THE SPANISH-AMERICAN FRONTIER; THE MISSISSIPPI QUESTION, 1783-1803

By Arthur Preston Whitaker

The historian, Arthur Whitaker, was an eminent fellow who wrote diplomatic and foreign relations history simply and well. He researched in Spain before the Spanish Civil War and next published these two volumes 80-90 years ago.

What are the stories? Governments of Spain, the United States, France and Britain all tried to exert influence and control west of the Appalachians. The targets were native Americans, who didn’t like any of the Europeans, and emigrants from the eastern States coming into the Ohio and the Tennessee Valleys. They wanted to use the Mississippi River to the sea. Movers and shakers were land spectators, commercial sharks and politicians, somewhat represented by John Wilkerson, US Army Brigadier General who negotiated with the Spanish to bring Kentucky under Spanish rule, had a Spanish pension (mostly unpaid), and had other intrigues with Spanish authorities in New Orleans. Wilkerson, of course, had been a friend of Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War.

Having no rules and less law and order west of the Appalachians between 1783-1803 was a boon to many, one being William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, Revolutionary War hero. Clark intrigued, tried to push the Spanish out, had a military unit, fought Native Americans in private wars, speculated in land and complained to the Spanish that the natives were restless. After the Louisiana Purchase (1803) he went west with Meriwether Lewis and came back to become governor of the Missouri Territory. Later he was Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Incidentally, having connived and intrigued for 20 years James Wilkerson survived the 1807 Treason Trial of Aaron Burr; with a few wrinkles he kept offices and rank.

The story begun in these books tell of New York interests, involving Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. They were good friends, having vibrant conversations, dining together and partying. Hamilton’s fingerprints are all over plans and intrigues involving British-American plots to diminish Spanish contacts and push Spain from North America. Hamilton and Burr likely talked much about west of the Appalachian intrigues and filibustering. After 1804 Burr continued those activities but not enough to constitute treason. Note, at some time Aaron Burr moved his personal papers to North Carolina, a staging area for a move west. Americans now know of these papers because Burr has few: They were lost at sea along with the ship and Burr’s daughter.

Whatever happened west of the Appalachians involving Burr and Hamilton, was further obscured by The Louisiana Purchase, Burr killing Hamilton in a dual (1804) and the Burr Treason Trial judged by John Marshall(1807).

More history needs researching, but these two volumes provide a solid foundation on which to begin. 

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