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|Bruin's days on the bench in the Mississippi Territory|
PHILIP NOLAN, AARON BURR AND OTHER CASES OF FRONTIER JUSTICE
(Third in a Series)
When territorial court was in session, Judge Peter Bryan Bruin's journey from Bayou Pierre in present day Claiborne County, Miss., to Washington in Adams County was a distance of 40 miles, more or less, through hills and hollows.
He arose early the day before court convened, had his horse saddled, grabbed his flintlock and began the long ride south, which usually took a day.
Bruin's journey began from his home located on an Indian mound near the present day ruins of the Windsor mansion a short distance from Alcorn College. The trail ran nearly parallel to the Mississippi before crossing onto the Natchez Trace to the southeast. We know from written accounts left by travelers in the early 1800s that his journey led him past several landmarks beginning with the Glasscock farm, known for its fine peaches, and an old school house occupied by a man named Ostum, a shoemaker from South Carolina.
Next was the James Norris farm where a number of other immigrants also from South Carolina, a half dozen families in all, lived nearby. The trail passed several plantations before reaching Greenville, then the capitol of Jefferson County, situated on the middle branch of Cole's Creek and surrounded by small farms and woods. Located six miles west of present day Fayette, Greenville then was a village of about 40 houses, a church, courthouse, jail, pillory, post office, two taverns, including Green's, and an apothecary's shop.
A mile from Greenville, the trace crossed a deep ravine watered by a spring, where the pioneer women often came to wash their clothes. Two miles southward Bruin came upon the plantation of Col. Cato West who cultivated about 200 acres of corn and cotton. Two miles farther was Parker Carradine's plantation, said to be one of the most beautiful in Natchez country with apple and peach orchards.
Next on the journey was Uniontown, a community of three or four houses, and six miles distant the road reached Selsertown, a village of ten small houses, three of which were taverns. From here to Washington six miles southward the countryside became more and more populated.
THE LITTLE VILLAGE OF OPPORTUNITY
Despite the hard edge of the frontier, this was a day of lavish public dinners, weddings and banquets. At major social events the leaders of the territory and the wealthy sipped wine, make toasts and expressed their love for America.
Judge Thomas Rodney, one of Bruin's colleagues on the court, arrived in Washington in 1803 and found the community an "indifferent looking little place in which scarcely one house was finished." But quickly it grew into a village of 30 houses, three taverns, including Hill's, one apothecary shop, a jail, Fort Dearborn, the military base, and Jefferson College.
Nineteenth Century Mississippi historian J.F.H. Claiborne said the "land office, the Survey-General's office, the Office of the Commissioners of Claims, the Courts of the United States, were all there. In the immediate vicinity was Fort Dearborn and a permanent containment of the United States troops."
Claiborne said Washington was the place to be. High-ranking officials and men seeking fortunes resided and visited there. The society was "highly cultured and refined." Disputes over land titles attracted young men with "brilliant talents" who became lawyers or doctors. Washington, he said, was "the haunt of politicians and office hunters; the center of political intrigue; the point to which all persons in pursuit of land or occupation first came."
There and at Natchez were many hotels and boarding houses. The most popular boarding houses of the day were Towson's, Bennett Truly's and Mrs. Buck's. Judge Rodney, a 60-year-old widower from Delaware, loved the social scene and visited everybody, and performed the ceremony uniting Bruin's daughter and Dr. John Cummins in March 1804 at Bayou Pierre. Oftentimes, Bruin visited Rodney after proceedings when he was in town for court sessions.
PHILIP NOLAN & OTHER CASES
When Bruin was appointed by President John Adams to one of the three judgeships, he had no training as a lawyer although at the time no "particular training was required of a lawyer," according to William Baskerville Hamilton, who studied the Mississippi Territory early court system. A lawyer "had to be licensed by the governor, who usually did so after there had been some kind of examination by a judge or members of the bar."
One of the most news-making cases Bruin heard while on the territorial court came not long after he took office in the fall of 1798. Philip Nolan, well known in Natchez and wed in 1799 to the daughter of a wealthy Natchez merchant and landowner, put the word out that he was planning his fourth trip into Texas to hunt for wild horses.
The mustangs ran in enormous herds of thousands but the Texas prairies were wide and it sometimes took a while to locate the herds. Once found, Nolan drove the horses in small numbers into a coral, broke them, and once he had a several hundred head, drove them back to Natchez or New Orleans to sell at $50 a head. Nolan also kept a few head on land he owned along the Homochitto near Fort Adams.
Natchez had become an American territory in 1798 after almost two decades of Spanish rule. Louisiana and Texas, however, were still in Spanish hands and to go west a passport was required from Joseph Vidal at the Post of Concord, now known as Vidalia. Vidal had heard about Nolan's proposed trip and protested. The Spanish at this time were especially sensitive to the unyielding westward migration of American settlers.
The Mississippi territorial court was called into session at the request of Gov. Winthrop Sargent to hear Vidal's complaint. Bruin and the other judges found no evidence that Nolan had designs to harm the Spanish or its possessions although Vidal estimated the expedition would include up to 40 armed men, a potentially dangerous force even for soldiers to confront.
Most of Nolan's men, about two dozen in the end, were armed with carbines and pistols. Nolan himself carried a double barrel shot gun, a carbine and a brace of pistols. He told the judges the weapons were needed strictly for defensive purposes.
Vidal said Nolan was presenting the court an outdated Spanish passport as authorization. But Bruin and Judge Seth Lewis told Vidal they didn't have the constitutional authority to stop U.S. citizens from leaving the territory, especially, said Lewis, when "it cannot be proved with evidence that their intentions are hostile."
