The Spanish intrigue of 1788‑89 with the people of Franklin and Cumberland still possesses an interest out of all proportion to the size of the communities involved. As futile as it was inevitable, this intrigue is interesting partly because of its wide ramifications, for, with its focal point on the Holston and Cumberland rivers, it radiated to New York, Louisville, New Orleans, Havana, and Madrid; partly because of the light that it throws on Indian relations, land speculation and the southern fur trade; but above all because it brings out in high relief the realism of the frontiersman in politics. Whatever its force in the Mississippi Valley at a later time, sentimentalism was no part of the baggage of the frontiersman of the 1780's.
It is on the frontier that we find life reduced to simplest terms — not the life of the savage, hedged about with totems and taboos, but that of the civilized man, whom ages have liberated from primitive taboos and whom sudden transplantation to the frontier releases from the taboos of civilization. In the field of political institutions, the frontier sweeps aside the taboo of patriotism and reveals the government not as an object of veneration but as an instrument for the accomplishment of a collective purpose.
The Declaration of Independence had suggested in memorable phrases this conception of government, and now at the end of a decade it seems that the principles there set forth were about to be invoked by the western settlers to justify a rebellion against rebels. By the beginning of 1787 the whole southwestern frontier p156 was in a ferment of discontent over the policy of the Atlantic states. The latter, now occupying the position of mother country and perplexed by colonial problems, had hampered the frontiersmen in their relations with the Indians, neither affording the expected security against attack nor sanctioning retaliation, and had refused to accord separate statehood in order that the frontiersmen might manage these affairs to their own liking. At first, the Westerners looked to the government of the Confederation for relief, but Congress had successively discouraged their political ambitions, had adopted an Indian policy highly objectionable to them, and had finally instructed John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Spain whereby the mouth of the Mississippi would have been closed to American shipping for a generation.1
Under these circumstances, the framing and adoption of the new federal constitution, creating a more powerful government, could hardly be expected to placate the Westerners. On the contrary, a stronger federal government seemed to many of them merely a more dangerous government. To increase its powers was to put weapons in the hands of the enemy. Moreover, the erection of the new government, itself a revolutionary proceeding, repeated the lesson of 1776: governments are instituted to protect life and property; if they fail, they may be overthrown and supplanted by new and better governments. Even so, however, the pragmatic frontiersmen sought only very practical ends, the protection of life and property. Paper obligations to a distant and inefficient government would not deter them from negotiating with British and Spanish agents, with Indian chiefs, and nondescript adventurers; but, on the other hand, they were no more blind in their resentment than in their devotion. The Spanish intrigue was a frontier experiment in politics and business.
p157 Simultaneously developments in North America led Spanish officials to enter into negotiations with the frontiersman. The Spanish government had continued to seek after 1783 what it had not been able to secure in the treaties of that year: the erection of a wall of wilderness and Indian tribes between the Spanish Floridas and Louisiana on the one hand and the United States on the other. The Indians themselves would serve as a military support and their fur trade would be the basis of the economic development of Louisiana and West Florida, whose ultimate security would be assured by immigration.2 This was an excellent plan, but time alone would enable its execution. Hence Gardoqui adopted a dilatory policy in his negotiations with Jay: Spain had little to gain and much to lose by a settlement of outstanding disputes. Controlling the mouth of the Mississippi River, Natchez, and the trade of the southern Indians, Spain had little interest in the conclusion of a treaty from which she could expect at most only a confirmation of what she already enjoyed.
In the West, however, in Cumberland, Franklin, Georgia, and Kentucky, events were moving with a rapidity that no Spaniard could have foreseen. That delay which is so congenial to the Spanish character and which was moreover indispensable at this juncture to Spanish policy was not afforded Governor Miró of Louisiana for the consolidation of his positions.
Although Governor Miró had been warned for some time past by Alexander McGillivray3 and others of the boundless ambitions of the Americans, of their designs on Louisiana and the Floridas, it was not until the attempt of the Georgia commissioners in 1785 to establish Bourbon County in the Natchez district that he realized the imminence of the American menace.4 From p158 that time until the United States occupied the last foot of ground in these provinces under the treaty of 1819 not a year and hardly a month passed without the circulation throughout their posts of reports of an impending American invasion. Among the results of the changed aspect of affairs was the simultaneous resolution of Miró and Gardoqui to harness the terrible energy of the frontiersmen.
Thus the Spanish intrigue grew out of the mutual necessities of Spaniard and frontiersman, and they advanced to meet each other. The intrigue in Kentucky was due to the initiative of a frontiersman, James Wilkinson; in Cumberland and Franklin to the initiative of Gardoqui, the Spanish chargé d'affaires at New York; and yet the utter irreconcilability of Spain and the pioneers was never more apparent than in their projected union.
The present paper will be confined to a study of this intrigue in so far as it relates to Cumberland and Franklin, because of limitations of space, because these settlements are set apart from Kentucky by the fact of their common subjection to North Carolina and of the activities of James White, and because the story of the Spanish intrigue among them can be told with a brevity and a finality impossible in the case of Kentucky.5
The Spanish intrigue with the Holston settlers owed its inception to the rise and fall of the State of Franklin: to its rise, because Gardoqui saw therein a promise of powerful aid for Louisiana; to its fall, because John Sevier in his desperate disgrace was ready to grasp at any chance to better his fortunes.
