Egrets

WHEN AARON Burr arrived in Natchez country in 1807, four years after the Louisiana Purchase, future Alamo legend Jim Bowie was 11-years-old and living in Catahoula Parish in northeastern Louisiana. When halted by the Mississippi militia, Burr claimed he was in route to northeastern Louisiana to settle along the Ouachita River. The region was known for its beautiful rivers, vast forests and fertile soil. In east central Louisiana, Catahoula Lake was famous then -- and still famous today -- for its vast population of migratory waterfowl. Today, the Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge, which borders part of the lake, offers visitors scenes like this. Headquartered on U.S. 84 between Jonesville and Jena, the refuge contains 25,162 acres. (Concordia Sentinel photo) 

 A few years before the death of Col. Aaron Burr, a lawyer from Natchez paid him a visit in New York City. 

Burr, also an attorney, had served as Thomas Jefferson’s first vice-president (1801-1805). But he was vilified after he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. The act ended Burr’s political career. 

Three years later, the Mississippi militia blocked the passage of Burr’s flotilla -- approximately 100 men in less than a dozen boats – at the mouth of Coles Creek in the county of Jefferson, which had been named after the president. Jefferson and others believed that Burr was leading an expedition of conquest with plans to attack U.S. territories along the Mississippi or wage war against Spain and Mexico. Possibly, the target was Spanish Texas. 

Burr claimed that his journey was primarily one involving agriculture: He and his men were going to settle and farm 350,000 acres of the Bastrop grant along the Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana. 

Thus, Natchez country, where Burr was stopped and apprehended, and the Ouachita River of northeastern Louisiana, which Burr claimed was his destination, became the locations of national focus. 

Burr had been twice arrested in Kentucky, but acquitted, would face a grand jury in Natchez and later would be tried in federal district court in Richmond, Virginia for treason and conspiracy. Although he would never be convicted of anything, his reputation and his life were ruined as a consequence. 

Natchez lawyer William Sparks, who later penned a book (The Memories of Fifty Years), wrote that during his New York City visit, Burr was suffering from rheumatism in his ankle, which he attributed to the winter he spent during 1775-76 in Canada fighting the British during the Revolutionary War. When Burr came to Natchez country in 1807, his boat landed at Bruinsburg at the mouth of Bayou Pierre in Claiborne County, Miss., the home of Judge Peter Bryan Bruin, who had fought with Burr during the Quebec Campaign in Canada. 

Burr was known for his perfect manners and eloquent style. Women were attracted to him. Burr treated his daughter and late wife as his equals and was a strong supporter of women’s rights. 

Yet Burr had another side to him – a shadowy one. 

Sparks would recall: “About the mouth and eye there was a sinister expression and he had a habit of looking furtively out of the corner of his eye at you, when you did not suppose he was giving any attention to you.” 

During Sparks’ visit with the aging former vice-president, Burr “alluded to his trip down the Mississippi, and made inquiry after several persons whom he had known,” especially Acting Governor Cowles (pronounced “Coals”) Mead, the man who spearheaded the break up of Burr’s expedition. 

“Mead,” Burr told Sparks, “was a vain man of very small mind, and full of importance of his official station.” 

The acting governor was well known, and at times ridiculed, for his flowing and flowery speeches. 

Unbeknownst to Burr, Sparks and Mead were brothers-in law. However, Sparks wasn’t offended by Burr’s remark. In fact, Sparks told Burr that Burr’s visit to Mississippi Territory in 1807 was Mead’s “favorite theme” and Sparks guessed that any man who ever met Mead heard “the story repeated a dozen times.” 

BURR & MEAD MEETING 

During Burr’s trial for treason in Richmond, Va., during the fall of 1807, George Poindexter was called to testify. He served as Mississippi Territory Attorney General and was instrumental, as an aide to Mead, in the apprehending of Burr. 

Poindexter recalled how the meeting between the Burr and Mead came to be: 

“Colonel Burr declared his willingness to submit to the civil authority, and proposed that an interview should take place between himself and the acting Governor … at some convenient place in the Territory; that we should guaranty his person from actual violence in the meantime, and restore him to his boats, if Mr. Mead should not accept his surrender to civil authority; that his boats and people should keep the position they then occupied {across the Mississippi River on the Louisiana shore in present day Tensas Parish}, until after the proposed interview took place; and that, in the meantime, his people (as he called them) should commit no breach of the peace, nor violate any law of the United States or the Mississippi Territory. 

“The place designated at which Colonel Burr should meet the Executive was the house of Thomas Calvit, a respectable citizen of the Mississippi Territory, who resides near the mouth of Coles creek, where a detachment of militia which had ascended the river was stationed. The substance of these propositions was committed in writing at the request of Colonel Burr …” 

Burr “descended the river on the 17th day of January last (the day after the agreement was entered into) as far as the mouth of Cole’s creek, in the company of Colonel {Thomas} Fitzpatrick, who directed him to be taken in charge by Captain Davidson’s company of dragoons, and conducted in the house of Mr. Calvit. 

