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|John Peter Walker -- Natchez/Concordia land surveyor -- exiled in Spain|
(Second in Two-Part Series)
John Peter Walker left Natchez country in 1800 for Philadelphia, where he was employed by Andrew Ellicott to draw maps as a result of his survey of the new boundary line between the U.S. and Spain.
Ellicott was the American Boundary Commissioner in charge of marking the line along the 31st parallel beginning about 60 miles south of Natchez on the east side of the Mississippi River. Walker, at 17, was hired by Ellicott in 1798 to help survey the boundary. Pleased with Walker's work, Ellicott asked Walker to return with him to Philadelphia to make the maps.
Once there, Walker entered classes at Philadelphia Academy, which became the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the English language and mathematics. He wrote home to his father in Natchez:
"I am presently studying Astronomy. I have went through Navigation and Surveying. In a couple of weeks I shall begin Algebra. I am first" in a class of more than 100. He said he spent his evenings studying modern Europe.
Walked leaned heavily on his father's support and advice on many issues. He pondered joining the Navy as a career. "I have a great desire to see Great Britain and indeed all of the principle cities in Europe. Will you at least let me go one trip to England. It will cost me nothing; on the contrary I could get very good wages as I will be acquainted with navigation and taking lunar observations."
He closed by saying: "I have a very great desire to see the world -- that island (England) specially from which my dear Father came."
Walker traveled in the Philadelphia area and took a journey to his family's old home place in Maryland. Three decades earlier, the Walkers owned flour mills there before moving to Spanish Louisiana.
He also worked at a steady pace for Ellicott and one of the impressive products of the work was a 6 ft.-2 in. tin map of the boundary work. But when the British bombed Washington in 1814 during the War of 1812, this map was destroyed..
Still scraping by economically, Walker learned that the Spanish had not only paid their boundary employees on time, but had provided them with a $26,000 bonus and lavished great praise on the work of the crews. And then unsettling news arrived.
Walker learned in September 1802 that his father, who had gained work in the Sargent administration in American Natchez as legislative clerk and then clerk of court in Adams County, had been replaced by Gov. William Charles Cole Claiborne, who replaced Peter Walker with David Ker.
Without the funds to travel to England, John Peter Walker returned home in fall of 1802. He was disappointed in the ornery nature of Ellicott, disappointed that he had such a difficult time economically due to slow pay on the part of the American government and disappointed that his father had been fired by the American government. In general, John Peter Walker was disappointed in America.
NEW LIFE IN CONCORDIA
The Walkers made an economic decision at that point. They crossed the river to Concordia to go to work for Spanish government under Capt. Jose Vidal. And John Walker apparently made a philosophical and political decision a few weeks afterward. He no longer introduced himself as John Peter Walker. Now, this son of an English father and French mother, became Juan Pedro Walker, a servant of Spain. He began to sign his name as Juan Pedro Walker in Concordia.
In Concordia, Walker and one of his brothers began surveying much of the property bordering the Mississippi and lakes Concordia and St. John. Visit the Clerk of Court's office in Vidalia and you will find survey work by the Walkers and see their beautiful hand writing. By the summer of 1802, Walker was an officially recognized surveyor for Concordia, and by 1803 the top surveyor, holding the position of "ayudante agrimensor."
Also in 1803, Walker was recruited by the Spanish government to help build a church in Nacogdoches, Texas. Here Walker first entertained the idea of selling horses in Natchez. The Spanish liked what they saw in Walker. He could survey, he could do construction work, he knew three languages, he understood how the Spanish government worked. He was a man on the rise.
But by August 1803, just as things were looking up, the Americans stepped on his toes again. This time he took it personally.
News reached Concordia of the Louisiana Purchase. Walker was devastated. Even Vidal found the news disheartening. The captain sat down at his desk at the Post of Concord at Vidalia and penned a venomous letter to a superior within hours of learning the news.
The American government, he wrote, "is the most ambitious, restless, lawless, conniving, changeable, and turbulent of all the governments in the universe. I am so disgusted with hearing them that I can hardly wait to leave them behind me after 14 years that I have contended with them. Undoubtedly they are very respectable good men among them, and in general their people are the most industrious known, but what good is that if their government does not have the vigor and command that it ought to have to curb the rabble in which that land so abounds?"
THE SPANISH SOUTHWEST, PHILIP NOLAN
While Vidal returned to Spain for a year to get instructions for a new role in Spanish service, Walker went to Nacogdoches. But was he following the right path? Should he have attempted to replant his feet in Concordia and Natchez? He didn't think so.
For the next years of his life, Walker traveled throughout Mexico and what is now the American Southwest. He surveyed. He made field notes. He made maps -- the documents that set boundaries and mark possessions.
In the spring of 1805, he directed a military school in Mexico. Because of his language skills, in April 1806, he was sent back to Nacogdoches as the Spanish and Americans faced off in a border dispute along the Sabine River. Walker was most helpful to the Spanish officers because he knew many of the American officers and militiamen assembled there. Many had come from Natchez and Concordia. Fortunately, war was averted.
