Wilkinson left Hampton Roads on December 16, 1799, aboard the sloop of war Patapsco. During his stay he had visited New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, endeavoring to do what he could to assist in the reorganization of the Armya and learn more fully what he was expected to do in the Southwest. He had been told to prepare for recruits coming down the Ohio in the spring to swell his depleted command, to hasten the building of fortifications along the lower Mississippi, and to coöperate with the civil agents in their relation with the Indians. To carry out these injunctions and many others of a routine kind, Wilkinson was bidden to return as quickly as possible. After fifty-five days of almost constant "death-like" seasickness he reached Natchez on February 22, 1800.17

There he found all his family in good health. Ann, he described as "blooming still as Hebe and fully qualified richly to repay me p192for the pains and pangs of absence."18 He was likewise delighted that the Spaniards appeared friendly. The very day after the General's arrival at New Orleans, the Governor, Casa Calvo, successor of Gayoso de Lemos, called and showed himself inclined to favor arrangements helpful to the American Army. From him Wilkinson subsequently obtained permission for troops and supplies to pass through Spanish territory en route to posts north of the Gulf; each agreed to the surrender of deserters from the other; William Augustus Bowles, a chronic disturber in Spanish territory, was to be put down. Wilkinson went so far as to promise to throw the rogue in jail for a year and fine him $2,000 if he could catch him on American soil.19 The announcement of this threat, at least, pleased the Spaniards and deterred Bowles from using our territory as a haven of refuge.

With the Spaniards in a mood to meet most of American requests, Wilkinson could delegate his work to another and return to the East, where duties of the Army required his presence. He was also eager to place his sons in the College of New Jersey, at Princeton, and remove Mrs. Wilkinson to a more healthful climate. At Natchez he knew nothing of his own future, but perhaps he might favorably influence it by being near at hand when a new administration was inaugurated. For several years he had cultivated the friendship of Jefferson, who was now in line for the Presidency. It might be well for the General to show a warming or cooling of Federalist sympathies according as he read the political horoscope at the Capital; a wrong kind of partisanship added to reputed Spanish leanings might result in his being supplanted.

Hence, Wilkinson was pleased when he heard that the thirty‑two-gun frigate General Green awaited him below New Orleans. He accordingly laid plans to leave Fort Adams on May 22, 1800, and hasten to the mouth of the Mississippi for embarking. Just a month later his vessel cast anchor in Havana for a few days. Wilkinson was greatly impressed with the "politeness and urbanity" shown him there. He attended a ball and was delighted with the ladies. He observed, "The lustre of their Eyes, which far exceeded that of their diamonds, quite fascinates me and transported my imagination to Elysium, where I felt myself surrounded by a group of Hyades . . . p193but of all the Angels, I prefer Donna Antonio." Mrs. Wilkinson was not among the guests; she was deterred by fears of the fever and had to content herself with receiving distinguished visitors.20

About the first of July the General Green reached Cape Henry, and from there Wilkinson went to Norfolk. He wanted to visit Hamilton and others, who had pressed him with an invitation, but his purse would not permit. He was still waiting for reimbursement of expenditures made for himself and his suite while at New York and en route to New Orleans, something like a thousand dollars. He could think of his own conditions in comparison with that of the high Spanish officials of Havana, his late hosts, who drew $26,000 a year exclusive of perquisites. He did not fail to write Hamilton of their salary and to remark again upon certain Spanish "women of figure": "I defy the most prized mortal at once behold them steadily for a second without strong emotions of admiration and desire." In the same letter he remarked that he had sent a box of pecans to the Hamiltons and two small orange stalks to Mrs. Church, daughter of General Philip Schuyler21 — little acts of courtesy that Wilkinson often practiced.

Without any excuse for lingering on the Virginia coast, the General rode quickly to Georgetown. From here he expected to continue on to Pittsburgh, but, instead, he was detained in the neighborhood until December. On the 6th of May, McHenry had resigned, and no one was immediately available as a successor.22 Until Samuel Dexter took over the office of Secretary of War, Wilkinson performed a number of its duties. The expansion of the Army had created a great deal of work, and its official papers were in confusion. After arrangements had been completed for administration of the War Department and Wilkinson had seen a few of his old friends, he proceeded to Pittsburgh, the great depot for troops and supplies destined for the Southwest. Once there he began to renovate Fort Fayette as he had done during the winter of 1797‑1798: soldiers cleaned, whitewashed, and remodeled the barracks; artificers constructed the housing facilities for incoming recruits; here and there masons repaired with mortar and brick; carpenters and cabinet workers p194united their efforts in making tables, Windsor chairs, and a first-class "necessary" for the General.23 With driving energy he endeavored to provide the post with these and other improvements; then he laid plans to return to Washington.

