When Wilkinson reached Washington in the summer of 1804, the Democratic-Republicans were strongly intrenched in power. Their leader, Thomas Jefferson, that freckled, sandy-haired, rawboned farmer from the rounded Virginia hills, had proved himself an able and discerning politician since his accession to the Presidency. He loved the soil and the means of living thereby. Not a few of his supporters had the same agrarian bias. Nathaniel Macon, Speaker of the House, enjoyed returning to Buck Spring, his North Carolina estate, where he could ride over his meadow land and watch his thoroughbreds play — thoroughbreds whose birthdays were carefully recorded on the flyleaf of the family Bible. Another plantation statesman was Representative John Randolph of Roanoke, brilliant and venomous, who was at this time loyal to the administration, for as yet he had not gathered together his band of recalcitrant Quids. And of course there was the Secretary of State, "little Jimmy Madison," a distinguished student of law and heir apparent to the Presidency. Scarcely less important was Albert Gallatin, a Swiss, who, although he spoke the language of his adopted country brokenly, acted as Secretary of the Treasury, and was preëminently able in solving its financial problems. Henry Dearborn and Robert Smith, intellectual inferiors, but willing and faithful servants of the party, sat at the Cabinet table as sponsors for the military and naval establishments.
With these helpful subordinates Jefferson had completed more than three years of his first term and was now assured of reëlection, a reward that his accomplishments merited. He had shown himself little of the radical that the Federalists had prophesied; indeed, he had evinced no objection to a continuance of the First Bank of the United States and several other institutions that they favored. He p210 had whittled away at government expenditures until some of the most obnoxious taxes could be abolished and the federal debt gradually reduced; he had established a peace of sorts with the Mediterranean pirates by making use of a navy that he had partially demoralized through his economical measures; among office holders he had built up a strong following by eliminating incompetents or violent partisans of the opposite party; he had magnificently extended the public domain through the purchase of Louisiana from the French and through favorable treaties with the Indians. Those who considered his manifold accomplishments either in a political or in a personal way were duly impressed in spite of Federalist propaganda. Jefferson, in fact, had reached such a high level of esteem that the people were ready to give him whatever he wished. He and his colleagues were fully able to crush any opposition that might rise up against them.
With respect to the Vice President, Aaron Burr, the case was exactly reversed; the people's confidence in him was definitely waning in spite of the fact that his ancestry was of the finest in America and his career had been both successful and distinguished. His father was the Reverend Aaron Burr, who at one time had held the presidency of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). His maternal grandfather was the famous Jonathan Edwards, who, in turn, was the son of the Reverend Timothy Edwards. With prayers and books the formal education of Aaron Burr was abundantly supplied. During the Revolution he had conducted himself with bravery and distinction at Quebec, Monmouth, West Point, and elsewhere. After the treaty of peace he had risen steadily in politics. In 1800 he had tried to become President by taking advantage of the ambiguity brought about by voting for President and Vice President on the same ballot. He erroneously contended that the people had voted for him for the first instead of the second position. Since neither of the two candidates had a majority of electoral votes, the House had to make a choice. After considerable political skirmishing, Jefferson was chosen.
from a painting by John Vanderlyn in the New York Historical Society.
Courtesy of the Librarian, Alexander J. Wall.
The new President did not fail to remember this piece of chicanery "with disgust and loathing." Before long Burr discovered that he had little to do with the distribution of the spoils of office in New York State; worse still, that they were being used to build up the Clinton faction. Finding himself without party support, Burr ignored its wishes and delayed action on the repeal of the Judiciary Bill — a piece p211 of independence that his Democratic-Republican colleagues never wholly forgave. And again at a banquet given by the Federalists in honor of Washington's birthday Burr proposed a toast, "To the Union of all honest men." Immediately his enemies construed the remark as a veiled attack on Jefferson. Much to Burr's disadvantage, the hostility of the President continued to increase. Finally, to vindicate himself and regain the confidence of the people, Burr became a candidate for the office of Governor of New York State. Many Federalists came to his support, but they were not strong enough to overcome the opposition that Alexander Hamilton and others raised against him. Morgan Lewis was elected, and for years continued to enjoy the favors of the "Virginia dynasty."
It was while Burr was bitter from defeat and incensed at Hamilton that Wilkinson arrived in the East. He and the General had known each other since the Revolution, but although they had met and corresponded during the intervening years they had never been jointly concerned in any great enterprise. During 1799 Wilkinson had visited him in New York; in 1800 Burr had helped place the General's sons in Princeton. Not until May, 1804, did their mutual relations arouse conjectures; then Wilkinson, en route to Washington, sent Burr the following message from Richmond Hill:
"To save time of which I need much and have little, I propose to take a Bed with you this night, if it may be done without observation or intrusion — Answer me and if in the affirmative I will be with [you] at 30 after the 8th Hour."1
By then complete darkness would make his visit less easy to detect. He did not wish the story to be spread that he was an intimate of an avowed enemy of the administration, especially when he was trying desperately to curry its favor. Army officers were often sacrificed for partisan purposes. Something more than a mere trivial reason induced him to ask for a night's hospitality, no matter how much pleasure the two might find in exchanging ideas on topics of interest. Few surpassed Burr in a knowledge of current politics in the East; no one equaled Wilkinson's information about the Southwest. In the light of later events, each seems to have obtained help from the other in formulating a plan for their mutual advantage. As usual Wilkinson needed money. The Act of 1802 had reduced his Army p212 pay; the prospect was slight that he might again be an Indian commissioner with an allowance of eight dollars per day; the Spaniards certainly would give him nothing unless they were put on tenterhooks and he could pose as their deliverer. Burr, in efforts to revive his moribund influence, might well be expected to father some extraordinary enterprise in which glittered opportunities peculiarly suited to the needs of an ambitious politician and a financially hard-pressed general. Mexico and the Floridas presented a field in question the adventurous might reap a harvest of glory and god. If Burr yielded to prospects in the Southwest, he might unwittingly play a rôle for the benefit of Wilkinson, as George Rogers Clark had done in 1793. His influence as Vice President — such as it was — might even be exerted to bring about the appointment of the General as Governor of Louisiana Territory. Together they could see that the office should not fall into unfriendly hands, particularly if they were to carry out plans in the West without regard for conventional ethics. Although they may not have reached any definite agreement on that spring night, before long they were apparently working toward a common end.
Following his conference with Burr, Wilkinson continued on his way, reaching Trenton on the 28th of May.2 Near by his youngest son, Joseph Biddle, was attending school at Princeton. During the early part of June, he arrived in Washington, where, soon afterwards, he met Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the noted traveler and geographer. In some respects they were kindred spirits, with data they were eager to exchange. The General was admirably informed on the subject of the Mississippi Valley. He had lately delighted Jefferson with the gift of a great portfolio of maps covering it; but he was not well acquainted with the country beyond that linked the United States with Mexico. The interest of many Americans had begun to center in this intermediate area, a sketch of which Wilkinson obtained from the obliging baron. If he could not use the information just then, maybe it would come in handy later. Mexico lay ready for conquest; many of the silver dollars that he had most easily earned and spent had come from that very place.
Although Wilkinson was doubtless fired with enthusiasm to conquer this section of the Spanish domain, he could not afford to offend the leaders of the Democratic-Republican party. In 1804 the administration's p213 objective was peace rather than war; the appetite for expansion had been temporarily satisfied by the purchase of Louisiana. Therefore, the only immediate outlet for the General's energies was in the performance of routine duties, usually onerous and frequently insistent.