In 1807, Walker was appointed as the host of American Lt. Zebulon Pike during Pike's exploration of the Southwest. He also served as interpreter. Pike had crossed into Spanish territory, maybe purposely, and was detained for a few weeks by Spanish authorities.
Prior to Pike's detainment, Walker had met a former slave of Stephen Minor's named Cesar, who served as Indian interpreter under Gov. Sargent's administration in Natchez but was, some believed, kidnapped by horse hunter Philip Nolan for his fourth and final expedition to Texas to catch wild horses, tame them, and then drive them home to Natchez for sale. The Spanish military under Vidal's urging caught up with the Nolan party in east-central Texas and Nolan was killed in a gunfight, in a corral, the only casualty.
Cesar and almost two dozen surviving members of the expedition were captured, tried, and imprisoned. The fate of most isn't known. One was executed.
Walker had known Cesar in Natchez and had worked with him on the line before Sargent recruited him from Minor as an Indian interpreter. Walker and Cesar renewed what had been a friendship in Natchez and lived together in Mexico. Here were two men who together spoke several languages. Walker spoke English, French and Spanish. Cesar spoke many of the Indian tongues -- Choctaw, Cherokee, Comanche and Creek. These were men you wanted with you on the fringes of the frontier.
DOWN THE WRONG PATH
In 1811, Walker's path, however, led him in the wrong direction. This idealistic man, now 31, supported the independence movement in Mexico led by Father Hidalgo. In supporting the revolution, Walker was arrested and jailed by the very Spaniards he had long served. For the next six years, he continued to survey and make maps although he was technically under arrest and to be tried for his seditious actions.
In a series of hard to digest legal proceedings, Walker's case ended up in a strange place. Authorities ruled there was not enough evidence to convict nor exonerate him because his actions were of a civil nature and not related to his military position. He was permanently exiled from America and sent to military jail in Spain. From there, he wrote a letter home in 1817.
When Robert Dabney Calhoun was writing his history on Concordia Parish, published in 1931, Rep. G.P. Whittington of Alexandria visited Calhoun at his office in the old town of Vidalia along the riverfront. Whittington, an historian and Walker descendant, showed Calhoun the letter Walker wrote home, 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."
Neither Whittington nor the Walker descendants knew what the letter meant. They also didn't know the fate of John Peter Walker.
In Spain, we now have learned, Walker was allowed to argue an appeal of his sentence. But he lost and the crown issued its ruling -- Walker could never leave Spain. He would never see his family again.
While the Spanish provided him a small government stipend on which to live, in exile he was forbidden to live in any port city or near a seat of government. A home along the sea might tempt him an escape home. And the Spanish didn't want him around any government seat for fear that his revolutionary thinking back in Mexico might be reborn there.
He lived another 10 years and died at the age of 47 in 1828. His family never knew this as evidenced, 100 years after his death, by Rep. Whittington's visit with Mr. Calhoun at his law office along the river front in Vidalia about eight decades ago.
We don't know whether Walker ever married in Spain and we don't know what happened to Cesar. Historian Elizabeth Johns of Austin, TX, the only scholar to have written much about Walker, wrote 20 years ago that Walker's "field notes attests the beginning of scientific mapping in the trans-Mississippi west and specifically Texas, decades before the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers began the process...anew."
Walker, whose life had such promise, didn't fulfill his potential but certainly is notable because of his mapmaking skills, just now are being noticed as more and more Spanish documents are found and as cartologists and historians trace the origins of maps in this country.
Choosing Spain over America as a young man was the wrong choice. Walker couldn't have known, but Spain had no future in America.
In supporting a revolution against Spain in Mexico, his timing was off. He died less than a decade before the Battle of the Alamo was fought for Texas Independence.
He made a life making maps, but at crucial times, John Peter Walker -- a mapmaker from Natchez country -- lost his way.
A NOTE ON WALKER FAMILY
John Peter Walker had two brothers, Peter Celestine Walker and Joseph Marshall Walker. All three brothers played roles in the early history of Concordia.
Calhoun reported in his Concordia history that their father, Peter Walker, the first clerk of Adams County, died in Concordia in 1804.
Peter Celestine Walker, was a surveyor and an attorney, and became Concordia's first prosecutor.
Joseph Marshall Walker owned part of Whitehall Plantation for several years. Much of that property is now owned by Percy Rountree.
Calhoun wrote that while a Concordian, Joseph Marshall Walker served as a Justice of the Peace and was a member of the Police Jury in Concordia. He enlisted in the Louisiana State Militia during the War of 1812 and fought the British at the Battle of New Orleans under General Andrew Jackson.
Walker lived in Concordia until 1817 when he moved to Rapides Parish. He went on to serve in the Louisiana Legislature and served as Brigadier General of the First Brigade of the State Militia.
Joesph Marshall Walker was elected State Treasurer in 1846 and the 13th governor of Louisiana in 1850 He died on Jan. 20, 1856, in Rapides Parish.
On Jan. 17, 1853, in Walker's last message as governor, he talked about the importance of education:
"The best form of government is but of little avail to a people unless the right views and right feeling prevail among its great masses, and this can never be the case unless the youth are blessed with a good education."
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