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Chapter 9

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

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 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p140  Chapter X

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.)

In 1789, Spanish forces seized a British vessel in Nootka Sound, which, Spain claimed, lay within its territorial waters. The interests of British fur traders, already active in that region, led their government to make an issue of the case. A peremptory demand for satisfaction was addressed to the Spanish government in May, 1790, and Pitt began to concert with William Augustus Bowles and Francisco de Miranda plans of attack against Spanish possessions in North and South America.​1 The affair at once became public property and created a great sensation in Europe and America. The insignificance of the offence, the doubt, arising from the uncertainty as to the rights of the two countries, whether any offence at all had been committed, the curtness of England's language in addressing a supposedly friendly power, and the rapidity and scale of its preparations for war created the impression that the British were determined to fight on no matter what pretext while Spain's ancient ally, France, was crippled by the Revolution.2

The Nootka crisis and the Yazoo project

The Nootka crisis, whose influence on the treaty of New York we observed in the preceding chapter, exerted an even profounder influence on the development of the South Carolina Yazoo Company's enterprise. The company's confidential instructions of 1789 to O'Fallon had directed him to assure the Spanish colonial officials that its intention was to establish a  p141 colony which would serve as a barrier between the United States and the Spanish dominions and to form a close connection with Spain. What the Nootka crisis did was to cause O'Fallon, with or without the company's consent, to convert the colonization project into a plan of conquest, with Louisiana as the prize.

O'Fallon's first letters to Miró from Kentucky were conciliatory enough, and he cultivated Wilkinson, whose partiality for Spain was notorious. Wilkinson responded readily. Indeed, he had written the company in 1789 and again early in 1790, before O'Fallon's arrival, setting forth the importance of enlisting the aid of Spain and intimating that he himself was the very man for that task and for the general agency of the company in the West. Unfortunately for the company, O'Fallon's appointment had already been made. Moultrie answered Wilkinson to this effect, and sought to placate him with the offer of a share. The offer was accepted and for a few months all went well.​3 Wilkinson may have been sincere, for his interest in such an enterprise had been shown by his application through Gardoqui, which we have already mentioned, for authority to establish a colony in the very same territory now claimed by the company. He may have been further disposed to support its project because the separatist movement in Kentucky had come to a halt. Conscious of failure and fearing exposure, he wished at the same time to render a compensatory service to Spain and to provide an asylum for himself. Whatever the reason, he supported the project energetically for a few months and wrote Miró urging him to recommend it to the court.

Suddenly in August, 1790, he wrote Moultrie severing his connection with the company. Both to Moultrie  p142 and to Miró, to whom he sent a copy of his letter to Moultrie, he explained his action on the ground that O'Fallon had changed the whole character of the undertaking and was perfidiously planning to invade Louisiana with British aid. One may suspect that the prospect of a commission in the expedition against the Miami and Wabash Indians had its influence in detaching from O'Fallon's colonial enterprise a man who once declared, "My passion is military fame."​4 It cannot be doubted, however, that O'Fallon's plans had changed and that the Nootka crisis was the cause. The crisis offered the frontiersmen a golden opportunity. Those of them who were godly were for the most part Protestants with no stomach for popery. The ungodly frankly longed for the silver mines of Mexico. Godly or not, they all resented the payment of a duty of twenty-one per cent for the use of a river which, they told themselves and all the world, God and Great Britain had given them to use free of charge. Yet as often as the frontiersmen had been tempted to invade these invitingly defenceless provinces, as often had they been restrained by the reflection that, even though they might take New Orleans, Spain would still control the Gulf with its navy and the mouths of the Mississippi would still be closed.