Shortly before the middle of July, Army headquarters were established at Frederick-Town, Maryland, for the summer. Washington was sultry and oppressive. Seldom did a refreshing breeze sweep from the Potomac to stir the leaves in the elm trees beside the White House or raise little whirls of dust along the newly made road leading to the Capital. Mrs. Wilkinson, broken in health, was eager to be elsewhere, and before long she and the General were on their way to Frederick-Town. For a while she stayed at Sulphur Springs near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the hope that she might grow stronger. Travelling over the mountain roads was difficult and fatiguing, sometimes dangerous. Once the horses ran away and nearly made an end of both her and the General.3
With the coming of cool weather, the Wilkinsons returned to Washington. The General cut a smart, gay figure among those who had left the plantation or countinghouse to make their country's laws in a provincial capital. Idlers along Pennsylvania Avenue often pricked up their ears and craned their necks when they heard a cavalcade approach, led by the glittering general-in‑chief riding on a blooded mare that had been groomed until she shone in the wintry sun. It was a sight to stir the imagination of bucolic democrats: his magnificent uniform — of his own designing — his stirrups and spurs of polished gold, his saddle-cloth of leopard's hide with dangling claws. Behind him rode his son and aide, James Biddle, arrayed in almost equal splendor. Smart orderlies brought up the rear, alert to receive the General's bridle reins when he dismounted at "the six buildings," the domicile where he entertained his friends in lavish fashion.4
On November 5, 1804, the second session of the Eighth Congress convened. It began with a round of festivities, which Wilkinson always enjoyed. He liked to talk with others beside a flowing bowl and a loaded sideboard. Congressmen listened better that way. He talked to them about Army legislation while he told them of conditions p214 in the Southwest. He constantly received news from his friends there. One of them, John Adair, frequently wrote to him from Kentucky. A letter of his to the General is revealing. Because the conquest of Mexico by the United States depended upon war with Spain, Adair laments that it is not being waged. He adds that peace has robbed him of more agreeable employment, and that it is now useless to answer the inquiries of Wilkinson. Nevertheless, says he, "the Kentuckians are full of enterprise and although not poor [are] as greedy after plunder as ever the old Romans were. Mexico glitters in our Eyes — the word is all we wait for."5
Burr, probably more than Adair, was eager for hostilities to start. The fortunes of the Vice President had been growing progressively worse. When he had asked Hamilton, as the reputed author of a piece of slander, to deny it, no satisfaction was given. An exchange of notes followed. Several times before, Hamilton had thwarted Burr's ambition; now he had begun to vilify him. Thereupon Burr used the conventional method of settlement; he challenged Hamilton to a duel. The two met at Weehawken, New Jersey, in the early morning of July 11, 1804. Hamilton was killed, perhaps without firing directly at his enemy. Although many of Burr's friends rallied to his defense, a general feeling of indignation against him swept over the country. For a while he remained in New York, hoping to weather the storm; then he sought refuge in Philadelphia at the home of Charles Biddle, a cousin of Mrs. Wilkinson and a great friend of the General. Though never brought to trial, he was indicted in New York for sending a challenge and was charged with murder in New Jersey. Following his visit to Philadelphia, he made a trip to Florida. Prospects were not inviting there, and he returned to Washington in time to preside over the United States Senate for the last time.
Burr was forty-nine years old. He could not continuw practicing law in New York City, where he had been a distinguished barrister; his estate at Richmond Hill had been sold, and his creditors no longer trusted him; he had no family left except his beloved daughter, Theodosia, married and far away in South Carolina. Forsaken by many Democratic-Republicans and hated by the Federalists, he realized that his political career in the North was ended. Restless and embittered, p215 he thought of the West, where many had gone, started life over, and won success. There in politics and land speculation he might rise to wealth and eminence. He was no tyro in real estate ventures, and some of the theories of government that had provoked his quarrel with Hamilton were heartily espoused by frontiersmen. Why not investigate this alluring country? Wilkinson was close at hand and knew a great deal about it; and he always liked to talk, almost without end, if his purposes were served. During the winter of 1804‑1805, the two apparently agreed on some scheme of mutual advantage. Neither was altruistic enough to allow the other to profit alone; neither gave the other his entire confidence; both were wily associates united by the ties of temporary self-interest.
Wilkinson was the first of the two to get what he wanted. He had come to Washington a variety of purposes. One of these was always very dear to his heart, that of either making more money directly or procuring a position where better opportunities existed for supplementing his income. Some time before, he had wanted the appointment of surveyor-general, only to have it go to another. Now he was a candidate for a much more desirable post — the governorship of Louisiana Territory. Burr did what he could for him in the Senate. Early in 1805, Wilkinson was appointed to this $2,000 position, thereby uniting in his person the civil and military authority controlling the northern section of the Louisiana Purchase. Dr. Joseph Brown, a brother of the Vice President, became secretary. Wilkinson now held a point of vantage from which he could promote or ruin any western schemes in which he and Burr might engage.
When congratulated on his success, the General was wise enough not to appear too elated. He said he could tell more about his new position twelve months hence. "In the meantime I can only say the country is a healthy one and I shall be on the highroad to Mexico."6 In the letter he remarked that Burr would be in New Orleans in June. Thus did he continue to ponder on Mexico and to keep well informed of Burr's plans.
Burr had not been idle during the winter months. Once having decided to try his fortune in the West, he set to work with cleverness and zeal. The first requirement was money. To get it Wilkinson could offer helpful advice. Although he would endeavor to frustrate any of Burr's efforts to extort it from the Spaniards, he would offer p216 no opposition to the trial of any schemes designed to exploit others for the purpose of funds. Whatever Burr got from a new source might be used by them both.
At this time England, no less than Spain, was eager to see the United States weakened. Any plan to effect its division was welcome news to the British minister, Anthony Merry. Early in 1804 he had been approached by Timothy Pickering, Roger Griswold, and other prominent New England Federalists to ascertain what support they might expect in a project of separating their section from the Union. Burr probably knew of their proposals, but he wanted one of his own pattern accepted instead. He therefore suggested that he could induce the states of the West to withdraw from the Union if he were properly supported. Charles Williamson, a British subject, acted as go‑between. The overture was so favorably received that Burr himself called on Merry. Instead of disclosing the conquest of Mexico as the main objective, the Vice President stressed his ability to break up the Upon if a half-million dollars were placed at his disposal and a British fleet stood by at the mouth of the Mississippi to promote his designs. The credulous Merry, won over by this would‑be traitor of high degree, sent Williamson on a special trip to England to obtain approval and necessary funds. He arrived there during the first week in October, 1804.
With these seeds of conspiracy sown and his term as Vice President ended, Burr started for the West in the early part of the summer of 1805. In a cheerful mood he confided to his daughter Theodosia that the object of his journey was "not mere curiosity, or pour passer le temps," and that it might lead him to New Orleans, perhaps farther.7 Farther, of course, meant Mexico. He had maps of the country in his portfolio and had obtained a passport from the Spanish minister, Casa Yrujo, under the pretext that the United States was no safe place for him after the fatal duel with Hamilton. Truthfulness was not a habit with Burr; he told foreigners and his own countrymen what he believed would best promote his own ends. If Mexico were his ultimate goal, Spaniards must be kept unwitting, Englishmen must supply funds and a fleet, and Americans must secretly and adequately prepare.
It was difficult for Burr to assign each of these hostile forces a proper place in his jigsaw puzzle of conspiracy. He had to have a detailed p217 and personal knowledge of the theater in which he was to operate. On April 10, 1805, he left Philadelphia for the West. Nineteen days later he reached Pittsburgh, where he expected to meet Wilkinson. The General was late in arriving, and Burr drifted on down the Ohio in company with several Army officers detailed for the trial of the long-haired Butler of New Orleans. Shortly afterwards Wilkinson followed in his wake, stopping at Cincinnati to visit his friends, John Smith and Jonathan Dayton, then engaged in a scheme to build a canal around the Falls of the Ohio. While there, he wrote to Adair, regretting that he had been unable to introduce Burr. As a sort of compensation, he promised: "Prepare to visit me and I will tell you all. We must have a peep at the unknown world beyond me."8
Continuing on his way, Wilkinson reached Fort Massac, near the mouth of the Ohio, where he overtook Burr, who had delayed while at Nashville visiting Andrew Jackson. For four days the two were together. Wilkinson later claimed that they talked of nothing sinister to the Union. However, they must have discussed conditions in the West, difficulties of an expedition into Mexico, probabilities of a war with Spain or England, etc., for these were topics that were then disturbing nearly every restless mind.
