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|Boundary work below Natchez open doors for John Peter Walker|
(First in a Two-Part Series)
In Robert Dabney Calhoun's 1931 book on the history of Concordia Parish, a paragraph in Chapter 2, Page 15, revealed a riddle. In this space, Calhoun wrote about Concordia's first official land surveyor, a man named John Peter Walker, the son of a prominent early Natchez resident and the brother of a Louisiana governor.
At some point before Calhoun finished the book, he was visited by Louisiana Rep. G. P. Whittington of Alexandria, who was also an historian, and a descendant of the Walker family. During that visit, Whittington provided Calhoun a titillating piece of information on the Walkers.
He relayed the story that John Peter Walker, this early surveyor in Spanish Concordia, had joined the Spanish army in Mexico and Texas, ascended to the rank of lieutenant and was involved in the detention of Lt. Zebulon Pike during Pike's exploration of the southwest in the early 1800s. Calhoun also wrote that Walker had been involved briefly in a plan to drive wild horses, once tamed, from east Texas through Rapides and Concordia to market in Natchez country.
Rep. Whittington had in his possession a letter dated March 10, 1817, and sent by John Walker from Cadiz, Spain, which said: "I am at present in this City without any means, except a small quantity of purse money assigned to me by the Captain General until the determination of the Court for my existence."
Calhoun indicated that neither Whittington nor other descendants knew why Walker was there or what became of Walker.
What had John Walker gotten himself into that a court would determine his very "existence?"
Walker's story, we have learned, was that of a promising and talented young man whose life was filled with great excitement, great hope, great accomplishment, great disappointment, great dilemma and great sadness. We have an advantage over Walker's survivors so many years ago. Today we know what happened to him.
John Peter Walker came to adulthood on the Natchez frontier at a time when this section of the world was quickly metamorphosing from the rule of a Spanish king to the democracy of a young Republic. It all happened so fast. In a space of six years, both sides of the Mississippi raised the flag of freedom and John Walker was caught in this whirlwind of change.
U.S. GROWTH AT NATCHEZ
As a young man, Walker knew the movers and shakers of Natchez, even men important nationally, and all had an influence on him. This was a time -- and it continued for another two decades -- when the growth of the country came through Natchez.
Men in their prime in Natchez during Walker's early years included Spanish Gov. Manuel Gayoso, the explorer and scientist William Dunbar, longtime Spanish servant Stephen Minor, American Boundary Commissioner Andrew Ellicott, and Concordia and Vidalia's founder, Captain Jose Vidal. President Thomas Jefferson knew about John Walker and wondered if he might be available as part of the expedition to explore the Red River. This was one of four such expeditions -- including Lewis & Clark's to the far west, Zebulon Pike's in the southwest and William Dunbar's along the Ouachita to the hot springs -- organized by Jefferson following the Louisiana Purchase.
This local product befriended the bedraggled survivors of the ill-fated Philip Nolan expedition which left Natchez for Texas in 1800 to capture and tame wild horses and drive them to market in Natchez. Once Nolan delivered more than a 1,000 head. This is one of many examples of Walker's appearance on the news-making events shaping the Natchez and American frontier.
But overall, John Peter Walker left his mark on the world with the steady hands as a surveyor and his knowledge of the stars and of math. It has recently been discovered that John Walker was one of the first to map the American Southwest from Texas west to California and southward into Mexico. And he first learned this vocation right here in Natchez country.
ENGLISH FATHER, FRENCH MOTHER
Walker was born in Spanish New Orleans on January 19, 1781. His father, Peter, was English. His mother, Charlotte Revoil, was French. Walker spent his early childhood years in New Orleans, but by the time he was 10 his family had moved to Natchez where Peter Walker established himself as a merchant.
At this time, Manuel Gayoso, the most capable of the Spanish governors of the Natchez District, was in office. This was a time when Spain, for various political and economic reasons, was trying to make something out of Natchez and enhance its position on the Mississippi River.
The Spanish were investing in Natchez, encouraging settlers to come and providing colonists with hope for the future. Gayoso, a man of refinement and great ability, held a paternal presence in Natchez. John Walker's father, a merchant, became a part of Gayoso's inner circle and worked as a clerk in the Gayoso administration.
In fact, when Gayoso left Natchez for New Orleans, Peter Walker remained in charge of the Spanish mansion (Concord) and Walker lived in an apartment there when Winthrop Sargent became the first American governor in 1798. According to historian Dunbar Rowland, Gayoso wrote Peter Walker "in 1799 to make arrangements for General (James) Wilkinson to have the place for a residence for his wife. Wilkinson had asked...Gayoso to give him the plantation in payment of a debt of the Spanish government to him, on his salary or pension. He (Peter Walker) was the first clerk of the Adams county court...." (Stephen Minor ended up with Concord, having purchased it in 1799.)