Recrossing the mountains in March with his suite, he began to hobnob with members of the new administration. For a long while he and Jefferson had found mutual interest in the Mississippi country. During the winter of 1797‑1798 they had seen something of each other when Wilkinson was in Philadelphia. Then the General had talked of the Blount conspiracy; he had also told of Nolan's ventures in Texas, perhaps indicating that others would soon be attempted. Interest once aroused, the General continued to stimulate. Just before leaving Fort Adams in 1800 he had written a letter to Jefferson introducing Nolan, and expressing the hope that "you will find pleasure in his details of a Country, the soil, clime, population, improvements and production of which are so little known to us."24

Jefferson doubtless did enjoy the tales that the much traveled Nolan related, tales not merely limited to information about the wild horses west of the Mississippi on which he had asked information. Nolan had another object in mind during that summer of 1800 that he spent in the East: he wanted aid for the conquest of Spanish territory, and hopefully turned to the British minister. But neither from this quarter nor from Jefferson did he obtain any backing. Returning to New Orleans, he and twenty-four of his followers crossed the Mississippi at Walnut Hills on the 1st of November, 1800; and before the end of the following March, the Spaniards had found his camp and brought his career to a grisly close. Negro slaves sorrowfully buried him beneath Texas sod after his body had been mutilated with a cannon ball and his enemies had cut off his ears to send as a gift to the Governor of Texas.25

The information Jefferson had gained from Nolan was supplemented and reinforced by Wilkinson during the early months of 1801. He also contributed to the President's hobbies. In January, 1800, Jefferson had asked the General to look after the transportation from New Orleans of "two Indian busts of Palmyra," a gift of p195a certain Mr. Morgan Brown.26 When he left there on the 5th of June he was not able to find them; he thought Jefferson had in mind "Italian busts from Palmyra of the Old World." In lieu of them he brought a few "productions of nature and of art with several original modern manuscripts of some interest." To this collection he added other things about two months later: petrifactions, Indian knives, a sketch of settled parts of Mississippi Territory, and meteorological observationsb by the late William Dunbar, a surveyor recently employed by the Army.27

Perhaps Wilkinson was trying to pave the way for his appointment as Governor of Natchez; he would have enjoyed the extra pay, and the Spaniards might have found his rule desirable. If so, Jefferson thought otherwise, and Wilkinson returned to Pittsburgh, the Army paying his tavern bills as he went back and forth. One account in Washington, covering from March 9 to April 10, amounted to $210.35.28 He was always willing to share his bread with others, never closing his door against those who would enter, no matter if the expense entailed was his or the government's.

After reaching Pittsburgh in April he again was engaged in routine work of the Army and in laying plans for a new road on the American side to connect Lakes Erie and Ontario. He visited Presque Isle, Buffalo, Black Rock, Fort Niagara, and other places, riding hard and putting in long hours.29 Even if horses cast their shoes, aides grew weary, and wine flowed deep in tavern bowls, the work went on, and Wilkinson could feel that he was accomplishing something worth while.

By June what still remained to be done could be intrusted to other hands. Wilkinson, therefore, prepared to leave for the Southwest, where he and two others had been ordered to make treaties covering boundaries, roads, and trading posts with the Indians below the Ohio. About the first of September he reached the neighborhood of Knoxville, and found the commissioners who were to work with him. One was General Andrew Pickens, now sixty-two years old, whom the Indians called Skyagunsta (Wizard Owl), "the Red Men's friend"; the other was Colonel Benjamin Hawkins, agent for Indian affairs south of the Ohio, "Beloved Man of the Four Nations."30 Persons p196better fitted to deal with the savages, it would have been hard to select. Failing to arrange for a meeting with the Cherokees, the three drifted down the Tennessee, and by October 18 had reached Chickasaw Bluffs, near Memphis. Here the long peaceful Chickasaws assembled to listen to the message brought them. On the 24th they agreed to a road through their own territory, thus linking the Miró district of Tennessee with the settlements near Natchez. Travelers using it were expected to be a source of profit to the Chickasaws, who planned to operate the ferries and offer provisions for sale. Perhaps the hope of a little money and the promise of protection by the United States may have influenced the Indians' decision. Certainly the gift of seven hundred dollars in goods helped toward friendly acquiescence.31

Successful in their first treaty, the commissioners continued on down the Mississippi to Fort Adams. Here in December the Choctaws gathered, a "humble, friendly, tranquil, pacific people." They were poor and asked for gifts. Game was no longer abundant, and their way of living had changed. They wanted a set of blacksmith tools; they sought teachers of spinning and weaving for their young women. Instead, they were given hoes, axes, and colorful clothing with a small amount of tobacco and twelve rations apiece to support them on their journey home. Now happy, they agreed to the building of a road from Fort Adams to the Yazoo, accepted the old boundary line as it had existed between the British and themselves, and professed a willingness that it be clearly marked once more.32