Before leaving Fort Massac for St. Louis, Wilkinson lent Burr a helping hand, inviting him to travel to New Orleans in a comfortable government barge that was going down the Mississippi with a small detachment of troops. Burr accepted the invitation as well as a letter of introduction to Daniel Clark, a well known merchant of New Orleans. Such acts of courtesy were common with Wilkinson. Although it was his habit to write in exaggerated phrases, he was canny enough not to disclose the secrets that Burr would tell. The note, in part, requested:
"If the persecution of a great and honorable man can give title to generous attention he has claims to all your civilities, and all your services. You cannot oblige me more than by such conduct; and I pledge my life to you, it will not be misapplied. To him I refer you for many things improper to letter, and which he will not say to any other."9
To one of his Spanish friends with important connections in New p218 Orleans he wrote another letter of introduction filled with maudlin praise and hints of dark conspiracy. So it ran:
"This is to introduce to you a brave, learned, eloquent, gallant, honorable, discreet [gentleman] rich in the best affections of the human heart — in short a man who had filled the second place, in the Government of the United States with dignity and admiration. Gilberto [Leonard] do you serve this man without saying to my enemies he is my friend, and you may serve me and yourself also. Your strong family connections will be able to promote Col. Burr's views, and so serve the good of their country if they follow his advice and then give him their support, and he will soon your ––––– blackguard W. C. C. C. [Claiborne] to the devil."10
After helping Burr in this fashion to meet the "correct people" in New Orleans, Wilkinson traveled on to his new station, reaching St. Louis in the latter part of June, 1805. Major James Bruff, who had the military "command in Upper Louisiana and its vicinity," went out and met the General, as requested, a little distance below the town. A gesture of welcome like this was common when a high-ranking officer came to take over a post. According to later testimony, Bruff said Wilkinson wanted to tell him something of great importance, to disclose a "grand scheme," if you please.11 Although afterwards a blatant enemy of Wilkinson, he never furnished any incriminating details of their first conference. Probably there was none. Wilkinson was old in intrigue; he was not foolish enough to tell secrets of importance to a scarcely known subordinate who was irritated on account of being relieved. More likely, as the General said his motive in seeing Bruff first was to find out what he could before his arrival concerning the problems that he would have to solve.
Contrary to expectations, and much to the chagrin of Bruff, Wilkinson did not first accept the hospitality of his fellow officers on reaching St. Louis; instead, he took dinner with the leading magistrate of the town, Auguste Chouteau.12 Wilkinson disclaimed any other reason for his action than that of indicating the superiority of the civil government over the military establishment. From this point of view, his decision was wise and in keeping with Jefferson's practices; it conformed to the President's wish to gain the good will of the French inhabitants. Certainly Chouteau was one from whom p219 this amateur in civil office-holding could learn much of local conditions; he, as well as other prominent men of the neighborhood, held large grants of land from the Spaniards and was enjoying unusual profits from the fur trade.a The continuance of their prosperity would depend largely on how the General viewed titles to real estate and what steps he took to control traffic with the Indians. His methods of solving both problems were destined to arouse bitter hostility.
Following an inveterate habit of his own, Wilkinson was soon engaged in speculating with those around him. He had taken the first steps while in the East. One of his officers, Captain John McClellan, could see little to enjoy in a frontier post until it was suggested that a few articles taken along to trade for furs would probably yield him a substantial profit. A Baltimore merchant apparently backed him. Wilkinson, acting as a sort of silent partner, helped him circumvent freight charges. The goods were shipped from Baltimore, weighed about a ton, and were valued at $2,500. When they reached Fort Massac they were considered the property of the General but were cared for by the captain. Later they were forwarded to St. Louis and disposed of at a profit.13
About a year later, during the summer of 1806, Wilkinson tried to turn a few dollars in real estate. In July he bought •about five hundred acres adjacent to the post at Belle Fontaine. The General held on to his land until 1809, finally selling it to the government without profit to himself.14 In an entirely different quarter he met with no better success. Through Forbes & Co. he had acquired Dauphin Island, at the mouth of Mobile Bay on March 19, 1806.15 What money or service he gave for the property is not clear. Possibly he had begun to capitalize already on the information that he was sending the Spaniards about Burr.
Never caring to do things in a small way and forever ready to speculate, he burned to do something on a scale that was worth the embarrassing investigation that usually followed. In the North and West the fur trade was yielding handsome returns. In the Southwest the same was true; and, besides, the Spaniards lived in this region. With them he might renew his former relations and develop a remunerative overland trade. By exploring parties he might acquire information that would help himself and simultaneously serve the p220 interests of the government. He appreciated that Jefferson was eager to learn more about the geography, fauna, and flora of the trans-Mississippi country. He knew that the President had sent out the Lewis and Clark Expedition partly for this purpose during the spring of 1804.
While it was on the way, Captain Stoddard, at Wilkinson's suggestion, had come to Washington with a trunkful of things designed to please the President and whet his curiosity. He brought salt from the river Platte and the headwaters of the Arkansas, and two horned toads from nobody knows where; there were also specimens of iron, lead, and fusible spar gathered from hither and yon. With these were other odds and ends: pumice stone, "plumbago from the Missouri," "Black chalk from the Mandane," a buffalo pelt, and a "cluster of fruit from the cottonwood tree." One of the most important items was a map that the captain carried; it traced the route to Mexico City via San Antonio, Laredo, Monterrey, Saltillo, and San Luis Potosí.16
About a year later Wilkinson was ready to revise the map through an Indian chief named Riccari, who went to pay Jefferson a visit. The chief could communicate in eleven different languages by his "Arms, Hands, and Fingers"; in fact, they could be moved with such "ease and velocity" that he found no more difficulty in using them than his tongue. Riccari had traveled widely and could tell about an "aquatic horned animal" and a "drum-beating fish"; he had also "seen and could locate a volcano."17
Before long Wilkinson had officers from the Army exploring the wilderness of which Riccari and others had told. One of them was Lieutenant George Peter, whom Wilkinson sent out late in July, 1805, to the Osage Indians, ostensibly to invite them to make a good-will trip to Washington. Pierre Chouteau went along with the lieutenant's party because he was friendly with the Osages and wanted to trade with them, a privilege that the Spaniards had enjoyed alone for several years. As a result of the expedition, more peaceful relations were established with the Indians, Chouteau was soon given a trading monopoly, and a belief was created that troops could make a march from St. Louis to Santa Fe.18 In a letter to the Secretary of War, p221 Henry Dearborn, Wilkinson gave his reasons for believing that it was feasible. He said that the distance to Santa Fe did not exceed •nine hundred miles, only one mountain range had to be crossed, and enough food could be obtained to maintain his forces. If war with Spain occurred, he advised seizing the northern provinces of Mexico. In such an event, he would establish a chain of magazines in advance of the main force of two thousand men. If more troops were needed, others easily could be recruited.19 Thus the General was keeping his eyes open both to military contingencies and to trade possibilities. He could use what he learned for personal as well as official purposes.
From somewhat similar motives, Wilkinson dispatched Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike in an opposite direction. He left camp near St. Louis, August 9, 1805, for the purpose of strengthening our peaceful relations with the Indians, establishing control over British fur traders, and ascertaining the sources of the Mississippi River. He was also to examine the country with the idea of finding desirable locations for small garrisons designed to maintain law and order.20
While Wilkinson was learning to play the rôle of civil governor and trying to gain a more extensive knowledge of Louisiana Territory, Burr was in New Orleans, enjoying the hospitality of many quickly made friends. He had arrived there on June 25, 1805. Prominent people cordially received him. Daniel Clark, to whom he presented Wilkinson's letter of introduction, gave a great dinner in his honor. The Spaniards did not exert themselves to show him courtesies. Casa Calvo complained that the distinguished visitor had treated him rudely;21 he doubtless heard that Burr harbored a plot against Mexico.