Don Diego de Gardoqui employed many Americans in the p159 prosecution of his designs for separating the western territory from the Atlantic states. Among his agents was James White, superintendent of Indian affairs for the southern department under the congress of the Confederation until January, 1788,6 and at the time of his agreement with Gardoqui a delegate from North Carolina in Congress. He was sent to Franklin with letters from Gardoqui to its leaders, in whom the Spaniard was particularily interested, and to Cumberland, where he himself owned land.
Leaving New York about May 1, 1788,7 he arrived in Franklin probably in July. He could hardly have come at a more opportune time to win Sevier over to the Spanish side. A year earlier, Sevier was still the governor of an irregular but vigorous8 state, in constant communication and close sympathy with Georgia,9 and apparently sincere in his professions of loyalty to the Confederation.10 By the beginning of 1788, however, he had been deserted by the Georgians,11 had consequently lost his hold on the bulk of his former supporters in Franklin, had seen his new state fall in ruins at his feet, and had been ignominiously defeated in an encounter with his old enemy, Colonel Tipton.12 He had then taken refuge on the extreme frontier, where, as a successful Indian fighter, his hold was strongest. Since March he had been harrying the Cherokee,13 in the apparent hope of p160 precipitating a general Indian war in which his proper talents could be exercised and his prestige restored.
In these circumstances Sevier proved responsive to White's overtures. In July, 1788,14 he wrote Gardoqui a letter whose contents have not been revealed. In September he followed this up with two more letters. These were delivered to Gardoqui in October by Sevier's son James, who received from Gardoqui a passport permitting John Sevier to go to New Orleans on business.15
Both of Sevier's letters to Gardoqui were dated September 12.16 In the longer letter he declared that the inhabitants of Franklin were "unanimous in their vehement desire to form an alliance and treaty of commerce with Spain, and put themselves under her protection." Coming to the point, he requested of Gardoqui three things: money, munitions, and commercial concessions, laying great emphasis on the last point. In the briefer letter Sevier alluded to the just and successful war that he and his followers had been waging for several months past against the Cherokee, spoke of the settlement that he intended to make shortly at Muscle Shoals,a and sought to engage the good offices of Spain in both matters.
On the same day that Gardoqui informed Miró of James Sevier's arrival at New York with his father's letters, the latter was arrested on an action for debt by a sheriff representing the authority of the government of North Carolina.17 Three weeks p161 later he addressed an indignant letter18 to the General Assembly of North Carolina. Complaining of "the rigid persecutions" to which he had been subjected to gratify private malice, he asked if the government of North Carolina had "not discovered that there is formidable and inveterate enemies around her watching to take the advantage of our divisions . . . ?" These "enemies," he said, can do more for the Westerners than North Carolina herself. While he mentioned the British intrigue alone by name, the allusion to Spain is clear. It is quite possible that by this time James Sevier had returned from New York, and that John, angry because his letters and his son's thousand mile journey to New York and back had obtained no money, no arms from Gardoqui, nothing in short but permission to make an equally arduous journey from the Holston to New Orleans, had abandoned the idea of using the Spanish intrigue for any other purpose than to extract from North Carolina better terms for his faction.
His letter to North Carolina produced no immediate effect. His fortunes were never at a lower ebb than at this time. His community was too much rent by dissension to be capable of any united action on its own behalf. The little group that remained faithful to Sevier was animated by a ferocious hatred of the Indians, and it was on the Indians that the government of Louisiana and the Floridas depended for protection against the peril from the north. And so the Spanish intrigue in Franklin came to an end after having produced little more than a vain threat from Sevier to the Assembly of North Carolina.
It is impossible to say to what extent Sevier's letters of September 12 represented the sentiment of his community or even of his faction in the community. James White informed Miró that many of the notables of Franklin were in accord with Sevier, but only Sevier committed himself to pen and paper.
As for Sevier himself, it seems probable that his real purpose in opening a correspondence with Gardoqui was revealed in his shorter letter of September 12, in which he spoke of his intention of establishing a colony at Muscle Shoals and requested Spanish intervention to prevent the southern Indians from attacking p162 the colonists.19 In 1784 Sevier was a member of William Blount's company of land speculators which projected a settlement at Muscle Shoals under the authority of the State of Georgia.20 As for of Franklin, Sevier vainly employed the resources of the new state in the prosecution of this project;21 and in 1788 after the collapse of that state he was still negotiating with an adventurer by the name of Ballew and attempting to enlist the support of McGillivray himself to secure the establishment of that colony, which was in part a fur-trading venture.22
Here we have a clear proof of the irreconcilability of frontiersman and Spaniard: The southern Indians were regarded by Miró as the chief bulwark of Spanish power in Louisiana, and yet Sevier, Spain's one hope among the Holston settlers, demanded Spanish support for a settlement that would have been in the last degree obnoxious to those Indians.
Sevier was soon restored to office under North Carolina as brigadier general of militia, received the same appointment under his friend William Blount when the Southwest Territory was organized, and became the man of property and family, church-goer, and capitalist.23 Between the sympathetic administration of Governor Blount and the more acceptable policy of the new federal government disaffection gradually died out in the Holston settlements. The Spanish intrigue was never renewed.
The Cumberland River settlements also were visited by James White on behalf of Gardoqui, but before his arrival the distracted p163 frontiersmen of that community had declared themselves ready for an accommodation with Spain.
