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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783‑1795

by
Arthur Preston Whitaker

as reprinted by
Peter Smith,
Gloucester, MA, 1962

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 7

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p78 Chapter VI
The Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis

If you want to follow along on the author's maps, they're here. (They'll open in another window, so you won't lose your place.)

Floridablanca's last effort to secure a treaty with the Congress of the Confederation was made in 1787 and was intimately connected with certain proposals that he had recently received in regard to the American frontier. The first of these plans in order of importance came from a Frenchman by the name of Pierre Wouves d'Argès; the other, which was hardly more than a suggestion, was offered by James White, a delegate of North Carolina in Congress. By a judicious combination of their proposals with diplomatic pressure, Floridablanca hoped to find a way out of the impasse of the American negotiation and to strengthen Spain's position in the Mississippi Valley.

From Kentucky to San Ildefonso

In the spring of 1787 this d'Argès, a middle-aged French gentleman of misfortune and a chevalier of the Order of St. Louis, emerged from a three years' residence in the backwoods of Kentucky and presented himself to the Spanish ambassador in Paris, Count Aranda.1 Explaining how ill health and ambition had led him in 1783 to wander so far from the accustomed haunts of chevaliers as to settle in Kentucky, he warned Aranda that the weakness of Louisiana and the rapid increase of the American West in population and in hostility to Spain made it imperatively necessary for the Spanish government to adopt a new defensive system in the Mississippi Valley if it did not wish to lose its North American dominions. He proposed a p79twofold remedy: Spain should strengthen Louisiana and weaken the American West by attracting to its own territory as many of the American frontiersmen as possible; and the frontiersmen who resisted this seduction and remained in the American settlements should be mollified by a partial opening of the Mississippi, whose closure was their chief grievance against Spain. Both these results could be accomplished, he said, by manipulating commercial regulations on the Mississippi and by liberal land grants. The river should be opened to the frontiersmen's commerce subject to a twenty-five per cent duty, for such a duty would be low enough to placate them and yet so high that they would find it more advantageous to emigrate to Spanish territory, where, d'Argès proposed, they should be admitted as Spanish subjects and enjoy the use of the river without the payment of any duty whatsoever. The American immigrants should be concentrated in Natchez, which was the cynosure of American eyes and an important strategic point. D'Argès, who according to Aranda spoke excellent English, requested that he be sent back to the United States as the agent of Spain in this affair. He mentioned as one of his chief qualifications that he was already the agent of some five thousand Kentucky families who wished to emigrate to Spanish territory.

Aranda, who had from the beginning of the American Revolution warned his government in season and out of season against the reckless ambition of the Americans, gave this project vigorous support. He emphasized the value of Natchez as a bulwark against the rising republican tide and suggested that Floridablanca summon d'Argès to Spain and hear him in person. After consulting José de Gálvez, who now bore the title of p80Marqués de Sonora, reminiscent of his distinguished services in Mexico, Floridablanca agreed to hear the Chevalier, but urged that the affair be kept a profound secret, especially from the Americans.

The secretary of state's interest in these propositions was not due solely to the advocacy of the powerful Aranda. In the first place, war with England was threatening.2 In the second place, two despatches from Gardoqui had already prepared him for some such measure as that proposed by the Frenchman. In August, 1786, Gardoqui had a conversation with James White, delegate of North Carolina in Congress.3 After remarking on White's education, judgment and influence and his connections among the American frontiersmen on the Cumberland, Gardoqui related how in this conversation White assured him of the Western frontiersmen's intense interest in the navigation of the Mississippi, of their surprise and resentment at Congress's approval of Jay's proposals relative to its suspension, and of the probability that the Western settlements would secede from the Union and put themselves under Spanish protection in return for its free use. At the same time Gardoqui informed Floridablanca that it was impossible to secure a treaty on the terms hitherto demanded by Spain and that Jay would never dare to make use of the power granted him by Congress to surrender the navigation of the Mississippi for a term of years.

A new device

Faced by a deadlock in the negotiation with Congress and by a backwoods menace that, together with an English war-scare, made every day's delay dangerous, Floridablanca welcomed d'Argès's project as a possible p81solution of both the diplomatic and the frontier problem. Conversing with d'Argès while with the court at San Ildefonso, he was reminded by the Frenchman of the significance of George Rogers Clark's recent spoliation of Spanish merchants at Vincennes.a Such measures, said d'Argès, were avowedly adopted by the frontiersmen by way of reprisal for the closing of the Mississippi. With the Bourbon County episode a recent memory, Floridablanca lost no time in consulting the other members of the cabinet, notably Valdés, who on the recent death of José de Gálvez had taken over the colonial office, and in drawing up the necessary orders and instructions.4 Under the date of August 23, 1787, a royal order relating to d'Argès's commission was transmitted to the governor of Louisiana, and on September 5 another to the same effect was sent Gardoqui.5 º