“In a short time after Colonel Burr’s arrival, Mr. Mead and himself commenced a conversation on the subject of his surrender to the civil authority of the Territory. I do not know everything that passed between them, but understood the following terms were offered to Colonel Burr by Mr. Mead: 

“1. That the agreement entered into for the purpose of procuring an interview should be declared void; 

“ 2. That Burr should surrender himself unconditionally to the civil authority, and proceed directly to the town of Washington {the territorial capital}, located six miles inland from Natchez} 

“3. That his boats should be searched, and all military apparatus found on board of them to be disposed of as the Executive should think fit. 

“To these terms Mr. Mead required Colonel Burr’s unequivocal reply, as I understood, in fifteen minutes; and if not agreed to, Burr was to be instantly returned to his boats, and the militia ordered to seize the whole party by force.  

“The terms were agreed to, and carried into effect. Colonel Burr declared himself unwilling to fall into the power of General Wilkinson, and requested, if any attempt should be made to seize him by a military force from New Orleans, that it might be opposed. 

“ … Major Shields and myself attended Colonel Burr to the town of Washington, where he was delivered over the custody of the law, and the examination of witnesses immediately commenced by Judge Rodney. A committee of five gentlemen … was appointed to examine the boats, who proceeded up the river for that purpose, and, I believe, made their report to the Executive.” 

Nothing menacing was found on the boats. 

MEAD-SEMPLE DUEL 

For Mead, as his brother-in-law Sparks had noted, the Burr affair was the highlight of his public life. And Mead played a key role only because the man Jefferson appointed as governor – Robert Williams – was out of the territory when Burr arrived. 

Robert Williams, age 34, was a three-term congressman from North Carolina, who was first appointed a commissioner to settle Mississippi Territory land claims before Jefferson named him governor. 

Settling land claims was not an easy job and those whose claims were rejected often blamed the commissioner, not the law, for their loss. Added to that, Williams was disliked instantly by a faction of Republicans – pro-Jefferson men -- that wanted a local man appointed as governor. But Jefferson owed political favors in North Carolina, too, and opted for Williams. 

Mead, a 31-year-old Virginia native, was likewise a Jefferson man, and took a seat in Congress representing Georgia when the man he beat – George Spalding – contested the election results. Spalding proved that many votes had not been counted because a hurricane delayed the results. Those votes, once counted, ultimately gave Spalding the victory. 

So after serving eight months as a congressman during the year 1805, Mead was now forced to give up the seat to Spalding. 

However, to keep his longtime supporter in the network, Jefferson named Mead as secretary of the Mississippi Territory in January 1806. Later in the year, Gov. Williams returned to North Carolina for a visit, leaving Mead in charge as acting governor. Williams was still away when Burr arrived in January 1807. 

Following Mead’s meeting with Burr, Williams returned to the territory and Mead assumed to his old job as secretary. 

Incredibly, a few days later in early February, Mead was across the river in Concordia Parish for an event not at all uncommon during the era. 

According to a Natchez newspaper: 

“On Friday morning {the 6th}, a Duel was fought on the western margin on the Mississippi opposite this city, between Honorable Cowles Mead and Capt. Robert Sample {Semple}, of Wilkinson County. The first fire was exchanged without doing mischief, but at the discharge of the second, Mr. Mead received a wound in his right thigh, which, we are happy to say, he is fast recovering. 

Robert Hayes wrote in his book (The Mississippi Territory and the Southwest Frontier, 1795-1817) that Semple was “one of Burr’s recruits.” 

According to Fortesque Cummings (Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country, 1810), Semple had moved south with the U.S. Army when Fort Adams was established in 1798 as a military outpost in Wilkinson County, Miss., at what was then the southwestern corner of the United States. Cummings wrote that Semple owned “a very fine plantation” near Pinckneyville, Miss., where he lived “in a style of well regulated, gentlemanly taste and liberality.” 

According to historian Dunbar Rowland, Mead’s wound “lamed him during the remainder of his life.” 

When Burr killed Hamilton in their 1804 duel, he had to flee the state to avoid arrest. When Semple shot Mead, it was just another day at the office in the Mississippi and Orleans territories. 

Mead would go to serve in other public positions, including speaker of legislature. Rowland said Mead was a “skilled parliamentarian.” 

Rowland also wrote that: 

“His later home, called ‘Greenwood,’ was a mile northwest of Clinton in Hinds county, set in a lawn of fifty acres of Bermuda grass, which, it was said, he introduced into the United States. He was an enthusiastic gardener, and often entertained distinguished guests in a favorite seat under a cedar in the midst of flower beds. 

“The sword of Aaron Burr was one of the treasures of his home …” 

Meadville, the county seat of Franklin County, is named after Cowles Mead. 

He died in 1844 at the age of 67. 

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