Stanley Nelson: “Minds Restless About Natchez” | Opinion

Even before a Mississippi Territory grand jury convened in early 1807 to hear allegations of treason against former Vice President Aaron Burr, there was a feeling across Natchez country that Burr was being mistreated.

For two years he had traveled from New York to cities along Ohio, towns and communities in Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Natchez and New Orleans on the Mississippi. Of course, he had spoken of conquest and had visited revolutionaries. Burr even sought foreign aid from a British minister in the United States. With others, he spoke about the war with Spain and the vulnerability of the Spanish possessions, including Mexico and Texas. By the end of 1806, the United States and Spain had nearly entered the war along the Sabine River.

When Burr arrived in Natchez Country in January 1807, local officials were concerned after President Thomas Jefferson described Burr’s expedition as dangerous. It was rumored that he was going down the Mississippi with hundreds – perhaps thousands of men – in a flotilla of boats loaded with guns for the war. But once here, his force totaled 100 men or less and although a few dozen muskets may have been hidden from the authorities, there was no way Burr’s group could have faced even a weak militia.

And there was this attitude: who cared if Burr was waging war on the Spaniards. Few Americans saw anything wrong with Western expansion. And few liked Spain.

Anti-Spanish sentiment in Natchez had intensified before Burr’s arrival in part because of the disappearance of Philip Nolan, a young go-getter who traveled to Spanish Texas in 1800 with two dozen men to catch wild horses to tame and later sell in Natchez and New Orleans. The Spaniards, who also controlled Louisiana at the time, warned Nolan not to enter Texas. When he did, they tracked him down and after he refused to surrender, killed him in 1801 in a shootout.

When the news reached Natchez, there was outrage. And many wondered what had become of Nolan’s men who had been taken prisoner. Between Burr’s departure from Natchez in February 1807 and his federal trial in Virginia in August, anti-Spanish sentiment grew further.

In Natchitoches, Louisiana, in May 1807, six years after Nolan’s death, Spanish soldiers freed American Captain Zebulon Pike and his group. The 28-year-old pike had wandered over territory claimed by the Spanish while researching the origins of the Red and Arkansas rivers. Spanish soldiers took him to Mexico where he visited Nolan’s men, who were still being held captive.

One prisoner, David Fero, a resident of Natchez, told Pike the men had lost all hope of being released and feared execution. Pike promised that once he reached American soil, he would let the world know about the plight of Nolan’s men.

At Natchitoches on the Red River, which had become an American possession following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Pike kept his promise to Fero and the American prisoners when he wrote a letter to the Herald Natchez report the state of men. He called them “weakened, half-lost wretches.” He asked the Herald, who published the letter in August 1807 – the month Burr’s treason trial began in Richmond, Virginia – to notify newspapers in other states where some of the men had family or friends so that “their relationships may receive the melancholy assurance of some to be in existence, and that others are beyond the power of tyranny and oppression. “The news caused a stir among Natchez, as most considered as a scandal that the men were even imprisoned.

Pike listed the names of 12 of the prisoners and provided what little information he knew about each, including the death of one by execution. In the years to come, some would return home. Others have never been counted.


Eight months before the publication of Pike’s letter in the Herald Natchez, Burr had been apprehended and taken to Washington, the capital of the Mississippi Territory six miles inland from Natchez.

Burr was free on bail until a grand jury was assembled.

According to Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, “Col. Benajah Osmun, with whom Burr spent much of his time waiting, signed the contract with Lyman Harding. Colonel Fitzpatrick searched the boats for signs of a military expedition, to no avail, and subsequent searches along the river bank were unsuccessful. The boats were lowered at Natchez and the men were paroled. On January 22, Mead ordered the arrest by Colonel Claiborne of each of the “restless spirits of Natchez who manifested a disposition hostile to the views of the government and favorable to the designs of a man now in detention”.

“Comfort Tyler, Harman Blennerhassett, Senator Smith from Ohio and other distinguished figures arrived after Burr’s arrest, and the number of boats has increased to about thirteen, the total number of the group to about one hundred. ”

the Herald Natchez reported, according to Rowland, that “Burr and his men were fondled by a number of wealthy Adams County merchants and planters; several bullets were given to them as a sign of respect and confidence.

In his book on the Mississippi, historian John FH Claiborne writes:

“Colonel Burr’s surrender to civilian authorities has not restored the expected peace. A number of his followers, as ignorant of his designs as the rest of the community, scattered across the land, each giving their own version of the expedition. Among our fellow citizens, there was a great diversity of opinions.

“Many were fascinated by the proud demeanor and courteous manners of Colonel Burr. Some saw him as the victim of the president’s jealousy and vengeance. Some in the party’s mind have been right because Jefferson accused him. There were a few, the society vultures, who boldly praised him and demanded his immediate release, because they hoped to share what they believed to be his plunder and plunder plans.

In his book on Aaron Burr (American emperor, 2011), historian David O. Stewart notes that in Natchez Burr “spoke with John Graham, Jefferson’s sleuth, explaining that he expected the West to part ways with the nation for“ causes ”. moral and not physical ”- that is, the West would choose to secede, without any action from Burr. As for the invasion of Mexico, Burr said it would only take place if the United States was at war with Spain, or if Burr’s lands in Ouachita had an “independent government.” When Graham urged him to make a public statement of his intentions, Burr objected, objecting that “he was a concerned party and none of his statements could have any effect.”

During Burr’s trial in Virginia, Graham said he also spoke with Harman Blennerhassett, an expedition financier. Graham said Blennerhassett “referred to the settlement on the Washita {Ouachita River in northeast Louisiana} as their subject. He never positively told me that was the case, but he said they confessed it as their object.

“I observed him as one reason why I should think it was, that young people without families, or without any of the breeding tools, were being hired to leave. He said their guns were to kill turkeys or Indians.

“He then embarked on an abuse of the administration, their neglect of the army and navy, etc.”


At the behest of Acting Governor Cowles Mead, Mississippi Territory Attorney General George Poindexter was instrumental in Burr’s peaceful surrender. Poindexter knew before the grand jury meeting in Adams County that he had no case against the former vice president. After all, Burr hadn’t committed any crime in Mississippi.

But Judge Thomas Rodney, a pro-Jefferson man, was determined to proceed because that was what the president wanted. The other judge, the oldest of the tribunal’s three judges, was Peter Bryan Bruin, an old friend of Burr’s. Both had fought in the Battle of Quebec during the American Revolution.

The third judge was not present.

During Burr’s trial in Virginia, Poindexter explained his position:

“I have been… called upon in my official capacity as Attorney General to provide written advice on the way forward with Colonel Burr. I did, and this notice, I believe, was filed in the office of the secretary of the Mississippi Territory. My opinion was that we had no evidence to convict Colonel Burr of any misdemeanor in the Mississippi Territory for which a jury was about to be called, had no initial prosecution jurisdiction. and could only take cognizance of the points of law reserved for the trial before the circuit court; that, therefore, Burr should be sent under sufficient guard, directed to the city of Washington, where the Supreme Court of the United States would be in session, and judges present from all parts of the Union could order that the accused be tried in the district where, from the evidence, it could appear that a clear act of treason had been committed.

“But Judge Rodney thought differently, and a venire facias was issued, requiring the attendance of seventy-six jurors at an adjourned session of the Mississippi Territory Supreme Court held last February. From the number of jurors present, a grand jury of twenty-three was selected, which received a charge from Judge Rodney, and adjourned until the next day.

“At the court meeting the next morning, I offered to discharge the grand jury:

“1st, Because the tribunal in no way possessed the original jurisdiction;

“2. Because the depositions submitted to my inspection did not furnish sufficient proof to convict Colonel Burr of the offenses with which he was accused, so as to bring them back to the territory of Mississippi;

“3 ° That a warrant could be issued, transmitting the accused to a competent tribunal to judge and punish him, if he is guilty of the crimes with which he is charged.

“The court being divided on this request, it was quashed. The grand jury then withdrew. I decided not to present any indictments and left the court.

“In the evening, while I was engaged in the Legislative Assembly, a message was sent to me by the court asking for my presence. I immediately went to the courtroom and was asked to watch the grand jury presentations.

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