According to d'Argès's instructions, he was to go by way of New York to Kentucky, under the title of His Majesty's commissioner for adjusting the boundary. While there he was to listen to the complaints of the people against Spain and encourage them to expect the opening of the Mississippi as far as New Orleans, subject to a twenty-five per cent duty. He was also instructed to consult and be guided by Gardoqui at New York and by Miró at New Orleans. Although he was being sent to Kentucky as an immigration agent to secure settlers for Louisiana, his instructions made no mention of that fact. This omission, it was explained to d'Argès, was made so that they might give no ground for an official protest by the United States in case they should fall into unfriendly hands. In reality, Floridablanca did not have perfect confidence in either the discretion or the fidelity of his French agent.

p82 One of the most notable by-products of d'Argès's project was that the post of Natchez was converted into a government, and that the post of governor was filled, after several months' delay, by the appointment of Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, later governor of Louisiana and probably the ablest of all the Spanish officials who served their king in the conflict with the United States. Even Gardoqui lacked Gayoso's versatility and his penetrating insight into the American character. His winning manner and thorough knowledge of English fitted him for the command of a district that the Spanish government expected to fill with thousands of emigrants from the American frontier.6

The order informing Gardoqui of d'Argès's appointment and its objects reveals the intimate connection between Spain's Mississippi Valley policy and its negotiation with the United States.7 In a letter to Valdés, Floridablanca had declared that d'Argès's commission should facilitate Gardoqui's negotiation with Congress. Just before his departure that gentleman let it be seen that he regarded the opening of the Mississippi as a fait accompli to be announced by himself in the United States. In order to set him right and to prevent any further misunderstanding in the matter Floridablanca wrote him that he was to adhere literally to his instructions and that Gardoqui was to determine when effect should be given the order opening the river. At the same time, the secretary of state wrote Gardoqui warning him of d'Argès's impetuosity, and directing the chargé categorically to make use of the concession with regard to the Mississippi in order to facilitate his negotiation with Congress, or, if that were impossible, to get some advantage for Spain from the Western Americans.8

p83 There can be no doubt that Floridablanca's principal object was still to conclude a treaty with Congress. While the possibility of bringing about Western secession by manipulating Spain's control of the Mississippi had been suggested to him by James White's conversation of August, 1786, with Gardoqui, there is no indication in any of the papers of Floridablanca's office that he had the slightest intention of opening an intrigue with the Western Americans at this time. We certainly stand here on the threshold of the "Spanish intrigue," but we have not yet crossed it. Of the three objects of d'Argès's mission — to assist Gardoqui's negotiation, to attract immigrants to Louisiana and West Florida from Kentucky, and to encourage the secession of the American West — the first was undoubtedly foremost in Floridablanca's calculations. The immigration policy was left incomplete: The conditions to be offered the immigrants were not specified, Gayoso did not sail for America until the following year, and d'Argès was sent not directly to Kentucky, but to New York, where Gardoqui was engaged in his negotiation with Jay. The bid for Western secession was to be made not by means of intrigue and conspiracy, but by a change in Spanish commercial regulations on the Mississippi. James White's name does not occur anywhere in the orders relating to d'Argès nor did Spain make any move at this time to accept the obvious invitation to intrigue contained in his conversation with Gardoqui. Further proof of the true object of Spanish policy at this time is contained in Floridablanca's statement in a letter written to Gardoqui that His Majesty hoped for the adoption of the new federal constitution in the United States and the erection of a stronger central government p84with which he might negotiate a lasting treaty.9 The d'Argès project carried with it a threat of intrigue with the West, and it was this threat, as well as the actual concessions on the Mississippi, that Floridablanca expected to give it force with Congress. He merely threatened the intrigue in order to obtain the treaty.

It was in accordance with this design that Floridablanca drew up a new plan for a treaty with the United States.10 The date of the letter transmitting this plan, when compared with that of the order relating to d'Argès's commission, indicates the intimate connection between the two. Both documents were dated September 5, 1787. The proposed treaty was to be of indefinite duration, though at the end of ten years it might be denounced by either power. It contained important concessions to the Americans. The southern boundary of the United States was fixed at the thirty-first parallel, except for the district of Natchez, which was to remain in Spain's possession. Floridablanca's previous insistence on Spain's exclusive control of the Southern Indian tribes was abandoned. Even in regard to the navigation of the Mississippi some concession was made, for it was stipulated that a joint commission be appointed to inquire into the validity of the American claims. While this concession would have brought no immediate relief to American commerce on the Mississippi, it nevertheless involved an important surrender of principle by the Spanish government, for hitherto it had refused even to discuss the claims of the United States. This retreat was an evidence of the terms Floridablanca was prepared to agree to in the face of simultaneous threats from England and the American frontiersmen. With the united force of the d'Argès project and the new treaty plan, of intimidation p85and conciliation, he hoped to enlist the Atlantic States in the defense of the Spanish empire against its two most dreaded enemies, England and the American frontiersmen.

