Advent of the Flag

The treaty of San Lorenzo was made, from the Spanish point of view, to protect Louisiana and make a friend of the United States. While the negotiations were in progress. the United States crushed the British-Indian power in the northwest, and made the Jay treaty with England, that seemed to promise a close friendship between the English-speaking peoples. It was feared that this would result in an invasion of Louisiana from Canada, with the permission of the United States, if Spain continued to make pretensions to all the Mississippi valley south of the Ohio. Spain was apprehensive, also, that France, though seeking alliance, was not so warm a friend that she would scruple to take Louisiana by force of arms. It was hoped that the San Lorenzo treaty would divide the kindly feelings of the United States, and partly nullify the Jay treaty. But before the treaty of San Lorenzo could be ratified, France agreed to alliance with Spain without insisting on the cession of Louisiana, and the United States was thrown into an attitude of possible hostility to Spain because of strained relations with France, Spain’s ally. There are various theories to explain the political events of this period, but a wise observation is that which Thomas Power wrote later to James Wilkinson: “The crazy, tortuous, vacillating politics of our Court baffle the common rules of political prescience, and even elude the grasp of our conjecture.” Governor Gayoso in June, 1796, according to Major Stoddard (Sketches of Louisiana, wrote to a confidential friend: “The object of Great Britain in her treaty with the United States about this period, was to attach them to her interests, and even render them dependent upon her, and therefore, the Spanish treaty of limits was made to counterbalance it; but as Great Britain had totally failed in her object, it was not the policy of Spain to regard her stipulations.” Mr. Pickering, then secretary of state, laid stress upon the French relations as the real cause of the Spanish attitude, writing, “The true reason is doubtless developed by the Baron [de Carondelet] in his proclamation of the 31st of May [1797]. The expectation of an immediate rupture between France, the intimate ally of Spain, and the United States.” Marbois, in his history of Louisiana, corroborates the accuracy of Pickering’s judgment.

The French renewed their intrigues in the Mississippi valley. The English began investigation of the conditions for an invasion from Canada a year before war was declared against that country by Spain, in the fall of 1796. It evidently appeared to Godoy that he had yielded the American demands to no purpose, and he determined to disregard the treaty, at least as long as surrender of the posts would seem to invite invasion by the frontiersmen of Kentucky and Tennessee, under the influence of such intrigue as the Blount conspiracy.

See Henry Adams, U. S., I, 350-51.

Another important fact to be remembered is that before the United States commissioner arrived at Natchez to survey the line yielded by Spain, Governor Carondelet had an agent working in Kentucky to secure the erection of a government in the west, independent of the United States and under the protection of Spain, with the general in command of the United States army at the head of it. As Carondelet had sent $10,000 with this proposition to General Wilkinson, it is a reasonable inference that he desired to know the results before surrendering the Spanish dream of dominion up to the Ohio, and east to the Alleghanies. Power had been instructed to tell the Kentucky people regarding the treaty Ellicott came to fulfill, that “it may be confidently asserted, that His Catholic Majesty will not carry the above mentioned treaty into execution.” The Spanish agent did not return until late in 1797, or in January, 1798, with news that the Spanish cause was hopeless. At that time Carondelet had gone to Quito and was succeeded by Gayoso.

In his speech to the Fourth Congress, at its opening in December, 1796, President Washington said: “The treaty with Spain required that the commissioners for running the boundary line between the territory of the United States and His Catholic Majesty’s provinces of East and West Florida, should meet at the Natchez, before the expiration of six months after the exchange of ratifications, which was effected at Aranjuez on the 25th day of April; and the troops of His Catholic Majesty occupying any posts within the limits of the United States were, within the same period, to be withdrawn. The commissioner of the United States, therefore, commenced his journey for the Natchez in September; and troops were ordered to occupy the posts from which the Spanish garrison should be withdrawn. Information has recently been received of the appointment of a commissioner on the part of His Catholic Majesty, for running the boundary line; but none of any appointment for the adjustment of the claims of our citizens whose vessels were captured by the armed vessels of Spain.”

On May 24, 1796, the President had appointed Andrew Ellicott, of Philadelphia, commissioner for running the line, and Thomas Freeman, of the District of Columbia, as surveyor. Ellicott was considered to be the ablest man in the United States for this work, since the death of Thomas Hutchins. He did not leave Philadelphia until September 16, 1796, possibly because of the unprecedented low water in the Ohio river. He could not get away from Pittsburg until October 24, when he was accompanied by a party of woodsmen and a military escort of twenty-five men of the Second United States infantry, under Lieut. John McClary, of a New Hampshire family of Revolutionary officers. The expedition started out with four boats, one of them the special boat used by General Wilkinson. Practically the six months had expired before Ellicott was able to start from Pittsburg. Day after day they had to stop to repair the boats, damaged by dragging them through the shoals. When he reached Cincinnati, a month later, he was told that no other boats had come down from Pittsburg since the preceding August, and the season was then so far advanced that no others could be reasonably expected. “Our success,” Ellicott wrote in his journal, “was owing to the number of people we had with us, and whose quiet submission to unusual hardship does them great credit.” December 18 they reached the mouth of the Ohio. Lieutenant Taylor was then at New Madrid, where he had taken a letter from General Wayne, who wrote from Detroit, October 19, regarding the execution of the treaty. Colonel DeLassus, the commandant, wrote his reply, on the same day that Ellicott reached the mouth of the Ohio, that he was advised to permit the commissioner and his guard to go down, but the posts could not be evacuated until the season of high waters, and the troops sent to Fort Massac for that purpose should be accordingly delayed, ” on account of the river being so remarkably low as to render its navigation very dangerous.” It does not appear that Ellicott had any information of this. Three days later both rivers were filled with ice. The store boat, following, was caught in the ice packs, run to land at the mouth of the Wabash, and the stores unloaded. As the party waited at the confluence of the great rivers, they were joined by Philip Nolan, who had some boats in the ice at Fort Massac, on the Illinois side below the mouth of the Tennessee river. He agreed to accompany Ellicott and gave him information ” relative to the situations, and characters, of the principal inhabitants of Natchez.” Nolan was the confidential agent of General Wilkinson, but Ellicott did not know it, it appears.