The two factors in determining the course of action of the leaders in this community were the paucity of its population and the magnitude of the Indian menace. In 1785 a Spanish agent reported that there were only 4,000 inhabitants in the Cumberland settlements.24 In 1792 a prospective immigrant declared that Cumberland still seemed out of the world.25 And out of even the western frontier world it was in 1787. Georgia could rely on contiguous South Carolina for protection; Franklin, on southwestern Virginia. Kentucky, while numerous enough to protect itself, was adjacentº to the settlements of western Pennsylvania; but tiny Cumberland was composed of a few hazardous posts dotted along the Cumberland River and separated by great stretches of wilderness from its nearest neighbors in Kentucky and on the Holston and Clinch rivers.
It was, moreover, peculiarly obnoxious to the neighboring Indian tribes. Georgia was threatened by the Creek, Franklin by the Cherokee, but Cumberland had to bear the brunt of the hostility of both tribes, to whom the hunting grounds between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers became of increasing importance as the Indians were pushed farther westward by the advance of settlement along the Tennessee, Savannah, and Oconee rivers. A protest on behalf of the Creek and Cherokee against the existence of the Cumberland settlements was made by Alexander McGillivray as early as 1785.26
So harrowing had Indian attacks become by the middle of 1787 that the Cumberland settlers cast about desperately for relief, trying first one device and then another. In the summer of that year James Robertson led an expedition against a French trading post at Coldwater near Muscle Shoals, in the belief that these traders were responsible for the Indians' hostility. At the same time a joint expedition with forces from Georgia and p164 Franklin against the Creek was projected.27 In September of that year Cumberland sought incorporation in the embryonic State of Kentucky.28 North Carolina was implored to give aid, and responded with a small body of troops.29
Still the attacks continued. In October, 1787, a number of boats on their way from Louisville and the Illinois settlements to Cumberland were waylaid and their crews killed by the Indians.30 In January, 1788, Robertson reported that in the course of the past twelve months forty-one inhabitants of Cumberland had been murdered by the Indians, and declared that "immigration and commerce seem to be finally stopped."31
Thus at the beginning of 1788, every means of relief that had been tried had failed utterly. Georgia, terrified by the menace of a Creek attack with Spanish support, had abandoned the projected expedition against those Indians in exchange for prospective aid from Congress. The State of Franklin was falling in ruins. The Kentuckians would not put their chance of statehood in jeopardy by incorporating a part of North Carolina's western territory. North Carolina had, indeed, sent a body of troops to protect Cumberland, but that force had arrived tardily and had been able to do little more than preserve its own existence.32
Two facts now stood out clearly: first, that on the American side effective aid could be expected not from the other western settlements or from North Carolina, but from Congress alone, and yet even Congress could do little in this year of transition from the old confederation to the new federal union; second, immediate relief could come, therefore, from no other source than the Creek themselves, or from Spain. The Cumberland leaders saw clearly the necessities of their situation, and acted pragmatically as the situation demanded. Resentment there p165 was, and readiness on the part of some of the settlers to accept the rule of Spain, if that rule could be tolerated; but it was perceived from the start that this was not probable. Therefore, as will now be shown, the so‑called Spanish intrigue in Cumberland resolved itself into an attempt to secure from the Creek or Spain at whatever cost a temporary cessation of hostilities, and to force reluctant North Carolina to cede its western territory to Congress, the only safe refuge for battered Cumberland.
The first step was a letter33 written in January, 1788 by Robertson and another of the Cumberland leaders to Governor Johnston of North Carolina. Charging that incessant Indian attacks were "countenanced and encouraged by a foreign court," they urged the Governor to appeal to Congress, and especially to make representations to the Spanish chargé, Gardoqui. Since the Creek, instigated by Spain, were responsible for these outrages, a letter of remonstrance from Gardoqui to the half-breed Creek chief, trader, and diplomat, Alexander McGillivray, might put a stop to their incursions. The result of this representation was, of course, failure, for Gardoqui denied that Spain had instigated the Indian attacks; but the appeal may have suggested to Gardoqui the mission on which he soon engaged James White.
The next step taken by the Cumberland leaders was an appeal to McGillivray himself. Hitherto this measure has erroneously been treated as a phase of the Spanish intrigue, and its initiation has quite as erroneously been attributed to James White. As a matter of fact, McGillivray, though an agent of Spain, was none too faithful a servant of that power. The Cumberland leaders, aware both of his connection and of his inconstancy, tried at one time to placate him by promising to become the vassals of His Catholic Majesty, and at another to draw him into a scheme for the conquest of Louisiana and the Floridas. If this correspondence is to be given a name, therefore, it should be called the McGillivray intrigue. As for its origin, James White was still in New York arranging his project with Gardoqui when the Cumberland leaders sent their first letter to McGillivray.34
p166 The suggestion that led to the dispatching of an embassy from Cumberland to McGillivray would seem to have come from Governor Johnston of North Carolina, who was a staunch supporter of the new federal union and has never been suspected of any complicity in the Spanish intrigue. In answer to the letter of Robertson and Bledsoe complaining of the incessant Indian attacks, he wrote them under the date of January 29, 1788: "I should suppose that the safest Line of Conduct in your weak and defenceless situation would be by every means in your power to cultivate a good understanding and friendly intercourse with the Savages till you acquire greater strength by an accession of numbers."35
By the twenty-fifth of the ensuing April two delegates from Cumberland had arrived at McGillivray's plantation at Little Talassie, seeking peace at any price and offering to become the vassals of the king of Spain, as McGillivray informed the Spanish commandant at Pensacola in a letter of that date. The half-breed granted them an armistice pending the meeting of the Creek assembly, and referred the political question to Governor Miró.36
On August 3, less than three months later, Robertson wrote p167 McGillivray another letter37 in quite a different tone from the first, declaring that if "the British or any commercial nation" who might control the mouth of the Mississippi would encourage the Westerners' commerce, the latter would "open their eyes to their real interest." This letter taken by itself is ambiguous enough; so ambiguous, indeed, that some writers have regarded it as a renewal of the April promise of subjection to Spain. When, however, it is examined in the light of its date, McGillivray's reply, and certain contemporary events, its true intent becomes apparent at once.
