Land Claimed by Spain

LAND CLAIMED by Spain in 1800 included the entire Gulf Coast, several islands in the Gulf, and almost all of the present U.S. located west of the Mississippi River. 

Few men were as well known among the movers and shakers in the new American government in the Mississippi Territory than an enslaved man named Cesar, who could speak and interpret the languages of the Native Americans, particularly the Choctaw. 

Cesar was the property of Stephen Minor, one of the most influential and powerful men during the Spanish and early American days in Natchez. 

But in 1800, Cesar had departed Natchez with Philip Nolan and more than two dozen men, mostly white Americans, a few Spaniards and one other slave. 

Nolan had defied Spanish opposition to the journey over land they claimed. Despite that, Nolan had clandestinely slipped out of Natchez with his men and crossed the Mississippi River at Walnut Hills (Vicksburg) into Spanish Louisiana. He headed west to Spanish Texas to catch and tame wild horses for sale back east. It was a big operation and promised hefty financial returns. 

Trouble was, Nolan was now a wanted man. The Spanish with force of troops and militia at Nacogdoches tracked Nolan to east central Texas near the present town of Blum. 

When Nolan awoke on a March morning in 1801, he learned that the Spanish had caught up with him and had surrounded his camp. He refused to surrender. 

Soon, both sides opened fire. 

Among the men in Nolan’s camp was Cesar. 

 

$15 A MONTH 

 

Cesar’s journey west had its beginning in October 1798 when Winthrop Sargent, the first governor in the Mississippi Territory, found himself in a predicament. He realized from his experience as a Revolutionary War officer, a veteran of Indian wars and an administrator in the Northwest Territory in the Ohio region, that Indian affairs would be an important element of his administration. 

In Natchez, clashes between white men and the Choctaw Indians, although dwindling in numbers, were becoming more frequent as whites claimed more and more Native American land. Some bands were stealing livestock in outlying white settlements. Some reportedly wandered drunkenly through the Natchez settlement causing problems. 

Sargent’s predicament was that he couldn’t speak the Indian language. But he soon found an interpreter who fit the bill. His name was Juan Bautista, better known as Cesar, a man in his 40s, who came to the mainland from Granada, an island in the southeastern Caribbean Sea. 

Stephen Minor, an American-born high-ranking official with the Spanish government during the late 1700s and early 1800s who was well respected by both the Spanish and the Americans, owned Cesar. Minor had become enormously wealthy in land and cotton. He agreed to provide Cesar's services to the American government as Sargent's Indian interpreter for a fee of $15 per month. 

In this position, Cesar became invaluable, and Sargent depended on him almost daily. Although the fee for Cesar went to Minor and not Cesar, the price was hefty in the day and indicates the value of Cesar’s abilities, especially in communicating with the Choctaw. 

Cesar's understanding of the Indian language did not go unnoticed in 1800 by Stephen Minor's new brother-in-law, Philip Nolan. The two men were married to two of Bernard Lintot’s daughters. Nolan and Fanny Lintot had married in 1799, just months before he left Natchez on his expedition to Texas. 

 

‘ALARMING CONSEQUENCES’ 

 

As Nolan was preparing his fourth journey west, he determined that Cesar would be a major asset to the expedition. While Stephen Minor was out of town, his brother, John, and the governor haggled over the worth of Cesar. 

In April 1800, John Minor informed Sargent that Cesar's services were now worth $30 per month, double what Stephen Minor had charged Sargent. Sargent countered that Stephen Minor "offered to sell Cesar to me for the sum of three Hundred Dollars, or to continue him in public service, under my direction, and during my pleasure, with such pay as I might deem adequate compensation. 

"He, sir, made no stipulation for 30 Dollars per month, or indeed any sum whatever and my estimate to the Department of State for Cesar's services, is but the moiety {half} of your expectation. I am desirous of promoting Major Minor's interest, and fully satisfied, that when we meet, there will be no difference of sentiment upon this business." 

The problem for Sargent was that the agreement was made on a handshake and at this moment Stephen Minor was more than a thousand miles away in the nation's capital. An Indian interpreter was as important as any government position in the territory, said Sargent, and no one could replace Cesar because "I know of no other adequate to the purpose who could be engaged." Without Cesar, the territory faced "alarming consequences." 

Sargent’s agreement with Stephen Minor had continued in amity until John Minor and Philip Nolan took an interest in Cesar. The governor appeared willing to compromise, noting to John Minor that "at present public service seems to render it essential that Cesar should remain subject to my order. On this condition, sir, you may draw upon me in behalf of the Major, for the sum of three Hundred Dollars." 

But John Minor refused the proposal. