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|The arrest & escape of Aaron Burr in Washington, Miss., 1807|
When former U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr arrived in Natchez country in early 1807 with boats of armed men, it caused a stir. Some believed that Burr had plans to seize New Orleans, invade West Florida, take U.S. and Spanish possessions west of the Mississippi and start a revolution in Mexico. It was also thought that Burr had 2,000 men at his disposal.
This event would place the territorial capital of Washington, Miss., only six miles east of Natchez, at the center of one of the biggest political stories in the history of the country.
Alarm enveloped the territory when Burr's nine boats docked on the Louisiana shore near Lake Bruin in present day Tensas Parish. Quickly, Burr crossed the Mississippi River to visit his old friend, Judge Peter Bryan Bruin, who resided near the mouth of Bayou Pierre at Bruinsburg in Claiborne County.
Mississippi Attorney General George Poindexter and Cowles Mead, the acting governor of the territory, were sent to meet Burr and his followers. They put into motion the seizure of Burr's vessels and arms, based on an order by President Thomas Jefferson issued in November 1806. Jefferson's directive reached Mead in late December and two days before Christmas he called on the militias and citizens to be on alert. Five militia regiments were mustered in the territorial counties along the river.
Burr had served as vice-president during Jefferson's first term, but the two men had parted ways politically. The vice-president had been vilified when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, which by all accounts was a fair fight. As Burr's political fortunes plummeted his personal ambitions grew.
Wrote Mississippi historian J.F.H. Claiborne in the 1880s: "At this day, when we know how feeble the force was with which Colonel Burr descended the river, the alarm that pervaded the country seems unaccountable and even ludicrous. But (Natchez) was then a remote settlement, and had been the scene of frequent insurrections and political changes....and scarcely (had) any communication with other portions of the United States, a thoroughly isolated people, but true to every American instinct and tradition."
At the governor's office in the territorial capital of Washington on a January night during one of the coldest winters in the history of this region, Acting Gov. Mead sent the following dispatch to Col. Ferdinand L. Claiborne: "Business of the first importance requires your presence at headquarters. Repair here at midnight."
On Jan. 14, the situation appeared even more dire when Mead received intelligence that Burr's party at Bayou Pierre had a massive force following him. He delayed an assembly of the Legislature due to the crisis and wrote Col. Claiborne: "More rumors tell us that Burr is reinforcing at Bayou Pierre. My solicitude will induce me to repair there forthwith. You will, therefore, send...by pack horses or carts, one thousand pounds of powder, and as much lead as you can spare."
The Jefferson County militia with 60 men marched to Bayou Pierre and stood watch along the eastern side of the river. Mead informed Col. Claiborne to "continue to call out and equip every man...who can shoulder a fire-lock."
Meanwhile, Gen. James Wilkinson, the commanding general of the U.S. Army, placed troops up and down the river on alert and instructed the naval commander at New Orleans to send part of his flotilla with 50 guns to block Burr's descent. The ever deceptive Wilkinson had been part of Burr's plot, but at the last minute turned on the former vice-president. Wilkinson attempted to play the role of the good guy, but for years he had betrayed his own country, receiving annual payments from the Spanish government for spying.
When Bruin told Burr that his expedition was to be stopped, Burr sent a letter to Gov. Mead stating that his only intention was to colonize the hundreds of thousands of acres of land he had recently purchased along the Ouachita River in Louisiana. Mead sent two men to meet with Burr -- Major William Bayard Shields and Attorney General Poindexter.
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