Early in July, the adventurer-loyalist, William Augustus Bowles, arrived among the Creek from the British island of New Providence, bringing munitions and supported, it was rumored, by wealthy merchants of that island and by Governor Dunmore himself. Bowles' objective was not known, but he was reputed to be hostile to the Spanish government and to intend to break its monopoly of the southern fur trade. Since Miró at New Orleans had received the news of Bowles's arrival by July 28,38 it is highly probable that Robertson had received the same news when he wrote McGillivray on August 3.
This probability becomes almost a certainty when we read McGillivray's reply39 of December 1 to Robertson's letter: "The question which you put to me concerning any prospect of changes of Government in the countries bordering on us I cannot say anything of any such matter likely to take place. Some reports of aº such a thing had gone abroad, and it rose from the appearance of a man among us offering assistance to our war, but as I expect the coming spring will terminate our dispute with Georgia agreeable to our desires, nothing further will proceed . . ." By "the countries bordering on us," McGillivray clearly intends Louisiana and the Floridas; by "the man among us," William Augustus Bowles.40 McGillivray was suspected by p168 many, including Miró himself,41 of having encouraged Bowles's démarche and of contemplating an attack on Spanish territory. Robertson, apparently, shared Miró's suspicions and, after having offered in April to throw himself into the arms of Spain, he suggested in August a joint campaign to conquer Spanish North America. The constant factor was Robertson's desire to placate McGillivray and thus avert from Cumberland the hostility of the Creek.
McGillivray's non-committal replies and the apparent hopelessness of getting aid from Congress, Kentucky, or North Carolina forced the Cumberland leaders to seek relief from the putative author of their sufferings, the governor of Louisiana. Early in 1789 the first steps were taken to open direct communication between Nashville and New Orleans. James Robertson and Daniel Smith addressed themselves to Miró in letters of January 29 and March 11 respectively.42 The writing of these letters seems to have been due partly to the mission of James White the preceding year, and partly to the suggestion of Andrew Fagot, a merchant and Spanish militia officer at the Illinois.43 The latter, an apparently innocent sufferer from Robertson's Coldwater expedition of 1787, visited Cumberland in February 1789.44 There he conferred with Andrew Jackson, Daniel Smith and others, and passing thence to New Orleans he delivered Smith's letter and verbal message to Miró. White, who had returned from Cumberland and Franklin to New York in October 1788, was sent by Gardoqui to Havana under the assumed p169 name of Jacques du Bois,45 and, in company with the newly arrived Governor Gayoso, was forwarded by the captain general to New Orleans.46 Arriving there on April 15 just as Miró received the letters from Cumberland, White very naturally claimed the credit of having inspired them, although he was in Havana when they were written.47 Miró, apparently convinced of the justice of his claim, entrusted to him the delivery of the verbal and written replies to Smith and Robertson.
The letters of the Cumberland leaders to Miró, though hinting at secession, were equivocally phrased but Fagot gave him their verbal assurance that in September the people of their district would hold a convention and would petition for separation from North Carolina. This secured, they would send delegates to New Orleans to place themselves under His Catholic Majesty.48
If taken at their face value, these letters and the presumably accurate message of Fagot indicate a genuine desire on the part of the Cumberland leaders to put themselves under the Spanish domination. The correspondence with McGillivray, however, has already prepared us for a certain measure of subtlety in the men of Cumberland, and a sign-post to the real purpose of their overtures to Miró is afforded us by a letter from Andrew Jackson to the writer of one of those letters, Daniel Smith. On February 13, 1789, Jackson wrote Smith introducing Fagot in the following terms: Fagot, an officer in the Spanish service, desired to trade with Cumberland, and in this trade Jackson saw the means of securing "a lasting peace with the Indians." Smith must write Miró asking for a commercial treaty. Fagot, delivering this letter, would request a permit to trade with Cumberland, "which he is sure to obtain as he is related to his Excellency [Miró] — a slight misrepresentation on Fagot's part, it must be said. The heart of the letter follows: "Then he p170 [Fagot] will show the propriety of having a peace with the Indians for the purpose of the benefit of the trade of this country; and also show the Governor the respect this country honors him with by giving it his name." Jackson then reverts to the influence of Fagot, who "can in my opinion do a great deal for this [country]," and declares in an illuminating sentence, "I think it the only immediate way to obtain a peace with the savages."49
The procedure suggested in Jackson's letter was followed, even to the naming of the district, which was known henceforth for several years as Mero. Smith made Fagot the bearer of his letter and referred Miró to him for further information about the district. Robertson's letter itself shows the influence of Fagot's visit. Though written on January 29, it had not been sent at the time of Fagot's arrival, as is shown by the fact that the postscript is dated February 18. Apparently at the same time with the adding of the postscript, the superscription of the letter was altered, and to "Nashville on Cumberland River" was prefixed the new name "Miro district."
We are justified, therefore, in concluding that Jackson's letter furnishes us with a key to the Spanish intrigue in its first phase, and that it was neither resentment against the United States nor devotion to Spain that was uppermost in the minds and emotions of the Cumberland leaders, but a readiness to experiment with the sole remaining device that held out hope of relief from Indian attacks.
The next stage in the intrigue was the convention of September, 1789, which was to start Cumberland on the road to Spain. Miró was notified by Fagot in April of the approaching convention, and in his replies to Smith and Robertson expressed his great interest in that operation.50 On September 2 Robertson, in reply to Miró's letter, wrote51 that the convention had been held and that it had been agreed to insist upon a separation from North Carolina: "Unprotected, we are to be obedient to the new p171 Congress of the United States but we cannot but wish for a more interesting connection. The United States afford us no protection . . . For my own part, I conceive highly of the advantages of your immediate Government."
A close student of this intrigue describes this convention as "the first overt step looking to an alliance with Spain," and concludes that a "serious obstacle" to this plan was interposed by North Carolina's prompt action in ceding its western territory to Congress.52 Further examination, however, will show that the September convention's purpose was really that which was expressed in its resolutions: to secure a cession of their district by North Carolina to Congress. Thus North Carolina's prompt action in ceding its western territory was not an obstacle to the plan of the Cumberland leaders, but its fulfilment.
On the same day that Robertson wrote the above letter to Miró, he addressed another to Governor Johnston of North Carolina. He declared that distress was driving many of the Cumberland people to seek refuge under a foreign government, which offered them much encouragement. "I wish your Excellency to be informed that there is actually a Colonel Stark53 who openly professes a desire to take the inhabitants into the Spanish dominions as subjects to that power, and many people are upon the point of going down, were it not for the representations of people just from there, particularly Dr. White, who has been of general service in dissuading people from that country and government . . . [I wish] to be informed if there are no legal means to prevent Colonel Stark and others from debauching our citizens to emigrate in so public a manner." Robertson's conclusion is eloquent of the purpose of his letter: The people, without hope of securing protection from North Carolina, are in a dangerous mood, but a cession of this country to Congress would probably quiet their minds.54
p172 Further proof that this was the objective of the Cumberland leaders is afforded by two other letters. In July Robertson wrote to Daniel Smith55 that it was the "opinion of every thinking person that our not being immediately under the protection of the United States causes our Southern neighbors [i.e., Spain] to set the Indian on us, imagining our distresses will oblige us to take protection from them." The other letter was from Daniel Smith to Governor Johnston. Smith wrote:56 "I assure you, Sir, many of the settlers here, being worn out with War, nothing being done by Government for our Protection, the Federal Constitution not being agreed to [by North Carolina], no Cession made to Congress, all these evils operated so forcibly on their minds that had the Spaniards promised us effectual protection, I am persuaded many here would have been for coming under their government in hopes of getting their Calamities alleviated."
If there was a Spanish party in Cumberland, its leaders were Daniel Smith and James Robertson; and yet we find them both warning Governor Johnston of the nascent disaffection in their district and urging the adoption of the very measure that would most probably allay discontent. A conspirator who advertises his conspiracy is a veritable marplot new to the annals of intrigue.
A more rational interpretation of the Spanish intrigue in Cumberland is that it was a bogey fabricated by Robertson and Smith and designed by them to serve simultaneously as a threat and as a promise. As a threat to reluctant North Carolina, it would secure a cession of that state's western territory to Congress. As a promise to Spain, it would obtain from the Spanish governor of Louisiana commercial concessions and, above all, relief from Indian attacks.
The result of the foregoing inquiry is by no means to absolve the frontiersmen of Cumberland and Franklin from duplicity towards the United States government, but rather to convict them of duplicity towards two governments — the Spanish as well as their own. Even the Cumberland leaders were far from unburdening themselves to Governor Johnston and revealing to p173 him their own part in the Spanish machinations of which they warned him. The purpose of this article, however, is not to pass moral judgment upon the frontiersmen, but to illustrate a force that was more powerful on the southwestern frontier than in other and older communities: the quest of the pot of gold. Not unfamiliar elsewhere, this force attained an extraordinary degree of intensity in communities that owed their very existence to the desire for material prosperity.
The Spanish intrigue was the inevitable outcome of the circumstance in which the frontiersmen found themselves. Their hardships — the insecurity of life and property — were the universal lot of frontier communities, but it was only human that they should have laid the blame on some human agent. Such an agent they found in the governments of North Carolina and the Confederation. Revolution was in the air, and it would have been surprising had the analogous circumstances of the Westerners not suggested an action similar to that of 1776. The complete the analogy, foreign aid was sought, and the Spanish intrigue was begun. The analogy, however, was only superficial. In 1776, words lagged behind action, but in 1787 the Westerners shaped their action in the image of familiar words. They talked much of independence; and yet, if the experience of the last three years had taught the Cumberland and Franklin settlers anything, it was precisely that they were not fitted for independence. Geography and the Indians decreed their dependence on other powers.
The frontier leaders soon perceived this fact, and the Spanish intrigue lost its small original tincture of secessionism. On the whole, we may describe it as an attempt on the part of the frontiersmen to discover what their southern neighbors could do for them with respect to their three principal interests — commerce, land speculation, and the Indians. The idea of whole communities becoming the vassals of Spain, as was suggested by Sevier, Robertson, and Smith, is hardly to be taken seriously. On the other hand, it was worth more than a moment's consideration that Spain might, by some means or other, be induced to share with these frontiersmen the navigation of the Mississippi River, the friendship of the Indians, and the wealth of Mexico p174 and Peru, and thus become the stepping-stone by which they would rise to prosperity.