However, the work of the commissioners was not yet finished; they still had to deal with the most civilized of the southern Indians, the Creeks, who would not be ready for a conference before spring. In fact, negotiations did not begin at Fort Wilkinson, near Milledgeville, Georgia, until May 24, 1802. Then Wilkinson and his companions were elaborately received in the public square with music and dancing. Two warriors were decked out in white wings, wings of reconciliation with which the commissioners were touched to remove all grievances of the past. Bows and arrows painted red were broken and cast into a pit and covered with earth and spotless skins. Then three great chiefs came forward and, after wiping the faces p197of the commissioners, threw over each a skin without blemish. With the end of these and other symbolic preliminaries, the way was open for embraces of friendship, long addresses, and silent passing of the pipe of peace. For most of May and until the middle of the following month all ate heartily and talked at great length. Finally on June 16 a treaty was signed. The Indians were given something like ten thousand dollars in goods and a promise of annuities; the whites were ceded the lands in Ockmulgee fork. Thus were the boundaries of Georgia moved a little farther westward.33

With "the chain of friendships brightened with the Indians" the commissioners departed. Pickens went back to his beloved Tamassee, where he lived in tranquil faith until they laid him in the low red hills that look away to the "Mountains of the Immortal Ones." Benjamin Hawkins remained in Georgia, continuing his association with his Indian friends and compiling three volumes of observations about them. Unfortunately his theories of fair dealing were not held by others, who later, with Andrew Jackson's connivance, wrested from the savages their land and property. Wilkinson remained for a time in the neighborhood, inspiring a belief among the Creeks that they were no longer to be the victims of thieving soldiers or lawless immigrants.

During August he pushed on to Fort Confederation, an important post on the Tombigbee, founded years before by the Spaniards. Here he again met the Choctaws, obtaining from them the land lying between the Tombigbee and the Chickasawhay, an area once acknowledged as British. A black handkerchief, a saddle and bridle, some powder and lead, three rifles, and several yards of cloth for shrouds — these were the gifts that helped turn the treaty on October 17, 1802.34 By final agreement a new boundary line was to be surveyed and a trading house and a main highway established in the country of the Choctaws. From his camp near the mouth of the Yazoo Wilkinson supervised the work. William C. C. Claiborne, who had recently superseded Winthrop Sargent as governor of Mississippi Territory, thought the General's work "economical and expeditious." The planters, too, were pleased, because more good land of the neighborhood became available for purpose. The Indians expressed no resentment over the loss that they had suffered and were apparently p198gratified that a trading house was established for them at St. Stephens.35

Forts and factories owned by the federal government east of the Mississippi and north of the Gulf were dependent for a majority of their supplies upon the good will of the Spaniards, who controlled the mouths of the Pearl, Mobile, and Apalachicola, rivers that furnished the principal means of transportation to the interior. Wilkinson conferred frequently with the Spaniards, obtaining permission for detachments of the Army to pass through their territory with arms and stores. On the other hand, civilians often found their goods subject to duties that varied with their capacity to pay. The Spaniards believed a limited acquiescence was preferable to unbending resistance. Confirmed opportunists, they avidly seized on whatever offered immediate gain.

In their desire for pelf Wilkinson was not unlike them. He knew that his own profession would never supply the comforts and affluence that he craved; on the contrary, military life was fraught with hardships. Ever since 1797 he had been moving almost constantly; during 1802 and 1803 he is said to have traveled sixteen thousand miles in work for the government.36 In spite of his hardy constitution he suffered from the chills and fevers of the lower Mississippi. He had no place he could really call home; the very nature of his tasks kept him separated from his family. Ann had been away in Philadelphia since 1800; Joseph Biddle was pursuing his studies at Princeton, and James Biddle, who have been commissioned on February 16, 1801,37 went wherever the Army ordered him. The General had little to compensate him for the enforced absence of his wife and sons and the frontier privations that he constantly suffered. It is true that the act of March 16, 1802, granted him $225 a month,38 and that, for a part of the time since 1800, he had received an additional eight dollars a day as an Indian commissioner; but his expenses in the meantime had been heavy, his own private ventures had not been profitable, and the Spaniards who had paid him well in the past were now without funds. Perhaps if Congress kept whittling away on the Army, which now consisted of three regiments and a few engineers, his own p199grade of brigadier-general would be abolished. This idea had already been openly discussed. With his tenure of an ill paid and trying job in jeopardy, Wilkinson turned to Samuel Smith, a distinguished Representative from Maryland, and asked aid in being made the governor at Natchez, a little later surveyor-general.39 In soliciting support for the second of these positions, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, who in turn placed on it this blighting superscription: "Such a situation would enable him to associate with Spanish agents without suspicion."40 Wilkinson was therefore left, as before, to administer the Army.