When the Nolan expedition rode out of Natchez in late 1800, Vidal alerted the Spanish army which chased Nolan into Texas and killed him in a gunfight. Many of Nolan's men were captured and imprisoned for life and one man executed.
Bruin liked Nolan. Both men were Irish and in 1797, Nolan had visited Bruin at his home on Bayou Pierre. Although Bruin had enjoyed a good relationship with the Spanish, he was still an American all the way. After all, Bruin served eight years in the Continental Army during the revolution, six months in a British prison ship.
But issues such as this were among the many considered by this new court established on the American frontier of Natchez. In the early days, Gov. Sargent and three judges also represented the legislative body and enacted laws.
According to historian Robert V. Haynes: "From the beginning, territorial law provided such punishments as...whipping, branding, placing in stocks and fines up to $1000, for most minor crimes. Capital punishment was mandatory for murder, rape, stealing a slave, selling a freed man into slavery, robbery, burglary and counterfeiting and for slaves and their accomplices who incited an insurrection or plotted to kill or rebel."
In 1806, the court heard the case of Peter Tyler, who was charged and convicted of horse stealing. His sentence? Tyler's left thumb was branded by a hot iron with the letter "T" for thief. Sometimes horse thieves received 50 lashes, sometimes more.
In another case, James Cole, for reasons unclear, was furious at a U.S. Army officer named Simeon Boland. The two men were stationed at Fort Dearborn in Washington.
One day after muster, Cole followed Boland on the Natchez-Washington road and struck Boland's mare several times with a whip two feet long "and thicker than his thumb." Boland warned Cole, whom he described as a "quarrelsome man," to stop and said he would retaliate otherwise. When Cole's whip struck Boland's mare again, Boland raised his whip and struck Cole.
Boland said Cole then attacked him with the whip, then with his fist and finally with the butt of his whip. Three other witnesses backed Boland's account and one said Cole had remarked earlier that he (Cole) "would not obey him (Boland) as an officer." Boland was found guilty and fined $15, almost two months pay for a private.
THE CASE OF AARON BURR
One of the biggest court cases in the history of Natchez country was in 1807 involving Aaron Burr, the former vice-president of the United States and an old friend of Bruin's. The two men served together in the Battle of Quebec in December 1775 and the two were among 17 men who charged the city in a pre-dawn attack.
One of Bruin's colleagues on the territorial court, Judge Rodney, provided a contemporary account of the speculation preceding Burr's arrival in Natchez country in 1807. Rodney said Burr was descending the river with "6,000 men...the first object of which force was to take New Orleans, and acquire the command of the Mississippi and to seize on all the money, arms and stores there, and vessels..." The overall design of Burr was "to separate the western country of the United States from the Union and to combine it with part or the whole of Mexico and erect them into an independent empire."
On Jan. 10, 1807, Burr landed a keelboat with 12 men on Bayou Pierre at the home of Bruin. There, the judge welcomed his old friend. Burr was astounded when Bruin showed him a copy of the Natchez newspaper -- the Mississippi Messenger -- which carried a story that Burr's flotilla was to be stopped and the former vice-president to be detained on orders of the President of the United States.
Burr's followers actually numbered only about 100 men, many of them just boys and young men, according to one account, who later became good citizens in Natchez. Burr said his mission was an agricultural one to make settlements upon the Ouachita River in neighboring Louisiana.
Bruin and Rodney presided over the Grand Jury convened to hear charges of treason against Burr during one of the coldest winters on record in this region of the country. Snow blanketed the countryside. Scores of men converged on the territorial capital of Washington for the proceedings.
Atty. Gen. George Poindexter said Mississippi Territory had no authority in the case, that the Grand Jury convened for the case should be dismissed and Burr turned over to "a tribunal competent to try and punish him."
The former vice-president, keenly observing that the Grand Jury was made up of men who supported him, demanded that it be allowed to hear his case and remove the cloud over his head. He was confident he would be found not guilty and released.
Judge Bruin agreed, announcing that he was "opposed to discharging the Grand Jury unless Colonel Burr was also instantly discharged from his recognizance." But Rodney disagreed, took depositions and then directed the Grand Jury to consider the evidence.
On February 3, the Grand Jury found Burr guilty of nothing and said his arrest "without warrant" was so unconstitutional that it threatened "our political existence" and left unchecked would "crumble" to dust the "glorious fabric" of a democracy.
BRUIN, THE BOTTLE & THE BENCH
No one was more pleased with the outcome than Bruin, who later in the day retired to his boarding house room for a toddy with friends, many of whom were growing more and more concerned over the judge's drinking.
In fact, just two months earlier, when Burr's descent down the river was the talk of the territory, Rodney made three entries in his diary that reflected the problem without mentioning the word whiskey.
Wednesday, Dec. 10, 1806: "Judge Bruin being unwell today I went down and had the Supreme Court opened and adjourned till tomorrow 10 o'clock.."
The next day a big rain overflowed St. Catherine's Creek and the Natchez lawyers couldn't cross it. Rodney, alone again on the bench, opened court and quickly adjourned.
Friday, Dec. 12, 1806: "I called on Judge Bruin this morning. He told me he was still unwell but would attend the court if the lawyers came out (he had not attended yesterday or the day before.) I waited till after 11 o'clock and then heard the Natchez lawyers had set off but had gone back on account of the cold. So...I had the court opened and adjourned again till tomorrow...."
Saturday, Dec. 13, 1806: "The court was opened and adjourned...Judge Bruin...not being able to attend at the courthouse...The weather being clear and cold all the lawyers attended early this morning and urged me to continue the court till Monday on account of many cases of importance which I consented to."
Things would get worse.
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