Both sides soon saw that a mutual accommodation was out of the question. Absolutism and individualism would not mix. What Miró desired was ingredients for Louisiana and the Floridas, submissive subjects merged in a local population that had no inconvenient ideas with regard to liberty. What the frontiersmen desired was an opportunity to develop an autonomous community, much like that from which they had come, with the difference that in the new society, as yet unstratified, each might hope to possess the wealth and the political power. The result of the intrigue was a brief and barren union. Sevier was given a passport to New Orleans, which he never used. Robertson received a pressing invitation to settle in Spanish territory, which he refused with scant courtesy.
The frustration of the attempted union threw the frontiersmen back into the arms of the federal government and alienated them finally from Spain. Sevier and Robertson became officials in the government of the Southwest Territory in 1790 under the land speculator Blount, and the invasions of Louisiana projected by Genêt, Blount, and Burr found a powerful support in the general feeling of hostility to Spain that was confirmed by this abortive intrigue.
The case of James White reveals the enlightenment that was not slow to dawn on the frontiersmen as they drew nearer to the Spanish colonial administration. White went to New Orleans to all appearances a convinced adherent of Spain,57 and yet, as has been seen above, we find him a few months later rendering valuable aid to the patriots of Cumberland in restraining settlers from emigrating to Spanish territory.
The explanation is not far to seek. Miró, as he himself said, replied non-committally to the letters of White, Robertson, and Smith in so far as they related to the proposed revolution. Verbally p175 through White he urged rebellion, but gave no indication of the privileges in local government and religion that Cumberland might expect to enjoy as a Spanish protectorate. What he did urge upon them most particularly was emigration to Spanish territory.58
The reply of James Robertson, whom he was most eager to attract to Louisiana, is illuminating. At the end of the same letter of September 2 in which he reported to Miró the holding of the pseudo-separatist convention, he wrote: "For my own part, I conceive highly of the advantages of your immediate government. But my estate, here, is such that I could not flatter myself to equal it by removing to any-part; our lands Satisfying my utmost wishes, and being infinitely before anything I have seen elsewhere."59
This answer reveals a trait which was common to many frontiersmen of his day. By no means all of them were rainbow followers. Most of them, indeed, were too primitive, too unsophisticated to know wanderlust. For them, el Dorado lay not in the setting sun, but in the valley, on the farm where they lived, p176 at their very feet. If romantic unrest had brought them to the new country, it was soon exhausted. Many of them were possessed of an intense localism, a devotion to a certain spot of ground, a certain configuration of the landscape that to them meant home, freedom, wealth, that represented concretely past achievement and future progress.
This intense localism did much to defeat the Spanish intrigue, but it had also done much to produce the discontent that preceded the intrigue. The frontiersmen demanded only an intelligent policy on the part of the government to enable them to promote the rapid growth and early prosperity of a country of whose resources they were so proud. The policy of North Carolina and the Confederation seemed to them anything but intelligent, and they became extremely restive. Of pro-Spanish feeling there was little, but it was only when the Indian policy of the Confederation was profoundly modified, statehood granted, and the Mississippi opened that the separatism died out in the old Southwest. Then the Westerners felt that under the federal government their several communities could grasp the golden prosperity in store for them. Franklin and Cumberland were intensely acquisitive communities, primitive instincts were but insecurely shackled by the sentiment of patriotism, and the federal union was accepted because it offered the greatest promise of utility to the frontiersmen.
1 Secret Journals of Congress, Foreign Affairs, IV, 81‑85. The vote was taken on Aug. 28, 1786. The resolution was adopted by a vote of six states to four. For expressions of resentment in Cumberland and Franklin against the Indian policy of Congress, see dispatch from Philadelphia, Aug. 5, giving an extract from a letter from Nashville, printed in Maryland Journal, Aug. 11, 1786; Sevier to Caswell, Oct. 28, 1786, in State Records of N. Car., XVIII, 775‑77; Outlaw to Caswell, Oct. 8, 1786, ibid., 756‑59.
2 Martin Navarro, "Political Reflections on the Present Condition of Louisiana," translated from the original and printed in J. A. Robertson, Louisiana under Spain, France and the United States, 1785‑1807 . . . (Cleveland, 1911), Vol. I, pp237 et seq. Navarro forwarded the 'Reflections' to Joseph de Galvez in letter No. 23, dated New Orleans, Sept. 24, 1780: Archivo General de Indias, Seville, 87‑1‑19.
4 E. C. Burnett (ed.), "Papers Relating to Bourbon County, Georgia, 1785‑1786," in American Historical Review, XV, 78‑82, Miró to Galvez, June 14, 1785; and Papeles Procedentes de la Isla de Cuba (MSS. in the Archivo General de Indias at Seville), Legajo 1394, Miró to Ezpeleta, June 28, 1784. The latter is available in a series of photostatic copies of selected letters from the governors of Louisiana to the captains general of Cuba, 1763‑1791. Several sets of these copies were made under the direction of the Bureau of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution and may be consulted in the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and certain other libraries throughout the United States. Hereafter this series will be referred to as "C. C. G. C." — the Correspondence of the Captains General of Cuba, and the Papeles Procedentes de la Isla de Cuba will be referred to as "Papeles de Cuba."
5 Similar considerations and others that will readily suggest themselves have led me to discuss the Spanish policy only in so far as such a discussion seemed essential to an understanding of the conduct of the frontiersmen. The attitude of Spain toward the frontiersmen will be discussed at length in my forthcoming study of the conflict between Spain and the United States from the end of the Revolution to the conclusion of the treaty of San Lorenzo.