The Nootka crisis seemed to resolve the difficulty by offering the Kentuckians what was needed to make the conquest of Louisiana complete: the coöperation of a British fleet in the Gulf. It also seemed likely that a British land force from Canada would descend the Mississippi and join in the assault. Washington was so alarmed at the prospect that he took the advice of the cabinet on the course that he should follow in case British troops attempted to pass through the territory  p143 of the United States in order to attack Louisiana. Differing in their opinion on this point, Jefferson and Hamilton were agreed that the navigation of the Mississippi and the control of the territory about its mouth were of the greatest importance to the United States. In Kentucky also the crisis was earnestly discussed.​5 British intrigue in Kentucky had long been rumored in the Atlantic States and, while rumor exaggerated the danger, it was true that a British agent from Canada, a Colonel John Connolly, had appeared in Kentucky in 1788 inciting the backwoodsmen to insurrection. This tradition seemed to point the way to O'Fallon, who, moreover, learned just at this time that Miró was urging the Southern Indians to attack any Americans who might attempt to settle in the companies' grants.​6 An indication of the changed character of the enterprise is that the pro-Spanish Wilkinson was now supplanted as O'Fallon's chief adviser by George Rogers Clark, whose name both before and after 1790 was so often associated with plans for invading Louisiana. The new union was sealed by the marriage of O'Fallon, aged fifty, to Clark's youngest sister, aged fifteen; "an additional proof of his circumspection and good sense," remarked Wilkinson.7

This change of front was fatal to the company's project. The Nootka crisis was soon over, for the Spanish government, unable to secure aid from revolutionary France on satisfactory terms, was forced to yield to England. The freebooters of Kentucky were disappointed in their hope of securing the coöperation of England's navy. Spain's control of the Gulf was unbroken, and a mere land conquest of Louisiana was as futile as ever. All that O'Fallon had accomplished  p144 was to give Spain irrefragable proof of his duplicity. With England aloof and the Spanish and United States governments hostile, success was all but impossible. The company's coup de grâce, if we are to believe Wilkinson, came from no less a person than himself. He tells us that by sending a certain Captain Manning to South Carolina to inform the company's directors of O'Fallon's prodigality and incompetence he induced them to refuse to honor O'Fallon's drafts on them. His credit ruined by this stroke, O'Fallon's enterprise had collapsed;​8 and the simultaneous execution of "poor Tom" Washington for counterfeiting cannot have raised the company's prestige in either South Carolina or Kentucky.

The projects of the other two Georgia land companies also came to nothing. Patrick Henry of the Virginia Company yielded with bad grace to Washington's proclamation against the speculators, but was consoled when the paper money with which he was to have paid the state of Georgia for the company's grant rose in value with Congress's assumption of the state debts.​9 The Tennessee Company, under the energetic leadership of Zachariah Cox, actually made a settlement at Muscle Shoals despite the opposition of Governor Blount, who had lands of his own to sell. The settlement was, however, broken up by a band of Creek Indians sent out by McGillivray.10

Short's memorial on the Mississippi

The Yazoo projects and the Nootka crisis were also responsible for the resumption of the negotiation between Spain and the United States. Since the Congress of the Confederation had by its resolution of 1788 bequeathed the problem to the new government,  p145 neither Spain nor the United States had formally attempted to reopen the discussion. Floridablanca expected to find the new federal government more compliant than the old Congress, but, warned by Gardoqui that some time must be allowed for its consolidation, he was not pressing. Gardoqui was permitted to return to Spain on leave (1789), and when, shortly after his arrival at court, he was appointed to the newly created post of director of colonial trade his place in thereupon was not filled. Jáudenes and Viar, the young men brought over with Gardoqui in 1784 to assist in the work of the legation, were commissioned as Spain's agents in the United States, but they were not given the rank even of encargado de negocios (chargé d'affaires) for the conduct of the ordinary business of the office, and no provision whatever was made for the resumption of the negotiation of a treaty. The Spanish government took the position that since the first conferences had been terminated through the action of the old Congress the first overtures for another parley must come from the new government. To fill the diplomatic hiatus, Floridablanca had adopted a more liberal immigration policy and had taken up the western intrigue, which was designed primarily to guard against the danger of an invasion of Louisiana by the frontiersmen of the American West, though it was also hoped that the partition of the United States might ensue. The various intrigues with the frontiersmen, however, soon demonstrated a fundamental conflict of interest. Spain's object in the intrigue was to enfeeble the American border settlements. The frontiersmen's object was almost invariably to promote the prosperity of communities already established or to found new autonomous  p146 colonies on the American model within or near the dominions of Spain.