Perhaps Burr did have some agreement with the Mexican Association, a body of about three hundred New Orleans men who wanted to liberate Mexico from Spanish rule. Although sympathizing with the down-trodden Mexicans, he had no desire to see their liberation coupled with the separation of our western territories from the Union.22 If Burr confided in him, he apparently did not suggest treason as he did when talking with Merry. Nevertheless, rumors prevailed that p222 it entered into Burr's plans before his sojourn in the South was ended. Clark wrote and told Wilkinson of what the people were talking.
"Many absurd and evil reports," he said, "are circulated here [New Orleans] and have reached the ears of the officers of the late Spanish Government, respecting our ex‑Vice-President. . . . You are spoken of as his right hand man. . . . What in the name of Heaven could give rise to such extravagancies? Were I sufficiently intimate with Mr. Burr and knew where to direct a line to him I should take the liberty of writing to him. . . . The tale is a horrid one, if well told. Kentucky, Tennessee, the state of Ohio, with part of Georgia and part of Carolina, are to be bribed with plunder of the Spanish countries west of us to separate from the Union; this is but a part of the business. Heaven, what wonderful doings there will be in those days. . . . Amuse Mr. Burr with an account of it."23
The news was probably far from amusing to Wilkinson. To have his name associated with a plan for breaking up the Union was decidedly disturbing. What would the President think of such an ugly talk about his newly made Governor, his Commanding General of the Army? And this was at a time when Army legislation was pending. How would the officials of Spain react? If they thought him a turncoat, they would never yield to his future requests for pay. Of course, if he could convince them that he was acting as their stool-pigeon, he might bask again in their munificent favors.
While Clark's informative letter was on its way to Wilkinson, Burr was riding north on horses provided by the writer. He stopped first at Natchez, then rode on through •four hundred and fifty miles of wilderness to Nashville, where he visited Jackson once more. Then he continued on to St. Louis for a second visit with Wilkinson. Going so far out of his way was not done without calculation. He was eager to talk over conditions in the Southwest; perhaps he wanted to know how the General was getting along as governor. Possibly the position might be suitable for a former Vice President. By September, Burr was in St. Louis, reputedly trying to convert Wilkinson to the idea that the West was ready to revolt. Eager for information, Wilkinson continued to pump him for more. When his guest was ready to leave he furnished him with a letter of introduction to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Territory of Indiana, soliciting aid p223 for the former Vice President in returning to Congress. Burr was ready for anything that would give him a new start in politics. He later enigmatically wrote that he and Harrison had "gone round about" the subject that filled their minds.24
Soon afterwards Burr was back in the East trying to obtain financial backing for his nebulous schemes. In spite of not seeing them clearly, he never once lost the trick of human appeal when he described them to others. "The gods invite us," said he, "to glory and to fortune; it remains to be seen whether we deserve the boon."25 Nevertheless, many did not yield to his blandishments. Merry might have done so, if the British Government had not been sufficiently discerning to recall him in June, 1806. Although Burr impressed the dapper, red-haired Marquis de Casa Yrojo, Spanish Minister, with schemes for destroying the Union and promoting the interests of the Crown, those who controlled disbursements from the treasury of Spain were unconvinced and would give nothing toward an enterprise that might be skillfully turned against them. What money Burr obtained came in driblets from contributors who had earned it by penurious effort.
While Burr was thus engaged Wilkinson continued to send out small detachments of his hardiest men to learn more of the unknown country that lay to the west between the headwaters of the Mississippi and the upper reaches of the Rio Grande.
During October, 1805, a month after Burr's visit to St. Louis, he dispatched an expedition under his son, Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, with orders to ascend the Missouri and establish a fort at the mouth of the Platte River. A prominent local physician, Dr. Andrew Steele, was invited to go along, but he delayed until he was given permission to carry with him a small stock of goods to trade with the Indians. Soon after the party had started, news circulated that its object was to form an advance post "near the coast of Santa Fe." The story must have been designed for those who were ignorant of geography and the direction of Santa Fe. The lieutenant did not achieve his mission. •About three hundred miles up the Missouri River his men accidentally clashed with Indians. Although only one soldier was killed, the rest were discouraged from going on. By the early part of December, 1805, they were back in St. Louis. The enterprise p224 had failed, and the General and his son were subject to criticism.26
A party under Lieutenant Pike, previously sent out, succeeded better. He traveled through the wilderness until he reached Leech Lake, which he believed to be the source of the Mississippi. In this neighborhood he spent the winter, returning to St. Louis on April 30, 1806.27 He had ably performed a difficult task; Wilkinson was more than ever convinced of his unusual ability and dependable character.
Because of these qualities, Pike was selected for a more hazardous undertaking, to lead an expedition to the Southwest. Its object was apparently lawful and had nothing to do with Burr's schemes. According to Wilkinson's letter of instructions of June 24, 1806,28 Pike was ordered to conduct a party of Osage Indians back to their country and to effect a peace between them and neighboring tribes. While in this region he was to reconnoitre the territory drained by the Arkansas and Red rivers, and, if advisable, to explore each stream to its mouth. He was cautioned not to give the Spaniards cause for offense. Dr. John Hamilton Robinson, going nominally as an accompanying surgeon, really went to assume command in case Pike met with disaster. Of course, Santa Fe was to be reconnoitred if possible. Pike understood and, just before leaving, informed Wilkinson of the subterfuge that he expected to employ. In case he encountered the Spaniards, he would pretend that he was travelling to the garrison at Natchitochesº but had lost his bearings and would be happy to pay the commandant at Santa Fe a "visit of politeness." If the ruse did not work, he would continue on his way.29
The Spain started for Santa Fe on July 15, 1806. It had a fur-trading claim against the Spaniards that it hoped to use for a sort of passport into their territory. Those around St. Louis eagerly gossiped about its object. Timothy Kibby, at St. Charles, had an interesting tale that he adorned with a few Irish embellishments. He was just on the point of learning about a "mysterious secret" that would bring fame and riches to those who shared in it, when the General suddenly became cautious, and would tell him no more. Later, when Kibby, overcome with curiosity, plied Wilkinson with questions, he got nowhere for his pains, learning only that the expedition was of p225 a "secret nature."30 This answer kept Wilkinson from being further bedeviled; it also enabled Kibby and others to raise a mountain of conjectures. By not taking the public into his confidence, the General may have better served his own devious purposes and enabled the brave and indomitable Pike to penetrate the wilderness with more safety to himself and his devoted band.
Pike and his men were ill prepared for the long journey that lay before them. No government authority existed for the expedition, and no money was available for incidental expenses. In spite of scant equipment, they arrived at the headwaters of the Arkansas in August. Here lieutenant James B. Wilkinson was detached with five men on the 28th to St. Louis its lower reaches; by February of the following year, 1807, he was in New Orleans. Meanwhile the rest had continued on. They soon believed that "the grace of God had petered out on the other side of the Arkansas." To make up for a lack of shoes they had to cut up their blankets. On the 3rd of December, 1806, Pike, shivering in his tattered cotton overalls, looked, for the first time, upon the glories of the peak that bears his name. The next month some of his men had nothing to eat for four days in succession. When they entered the Mountains of the Blood of Christ, the weather turned extremely cold, and the feet of two in the party were so badly frozen that they could not walk. In the midst of a snowstorm they were temporarily left behind with a little food. Some time afterwards Pike and his party were overtaken by a body of Spanish troops and carried to Santa Fe, where they remained for a while, and were then sent on to Chihuahua. Again detained, he was finally set free and permitted to return to the United States, arriving at Natchitoches on the 1st of July, 1807.31
These expeditions enjoyed Jefferson's personal, if not official, approval. They were favored also by civilians greedy for trade and soldiers who had a lust for adventure. They pointed the way for the development of new commercial interests; they helped to promote peace with the Indians and to establish our national sovereignty over a newly acquired domain; they once more brought Wilkinson into contact with the Spaniards whose favors or fears he might use for personal advantage. Although Burr was not a direct agent in inspiring them, Wilkinson knew that they would bring back information that p226 the former Vice President wanted, and for which he might pay.