6 Papers of the Continental Congress (MSS. in the Library of Congress), No. 78, XXIV, folio 59, James White to Charles Thomson, New York, Jan. 22, 1788.
7 Papeles de Cuba, leg. 104, Gardoqui to Miró, New York, May 14, 1788, reservada.
8 See for example State Records of N. Car., XX, 322‑24; Hutchins to Caswell, Apr. 1, 1787, ibid., XX, 656‑57; Bledsoe to Caswell, May 4, 1787, ibid., XX, 691‑93.
9 Georgia Records (MSS. in the Library of Congress), Council Correspondence, 1782‑89, and ibid., Indiana, 1751‑1825, passim, contain many letters from the Georgia authorities to those of Franklin, and vice versa. Some of this correspondence appears in J. G. M. Ramsey, Annals of Tennessee, to the End of the Eighteenth Century . . . (Philadelphia, 1853).
12 Draper MSS., DD IX 47, John Tipton and George Maxwell to Col. Arthur Campbell, March 12, 1788; State Records of N. Car., XXII, 691‑85, 714.
13 Hutchins to Martin, July 11, 1788, in State Records of N. Car., XXII, 695‑96; Papers of the Cont. Cong., cited ante, note 6, No. 150, III, folio 361, Jos. Martin to Henry Knox, Washington Dist., N. Car., Aug. 23, 1788.
14 In a letter to Gardoqui of Sept. 12, 1788, Sevier mentions a previous letter of July 18; A. Henderson, "The Spanish Conspiracy in Tennessee," in Tennessee Historical Magazine, III, 223.
15 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 104, Gardoqui to Miró, New York, Oct. 10, 1788, and another letter, same to same, N. Y., Oct. 5, 1788, with a list of passports issued by Gardoqui from May 7 to Nov. 3, 1788. John Sevier's name appears under date of Oct. 11. The passport is in Draper MSS., XI, DD 83A, and is dated Oct. 14, 1788. The discrepancy between these dates is insignificant, as it might be due to a clerical error.
16 Copies of these two letters were forwarded to Miró by Gardoqui with his letter of Oct. 10 (see ante), but only the briefer is now with Gardoqui's letter in Leg. 104. A copy of Sevier's longer letter of Sept. 12 is in Leg. 2370, and a Spanish translation is in Leg. 177. See Gayarré, op. cit., III, 257‑60, and A. Henderson, "The Spanish Conspiracy in Tennessee," loc. cit., 233‑34, for the longer letter. The briefer one has not to my knowledge been published.
17 State Records of N. Car., XXII, 699‑700. See also Johnston to Campbell, July 29, 1788, ibid., XXI, 484.
18 Ibid., XXII, 697‑99.
19 James White made a similar request of Captain General Ezpeleta when he was in Havana a few months after Sevier wrote this letter to Gardoqui. Archivo General de Indias, 86‑6‑17, Ezpeleta to Valdez, Havana, Dec. 29, 1788, No. 2, reservada, inclosing a Spanish translation made by Gayoso of a letter from James White to Ezpeleta, Havana, Dec. 24, 1788.
20 Draper MSS., 1 XX 72, William Blount to John Donelson, March 9, 1784; and ibid., 4 XX 18, Blount to Sevier, Martin and Donelson, Dec. 4, 1784.
22 Cuban Transcripts (MSS. in Wis. Hist. Soc.), Leg. 1, Exp. 12, Nos. 5 and 6, and Leg. 1, exp. 5, Nos. 6 and 7; Sevier to Chomby, Warrior, Dec. 15, 1788, and to Glover, Dec. 15, 1788, in State Records of N. Car., XXII, 719‑21.
24 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 3, Spanish translation of a letter from Luis Chacheré (i.e., Chacheret), no date, enclosed in letter No. 258 from Miró to the Conde de Galvez, Dec. 10, 1785.
25 "The Correspondence of General James Robertson," in Am. Hist. Mag., I, 63‑66.
26 Manuel Serrano y Sanz, España y los Indios Cherokis y Chactas . . . (Sevilla, 1916), 21‑23.
27 "The Correspondence of General James Robertson," loc. cit., 79‑80; and Robertson to Caswell, July 2, 1787, in State Records of N. Car., XX, 730‑31; Gazette of the State of Georgia, (preserved in Georgia Historical Society Library in Savannah), Sept. 27, 1787.
28 Draper MSS., DD IX 46, Saml. McDowell to Col. Arthur Campbell, Sept. 23, 1787.
29 Bledsoe to Caswell, Mar. 26, 1787, in State Records of N. Car., XX, 654‑55.
30 Robertson to Caswell, Nov. 25, 1787, ibid., XX, 787‑88.
31 Robertson and Bledsoe to Johnston, Jan. 4, 1788, ibid., XXI, 437‑38.
32 Letters printed ibid., XX, 703‑5; 771‑73; 786‑87.
33 Ibid., XXI, 437‑38.
34 The fact that the letter to McGillivray was not written as a result of White's mission to Cumberland on behalf of Gardoqui becomes apparent from a comparison of dates: McGillivray received the letter in question before April 25, 1788, and yet on April 19 White had an interview with Gardoqui in New York. Obviously he could not have made the journey from New York to Nashville, conversed with the leading men, and got the letter off and delivered to McGillivray in the intervening period of at most six days. Direct evidence, however, is available on this point: On May 14, 1788, Gardoqui wrote Miró stating that White had just left New York on his western mission (Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 104). Thus White was in New York for some time both before and after the writing of the letter to McGillivray and could have had no agency in it. Indeed, although in a subsequent letter to Miró reviewing his services to Gardoqui, he claimed credit for the letters written by Robertson and Smith to Miró himself, he made no allusion to the earlier correspondence between Cumberland and McGillivray, and seems to have been unaware of its existence.
