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Story Archives: General Wilkinson's orders to Guion on command at Natchez, 1797
|General Wilkinson's orders to Guion on command at Natchez, 1797|
(Fourth in a series)
"At Natchez," U.S. General James Wilkinson wrote to Captain Isaac Guion in 1797, "you will find yourself in an extensive, opulent and polished community agitated by a variety of political interests and opinions.
"It will be your duty to conciliate all parties to the government of our country by every means in your power, avoiding, at the same time, any just cause of offense to the Spanish authorities. The occasion will call for the exertion of all your faculties, for this unfortunate people, who have no option in choosing or changing masters."
As Wilkinson wrote to Guion from Fort Washington (Cincinnati), Natchez was in a state of turmoil. Spanish rule after almost two decades was coming to an end. The United States, which declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, had fought and won a seven-year war. The U.S. and Spain were allies in that war.
After victory, the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, the Senate and House were formed and the first president named -- Gen. George Washington, hero of the American Revolution. He took office in 1789. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was adopted.
Following the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795, Spain agreed to give up Natchez and other territory east of the Mississippi to the U.S. When Natchez came into the arms of the American government in the spring of 1798, John Adams was the second president and the country was barely 10 years old.
But before that could happen the Americans had to take possession of Natchez, where a new government would be seated. Additionally, while the Mississippi River would be the east-west boundary, a north-south boundary between the two countries had to be established. The line agreed upon was the 31st parallel. Andrew Elliott, a Pennsylvania surveyor, was sent to Natchez by the U.S. to mark the line. He arrived in town in February 1797.
Another step, according to the treaty, and one of the most important, was for Spain to evacuate Natchez, and work with Ellicott to establish the boundary. In the meantime, Guion was to arrive in Natchez with the U.S. army and keep the peace until the American territorial government was established. The citizens of Natchez country, mostly American-born and old British Tories, had been ruled by the English during the 1770s and by Spain since 1780.
For a period of months, as Wilkinson pointed out to Guion, the citizens would be without a government. During that time, locals jockeyed for political positions, many were concerned about the legitimacy of their property titles, land speculators were arriving at the Natchez landing almost daily and outlaws reconnoitered a region that seemed prime for criminal activity.
It would be up to Isaac Guion, a New York native who fought heroically in the revolution, to not only keep the peace but also to take possession of all Spanish forts on the east side of the Mississippi River. Guion had joined the Continental Army in 1775 when a teenager.
In 1792 he was assigned to the army in the Northwest Territory in Ohio country, a region along the Ohio River that at the time was on the western fringes of the young nation. He fought in the wars against the Indians and as he had done in the revolution, was involved in crucial campaigns for the U.S.
Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote in the 19th Century that Guion was a strikingly handsome man, a good conversationalist and displayed the best manners and grace of the finest officers of the military. Like many officers and enlisted men who came to Natchez in the 1790s, he would make this region his home and die here.
One of General Wilkinson's greatest gifts was his communication skills, especially as a writer. His letter to Guion clearly outlined what was expected of the captain and provides solid intelligence on the state of mind of Natchez.
The general had been to Natchez many times, knew the terrain, and had been a guest of Spanish Gov. Manuel Gayoso at the Concord mansion. Wilkinson knew the region well and understood the people.
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