To perform this task successfully required uncommon ability. Most of the higher officers were aged, ex-Revolutionary soldiers, who had failed to keep pace with the times, partly because they had been confined to the wilderness where their scanty pay allowed them little beyond the necessities of life. Even when they became infirm in mind and body, they still remained in the service, for no adequate provision was made for their retirement. Hence the Army became a sort of almshouse for military ineffectives. These and haphazardly selected younger officers were intensely individual, and frequently were given to bitter wrangling. They obeyed orders begrudgingly, often exhausting every means to evade them. Like the civilian population, they suffered from an excess of democracy, and no matter what steps might be taken to improve the Army, a few recalcitrants were always found.

On April 30, 1801, Wilkinson had issued a general order at Pittsburgh directing that those in the Army cut their hair short.41 For time out of mind they had been accustomed to wearing it long, tied in a cue, and generously powdered. In preparation for important inspections and reviews, flour and tallow were usually issued to soldiers for dressing their locks, which were bound on a thin piece of wood with a black rosette for officers and a leather thong for the enlisted personnel. Wilkinson considered the cue, especially in a southern climate, a "filthy and insalubrious ornament" that was inconvenient, expensive, and unnecessary.42 Times were changing in p200both dress and politics. It would not be long until taboured shirts, knee breeches, and silver buckles would remain only in memory; the rule of the "rich, well born, and able" was passing to those whose ancestry had been neither distinguished nor affluent. Marks of aristocracy were taboo in France, and the mania to discard them had already spread to our country. Hence Wilkinson issued the cue order with which Jefferson was tacitly, if not openly, sympathetic.

When the order was published in Wilkinsonville, Georgia, all complied except a certain Captain R. Bissell, who in great agony of mind wrote thus to his brother in Connecticut:

"I was determined not to do it (cut my hair), provided a less sacrifice to my feelings would have sufficed, I wrote my Resignation, & showed it, but . . . the Col. was not impowered to accept, nor was the pay Master here, & I found it impossible to undertake a journey of eighteen hundred miles without making a settlement with him. . . . I was obliged to submit to the act that I despised, and if ever you see me you will find that I have been closely cropped."43

Perhaps another reason stirred the captain into obedience: he may not have cared to be the only long-haired person to greet General Wilkinson on his arrival a few days later.

There were many others who resented that the "greatest ornament of a soldier should thus be lost." Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Butler was probably the most cantankerous of them all. He was an old officer of experience and reputation and had a following. Out of consideration for the colonel's health and his personal request, Wilkinson exempted him from the order on August 2, 1801.44 As a result Butler became arrogant and neglectful of his duties. Wilkinson then retaliated by annulling the exemption, and on June 1, 1803, ordered Butler to be tried at Fredericktown because he had failed to cut his hair and change station and take command of troops at Fort Adams as he had been directed to do. Somewhat later the court came to the conclusion that Butler should comply with the order and be subjected to a reprimand. Wilkinson was incensed at the verdict, declaring it a "misapplication of mercy" little becoming those who had tried the case. Nevertheless, he approved it, and, during February, 1804, ordered Butler to New Orleans. The Colonel failed "to leave his tail behind," as Wilkinson sarcastically observed, and before long was showing himself "more contemptuous and disrespectful" p201than ever. In December, 1804, he was informed that he would be tried again; his perversity and insubordination could not be endured. Failing to obtain any help from either Congress or the President, Butler had to face a second trial at New Orleans on July 1, 1805.45 This time he did not fare as well as before: he was sentenced to a suspension of "command, pay and emoluments" for the space of twelve calendar months. On September 20, 1805, the sentence was approved without comment.46 Thirteen days before, Butler had died of yellow fever; he had passed to a station where the "superannuated Coxcomb," "the flatterer of Adams and Jefferson," the "vicar of Bray" could no longer disturb.

Army administration was made especially difficult by such officers as Butler. A uniform policy was almost impossible to carry out. Wilkinson was in constant need of tact and judgment in reviewing cases involving senility, ignorance, dishonesty, and downright meanness. He was decidedly better at these routine tasks than at instructing his subordinates in their profession. But he wearied of the daily round of identical duties; he was not methodical, and welcomed changes. He liked being sent on a colorful mission of a quasi-military kind in which he might play a leading rôle. Such a detail was now in the making.

In 1800 the secret treaty of San Ildefonso had been signed, transferring Louisiana from Spain to France. Rumors of the change in ownership soon reached the United States. Fears for what Napoleon might do later were aroused on October 16, 1802, by Morales, Spanish intendant of Louisiana, when he withdrew from the Americans the privilege of deposit at New Orleans. To this disconcerting act was added the rumor that General Victor of the French army was coming with a considerable force to take possession of Louisiana, while Spain, angered at the turn of affairs, was reputed to have plans to prevent its retrocession. Anxious over what the future might hold, the War Department reinforced its garrisons on the lower Mississippi and laid plans for calling out the near-by militia. Meanwhile, Monroe and his colleagues in France were bidden to exert themselves for the purchase of the island of Orleans. They more than succeeded; for Napoleon, changing his plans, sold them, instead, all of Louisiana for the sum of $14,500,000.