Simultaneously with reports of the Yazoo and Nootka affairs another proof of the futility of the Western intrigue reached Floridablanca. At the same time that Miró wrote to the court about O'Fallon's proposals, he confessed the failure of Wilkinson's scheme to separate Kentucky from the Union.​11 Since, as these disturbing notices showed, the American West did not respond to direct treatment, and since to Floridablanca diplomacy and the Western intrigue were but alternative methods of restraining the frontiersmen, it was clearly time to resume the interrupted negotiation with the United States government. A hopeful indication of the American government's sweet reasonableness in Western questions was afforded by its vigorous opposition to the Georgia land companies.

It was in these circumstances that Floridablanca received from William Short, the chargé d'affaires of the United States in Paris, a memorial insisting that without delay Spain permit the citizens of the United States to exercise their right to the free navigation of the Mississippi River. Short had a brother living in Kentucky,​12 and was bound by ties of close personal friendship to James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. Monroe was one of the leaders of the Mississippi party in the old Congress, and one of the most resolute opponents of Jay's treaty project of 1786. Jefferson's solution of the difficult problem so clearly stated by Jay — how to secure the navigation of the Mississippi from Spain without going to war — was to take advantage of one of the frequent European war-scares, in which Spain was usually involved, and to extort a favorable treaty as the price of neutrality.13

 p147  When the Nootka crisis arose, these connections left no doubt as to the course Short should follow. Drawing up a vigorous memorial on the right of the United States to the free navigation of the Mississippi, he submitted it to Vergennes' successor in the foreign office, Montmorin, who transmitted it to Floridablanca through the French chargé in Madrid.​14 That the French government, still nominally bound to Spain by the Bourbon Family Compact, was willing to be involved in so delicate an affair and one in regard to which the Spanish court was very sensitive, may perhaps be attributed to the influence of Lafayette, the strong man of France at that juncture. Not only was Lafayette sympathetic towards the republic to whose establishment he had devoted years of his youth, but he was personally involved in the negotiation between Spain and the United States. In 1783 he had used all his influence to get Floridablanca to accept the stipulations of the Anglo-American treaty with regard to the southern boundary of the United States and the navigation of the Mississippi, and had received from the Spanish minister an equivocal reply that became the subject of heated discussion at a later time.15

Another factor which probably inclined the French government to forward Short's memorial was its resentment at Floridablanca's insistence on a formal reply to his note demanding the aid of France against England in the Nootka crisis. The French government finally replied, but hedged its assent about with conditions unacceptable to Spain, and Montmorin probably welcomed the opportunity offered by Short's memorial to retaliate for the embarrassment that Floridablanca had caused him.

 p148  Spain's situation was extremely uncomfortable. The united hostility of the English and the Americans, so long feared by the court, seemed about to be realized just as Spain was estranged from her one ally by the French Revolution. Gardoqui, to whom, as a specialist in relations with the United States, Floridablanca referred Short's memorial, dwelt on the Anglo-American menace and urged an accommodation with the United States. His report is especially interesting because it seems to suggest a surrender to the United States on the questions of limits and navigation in return for a defensive alliance and a mutual guarantee of the possessions of the two powers in America.16

Two royal orders

Upon receiving this report, Floridablanca issued simultaneously two orders covering the relations of Spain with the United States. One of these orders related to the frontier situation and was sent to the governor of Havana for transmission to Miró and Gayoso.​17 The governor was informed of the court's rejection of the South Carolina Yazoo Company's project and was instructed to prevent any settlement by the Americans in the territory between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, all of which Floridablanca, in conformity with the Instruction of 1784, styled Spanish territory. The order approved Miró's decision to establish a fortified post at Los Nogales, or Walnut Hills, in order to anticipate the company's designs on that site. The correspondence with Wilkinson was ordered to be continued, though the question of his pension was still left unsettled. Finally, a copy of Short's memorial was enclosed and Miró was informed that negotiations were in progress for the  p149 regular and peaceful settlement of all at points at issue between Spain and the United States.18