Wilkinson achieved distinct success in gathering information of Louisiana Territory through these exploring expeditions. If he had been able to demonstrate executive ability commensurate with his knowledge of the frontier, greater honors would have been his without even the asking. Then he might not have felt the need to curry the administration's favor by posing as the country's deliverer from the conspiracy of Burr. Unfortunately he began quarreling with his subordinates soon after reaching St. Louis. For the most part they were a difficult lot; their aims were usually selfish, and sometimes dishonest. Wilkinson dealt rigorously with them, seldom using the tact that he almost uniformly employed in winning the good will of his superiors.
Within the Army a strong faction of opposition grew up under the leadership of Major James Bruff. Ever since coming to St. Louis, the General had paid him scant attention. Angry and humiliated, the Major had retaliated by repeating Kentucky newspaper stories that charged Wilkinson and Burr with a plot to separate the western states from the Union. Bruff, according to Wilkinson, was a sort of half-breed Yankee, "a damned cunning fellow" whom he did not trust enough for any post of importance. Soon an incident occurred to increase their mutual antipathy. When Bruff complained that the camp site for which Wilkinson had personally contracted was unhealthy and without tactical importance, he received a scathing reprimand in public. When General Miranda sailed in February from New Orleans with an expedition to liberate the South American colonies from Spain, Bruff said Wilkinson was the instigator and abettor of the plot, and had the temerity to tell the General that he would not last six months in the service. Wilkinson was incensed at this "act of sedition.' Daring the General to arrest him, Bruff got what he asked for and more. He was tried and found guilty of insubordination, writing letters to Washington disparaging the Commanding General of the Army, and other unbecoming acts. He was sentenced to be deprived of all pay and command for twelve months. The findings, however, were eventually disapproved, and he was exonerated.32
In dealing with civilians, Wilkinson met with greater opposition and was less able to cope with it. Although he bore himself with dignity and entertained extensively, he frequently lacked tact in exercising p227 his extensive powers. Not only was he Governor and ranking general of regular troops in Louisiana Territory, he was also general-in‑chief of the militia and ex‑officio commissioner of Indian affairs. In executive matters he was supreme; even in legislative and judicial fields he was able to do almost as he pleased. The law-making power was entrusted to him and three associates: John B. C. Lucas, John Coburn, and Rufus Easton. These three judges were appointed by the President for a term of four years. As an additional duty, they constituted the Superior Court. For executive assistants Wilkinson had five lieutenant-governors or commandants, each presiding over one of the following districts: St. Louis, St. Genevieve, St. Charles, Cape Girardeau, and New Madrid. All of the commandants were Army officers except in the case of the New Madrid district.33
At first many thought that Wilkinson would perform his numerous duties with distinction. Gideon Granger, Jefferson's Postmaster-General, considered him "one of the most agreeable, best informed, most genteel, moderate, and sensible Republicans in the nation."34 Matthew Lyon, a Kentucky Representative, glowed with pleasure over Wilkinson's appointment. To bring it about, General Samuel Smith, a Senator from Maryland and a brother of the Secretary of the Navy, had done all that he could. Jefferson believed the selection well made.
Wilkinson did not measure up to their expectations. The inhabitants who had lived under Spanish rule had enjoyed a long period of "salutary neglect"; they were irritated because of Wilkinson's abrasive regulations. They called him a Federalist, Royalist, Burrite, etc.; they said he had risen to power through a miserable accident. They resented his mandatory ways; they saw no virtue even in excellent orders because of the manner in which some of them were given. Edward Hempstead, a prominent citizen of St. Louis, voiced an opinion that others shared. He said: "From a rank Federalist to a suspected Republican he [Wilkinson] became a bigot and is now a petty tyrant."35 Samuel Hammond, commandant of the St. Louis district, had personal reasons for animosity. Wilkinson had refused to recognize his company of "Volunteer Riflemen" on the ground that its members were disturbers, malcontents, and, for the most part, p228 not even citizens of the district; he had openly declared that Hammond's nephew had wantonly murdered a drunken Kickapoo Indian. To make matters worse, the General had tried to reopen the case after the accused had been exonerated.36 Colonel Seth Hunt, commandant of St. Genevieve, was equally hostile. He disapproved of Wilkinson's appointment and declared it unconstitutional. Wilkinson charged him with fraud in connection with the St. Genevieve lead mines. Hunt went to Washington and, on his return, spread the news that Wilkinson would be supplanted.37
The General's relations with most of the legal fraternity were equally strained. They resented his efforts to put James Donaldson on the bench; they hated his meddling supervision. Wilkinson declared that the Superior Court, under the leadership of Meigs, broke down "every barrier of Law & Justice." He called the judge "a poor, pimping, lying, hypocritical Yankee, a coadjutor of the scoundrel Hammond."38 He would allow none of his mail to pass through the hands of the St. Louis postmaster, who was none other than Easton. With "Lucas and Co." he was on no better terms. He said Lucas hated him "because I do not acknowledge his superiority, because I sometimes wear a cocked hat and a sword, and am fond of a clean shirt, which are Eyesores to him, because my infirm wife rides daily for Health in a carriage, which he considers aristocratic."39 No wonder Judges Meigs, Easton, and Lucas exhausted almost every excuse before they obeyed Wilkinson's summons to come and sit with him to make laws for the Territory.
Much care needed to be exercised in writing them. The population was heterogeneous, and the methods of the United States were very different from those of Spain. The period of transition for Louisiana was difficult, especially because of the influx of many people whose aims were often dishonest. Interpreting the law as he understood it, Wilkinson did not hesitate to prosecute offenders. When no place was available for their confinement, he put them in the guard house. Debt-evading rogues, murderers, thieves, and unlicensed, swindling Indian traders, all experienced the sternness of his justice. They deserved little sympathy and received less.
But with those who were endeavoring to meet the rulings of the p229 federal government on land titles the case was different. Shortly before the purchase of Louisiana many had fraudulently purchased land for which deeds, dated back to 1799 or earlier, were given. To correct this situation commissioners were appointed by Congress to examine titles. All claims not declared by a certain date were subject to forfeiture. As an additional complication, Wilkinson created a surveyor-general who had to certify every claim before it was recorded. The 1st of March, 1806, was set as the last day for recording. The news of these regulations did not reach distant sections until compliance with them was impossible. To make matters worse, the fees for surveying were excessive, the people were generally too poor to pay them, the deputies were few, and St. Louis was a long way off for many who had to go there. The inhabitants bitterly complained of these acts of injustice.40 Among them was Moses Austin, whose son, Stephen, was later to be associated with Wilkinson in Mexico. They contrasted the easy-going methods of the Spaniards with the unfair conditions that their own countrymen had imposed. Wilkinson was naturally blamed for most of their troubles.
Jefferson had no reason to keep an unpopular governor in St. Louis, but he did need a general in the Southwest where the Spaniards were showing signs of hostility along the Sabine. The President decided to shift Wilkinson to the vicinity of New Orleans, where in a military capacity he might coöperate with Governor Claiborne. According to the orders of May 16, 1806, he was to make this change of station "with as little delay as possible";41 nevertheless, he made no apparent effort to hurry on his way. Mrs. Wilkinson was unwell, the climate to the south was especially enervating during the summer, his extra pay as Governor was decidedly agreeable, and he did not relish making war on the Spaniards, least of all in company with Claiborne whom he wanted consigned to the devil. It was not until September 7 that he finally reached Natchez.42
Burr had long been planning to journey in the same direction. During the winter of 1805‑1806, he had been active in trying to obtain funds from the British and Spanish ministers, as well as from his friends, for a purpose that varied with the penchant of the person approached. According to some reports, he wanted to purchase p230 •400,000 highly desirable acres near Natchez on which colonists might cultivate the rich black soil with profit until the day should dawn for them to advance on Mexico. By midsummer of 1806, he had raised about $50,000 and was writing that his plans were developing according to secret arrangements.43 Wilkinson, of course, was to share in them, and on the 29th of July a letter in code was sent to him. One copy was dispatched by hand; another was entrusted to Dr. Erich Bollman, who was travelling to New Orleans by sea.