Another failure

The story of d'Argès's mission is soon told. Cultivated by the Spanish ambassador in Paris, treated with consideration by the secretary of state in San Ildefonso, enabled by the royal bounty to replenish his meagre wardrobe and to secure a servant and three horses, and given his passage on the royal packet from Coruña to New York, the poor man began to encounter from the day of his arrival in America a systematic frustration of his and the ministry's plans that embittered his life for the next year and ended only with his return in disgust to Paris in 1789. He was to find how obedient servants of the king could prevent the execution of His Catholic Majesty's express orders.

The ship that brought d'Argès to New York brought Gardoqui a double mortification. The new treaty plan caused him by its very reasonableness the exquisite anguish that comes from thinking of achievements that might have been. For more than two years he had labored vainly to win the distinction of success in this his maiden effort in diplomacy, but the inflexibility of his government's demands had prevented agreement at the favorable moment when economic depression and political chaos inclined the United States to conciliation. Now that his government had at last moderated its demands there was no longer an American government with which Gardoqui could negotiate. With a world of feeling latent in his discreet reticence, he assured his chief that had the terms contained in p86this new plan been offered in the beginning he could have concluded the treaty without difficulty and to the court's complete satisfaction.11 In the spring of 1788, however, the old government of the United States would not act pending the establishment of the new, and yet the establishment of the new was still problematical. In the field of diplomacy nothing could be done to restrain the American frontier. Floridablanca's new plan fell on stony ground. The only hope left Gardoqui was that he might convince his chief that he was not to blame for the fruitlessness of his long negotiation.

Not only was Gardoqui's past embittered by a vain regret. His future as well was clouded by the ministry's well-meant effort to assist him in his task. The d'Argès project, which came too late to forward his negotiation, threatened to strike from his hand the new instrument with which he hoped to serve his king and secure his own advancement in the royal service. Ever since his confidential interview with James White in 1786, Gardoqui had continued to take a lively interest in the affairs of the American frontier, but pending Floridablanca's reply to the report of that conversation he could take no further step in the matter. By the late fall of 1787 Gardoqui had heard through Governor O'Neill of Pensacola of James Wilkinson's favorable reception at New Orleans. Renewing his leisurely conferences with White, he was brought up with a turn by d'Argès's arrival with a commission to visit the Western settlements of the United States. For all the chargé knew, d'Argès might gather into his hands the threads of the Western intrigue. In order to understand Gardoqui's relentless animosity to the Frenchman, one must remember that he had nothing whatever p87to do with calling d'Argès to the attention of the Spanish court, and consequently could claim none of the credit for any benefit that Spain might derive from the mission. The chargé had not taken any part in initiating the project, nor could he insinuate himself into it. D'Argès's orders stated that Gardoqui might give him a companion for the Western journey, but they also stated expressly that d'Argès might precede his companion to Kentucky and summon him when it seemed expedient to him.

Gardoqui's treatment of the court's agent was annihilating. He first insisted that d'Argès take as his companion one of the officials of the legation, Jáudenes and Viar, and when the Chevalier objected that the secretaries knew very little English and nothing about Kentucky, Gardoqui darkly hinted to Floridablanca that his reluctance indicated a guilty conscience and treacherous designs. He then forced the Frenchman to give up the itinerary approved by the court, and, instead of going by way of Fort Pitt and the Ohio directly to Kentucky, to take the absurdly long détour by way of Havana and New Orleans. Instead of a few weeks, many months would elapse before d'Argès's arrival in Kentucky, if indeed he did not lose his scalp on the dangerous path from Natchez through the Indian country and Cumberland to Lexington. Gardoqui wrote Floridablanca letters bristling with charges and innuendoes against him, suggesting, among other things, that he probably had been and might still be in the pay of France.12 The chargé then wrote Miró a letter designed still further to delay d'Argès on his arrival in New Orleans.13 Then having by these measures kept the field clear — or so he thought — for his own agent, he hastened to despatch p88that agent, James White, to the Western settlements. How White fared we shall see in another place.