The other order was sent to Jáudenes and Viar, Spain's agents in the United States. Expressing his Majesty's pained surprise at the tone of Short's memorial and especially at his complaint against the dilatoriness of Spain, Floridablanca very properly pointed out that it was the United States that had broken off the previous negotiation, and that Short's memorial was the first intimation Spain had received of his government's readiness to resume it. However, continued Floridablanca, His Majesty wished his agents, Jáudenes and Viar, to give proof of his good will towards the United States by informing the president of Spain's willingness to conclude a comprehensive treaty. The United States might send suitable persons with the proper authority to Spain, or, if they preferred, the king would send his plenipotentiary to the United States.

The choice of the envoys to Spain was a matter of some moment to that power, as the above summary of the order suggests. The action of the United States in response to this invitation illuminates its policy towards Spain and is one of the clearest proofs that it was not seeking to negotiate an equitable treaty but to maneuver Spain into a complete surrender. A sincere desire to negotiate would have led the United States to select acceptable envoys for the Spanish mission and to despatch them promptly. Nothing of the kind was done. Before the appointment was made Jefferson had a conversation with Jáudenes in which he asked the Spanish agent if Carmichael, the American chargé at Madrid, would be acceptable as the plenipotentiary for this negotiation. Jáudenes gave it as his opinion,  p150 merely personal but quite positive, that in view of the wording of the invitation his appointment would not be satisfactory to the Spanish government, and that moreover His Catholic Majesty would never agree to a treaty unless the emissaries sent by the United States were persons of accomplishments and distinction.19

Despite this warning the United States government not only failed to send public characters of distinction to Spain, but actually named the unwelcome Carmichael one of the envoys. The other was William Short, who had presented the memorial on the Mississippi, and who at the same time with this temporary mission to Spain was given the permanent post of minister to the Hague. An estimable person, Short was certainly not distinguished enough to fulfil the Spanish requirements. Jáudenes indeed wrote Floridablanca, on the authority of Senator Butler of South Carolina, that Carmichael and Short were almost unknown even in the Senate, and that their appointment was confirmed merely in order to please Jefferson and the President.20

It is doubtful whether the American government could have persuaded more prominent persons to undertake the mission, for it was quite clear to any one well informed on the subject that its success was highly improbable. Then why, it may be asked, did the administration make any provision at all for a negotiation? The answer is that, in the first place, the United States could not openly ignore Spain's advances without incurring the odium of unreasonableness and destroying the fiction of patient negotiation; and that, in the second place, it must convince the Westerners that it was doing everything in its power to secure the free navigation of the Mississippi. It was  p151 in order to keep up appearances as economically as possible that two diplomats already on the government pay-roll and already in Europe were appointed to conduct the negotiation.21

It is also worthy of notice that while Floridablanca's invitation was communicated to Jefferson in November, 1791, the envoys were not appointed until February, 1792, and Short did not actually arrive in Spain until a year later, that is, February, 1793. This delay was explained on the ground that Short's commission had gone astray;​22 but it is an interesting coincidence that this extremely long delay took place precisely during the year 1792, a year in which the European situation was least promising for the success of the United States in its negotiation with Spain. Spain and France were still at peace, and a rapprochement was in progress between Spain and England that culminated in a treaty of alliance and saved Spain from isolation when she went to war with France early in 1793. Jefferson still clung to his belief that time was on the side of the United States, and there can be little doubt that his enthusiasm for the French Revolution was heightened by his conviction that it would hasten the victory of the United States in its conflict with Spain. As early as 1786 he had written that his only fear was lest the Spaniards should be unable to hold their territory on the Mississippi "till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece;"​23 and the French Revolution seemed at first to advance the day when the United States might extend its possessions down the Mississippi to the Gulf. Certainly Jefferson's enthusiasm was in part justified, for to Spain the French Revolution was a disaster of the first magnitude. For the present, however, this  p152 was not apparent to any but the keenest observers. Throughout the year 1792 and most of the following year the Revolution seemed to have the contrary effect, reconciling Spain with her traditional enemy and bringing England and the United States to the brink of war. It was only when the alliance with England turned out badly and the war with France still worse that the despatches of Short and Carmichael and the instructions of their chief betrayed that eagerness for negotiations that they and others after them have read into the earlier policy of the United States.