Wilkinson eventually received both copies of the letter. What it told was enough to damn Burr with treasonable intentions. Its contents were to the effect that the English would meet them with ships at the mouth of the Mississippi and the United States Navy stood ready to join them — "a host of choice spirits," "a corps of worthies," "the best blood of our country." Money was available, river boats were being built, and depots for provisions were to be established. Burr was leaving for the West in August, 1806. By the middle of November from five hundred to one thousand men would be at the Falls of the Ohio. A month later contingents would be reaching Natchez, where plans might be laid for seizing Baton Rouge or passing it by, according to circumstances. In the entire scheme of things Wilkinson was promised high place, Burr alone would be greater.44
While this incriminating letter was on its way, Wilkinson had advanced with a small force as far as Natchitoches and was preparing to resist the Spaniards should they readvance east of the Sabine River. Americans in the Southwest were eager for hostilities. Wilkinson, perhaps, shared their views; but he did not want to wage war alone — he could see only slender prospect of success without the power of the federal government behind him. Running counter to Jefferson's pacifist policies was one of the surest ways of having his own political head fall in a basket. Before leaving St. Louis, he had declared that he did not anticipate war.45 Nor did Simon de Herrera, the near-by Spanish officer at Bayou Pierre, have a stomach for fighting. He could expect nothing from his lazy, half-mutinous, barefooted soldiers in a one-sided struggle over a questionable cause. Hence he evacuated his position on September 27, and a few days later was encamped west of the Sabine. Wilkinson had apparently wrung from the p231 Spaniards a part of what Jefferson wanted. The terms of agreement were not loudly proclaimed because territory often claimed as part of the United States was abandoned; they stipulated that the Americans would not advance west of Arroyo Hondo. The area between it and the Sabine was to be neutral territory interdicted to the use of both parties.46
Before this agreement was made Wilkinson had received Burr's letter of July 29. Samuel Swartwout, accompanied by Peter Ogden, brought it. They arrived at Wilkinson's Natchitoches camp some time during the first ten days in October. For a little over a week Wilkinson marked time; his plan of action was not yet determined. Before he had left St. Louis he knew that he did not stand well with the administration, a piece of bad news Swartwout confirmed.47 Something had to be done to ward off disaster, to restore himself to political favor. Thinking things over in terms of the past, he found a key. He could recall how in 1788, after becoming a confidant of Colonel John Connolly, who was trying to rouse Americans to join with the British and invade Louisiana, he had gainfully disclosed all of the Englishman's plans to Governor Miró at New Orleans. In 1790, when O'Fallon and his armed colonists were an open threat to Spanish power, Wilkinson played a similar rôle, much to his advantage. When George Rogers Clark leading some motley backwoodsmen would have taken New Orleans for the benefit of France, Wilkinson, writing to Carondelet, told how his own individual efforts had broken up their nefarious project. For this alleged piece of work he was handsomely paid. Surely these leaves in his scrapbook of memory were worth reading when the case of Burr was up for solution. By a single stroke, Mexico, the United States, and the President might be induced to believe that they had been saved from disaster by his forethought and patriotism.
A stool pigeon, however useful, has few admirers. But Wilkinson thought the rewards great enough to repay him for the ignominy of the part. Let Burr's project continue to develop. In fact, he would help advertise its menacing proportions, and then step loudly forth as the savior of the people from treason and bloodshed. The idea was a piece of sour fruit that naturally grew on the tree of his devious and intriguing past.
On October 20, he took the first steps to promote his scheme. p232 Writing to the President, he revealed the horrid schemes that his patriotic energies had unearthed. A powerful group of influential characters recruited from the East and West was bent on an expedition against Vera Cruz.48 By December they would be in New Orleans; under whose leadership, he was unable to say. Next day he again wrote in language even more lurid. The expedition was pregnant with "stupendous consequences." Again no names were given; he did not want to "mar a salutory design." The West might soon be in tumult; he thought that he had better make what compromise he could with the Spaniards concerning the Sabine border.49 Wilkinson was skillfully endeavoring to please the Spaniards and to justify his action in creating a neutral ground that was destined to be only a nuisance.
That was not all; he must needs do more. Lieutenant-Colonel Freeman at New Orleans was bidden to be on guard and have his troops in readiness for an emergency that could not then be disclosed.50 To Cushing he hinted of calamity, great enough to make his gray hairs stand on end: "I perceive the plot thickens," he wrote. "Yet all but those concerned, sleep profoundly. My God! What a situation has our country reached. Let us save it if we can."51 Five days after this letter another went to Jefferson dated November 12, enclosing a copy of Burr's code communication that had been written on July 29. If Jefferson did not quake with fear, it was not because Wilkinson's words failed to suggest the dire peril with which the situation was fraught. The people were faced, as he said, with a "spectacle of human depravity, to excite our sorrow, indignation and abhorrence"; nothing but peace in Europe could save the country from the possibility of desolation and the government from being shaken to its foundations. There was on foot "a deep, dark and widespread conspiracy, embracing the young and the old, the democrat and the federalist, the native and the foreigner, the patriot of '76 and the exotic of yesterday, the opulent and the needy, the ins and the outs." This all-embracing plot had strong support in New Orleans. He would do everything to demolish it, although his means were deficient and he badly needed reinforcements. He would employ "indefatigable industry, incessant vigilance and hardy courage." p233 He would glory to give his life for the service of his country. New Orleans, he thought, be put under martial law, for then he could apprehend or banish the "disaffected." He planned to employ "political finesse," "military stratagem," and "false colors" against his adversaries. He would move against them with secrecy and determination, for there were "more than three desperate enthusiasts" who were ready to assassinate him.52
Jefferson was not terrified by this melodramatic letter, but he was impressed. After consulting with the Cabinet he gave directions to stop armed bodies travelling down the Ohio and the Mississippi. Commanders of scattered Army posts were warned to be on their guard; militia were to be called out if necessary. Boats building at Marietta, Ohio, and suspected of being intended for Burr's use, were ordered seized. Wilkinson was to be given unusual powers.53 Affairs were moving swiftly in the direction that the General wished. He could feel sure of his position for a while at least; the stories that Bruff and Swartwout had spread about some one else commanding the Army could now be ignored.
From another angle Wilkinson planned to make capital out of conspiracy. Not knowing the exact location of Governor Folch of the Floridas, he sent letters addressed to him at both Mobile and Pensacola. He declared "on the honor of a soldier" that he would do his uttermost to protect the dominions of Spain from a band of "lawless" and "intelligent" citizens of the United States. Fully armed, they threatened to take Baton Rouge immediately and ultimately the Mexican provinces. He would employ all the means in his power to avert so dire a calamity and prevent this foul stigma on the name that was American.54 In Wilkinson's mind was racing the thought that, if there were gratitude, the Spaniards would pay.
In another direction the appeal was equally frightening but decidedly more pointed. To Walter Burling, who had been living near Natchez and acting as a military aide, he intrusted a mission involving extensive travel. He was to go to the City of Mexico, reconnoitre the intervening territory, and try to make a few dollars by speculating in mules. He was also to carry a letter to Viceroy Iturrigaray. It described how Wilkinson had succeeded, at "the risk of his life, fame, and fortune," in preventing the descent of Burr and his bandits upon p234 the "Coast of Mexico." For the sums expended in the cause of "good government, order, and humanity," he asked reimbursement. One remittance of $85,000 and another of $26,000 would just about repay him. Iturrigaray had already heard of the projected invasion; he felt perfectly able to repel it. He was not easily deceived and had no money to spend. He therefore arranged for the hasty return of Burling, to whom was entrusted a message for Wilkinson thanking him for his efforts and wishing him well in "his righteous intentions."55 So the long trip yield only a fifteen hundred dollar bill for expenses, which the United States government subsequently paid.