The shadow of James Wilkinson

Resentful but obedient since Gardoqui held the purse-strings, d'Argès left by sea to encounter fresh disappointments in New Orleans. Miró also had his project of intrigue from which he hoped to win promotion and perhaps undying fame, and needed no instigation from Gardoqui to induce him to interpose further delays in the Chevalier's slow progress to the American frontier. His pretext for delaying d'Argès's progress was much better than Gardoqui's, for his conspiracy with James Wilkinson, to which we shall return presently, was further advanced than the chargé's with White, and he was really justified in expecting an answer from the court at almost any time, and therefore in detaining the Chevalier until the answer arrived.14

Through no fault of Miró's, since the court's decision on Wilkinson's memorial was long delayed, d'Argès was kept waiting for almost a full year after his arrival at New Orleans in May, 1788. In the interval he lost patience and received permission to go to French Santo Domingo on business pending further instructions. When the order finally arrived from Spain, it showed that d'Argès had been replaced by Wilkinson as Spain's agent in Kentucky. At the same time, the order expressed His Majesty's sense of obligation to the Chevalier and directed Miró to employ him as a captain of militia at some frontier post in Louisiana. Miró accordingly offered him the command of the post just established at New Madrid in the proposed colony of George Morgan. Spurning this offer, d'Argès retired p89to Paris, and we hear no more of him in the history of the Mississippi Valley.15

Gardoqui's despatches made it clear that d'Argès's mission had no chance of success in its principal object, for Congress was too weak even to be frightened. The negotiation could not be renewed until the new government was established, and no one could say how long that might be. In the interim Spain could not afford to remain inactive, for the American West was in a turmoil of excitement, full of resentment against both its own government and Spain. A storm was brewing on the Ohio, and it was Floridablanca's duty to see that it did not break over the Spanish empire.


The Author's Notes:

p230 1 AHN, E, l. 3889, exp. 6, Aranda to Floridablanca, April 2, 1787, No. 594, three enclosures. This expediente contains many other documents relating to d'Argès. A very different account of Spain's relations with d'Argès and White will be found in Bemis, ch. VII.

[decorative delimiter]

2 AHN, E, l. 4255, Campo to Floridablanca, London, July 13, 1787, with long note on cover by Floridablanca; ib., autograph note by Floridablanca, Oct. 8, 1787.

[decorative delimiter]

3 AHN, E, l. 3893, "Resumen de cierta conversacion . . .," New York, Sept. 18, 1786, signed "D. G.," i.e., Diego de Gardoqui.

[decorative delimiter]

4 AHN, E, l. 3889, exp. 6, memorial by d'Argès. Clark is not mentioned by name, but the allusion is clear. Ib., Floridablanca, to Valdés, August 3, 1787.

[decorative delimiter]

p231 5 AI, PC, l. 176‑2, Valdés to the Governor of Louisiana, Aug. 23, 1787, copy; AHN, E, l. 3889, exp. 6, (Floridablanca) to Gardoqui, Sept. 5, 1787, No. 5.

[decorative delimiter]

6 Ib., Floridablanca to Valdés, Aug. 24, 1787; ib., exp. 5, five documents relating to Gayoso's appointment; AI, PC, l. 176‑2, Valdés to Gayoso, Nov. 3, 1787 res.

[decorative delimiter]

7 Floridablanca to Gardoqui, cited in note 5, above.

[decorative delimiter]

8 AHN, E, l. 3889, exp. 6, (Floridablanca) to d'Argès, Oct. 6, 1787, draft; ib., (Floridablanca) to Gardoqui, Oct. 6, 1787, draft; cf. note 23, ch. XII.

[decorative delimiter]

9 AHN, E, l. 3894, (Floridablanca) to Gardoqui, May 24, 1788, No. 5, draft; ib., l. 3893 bis, Gardoqui to Floridablanca, Nov. 1, 1787, No. 217.

[decorative delimiter]

10 Ib., l. 3893 bis, a document containing in parallel columns the treaty plans of 1786 and 1787.

[decorative delimiter]

11 Ib., l. 3894, Gardoqui to Floridablanca, April 18, 1788, No. 235.

[decorative delimiter]

12 Ib., l. 3889, exp. 6, Gardoqui to Floridablanca, Feb. 16, 1788, No. 231; ib., same to same, April 18, 1788, No. 246; ib., d'Argès to Floridablanca, March 27, 1788. On July 6, 1787, Gardoqui had written Floridablanca that there was a chevalier of St. Louis living with much ostentation in Danville, Kentucky, and said to be a French agent: ib., l. 3893, No. 17 res.

[decorative delimiter]

13 Gardoqui to Miró, Feb. 21, 1788, copy, enclosed in Gardoqui to Floridablanca, No. 246 (see note 12, above).

[decorative delimiter]

14 AI, 86‑6‑8, Miró to Valdés, March 15, 1788, No. 19 res.; AHN, E, l. 3889, exp. 6, d'Argès to Floridablanca, May 22, June 17, Aug. 27, 1788, and Jan. 2, 1789 (four letters); Gayarré, 217‑18.

[decorative delimiter]

15 Ib., Miró to Valdés, March 16, 1790, No. 48 res.


Thayer's Note:

a If there was such a spoliation, Clark, understandably, breathes not a word of it in his Memoir; one would expect it in Part 6 or 7 of the online version.


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