The Author's Notes:

 p237  1 W. S. Robertson, Francisco de Miranda, in Am. Hist. Assn., Report, 1907, I, 266‑87; F. J. Turner, ed., "English Policy toward America in 1790‑1791," in AHR, VII, 706‑35.

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2 W. R. Manning, The Nootka Controversy, in Am. Hist. Assn., Report, 1904, 279 et seq., especially ch. X.

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3 AI, PC, l. 2374, Wilkinson to Moutier (sic: Moultrie), Huger, Snipes and T. Washington, Jan. 4, 1790, copy; l. 2371, Moultrie to Wilkinson, Sept. 5, 1790; l. 2374, Wilkinson to Miró, May 20, 1790, and June 30, 1790.

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4 Ib., Wilkinson to Moultrie, Nov. 4 (1790), copy in Wilkinson's handwriting; same to Miró, Feb. 14, 1791.

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5 Fitzpatrick, ed., Diaries of George Washington, IV, 127; Robertson, ed., Louisiana under Spain, etc., I, 263; W. C. Ford, The United States and Spain in 1790; AI, PC, l. 1446, Miró to Las Casas, Oct. 7, 1790, enclosing Spanish translation of Wilkinson to Miró, Aug. 27, 1790 (original in l. 2374).

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6 Ib., l. 1446, Miró to Las Casas, May 8, 1791, No. 24 res.; l. 2371, O'Fallon to (Miró), Jan. 15, 1791.

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7 Ib., l. 2374, Wilkinson to Miró, March 17, 1791.

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8 Ib., letter cited in preceding note; cf. same to same, May 9, 1791, in ib., in which the coup de grâce is attributed to Washington's proclamation.

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9 C. H. Haskins, op. cit., 409‑12; Etting Collection (MSS., Hist. Soc. Pennsylvania), Old Congress MSS., vol. II, Henry to Gen. Charles Scot, July 20, 1790.

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10 C. H. Haskins, op. cit., 413; Draper MSS., IX DD 65, Strother to Campbell, Feb. 18, 1791; A. S. P., I. A., I, 112‑13; "Correspondence of General James Robertson," in Am. Hist. Mag., I, 192‑93; AI, PC, l. 1446, Miró to Las Casas, July 17, 1791, No. 31 res., enclosing translation of McGillivray to Miró, June 8, 1791.

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11 AI, 86‑6‑18, Miró to Valdés, May 22, 1790, No. 50 res., on Wilkinson; ib., l. 177, same to same, same date, No. 49 res., draft, on O'Fallon.

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12 Ib., l. 2374, Wilkinson to (Miró), Jan. 26, 1790; Green, op. cit., 326 and note, calls attention to this fact, and says that Wilkinson and Peyton Short formed a partnership that was disastrous financially.

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13 Bemis, 170‑72.

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 p238  14 AHN, E, l. 3384, copy in French, dated June 1, 1791.

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15 A. S. P., F. R., I, 250‑51, 252‑57; W. Jay, Life of John Jay, II, 187.

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16 AHN, E, l. 3889 bis, exp. 4, "Estados Unidos/1791/Dictamen que dio D. Diego de Gardoqui . . .," Aug. 22, 1791, signed.

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17 Ib., l. 3898, Floridablanca to the governor of Havana, Sept. 28, 1791.

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18 AME, Archivo de la Legación de S. M. C., Washington, D. C., Caja No. 5, l. 198, Floridablanca to Jáudenes and Viar, Sept. 6, 1791.

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19 AHN, E, l. 3894 bis, Jáudenes and Viar to Floridablanca, Dec. 18, 1791, No. 61.

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20 Ib., same to same, March 26, 1792, No. 82.

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21 A. S. P., F. R., I, 251.

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22 AHN, E, l. 3894 bis, Jáudenes and Viar to Aranda, Oct. 29, 1792, No. 124.

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23 Jefferson, Writings (ed. Ford), V, 74‑75.

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