On November 25, 1806, about a week after Burling had set out on his cross-country journey for real dollars and fictitious mules, Wilkinson arrived in New Orleans. He lost no time in preparing the city against attack. Militia were called out, fortifications repaired, and seamen impressed. He began to clear the city of those "choice spirits" who might thwart his ruthless ways. Unfortunately for himself, Erich Bollman delivered, during December, the other copy of Burr's code letter of July 29. Wilkinson soon had it published and Bollman arrested and thrown into jail. When he sought release through a writ of habeas corpus, Wilkinson, arrayed "in full uniform," went into Court, and made a return stating that the accused had been arrested for misprision of treason. He further declared that he would treat similar cases in the very same way. Samuel Swartwout was duly apprehended; he and Bollman were put on a war vessel and shipped off to Baltimore, consigned to the President. On January 23, 1807, Bollman obtained an audience with Jefferson and filled his ears with tales damning to Wilkinson. Peter Ogden was no luckier than the other two; before long he was forcibly sent to join them in exile. General John Adair of Kentucky fared worse; in 1804, when there was a prospect of invading Mexico, he had written Wilkinson, "The word is all we wait for." He knew too much, and so he was dragged from his dinner by Wilkinson's soldiers, paraded through the streets, held for a time below the city, and finally sent North to face investigation.56
No one was certain that Wilkinson's heavy hand would not fall on him as an accomplice in the "machinations against the state." The "hesitant" Claiborne made no assertion of his authority, so the General p235 went unhampered about his purposes. So disgusted was Judge Workman of New Orleans with the utter disregard of local procedure that he adjourned his court and resigned his office in protest. Wilkinson retaliated by arresting and holding him for trial. He was released only when the federal judge of the district came to his rescue. With weeks passing and still no host of bandits appearing, the people rebelled against this uncalled-for imposition of martial rule. According to a later confession of Jefferson, the General had trodden the law in the dust, set the judges at naught to their faces, and "swaddled" Governor Claiborne "in his sack and laid him to bed like a great baby."57 The territorial legislature of Louisiana declared nothing but circumstances of extreme danger could justify Wilkinson's violent measures. Such circumstances did not exist. Neither foreign nor domestic enemies were in striking distance of New Orleans. Nor were traitors within the city. In short, Wilkinson's acts were "too notorious to be denied, too illegal to be justified, too wanton to be excused."58
While this tempest of indignation was rising against Wilkinson, he suffered a great personal loss. On February 23, 1807, his wife died at the home of Bernard de Marigny, then serving as one of his temporary staff officers. Marigny was a perfect representative of the creole type distinguished for its "fine living and generous spending." Beneath his roof, ill and beset with trouble, Mrs. Wilkinson had found refuge during the tumultuous days of the Burr conspiracy. She had succumbed to tuberculosis, probably aggravated by the frontier hardships that she had willingly suffered. The General could ill afford to lose her. Her devotion, patience, and charm had always exerted a calming influence upon his boisterous and unstable ways. He and his son James Biddle and many friends sorrowfully buried her at New Orleans.59
Though many sympathized with the General in his bereavement, more turned upon him with bitterness and scorn. A tale circulated that he had consorted with one of the better known harlots of the city during the illness of his wife. Copies of notes that passed between the two were published in the New Orleans Gazette,60 after Wilkinson's p236 departure for Richmond. They smell strongly of forger's ink. They were printed when Wilkinson was no longer in the city, by an avowed enemy, who was not famed for his veracity. Wilkinson was genuinely fond of his wife, and it seems incredible that, while she was at the point of death or shortly afterwards, he would court the bed and caresses of a prostitute. If willing to defy the rules of decency, he was yet shrewd enough to know that he should not increase the tide of indignation against him.
Many openly charged that he had aroused New Orleans to the point of rebellion for no worthy purpose; he had conjured up devils only to have them harmlessly vanish. Burr was by no means the horrible menace that he had been painted; he seemed to be no more than a leader of western immigrants with bucolic intentions. After dispatching the code letter of July 29, he had started on his second journey to the West. Floating down the Ohio, he visited Wheeling, Cincinnati, and other places. At Belpre he spent the night with Harman Blennerhassett, a visionary financial contributor, who hoped to win fame and regal rewards in the conquest of Mexico. With whomsoever he talked, Burr gilded his colonizing of the Bastrop grant with alluring plans of greater adventure. Sometimes they hinted at the conquest of Mexico and the establishment of an empire there; or again they were concerned with the carving of an imperial domain out of United States territory and adjacent provinces of Spain. In spite of the broad range of the appeal recruits and money came slowly. And before long the President's proclamation of November 27 reached the western country. Burr fell under suspicion, and his friends began to suffer misfortune. Blennerhassett's beautiful island home in the Ohio was ransacked by drunken and obscene vandals, none other than Wood County volunteers acting in the name of the law. While in Kentucky, Burr was subjected to a grand-jury investigation, though not otherwise molested. After visiting Jackson again in Tennessee, he assembled his men at the mouth of the Cumberland, and before long they were drifting down the Mississippi, sixty strong in nine boats loaded mostly with farming tools and supplies. On reaching Washington, Mississippi Territory, he had to suffer another grand-jury investigation, although he escaped indictment as before. Unwilling to trust himself to Wilkinson and a court-martial, he abandoned his demoralized companions and fled, only to be apprehended near Fort Stoddard, Alabama, on the 19th of February, 1807.61
Courtesy of Mr. C. W. Andrews, Syracuse, N. Y., and Harvard University. This map was among the papers left by Aaron Burr, just before his arrest near Coles Creek, Miss., with Dr. John Cummins, Green Gulf, Miss.
p237 On March 26, Burr's guard reached Richmond and lodged him at the Eagle Tavern. Before the month had passed, he was brought before John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, for examination. Finding the evidence insufficient to warrant a trial for treason, Marshall had Burr held only for misdemeanor. In June the grand jury began its investigation. Planters, politicians, backwoodsmen, soldiers of fortune, all came to give their versions and watch the constantly diverting show. "General" William Eaton, dressed up like the lord of a harem, strutted along the streets, full of the story that he had related to Congressmen about the seizure of Washington, the assassination of the President, and insurrection in the West. Commander Truxton was on hand, garrulous as ever when the toddy flowed free. Andrew Jackson, gaunt, masterful and profane, had come to offer what evidence he could for Burr and to damn Wilkinson whenever opportunity offered. Winfield Scott, though no friend of Wilkinson, was convinced of Burr's guilt and wanted him convicted. Spectators on those hot midsummer days had only to twist their necks a little to see one of the Army's great generals of the future high above the rest, ill balanced on the great lock of the courtroom door. Though seats were few on those stifling days, no one was willing to miss seeing the witnesses and hearing the evidence that they offered. On June 13, Wilkinson arrived, stout, red-faced, and a little wheezy, resplendent in the colorful uniform of Commanding General of the Army. He had sailed from New Orleans on May 20, 1807. After debarking from the Vengeance at Hampton Roads, he had hastened to Richmond, bent on supporting Thomas Jefferson and vindicating his own honor. He was going to convict Burr, that "little arch traitor," that "damned and pickled Villain," no matter how much time it took before the jury; he was also determined to acquaint the whole wide world with the truth by means of a "book of three hundred pages quarto."62 In spite of his pretensions, Wilkinson had little valuable evidence to offer except Burr's code letter of July 29. No one seemed to know how it was decoded except John Randolph, and he had no faith in Wilkinson's rendering. He hated the General and wanted him investigated and tried. Just how Wilkinson could describe the contemptuous manner of Randolph as "chaste and delicate,"63 is something of a riddle; possibly he wanted to create the impression that the Virginian had been cowed by the stalwart p238 demeanor of the star witness for the prosecution. Eaton had even less than Wilkinson to offer that was worth considering. Many regarded the pair as just chore boys for Jefferson. Finally the grand jury concluded as Andrew Jackson had previously declared, that "something was rotten in Denmark." It brought in two indictments against Burr on the 24th of June: one charged him with treason, another with misdemeanor.