To take over Louisiana, William C. C. Claiborne, governor of p202Mississippi Territory, and James Wilkinson were appointed as United States commissioners. Neither of them spoke the language nor adequately understood the people with whom they were to deal, but both, besides knowing the country, were easily available and appreciated the honor of their selection. Wilkinson was always ready to leave his Army troubles behind, dispense public funds, and quit the wilderness of fevers, mosquitoes, and dirty Indians and make merry with his friends in the metropolis of the great Southwest. On or about the 10th of December he boarded the Fair Weather at Fort Adams and started for New Orleans, accompanied by seventeen other boats and two barges. By the 15th the flotilla had reached a point two miles from the city, and here about three hundred and fifty soldiers, with their four women per company, began to pitch camp.47 After a round of diplomatic visits, the United States commissioners arranged to take over the province from the French, to whom it had been surrendered by the Spaniards on the 30th of November, 1803.

[image ALT: zzz. It is zzz.]

New Orleans in 1803

From a painting in the Pratt Collectionc

Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

The day appointed for the ceremony, December 20, dawned warm and bright. With a salute of twenty guns from Fort St. Charles, the American regular infantry and a few artillerists entered the city by the Tchoupitoulas gate and stationed themselves on the river side of the Place d'Armes opposite the Territorial militia and in front of the Cabildo. Within the council chamber of this government building, Pierre Clément Laussat, the French commissioner, appeared with Claiborne and Wilkinson on his right and left, and, after a mutual exchange of credentials, read the treaty surrendering Louisiana to the United States. Then, declaring the transfer effected and his countrymen absolved of their former allegiance, he handed over to Claiborne the city keys adorned with the tricolored ribbons of France. Claiborne now had a turn. Going to the balcony, he addressed the people beneath in words designed to stir their loyalty, promising that the United States would protect them in the full enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion. As his words ceased, the French flag was lowered, thus ending foreign dominion. As it floated near the ground, members of the escort caught it, wrapped it round their sergeant-major, Legrand, and marched away with beating drums. Then the Stars and Stripes were run up the halyards, six-pounders began to boom, and scattered onlookers threw up their hats and p203yelled. The rest stood by in questioning silence.48 Within a stone's throw of them the Mississippi flowed majestically to the sea. Perhaps few visioned the magnificent country that it drained or realized that the Union had begun its irresistible march to the Pacific.

If Spain felt resentful that Louisiana had passed to the United States after France had promised to retain it forever, she was still unwilling to risk war for a province that had never paid for its keep. In fact, Casa Calvo, one of the Spanish commissioners, celebrated its retrocession as a national triumph. His ball in honor of Laussat, an archenemy, is reputed to have cost fifteen thousand francs. The one given in return on December 16 was equally splendid. Four or five hundred persons enjoyed Laussat's hospitality, coming and going the whole night through, eating and drinking, gaming and dancing. Not until eight in the morning had the "baleaux and galopede" been danced and the last exuberant guest departed. Then servants began to clear away the debris of the party and to rehang the doors that had been removed to make exit and entrance easier.49

Without sufficient personal or government funds, Claiborne and Wilkinson could not entertain on a corresponding scale. What they failed to do in this respect was not offset by the brilliance of their personal accomplishments. The Governor was young and unimpressive, the General was dogmatic and voluble. Of course, the Spaniards were not unaware of these defects, but the also knew that the two commissioners were important in the country bordering on the Crown's domain; and for obvious reasons their friendship was valuable. They saw real advantage in refraining from carping criticism. With the rather fussy and ephemeral Laussat the case was different. Neither Claiborne nor Wilkinson could especially promote the interests of France. Laussat, too, had once reveled in dreams of grandeur; he had hoped to be governor of Louisiana, only to awaken and find himself a mere messenger boy of Napoleon. In the bitterness of his disappointment, he was prone to judge others unfairly. Claiborne, he wrote, was extremely ill fitted for his place, and Wilkinson was a rattle-headed fellow, frequently drunk.50 Claiborne certainly lacked p204experience, but he undoubtedly possessed marked ability and had his country's interests at heart. When Wilkinson grew talkative, Laussat failed to realize that there was still enough behind his façade of chatter to cope amply with any of his visionary projects. Claiborne had a much higher opinion of his colleague even if association with him on the same mission was frequently trying. He liked the General's military arrangement, believing the measures taken to maintain order and support the civil authority had been well conceived.

