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|Aaron Burr financier; trouble on river; four-inch snow; Bastrop grant|
On Wednesday, Aug. 24, 1808, Frotescue Cuming arose from a sleepless night in a room at Hill's Tavern in the Mississippi Territory capital of Washington.
It was raining outside, so he stretched, yawned and rested until the weather broke. By 10 o'clock, after he ate a late breakfast, the skies began to clear. What he did and saw he recorded in a journal that was later published in a book called "Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country."
Cuming gathered his belongings, saddled his horse and headed for Natchez six miles away. Three miles distance, just off the main road, he stopped to visit a man name Harmon Blennerhassett, who was renting a small farmhouse from the Ezekial Forman family.
A former sheriff in Kent County, Maryland, Ezekial Forman came to Natchez in 1789 after obtaining a 1,200-acre Spanish land grant along St. Catherine's Creek. Forman's law enforcement experience was put to use by the Spanish governor in 1793. The former sheriff was charged with paying rewards to those who killed "beasts of prey" -- such as panthers and wolves -- which occasionally fed on livestock.
Forman's property was called Wilderness Plantation and it was on a tiny portion of this land that Mr. and Mrs. Harmon Blennerhassett were living when Cuming came calling in 1808. An Irishman, Blennerhassett was in the process of losing a fortune due to one of the most exciting and mysterious events in the country's early history -- the Aaron Burr conspiracy.
Burr, you may recall, served as vice-president under President Thomas Jefferson. On July 11, 1804, while still in office, Burr killed the country's former Secretary of Treasury in a dual. The two men despised one another politically and Alexander Hamilton had said and written some nasty things about Burr.
Following the custom of the day, Burr challenged Hamilton to a dual and in a fight conducted by the rules of gentlemen, Burr killed Hamilton. Although it was a fair fight, the event vilified Burr. Seeing that he was finished in politics, he embarked on a venture that remains mysterious to this day.
Sen. William Plumer of New Hampshire provided a basic, though simplistic view of Burr's conspiracy as it was understood by Congresss before his arrival in the Mississippi Territory: "Reports have for some time circulated from one end of the United States to the other, that Aaron Burr -- with others, in the western States are preparing gun boats, provisions, money, men etc. to make war upon the Spaniards in South America (and Mexico) -- that his intention is to establish a new empire in the western world..." He was also rumored to have plans to take New Orleans, a recently obtained possession of the U.S. following the Louisiana Purchase.
BRUIN GIVES BURR BAD NEWS
The plot was foiled right here in Natchez country when Burr and scores of his followers, including Blennerhassett, aboard a flotilla of flatboats filled with arms and provisions, were stopped at Bayou Pierre in Mississippi, just across the river from Lake Bruin in Louisiana. There, Burr visited with his old friend, Judge Peter Bryan Bruin.
On January 10th, Blennerhassett made this entry in his journal: "At four o'clock, A. M., got into an eddy; could not get out, the night being very dark; stayed until daylight appeared; then got out, and came up with Col. Burr's two boats, namely, the boat he lived in, and one that had horses; they gave us a signal for landing, with which we complied, and effected a landing in the Mississippi Territory. About twelve o'clock this day, Col. Burr pushed down the river with a bateau and twelve men, and appointed to meet us again at Bayou Pierre..."
Bruin informed Burr that the President had issued a proclamation condemning the expedition, that Gen. James Wilkinson had betrayed him and that a warrant had been issued for his arrest by Mississippi Territory Acting Governor Cowles Mead. Burr claimed that he and his followers were simply here to settle lands on the Ouachita River in Louisiana. The settlement, he said, would be on a large portion of the Felipe Neri, Baron de Bastrop land grant.
In 1795, the Spanish granted a 1.2-million acre grant along the Ouachita to Bastrop, a native of Holland. One condition of the grant was that Bastrop settle 500 families on 400-acre homesteads with immigrants from war-ravaged Europe. For several reasons, Bastrop in 1799 sold his claim to Abraham Morhouse, a New Yorker. (Thus, the names of the Louisiana town of "Bastrop" located in the parish of "Morehouse.")
Burr, with money from men like Blennerhassett, actually entered into a legal agreement to purchase 350,000 acres of the Bastrop grant, paying $5,000 in cash and carrying a debt of $30,000. In the end, Burr only half-heartedly attempted to settle the property and the original Bastrop grant was later voided by U.S. land commissioners.
Harmon Blennerhassett had migrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1796, and later purchased an island on the Ohio River. Voyagers passing along the river marveled at the mansion he built there -- a rambling estate filled with expensive furniture, rare books and luxuries imported from Europe.
At this home, the charming and chatty Burr often visited and plotted with Blennerhassett and his wife, who was said to be physically beautiful and a sweet hostess. Blennerhasset had inherited a huge estate, but invested about $50,000 -- a fortune in the early 1800s -- on the island, which included 180 acres, much of it land he improved. He also had other investments but spent most of his money financing Burr's plans which included recruiting men, having flatboats custom-built and purchasing food and other provisions. What Burr did with all the money he received from a handful of investors isn't known.
