Part 10: Spanish Misgivings
And then the other thing, of course, is that it's right in the middle of a near-war with Spain, the Burr conspiracy. Jefferson sort of was content not to call attention to it. The National Intelligencer, which was the administration newspaper, never even included a single line about it. Even though it did a front-page story about the whole affair of the confrontation of the armies in the Southwest, and the Burr conspiracy, and all, never mentioned the exploring expedition one time.
The Grand Excursion into the Southwest, then, was prepared to launch in the spring of eighteen-six. During that spring of 1806 there were some last-minute exchanges between Jefferson and William Dunbar about the objectives of the Expedition. Those exchanges had to do with a very serious problem that had emerged in eighteen-five and eighteen-six, and that was Spanish opposition to the probe.
The Spaniards, for example, refused to issue a passport, which Jefferson asked for, for this expedition. Spanish officials, in fact, were frankly horrified that Americans were going to be exploring on the edge of their settlements, and two-hundred-year-old colonies in the Southwest.
They were also encouraged to be horrified by the actions of a slippery secret agent, General James Wilkinson, who simultaneously was the ranking general in the American Army and also "Secret Agent Number Thirteen" in the employ of Spain.
Wilkinson, in this capacity, spent eighteen-five and eighteen-six sending letters to Thomas Jefferson, encouraging him in his designs on exploring the Southwest, describing for Jefferson what a wonderful country of wonderful productions it was. Saying that the Red River headed in volcanic country, and in mountains of salt, or partial salt. He forwarded to the administration descriptions of unicorns, of giant masses of metal on the southern plains that everyone thought were big masses of silver or possibly platinum. They turned out to be meteorites. In fact; one of them was retrieved from the plains in 1810 by American traders, and it turned out to be a gigantic meteorite, almost two tons in weight.
But these were things that no one had any way of explaining at the time, and Jefferson, always intensely curious about natural curiosities in the West, was really spurred on in his interest in the Southwest by some of these descriptions that James Wilkinson and others—there were quite a number of other people who sent him descriptions of the area in eighteen-five and eighteen-six—were sending in.
Wilkinson, at the same time, encouraged the Spaniards to try to capture and stop these American expeditions in the West. He actually told the Spaniards that they ought to try to send a body of troops to capture Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and he told the Spaniards in no uncertain terms that if Jefferson sent an exploring expedition into the Southwest there was no way the Spaniards should allow that expedition to penetrate to Santa Fe because, Wilkinson said, if they do, you realize, the revolutionary spirit of the age is going to overtake you.
James Wilkinson: Secret Agent Number 13
James Wilkinson (1796-97)
by Charles Willson Peale
Oil on canvas
Original size, 24 x 20 in.
James Wilkinson (1757-1825) was one of the most duplicitous, avaricious, and altogether corrupt figures in the early history of the United States. Although he served in the Revolutionary War as adjutant general under General Horatio Gates, he took an oath of allegiance to Spain in 1787, and until 1800 was paid by the Spanish government as agent Number Thirteen. Meanwhile, in 1791 he received a lieutenant colonel's commission in the U.S. Army, and in 1803 was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory above the 33rd parallel—the northern boundary of the present state of Louisiana.
At the outset of his post-Revolutionary-Era career, he merely schemed to bring American settlements in western Kentucky under Spanish control. But as governor of the territory it is said that he conspired with another "patriot" scoundrel, Aaron Burr, to foment war between the U. S. and Spain over the Louisiana-Mexican boundary, resolve the "problem" through their own inside negotiations, then initiate a secessionist movement, and set up their own private quasi-Napoleonic empire in the West.1
However, the slippery Wilkinson betrayed Burr to Jefferson, then himself marshaled a force of regular army and militiamen that faced down the Spanish General Simon de Herrera across the Sabine (sa-BEAN) River, and negotiated the establishment of a neutral border zone. Despite suspicion, courts-martial, and congressional investigations he was promoted to the rank of major general. An ill-fated campaign against Montreal under his leadership during the War of 1812 led to his ultimate downfall and disgrace. He died in Mexico City in 1825.
—Joseph M. Mussulman
1. Flores, Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration, 77-83. Aaron Burr, Jr. (1756-1836) killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804. He was tried for murder but, having observed all the rules of dueling, was acquitted, and served out his term as Vice President to Thomas Jeffeerson.