In fact, Wilkinson did work intelligently to insure domestic tranquillity during this difficult period of transition. He posted guards wherever there offered opportunity of trouble, carefully enjoining them to show themselves friendly and considerate toward the population.51 Of the eight or ten thousand inhabitants not a few were eager to incite disorder. Spanish and French soldiers, along with their parasites, had plenty of time on their hands for work of the devil. With few exceptions, the Territorial militia and American regulars held them in contempt and welcomed an opportunity to prove their own prowess invincible. Besides, many émigrés had come from the French West Indies, spreading horrible tales of successful servile insurrection. Slaves in Louisiana had become restive, and their masters fearful of what might happen. The time was propitious for trouble. It was the holiday season, when bonds of discipline were customarily relaxed and offering liquor was an accepted rule of hospitality. Especially were wilderness soldiers hungry to feast on the fleshpots in this cosmopolitan city of alluring sin. Once when Wilkinson inspected Fort St. Louis he discovered most of the members of the guard had gone on a bounding spree and those remaining behind were so sodden-drunk that they could not move.52 Partisans of the old regimes did not fail to point out these lapses on the part of the would‑be heralds of the millennium.

The French held closely to their well established customs. Laussat was not averse to their looking derisively upon the ways of the Americans, a rough sort of folk who liked to dance the reel and the jig. The public balls, an institution long popular, proved a source of friction. At one of these on January 8, 1804, an overbearing American threatened an obstinate musician with a cane. Claiborne weakly interposed. When the music struck up a French quadrille, the Americans interrupted, dancing in the English fashion. Angered at p205this breach of decorum, all of women left the hall while Casa Calvo, playing at cards, looked cynically on.53

A fortnight later trouble again occurred when a Frenchman named Gauthier refused to obey the regulations regarding the order of dances. Wilkinson, after having him taken in hand by the guard, tried to allay any resentment by addressing the crowd in a mixture of English and bad French. With the hubbub increasing, the Governor and the General, assisted by their staff officers, gave a spirited rendering of "Hail, Columbia." When this selection failed to calm those present, they launched with equal fervor into "God Save the King." As a counter-irritant, the French struck up "Enfants de la Patrie" and "Peuple Français, peuple frères,"º ending with a shout of "Vive la République." The waxing of the din marked the waning of the General's zeal. Both he and Claiborne thought best to make a postern exit. After their departure quiet was restored. Next day the Americans gave a "banquet of reconciliation," which the French attended after duly considering.54 Thus ended the teapot tempest that might have grown into a serious disturbance.

In dealing with these and other embarrassing situations, Wilkinson was more successful than his colleague; perhaps because he was decidedly vigorous in his methods, more widely experienced, and better understood the reactions of the people in New Orleans. With the Spaniards, of course, he had been on intimate terms for years. To them he now turned in order to fatten his purse through a situation created by the acquisition of Louisiana. During February, 1804, Vicente Folch, Governor of Florida, was in New Orleans, enjoying its pleasures and the hospitality of friends. Wilkinson thought him the very one to whom a secret might be told without the aid of an interpreter, for the Governor had shown himself friendly and spoke English fluently. He therefore made an appointment to call and, after obtaining from his host a promise of secrecy, disclosed the object of his visit. It was to induce the Crown to increase his pension to $4,000 a year and to pay up the arrears of $20,000 now due him. In return for such a retaining fee he promised to write out for the Spaniards some helpful reflections. Folch declared that he had no money, but that Casa Calvo had $100,000 for expenses as boundary commissioner. Clearly he was the one to see. But Wilkinson hesitated. He did not trust Don Andrés Armesto, Casa Calvo's p206talkative secretary and, worse still, a business associate of Daniel Clark, who had the ear of Jefferson. Nevertheless, in spite of the risk, he went, and, after binding Casa Calvo with an oath of secrecy, emphasized his needs and his plan to promote the purposes of Spain. The Governor was caught with the lure and promised him twelve thousand dollars. This amount was not enough for the General; he also wanted to sell sixteen thousand barrels of flour in Havana. In return for such a privilege, he promised to employ his influence to win adherents to the "interests and maxims" of Spain. No answer could be immediately made to this second request, but the money was forthcoming and the General invested in a cargo of sugar for the eastern market. Meanwhile he had to produce the "reflections." For twenty days he toiled on this high-paid piece of composition, Folch translating each sheet into Spanish as it was finished. Finally the diffuse document, now making up some twenty-two printed pages, was finished and duly forwarded to Someruelos, the Captain-General of Cuba.55

