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Story Archives: The secret life of horse trader, adventurer Philip Nolan
|The secret life of horse trader, adventurer Philip Nolan|
(Eighth in a series)
Philip Nolan was a horse trader and well known in Natchez during the 1790s for his trips out west to Texas where he would disappear for months, if not years, at a time. In Natchez, adventurers and opportunists came and went. But Philip Nolan was more than that.
A mysterious and restless man, he cultivated friendships with high-level Spanish and American officials. Intelligent and ambitious, he was above all an adventurer drawn to the edge of the frontier with an eye out for trade and profit.
During the late winter of 1797, Nolan, then 27 years old, arrived in Natchez with Andrew Ellicott, an American surveyor picked by Congress to mark the new U.S.-Spanish West Florida border along the 31st parallel. Nolan and Ellicott met by chance on the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Ohio a few weeks earlier.
Many Spanish officials were suspicious of Nolan, while others supported his trading efforts in Texas and Louisiana, both Spanish possessions.
Nolan's best friend was a close associate of the Spanish although at the moment he was the commander of the U.S. frontier army. James Wilkinson, a Revolutionary War officer had returned to civilian life in the late 1780s as a merchant selling goods, including tobacco, to Spanish officials in New Orleans.
During that period, Wilkinson privately pushed the Spanish to open up navigation of the river to Americans in Kentucky, which represented the western frontier of the United States. Trade was hampered to the east of that region due to mountains. But the river currents all flowed to the Mississippi, which would propel a well-guided flatboat to New Orleans and a world market.
Wilkinson also had other motives. No doubt the Americans would continue to move west in search of land and opportunity. In Kentucky and Tennessee, there was great political discontent. Why not, Wilkinson suggested, send agents into the region to promote an alliance with Spain? Who better than Wilkinson to do it? Maybe that region of the U.S. would secede and become part of Spain's dominion in North America.
Ever paranoid about the encroaching American population. Wilkinson's ideas made sense to Spanish leaders in North America. Conveniently, Wilkinson soon became a spy for Spain and was paid handsomely for his service. The deal was made before Wilkinson returned to the military, but when he was named commander of the U.S. frontier army in the mid-1790s, he was being paid $2,000 a year as a secret agent for Spain, a fact not disclosed for many years afterward.
Although details of his early life are scant, Philip Nolan was born in Dublin, Ireland, in the early 1770s and was living in Kentucky while in his youth. At some point he became well acquainted with Wilkinson and the two bonded.
Wilkinson once called Nolan "my protégé, and afterwards my (business) agent, in Louisiana" who "took charge of my affairs in the years 1789-90 and 1791." During that period, the young Nolan was living in Wilkinson's Kentucky home, serving as his bookkeeper and shipping clerk and represented his mentor's business affairs in New Orleans. There, Nolan learned of trading opportunities in Spain's Texas Province, administered by a different set of officials guided by superiors in Mexico.
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|Frank Morris Murder Series|