35 State Records of N. Car., XXI, 442‑44.
36 "The Correspondence of General James Robertson," loc. cit., 81‑86. McGillivray's letter of April 25, 1788, to Governor O'Neill of Pensacola reporting the arrival of the Cumberland envoys is in Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 201. The draft (in English) of Miró's reply to McGillivray, May 19 (or 10?), 1789, is in ibid., Leg. 202. It is interesting to note that as early as 1786 a similar offer was reported to have been made to McGillivray by the Cumberland settlers: ibid., Leg. 2352, O'Neill to the Conde de Galvez, Pensacola, October 11, 1786, No. 23.
37 "The Correspondence of General James Robertson," loc. cit., 81‑86.
38 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 1394, Miró to Ezpeleta, July 28, 1788 (available in C. C. G. C.).
39 "The Correspondence of General James Robertson," loc. cit.
40 The identification of Bowles with the "man among us" of McGillivray's letter to Robertson is not open to serious question, in view of an autograph letter of McGillivray's of February 1, 1789, addressed probably to Miró. Describing events of the preceding summer, he writes: ". . . Bowles made his appearance as an adventurer and offering me his services to procure us a supply of arms & ammunition . . . The first part of the offer I certainly accepted of . . . [But now that Spain is ready to supply us with arms, I shall] dismiss him to seek new adventure." Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 204.
42 Copies of these letters have been supplied by Mr. Whitaker and will be published in a subsequent issue of this Review. Editor.
43 There are many references to Fagot in the Papeles de Cuba, several of them relating to Cumberland, for example, leg. 41, Gayoso to Carondelet, Natchez, July 18, 1792, No. 127, and enclosure No. 8, a copy of a letter from James White to Gayoso, dated Davidson County (Southwest Territory), June 1, 1792. Both letters are mutilated.
45 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 104, Gardoqui to Miró, New York Oct. 3, 1788; Leg. 1425, Gardoqui to Ezpeleta, New York, Oct. 11, 1788, and draft of Ezpeleta's reply, Havana, Jan. 7, 1789.
46 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 41, Gayoso to Miró, New Orleans, Nov. 4, 1791.
48 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 104, Miró to [Wilkinson], New Orleans, April 23, 1789, draft in English.
49 "Papers of General Daniel Smith," in Am. Hist. Mag., VI, 216. Jackson spells the name "Fargo." The Italics are mine. Jackson's standing in the community is indicated by a letter from James Robertson to Gayoso of May 17, 1790, Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 203.
51 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 2370, Robertson to Miró, Sept. 2, 1789. For this letter see also A. Henderson, "The Spanish Conspiracy in Tennessee," loc. cit., 242‑43.
53 Possibly to be identified with the Robert Stark who settled in Natchez district about 1790. He was welcomed by Gayoso in the expectation that he would attract other settlers from the United States to Natchez, but by 1793 he had become so dissatisfied with life in the district that he requested permission to return to the United States. Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 42, Gayoso to Carondelet, Natchez, Aug. 6, 1793, No. 338, and memorial of Robert Stark, Natchez, Jan. 31, 1795.
54 State Records of N. Car., XXII, 792.
55 Ibid., XXII, 790‑91.
56 Ibid., XXI, 558‑59.
57 In his letter of October 3, 1788, to Miró, announcing White's early departure for New Orleans via Havana, Gardoqui stated that one of White's reasons for leaving the United States was that he had carried his western mission in such a manner that he regarded his continued residence in that country as neither safe nor honorable (decente): Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 104.
58 Miró's reply to White, April 20, 1789, has been published in Gayarré, op. cit., III, 259‑60, and his reply to Robertson Apr. 20, in "Correspondence of Gen. James Robertson," loc. cit., 87‑88. His reply to Daniel Smith is in Draper MSS., 4 XX 51, dated Apr. 22, 1789. In the Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 2370, the draft of Miró's reply to Smith is dated Apr. 24. This legajo also contains drafts of his reply to Robertson, and of his memorandum of Apr. 20, enumerating the advantages which he had to offer to the people of Cumberland and Franklin through White. This memorandum deals with three points: immigration into West Florida and Louisiana, commerce with New Orleans, and the proposed revolution in Cumberland and Franklin. On the first two points, Miró is very positive and explicit in his encouragement. On the third point, his tone is very different: Because of the friendly relations existing between Spain and the United States, Spanish officials cannot foment or assist in a separation of those two communities from the United States. All that he has to offer is that should the separation be secured, His Catholic Majesty "will grant them the favor, succors, and other advantages consistent with his royal bounty, & agreeable to the situation wherein they should find themselves, & compatible with the interests of his Crown." This verbiage, of course, bound Miró to no specific concession whatsoever.
59 Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 2370. See also A. Henderson, "The Spanish Conspiracy in Tennessee," loc. cit., 242‑43. James Wilkinson, who passed through the Cumberland settlements in 1789 on his return from New Orleans to Kentucky, wrote Miró in a letter dated Lexington, Jan. 26, 1790: "I saw Col. Robertson and delivered your letter to him. He is friendly to our policy, but has no idea of leaving that district." Papeles de Cuba, Leg. 2374, Wilkinson's original letter, largely in cipher, together with decoded version in English.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
American History Notes
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 25 Aug 10