For all the good that the "Reflections " did Spain the price was high. Wilkinson was the only one who really profited by them. He advised the Crown to hold on to the Floridas, no matter what claims the United States made to them as a part of the Louisiana purchase. Garrisons should be strengthened to prevent American aggression. In case Spain found herself compelled to yield, she should endeavor to exchange the Floridas for the territory across the Mississippi, even offering to pay the public debt of the United States in addition. Failing in these efforts, she should save what she could of her western domain and wrest from the federal government a solemn agreement that Americans would never attack it, or allow others to initiate movements hostile to her within the boundaries of the States. To carry through any such plans, the General suggested, among other things, that France be induced to support Spain's contentions, plenty of secret service money be expended, the Indians be cajoled into being friends and allies, and the explorers with Lewis and Clark and the settlers with Boone be taken prisoners or forced to retire from Spanish territory.56

p207 While Wilkinson was telling the Spaniards how to halt the dwindling of their empire, he was writing another edition of the "reflections" for the benefit of Jefferson and his colleagues. It told of the length and breadth, the climate, history, people, and resources of the Louisiana country, which few knew as well as he.57 Certainly no one employed such knowledge with equal cleverness for personal advantage. He was playing an old trick with minor variations. In 1787 he had duped Miró, receiving a pension and trade dispensations for the wrong of a long "memorial." With many of the same data he had won the vote and confidence of many Kentuckians. Playing both ends against the middle was one of the General's favorite games that he had long practiced with success.

Able to do little more in Louisiana at this time, Wilkinson prepared to leave for Washington. Here he might learn what lay deep in the heart of the President — information that he had promised the Spaniards.58 Jefferson, too, was eager to see him and learn more of the country that Monroe had purchased; he realized that new arrangements would have to be made for the Army in the widened area of the frontier. On his own part, Wilkinson was forever ready to tell of the Southwest, where he had spent years of interesting travel. Like Marco Polo when describing the wonders of Cathay to fellow citizens of Venice, he had a multitude of listeners who hung upon his words. He rather enjoyed the sound of his own voice, especially when he felt that those within its range were being impressed.

He, therefore, felt no reluctance in going North. After making arrangements about a speculation of his in sugar, he drew $3,000 from the assistant military agent at New Orleans on April 24, 1804.59 The next day he left on the good ship Louisiana. For the fourth time since 1796 Wilkinson was on his way to the Capital. From the beginning of John Adams' administration, he had been an active federal agent in the reach for dominion. He had taken over Wayne's work in 1797 and dealt successfully with the Indians of the Northwest, securing from them peaceful consent to the rapid settlement of Americans on the lands north of the Ohio. He had carefully supervised the taking over of the forts that the British had held along the Great Lakes since the Revolution. At these and other strategic points he had disposed his diminutive forces. In the Southwest he p208had performed a somewhat similar service with corresponding success. There many of the difficult details incident to the Pinckney treaty had fallen upon his shoulders. After the surrender of the Spanish forts, he had treated with the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks, winning from them grants of land and permission to establish roads and trading houses within their territories. Lately he had been an active instrument in one of the greatest real estate deals of which the world holds record. And all the while as immigrants swept north, south, and west into the new territory of the United States, he had scattered little groups of soldiers among them in order to preserve law and order and protect their lives and property from the raids of Indians and renegades. To consult with those who would frame the laws and shape the destiny of the West, growing with almost fearful rapidity, Wilkinson was travelling to the East, where he would linger for a year or more, finally going out, like a Roman proconsul, as Governor of Louisiana Territory.


The Author's Notes:

1 To Gayoso, March 15, 1799, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.

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2 To Gayoso, April 20, 1799, Ibid.

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3 To Gayoso, May 1, 1799, Ibid.

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4 To Gayoso, May 14, 1799, Ibid.

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5 To Gayoso, April 25, 1799, Ibid.

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6 To Gayoso, May 14, 1799, Ibid.

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7 To Gayoso, May 14, 1799, Ibid.

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8 To Ellicott, June 12, 1799, Ellicott Papers, Vol. II.

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9 To Gayoso, July 4, 1799, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.

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10 Journal of Andrew Ellicott, 216.

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11 To Gayoso, Dec. 22, 1799, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.

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12 To Gayoso, July 4, 1799, Ibid.

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13 J. B. Wilkinson to Gayoso, July 24, 1799, Ibid.

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14 Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, 396.

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15 To Hamilton, Sept. 4, 1799, in Wilkinson, Memoirs, I, 442‑451.

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16 To Hamilton, Sept. 15, 1799, in Ford, Writings of Washington, XIV, 204‑209.

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17 To O'Hara, Nov. 6, 1799, Vol. LX; to Hamilton, Nov. 7, 12, 1799, Vol. LX; to Hamilton, Nov. 21, Dec. 14, 1799, Vols. LXI and LXIII respectively; to Hamilton, Jan. 20, 1800, Vol. LXVII; to Hamilton, Feb. 25, 1800, Vol. LXIX, all in Hamilton Papers.

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18 To Hamilton, Mar. 24, 1800, Hamilton Papers, Vol. LXXII.

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19 To Hamilton, Mar. 7, 1800, Hamilton Papers, Vol. LXX; to Casa Calvo, Mar. 14, Apr. 24, 1800, both in A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.