FOUR-INCH SNOW; BLOOD ON FINGERTIPS
In 1808, on the Forman farm between Natchez and Washington, Frotescue Cuming visited Blennerhassett and his wife, both still dazed by the dramatic change in their lives due to their association with Burr in 1806 and 1807.
"I was received by Mr. B. and his accomplished and amiable lady with the utmost kindness and politeness," Cuming said. "I could not help contrasting their present temporary residence in a decayed cabin, with their splendid and tasty habitation on the Ohio. Blest however in each other, with kindred souls and similar tastes -- possessing a noble library, and still a sufficiency left after all their losses, with a well regulated but liberal economy, for all the necessaries, and many of the indulgences of life."
Blennerhassett had been detained along with Burr in Natchez country during one of the coldest winters in this region's history. A four-inch snow covered the countryside while up north the Ohio River was capped with ice.
Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, a Concordia Parish planter in the 1850s who previously lived in Woodville, said a man remembered fondly as Uncle Bob Leckey "served in the arrest of Aaron Burr above Natchez about 1807; he said it was so cold....that in handling oars of the skiff the blood poured from the tips of his fingers. He represented Aaron Burr as remarkably polite, genteel, urbane, good looking, though small, and as having eyes whose glance was most penetrating and fascinating."
The Spanish had also kept close tabs on Burr and had an agent follow Burr throughout the Ohio Valley and later down the Mississippi. That spy was Capt. Don Jose Vidal, the founder of Concordia Parish and Vidalia.
A Mississippi Territory Grand Jury was called into session following the arrests but failed to indict either Burr or Blennerhassett. Warrants were later issued back east for their arrests for treason, but both were exonerated. The public sentiment in Natchez country about both men was similar to that of the rest of the nation -- some said they were villains and others said they were opportunists. Burr was treated like royalty by many in Natchez, entertained with several balls and even enjoyed a brief courtship with a local woman.
DISGUST WITH GEN. WILKINSON
Almost everyone, however, was disgusted with the actions of Gen. James Wilkinson, the commanding officer of the U.S. army who was part of the Burr plot, but caught wind that the matter was about to be exposed and turned on his old friend. Wilkinson led efforts to arrest Burr and others. Burr's fear in Natchez was that he would be taken into custody by Wilkinson himself.
Wilkinson was moving about Natchez country tending to several military affairs, including a border dispute with the Spanish along the Sabine River, when Burr's boats docked upriver at Bruin's place. Around this time, Wilkinson spent some time in Natchez as a guest of Stephen Minor at Concord, the old Spanish mansion once located on the hilltop rising just above the old tire plant in Natchez.
It was charged at the time, but not proven until years after his death, that while the top general in the U.S. military, Wilkinson was earning a $2,000 a year stipend from Spain, equal to his American salary. Documents also reveal that Wilkinson was identified not by name in official Spainish reports but instead as "Agent 13."
After being acquitted on treason charges in Richmond, Virginia, Blennerhassett returned to Natchez where he was living when Cuming arrived in 1808. On a return visit to Natchez a short while later, Cuming and Blennerhassett went to town to visit a man named Evans "whose niece, Mrs. Wallace, a young and gay widow, and his eldest daughter, favoured us with a few tunes on an organ, built for him by one Hurdis, an English musical instrument maker and teacher of musick, then residing in Natchez. The instrument was tolerably good, and ought to be so, as it has cost one thousand dollars."
According to Mississippi historian J.F.H. Claiborne's 19th century book on the state, Blennerhassett later purchased a plantation called La Cache near Port Gibson.
"While residing there," wrote Claiborne, Blennerhassett and his eldest son Dominic "were indicted, in 1819, and tried in Superior Court of Claiborne County for an aggravated and atrocious assault on John Hays, and found guilty and fined $1,000." The two appealed the decision to the Supreme Court seeking a new trial but lost.
Unlike many who found Blennerhassett and his wife well bred, Claiborne said they "were certainly people of culture, but not particularly refined in manner or appearance." In fact, Claiborne didn't think Mrs. Blennerhasset was particularly attractive, noting that a beautiful portrait of her must as been of some "other lady." But his description contrasts sharply with those of many others.
Claiborne said that Dominic, the eldest son, disappeared in 1823 while the family resided in Montreal. He was never seen again Blennerhassett died in 1831 in Ireland a broken man. His widow died in New York in 1842.
But back in 1808, after visiting with Mr. and Mrs. Blennerhassett at that rented farm house in Adams County, Cuming wrote that after dinner "I tore myself with difficulty from the social and intellectual feast I was enjoying, and proceeding on my journey through a woody country, and a light soil, I arrived at Natchez a little before dark."
One could meet some amazing people in Natchez country along every road and bridle path. The Burr conspiracy rocked the Mississippi Territory and the country. It ruined many lives.
Burr played on the greed of others. But in Natchez country, which had been under the rule of the French, the British, the Spanish and now the Americans during a span of three decades, the plot was not considered that far fetched nor that bad of an idea.
The lives of the Blennerhassetts, this once happy family so admired and financially healthy, were forever damaged by the alluring yet deceitful Aaron Burr.
(Next week: Cuming visits Natchez.)
|Frank Morris Murder Series|