Young John Walker was privy to opportunity because of this relationship. He was bright, intelligent, energetic and by 1798, at the age of 17, ripe for a step into manhood and searching for something to do with his life. He spoke three languages fluently -- English, French and Spanish -- an ability useful in any age but particularly important on a frontier.
Just six miles south of Natchez, on the Forest Plantation, lived William Dunbar, who had served the Spanish government as surveyor under the Gayoso administration and went on to serve the American government quite well, particularly with the Ouachita River Expedition in 1804-05. Dunbar was an example of a man who could easily make a transition from government to government, administration to administration.
For his surveying work for the Spanish he always asked to be paid not with money but with land. When the Americans took over, he soon began a long correspondence and friendship with Thomas Jefferson, the vice-president under John Adams who took office as President in 1801.
The Walkers, however, did not find the transition from the Spanish to the American government so easy.
In 1797 the American Boundary Commission led by Andrew Ellicott of Pennsylvania arrived in Natchez to mark the new Spanish-American boundary. That new line separating American and Spanish possessions east of the Mississippi River began just six miles below Fort Adams, which was constructed in 1798 to guard what became the southwestern corner of the United States. The work created employment opportunities for citizens throughout the region.
Dunbar and Ellicott had much in common. They loved science, earned an income from surveying, and they practiced similar daily routines. Each kept day-to-day records of temperature, rainfall and the condition of the skies. Both had studied astronomy and knew how to use the tools of a mapmaker.
A JOB ON THE BOUNDARY LINE
Ellicott began hiring men to help mark the new Spanish-American boundary and Dunbar suggested he hire one of Peter Walker's sons, John. Ellicott had met Peter Walker and gave young John a job pulling a chain on a survey team.
A short while later, Gayoso, by then in New Orleans as governor of Louisiana, offered Walker a job on the Spanish boundary survey crew. But John had committed to Ellicott and stood by his word. He respectfully declined the offer. This new job provided Walker his first true experience with Americans and the American government.
The 31st parallel had been designated as the new boundary between the U.S. and Spanish east of the Mississippi River following the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as Pinckney's Treaty. Ellicott, then living in Philadelphia, may have been the best surveyor and mapmaker in the U.S. at the time. He had previously surveyed the Mason-Dixon line, the southwestern boundary of New York and would produce an early map of the District of Columbia.
The Spanish delayed turning possession of Natchez over to the Americans for more than a year after Ellicott's arrival here. The delay cost Ellicott money and Gayoso's biographer, Jack Holmes, said Ellicott was well into his estimated at $30,000 budget by the time survey work began.
During his stay in Natchez, Ellicott had a run-in with just about everyone. It was a volatile time, the Americans and Spanish almost came to arms, and Ellicott's tongue wagged continuously. He was a constant source of ill will. By the time he departed Natchez in route to the boundary in the spring of 1798, every one in town was glad to see him go.
Ellicott made John Walker his third assistant on the line. His top assistants were David G. Gillespie, who had attended the University of North Carolina where he studied applied mathematics, and Ellicott's son, Andrew, called Andy, whose main qualification may have been that his father was the boundary commissioner.
EXPERIENCE & TROUBLE ON THE LINE
Young John Walker spent 18 months of his life in the wilderness with Gillespie and Andy Ellicott, carrying and learning to use the tools of a surveyor. With teams of axemen and other employees hired by the American and Spanish governments, Walker was on the front lines of grueling work.
He walked through swamps and over piney hills, slapped mosquitoes and gnats, stepped over rattlers and cottonmouths, ran from yellow jackets, endured fevers and other illnesses. He watched as Indians -- Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles -- paced nervously at the forest's edge, fearing rightfully that the work was a bad omen, meaning the loss of more Indian land.
While encamped along the line, William Dunbar recalled infestations of "innumerable swarms of gnats, and a variety of other stinging and biting insects....objects presented themselves at every step in this animated hot bed....of the most disgusting forms and noxious kinds..."
One obstacle to the progress of the work was a forest of bamboo cane that Dunbar said was "growing so thick and strong, that it was impossible to penetrate through them but by the aid of edge tools." The men cut a 60-ft wide swath through the cane and forest. The debris remaining from the cane was four feet thick on the ground. To remove this, they set it afire.
The result, said Dunbar, "presented to the eye of the beholder a most astonishing line of fire, the flames ascending to the tops of the highest trees and spreading for miles on each side of the line, carried devastation wherever it went..," a scene he said, "grand, awful and majestic."
This rugged terrain was John Walker's home for close to two years.
Camp life was especially eye-opening. In Stephen Minor of Natchez, an American associated with the Spanish since the Revolution, Walker found great comfort, glad to close to his father's good friend. Minor brought slaves to the line, warehoused much of the Spanish inventory needed for the work in Natchez, and supervised the transportation of many of the provisions and supplies shipped to the line.
Minor brought his own cook. An American officer, writing from camp, said Minor "gave a superb dinner of game and fish, dried fruits, and Madeira fit for the gods. You know his talent for entertaining, and his cook is perfect."
WALKER NOTICED THE DIFFERENCE
Walker began to notice something right away. The Spanish, under Minor, had a model operation, which was military based and enjoyed the personal touches of both Minor and Gayoso who liked to do things in a first class way. Well outfitted, with plenty of food and good pay, Spanish workers didn't have much to complain about other than the harsh conditions. But the American operation lacked much in organization due primarily to Ellicott's poor leadership.
Both camps used slave labor and it was the slave owners and not the slaves themselves who benefited economically from the work.
For many in the American camp, the pay was lousy and slow in coming, supplies sometimes ran out and for a period of a few days Walker and the chain crew workers were short on food. Walker also witnessed great turmoil in the American camp.
Ellicott and Major Thomas Freeman, appointed by President Washington as official surveyor for the American crew, became embroiled in a dispute in which Ellicott accused Freeman of "improper conduct." Freeman, however, likely simply had his fill of Ellicott and stood up to him. But Ellicott banished him from camp and Gen. James Wilkinson, commanding officer of the federal army, put him in charge of the construction of Fort Adams in what is now southern Wilkinson County.
The expulsion of Freeman meant Gillespie and Andy Ellicott moved up in the change of command under Andrew Ellicott and thereby Walker, already proving his abilities, moved up to the number four slot.
Letters from Freeman, Major Isaac Guion, Stephen Minor, Gov. Winthrop Sargent, and young Walker himself attest to the common disgust all felt for Ellicott.
Freeman wrote to Major Guion that since Ellicott landed in camp along the line that he and "his gang" have "done nothing since but eat salt pork and guzzle whiskey...His inconsistencies, duplicity, absurdities and immoralities are disgusting."
Guion wrote Gen. Wilkinson and said that Ellicott "has very much lessened himself and sullied the commission he holds by his conduct, both before and after his arrival" to camp. "I did not believe it till I saw it ...He is clearly striving to make a job out of his office, and difficulties and delay in running the line, attributed to the Spaniards are really occasioned by his intrigues, to prolong his commission and per diem."
Stephen Minor wrote John Walker's father, Peter: "Your son is a fine fellow and has served us faithfully. He is greatly dissatisfied with Ellicott, and so is every man in camp. He is not the man we took him for, nor has he a friendship for any man in this world. No regard for the social proprieties. Some day you shall know it all."
Gov. Winthrop Sargent wrote to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering that Ellicott's "private character has been marked perhaps by some traits disreputable, but I have myself been induced to believe they are derived from a weak fondness to his son." Ellicott, said Sargent, had long been "indulging" his son Andy "in a mistress, and even taking her at his own table -- thereby countenancing the faith that she was his own," wrote Sargent. And apparently she was.
In Philadelphia after the boundary work, John Walker wrote his father: "The woman Mr. Ellicott brought to Natchez with him and had with him on the survey became deranged on the passage" and attempted to kill herself. "She is now frantic, and chained in a mad-house. Mr. Ellicott must feel remorse for forcing her to remain on the line with him, during the whole survey, against her own wishes and the remonstrances of his friends."
You get the picture.
A JOB IN PHILADELPHIA
Ellicott was, however, quite impressed with John Walker. He thought he was a fine young man. He even considered him as a possible son-in-law.
He said that on the line Walker was "the life of our business." Ellicott praised Walker's judgment and hard work and said he did a top rate job "in constructing rafts, opening roads, and exploring the country."
Despite the poor example Ellicott provided, Walker had learned much and he accepted the opportunity Ellicott offered of going to Philadelphia to help compile the charts and topographical information of the region from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean.
By late May 1800, Walker was in Philadelphia. His excitement was dulled somewhat by the difficulties economically. Ellicott lobbied for the extra funds due him but it took well over a year for payment to come.
But Walker, now 19, having proved his mettle on the line, looked to the future. He had many plans, but circumstances would lead him back to Natchez country and politics would result in work in Concordia during the last days of Spanish government.
Walker would follow the Spanish to the west and this decision would forever change his life.
(Next week: Why John Walker died in Spain.)
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