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20 To Sargent, May 20, 1800, Sargent Papers; to Casa Calvo, June 26, 1800, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.

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21 Expenditures in the Naval and Military Establishments . . . 1797‑1801, 260; Wilkinson to Hamilton, June 29, 1800, Hamilton Papers, Vol. LXXVII.

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22 Steiner, The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, 453‑458.

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23 Expenditures in the Naval and Military Establishments . . . 1797‑1801, 138, 139, 152, et passim.

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24 To Jefferson, May 22, 1800, Jefferson Papers, Vol. CVII.

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25 Parker, Philip Nolan and the Forerunners of American Expansion in the Southwest, 65‑67; Brown, History of Texas, 38‑41.

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26 Jefferson to Wilkinson, Jan. 16, 1800, Jefferson Papers, Vol. XVI.

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27 To Jefferson, Sept. 1, Nov. 29, 1800, Jefferson Papers, Vols. XVII, CVIII.

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28 Expenditures in the Naval and Military Establishments . . . 1797‑1801, 223.

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29 Memoirs, III, 146.

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30 Amer. State Papers, Ind. Aff., I, 648‑649; Pickens, Skyagunsta, 125, 158.

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31 Amer. State Papers, Ind. Aff., I, 648‑653.

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32 Ibid., 658‑663.

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33 Ibid., 637, 651, 669, 690, 698; Pickens, Skyagunsta, 150‑154.

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34 Public Statutes at Large, VII, 67, 73; Hamilton, Colonial Mobile, 387‑388; Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, App. CXXIII.

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35 To Claiborne, Nov. 11, 1802; Claiborne to Dearborn, Nov. 16, 1802; Claiborne to Dearborn, Jan. 17, 1803 — all in Rowland, Mississippi Territorial Archives, 1797‑1803, I, 552‑555, 581.

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36 Memoirs, I, vii.

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37 Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the U. S. Army, I, 1037.

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38 Callan, Military Laws of the United States, 100.

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39 Samuel Smith to Jefferson, Mar. 20, 1801, June 21, 1802, Jefferson Papers, Vols. CIII and CXXIV.

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40 To Dearborn, May 30, 1802, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.

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41 G. O., Apr. 30, 1801, Wilkinson's Book of General Orders, 1797‑1807, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.

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42 To President of Court-Martial, June 1, 1803, in National Intelligencer, Mar. 1, 1805.

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43 R. Bissell to D. Bissell, July 9, 1802, Kingsbury Papers, Vol. I.

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44 Gardner, "Uniforms of the American Army," in Mag. of Amer. Hist., I, 490‑491.

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45 To Butler, Nov. 25, Dec. 10, 1804, Mar. 25, 1805, James Brown Papers.

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46 National Intelligencer, Aug. 30, Nov. 20, 1805.

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47 G. O., Ft. Adams, Dec. 8, 10, 1803, and G. O., Dec. 19, 1803, in Wilkinson's Book of General Orders, 1797‑1807, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.

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48 Claiborne to Madison, Dec. 20, 1803, in Rowland, The Official Letter Books of W. C. C. Claiborne, I, 307, 309‑310; Fortier, A History of Louisiana, II, 284‑286.

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49 Fortier, A History of Louisiana, II, 240‑241, 283‑287.

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50 Laussat to Decrès, April 7, 1804, in Robertson, Louisiana Under Spain, France, and the United States, 1785‑1807, II, 53.

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51 G. O., Dec. 20, 25, 1803, Wilkinson's Book of General Orders, 1797‑1807, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.

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52 G. O., Dec. 20, 1803, Ibid.

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53 Fortier, A History of Louisiana, II, 288‑289.

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54 Ibid., 288‑291.

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55 Folch to Someruelos, Apr. 10, 1804, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 1574; Cox, "General Wilkinson and His Later Intrigues with the Spaniards," Amer. Hist. Rev., XIX (1913‑1914), 794‑814.

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56 "Reflections on Louisiana by James Wilkinson," in Robertson, Louisiana Under Spain, France, and the United States, II, 325‑347.

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57 To Dearborn, July 13, 1804, W. D., A. G. O., O. F.

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58 Folch to Someruelos, Apr. 10, 1804, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 1574.

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59 Deposition of William Simmons, Amer. State Papers, Miscel., II, 113.


Thayer's Note:

a Not only the Army, but the Navy as well: see his involvement in getting Captain Truxtun back into the service after his ill-considered resignation, in E. S. Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation, pp185‑187.

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b Not only meteorological observations. Published at about the same time in the same Transactions of the American Philosophical Society of which Jefferson was at the time president, a curious report of a UFO that Dunbar saw near Baton Rouge.

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c This same painting was more fully and by and large better reproduced in the print edition of John Smith Kendall's History of New Orleans, where my scan is therefore also better: chapter 5, p76.


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