The boats were collected as the ice went out, and the party started again February 1st. Immediately, on going down the Mississippi, they were made aware of Spanish opposition. The first day out they arrived at the station of a Spanish galley. The commandant was very polite, but informed Ellicott it would be proper to remain at his station till next morning. Next day, reaching the Spanish post at New Madrid, they were greeted with a salute of artillery, and entertained with great courtesy, but the commandant requested Ellicott to remain two or three days, and finally divulged that his order from Governor Carondelet, dated in the previous November, was to detain the Americans till the posts were evacuated, which could not be effected until the water should rise. Ellicott argued that the order could not apply to him, for he had nothing to do with the posts, besides, to detain him would be in violation of the treaty. The commandant yielded to the argument, that now, at least, the waters had risen, and gave his departing guests another salvo of artillery, after detaining them two days, and probably getting off an express to the lower posts. Chickasaw bluffs was reached February 8. Here the Spanish commandant was polite, but “somewhat embarrassed.” He inquired if the officer at New Madrid had not received despatches lately from the governor-general; ordered the military escort to land on the other side of Wolf creek from the fort, and brought two armed galleys into that stream, separating Ellicott and his troops. Nolan scented danger and advised the astronomer to hide his suspicions and depend on him for information, “but the utmost caution will be necessary, both for your success and my own safety.” Leaving there on the 10th, they were brought to and detained an hour on the 13th by Colonel Howard, an Irish officer in the Spanish service, commanding two armed galleys. It was, of course, concealed from Ellicott that Howard was on his way to St. Louis to strengthen the fortifications, and that the Spaniards were preparing to guard the river by armed galleys against a British invasion they feared from Canada. They were doubtless ready to believe Ellicott himself was a forerunner of this dreaded invasion. Their own policy was such that they would imagine treachery everywhere, and in fact, it was made known to the world, in a few weeks after this, that Senator Blount, of Tennessee, former governor and Indian agent, was implicated at this time in a conspiracy to capture Natchez, aided by British forces.

At Walnut Hills, the most important military station yet reached, Ellicott’s boats were greeted, not with a salute, but a discharge of artillery aimed to bring them to, though they were making for the landing with as much expedition as possible. The commandant here played the game of ignorance; had never heard of such a treaty, and read the copy that Ellicott furnished him with apparent interest. Ellicott had hardly left here on the 22d, when a canoe from the fort overtook him, with a message from Governor Gayoso, at Natchez, which had been sent up by land. Gayoso wrote that he had been informed by “some gentlemen that left you at the mouth of the Ohio,” that he was approaching, attended by a military guard and some woodsmen; he was pleased at the opportunity to meet him, but – “Though I do not conceive that the least difficulty will arise respecting the execution of the part of the treaty in which you are an acting person, yet as we are not prepared to evacuate the posts immediately for want of the vessels that I expect will arrive soon, I find it indispensable to request you to leave the troops above the mouth of Bayou Pierre, where they may be provided with all their necessaries, which you can regulate on your arrival here. By this means every unforeseen misunderstanding will be prevented between His Majesty’s troops and those of the United States; besides, it is necessary to make some arrangements previously to the arrival of the troops, on which subject I shall have the honor of entertaining you when we meet. I embrace this opportunity to assure you of the satisfaction I feel in being appointed to act in concert with you, though your first interview is to be with the general-in-chief of this province. I have the honor to be with the highest consideration, Sir, your most humble servant, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos.”

Ellicott and Nolan, for the latter was important enough, through chance, to be considered as the diplomatic adviser of the party, saw that for some reason, unknown to them, they were confronted, not by the execution of an amicable treaty, but by a carefully disguised state of war. They decided to throw the offensive upon their Spanish friends until they could investigate the situation at Natchez, and landed the guard at Bayou Pierre. There Ellicott and Nolan visited an old friend of the astronomer’s, Col. Peter Bryan Bruin, a planter, who gave them much information about the situation and agreed to go on to Natchez in one of Nolan’s boats, to assist, but not to be seen with Ellicott until after the latter had met the governor. The comment by Mr. Claiborne, in his History of Mississippi, is that this appeal to a friend and an American in a time of danger, was a trick which showed Ellicott ” unfit for the society of gentlemen”, and that Bruin was “grossly deceived and bamboozled by the artful Quaker.” This is a curious misapprehension of the situation.

The United States flag was first raised in the Natchez district, at the mouth of Bayou Pierre, by a little guard of American soldiers, on the evening of February 22, 1797, the birthday of George Washington, and in the last fortnight of his administration as president. It had required eight years of war and diplomacy under his unwavering and steadfast leadership, to unfurl the flag at Detroit and Natchez. (See Transition Period. Authorities, Amer. State Papers, Ellicott’s Journal, Gayarre’s Louisiana, Adams’ U. S. History, etc.)

Back to: Mississippi History

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top