It was not until August 3, 1807, that the actual trial began. From then until October 20, Burr was fighting his case with the assistance of Luther Martin, Edmund Randolph, and other distinguished lawyers. The prosecution was ably directed by George Hay, William Wirt, and Alexander McRae. After two weeks had been consumed in selecting a jury, the trial for treason began. The crux of the case was concerned with the assembling of armed men on Blennerhassett's Island with the idea of descending the Mississippi and seizing New Orleans. A long line of witnesses had their turns, led by the colorful Eaton and the sore-headed Truxton. For the most part, the rest were gardeners and drovers and men of menial station; they told how they had been beguiled into the conspiracy, and the bitter fruit that they had eaten. The total evidence was not enough to show that Burr had borne arms against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies. On September 1 the jury reported, finding Burr not guilty of treason.
The trial for misdemeanor then followed. The prosecution endeavored to prove that Burr had planned hostilities against Spain, a nation with which the United States was at peace. Again Hay and his assistants failed. On September 15 the second stage of the prosecution ended with a verdict similar to the one before.
Still unwilling to admit defeat, Hay moved to hold Burr and his confederates for trial in the District of Ohio on the charge of treason. Once more the tedious round of evidence was heard by the imperturbable Marshall. Italy on October 20 he directed that Burr be committed only for misdemeanor because the enterprise of the accused had been directed solely against Mexico. Although put under a $3,000 bond for appearance, Burr was never tried. The prosecution had played its last card and knew that no chance existed of obtaining a conviction.
Wilkinson's part in the trial seemed to hurt his reputation more than that of Burr. His great contribution had been made already; he p239 had been the chief instrument in starting proceedings against the accused. He had no important evidence except the Burr letter of July 29, 1805, a letter that he had altered and not carefully decoded. When plied with questions, he had to admit that for a long period of years he and Burr had corresponded and visited each other when opportunity offered. Both of them had been interested in South American projects, especially the late efforts of Miranda to overthrow the Spanish regime. An opinion seemed to grow that the prisoner and the star witness for the prosecution were tarred with the same stick. The defense tried to use this connection to undermine the confidence in Wilkinson. It tried to show that he was governed by a base desire to stand well with the administration; it elicited the fact that he had often acted without authority and beyond any reasonable interpretation of orders. He soon found himself refusing to answer for fear that he would incriminate himself. He offered document after document to explain why he had done this and that, but those who sat and listened were not wholly convinced. General Van Poffenburgh, as Washington Irving would call him, had plenty of embarrassing moments. Though badgered and harassed by Luther Martin and his colleagues, he stood doggedly by his guns. Nevertheless, the opinion prevailed that he had not met the test for the general-in‑chief of the Army, and his country had not been well served by his efforts.64
If Wilkinson had failed, so had Burr. The former Vice President might exult over the verdict but not over the result of his trial. From 1807 he was a marked man. People could not forget his great ability as a lawyer, and in later years they would sometimes consult him in difficult cases. But confidence in him as a great political leader was gone; he would never again enjoy the honors of high public office. The ruin of his reputation had been initiated by Wilkinson; Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican partisans would see that it was thoroughly achieved. Little was left to the "proud pretender" except his evil ways. He continued them as before — seducing women, beating his debts, and planning conspiracies that were never consummated. Wilkinson knew that rewards were due to him for helping to bring a talented super-rascal to book; before long he would be going to Washington to claim them.
1 To Burr, May 23, 1804, American Antiquarian Society Proceedings, XXIX (1919), 122‑123.
2 True American (Trenton), June 2, 1804.
3 Pa. Mag. of Hist. and Biog., XLIX, 333‑334.
4 Watson to O'Callaghan, Sept. 20, 1860, O'Callaghan Papers, Vol. XVIII.
5 Cox, "Opening the Santa Fe Trail," Missouri Historical Review, XXV, 36‑37; Adair to Wilkinson, Dec. 10, 1804, Durrett Coll., Univ. of Chicago.
6 To Biddle, Mar. 18, 1805, in Cox, loc. cit.
7 Wandell and Minnigerode, Aaron Burr, II, 37.
8 Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall, III, 294.
9 Memoirs, II, Appendix LXXI.
10 To Leonard, June 9, 1804, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.
11 Testimony of Bruff in Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 571‑577.
12 Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 578‑584.
13 Cox, op. cit., 39.
14 Coues, The Expeditions of Zebulon M. Pike, II, 358.
15 Amer. State Papers, Claims, V, 498‑499.
16 Memorandum of Stoddard for the President (undated), Jefferson Papers, Vol. CXLVI.
17 To Jefferson, Dec. 25, 1805, Jefferson Papers, Vol. CLIV.
18 Cox, op. cit., 41.
19 To Sec. of War, Sept. 8, 1805, Durrett Coll., Univ. of Chicago.
20 Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 944.
21 Casa Calvo to Wilkinson, July 15, 1805, Wilkinson Papers, Vol. II, Chicago Hist. Soc.
22 McCaleb, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy, 31.
23 Ibid., 32‑33.
24 Wandell and Minnigerode, op. cit., 47.
25 Ibid., 81.
26 Cox, op. cit., 45.
27 Coues, op. cit., I, 215, passim.
28 To Pike, June 24, 1806, Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 943.
29 Cox, op. cit., 48.
30 Ibid., 49.
31 Coues, op. cit., II, 359‑487, et passim; Dic. of American Biography, XIV, 599‑600.
32 Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 571‑585.
33 Houck, A History of Missouri, II, 382, 401, et passim.
34 Granger to Easton, Mar. 16, 1805, in Scharf, History of St. Louis City and County, I, 334.
35 Houck, A History of Missouri, II, 403.
36 Wilkinson to Smith, June 4, 17, 1806, Darlington Papers.
37 Wilkinson to Sec. of War, Sept. 8, 1805, and subsequent dates, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
38 To Smith, June 10, Nov. 14, 1806, Darlington papers.
39 To Sec of War. Dec. 31, 1805, W. D., A. G. O., O. R.
40 M. Austin to Gallatin, Aug., 1806, Annual Report Amer. Hist. Assn., 1919, Part I, p97.
41 McCaleb, The Aaron Burr Conspiracy, 171.
42 Ibid., 122.
43 Wandell and Minnigerode, Aaron Burr, II, 68‑78.
44 Burr to Wilkinson, July 29, 1806, in Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall, III, 614‑615.
45 To Smith, June 17, 1806, Darlington Papers.
46 McCaleb, op. cit., 116‑150.
47 Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 539‑556.
48 Memoirs, II, App. XCV.
49 To Jefferson, Oct. 21, 1806, Letters in Relation.
50 To Freeman, Oct. 23, Nov. 7, 1806, in Memoirs, II, App . XCIX and CI.
51 To Cushing, Nov. 7, 1806, Ibid., App. XCIX.
52 To Jefferson, Nov. 12, 1806, Ibid., App. C.
53 Cabinet Memoranda, Nov. 25, 1806, in McCaleb, op. cit., 195.
54 To Folch, Dec. 6, 1806, A. G. I., Seville, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 2375.
55 Iturrigaray to Cevallos, Mar. 12, 1807, in McCaleb, op. cit., 168‑169.
56 Wandell and Minnigerode, Aaron Burr, II, 132‑146.
57 Daviess, "View of the President's Conduct During the Conspiracy of 1806," in Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio Publications, X‑XII, 126.
58 Wandell and Minnigerode, op. cit., II, 136.
59 Louisiana Gazette, Feb. 27, 1807.
60 July 13, 1807.
62 Wilkinson to Smith, June 20, 29, 1807, Darlington Papers.
63 To Smith, June 12, 1807, Ibid.
64 For Wilkinson's part in the Burr trial, see Amer. State Papers, Miscel., I, 539‑567.
a Auguste Chouteau was even more prominent than Ripley suggests, and is considered today to have been one of the founders of the city of St. Louis. For the importance of the dynasty he founded there, see "The Chouteaus and their Commercial Enterprises", Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 11, No. 2; the much shorter biographical sketch at Find-a‑Grave, with portrait, will convey the same sense of the man's importance: this is surely the quintessential courtesy call. A younger man by the same name, probably his nephew, was appointed a cadet at the Military Academy at West Point by Jefferson and would soon serve as an aide-de‑camp to Wilkinson (Cullum's Register, 14).
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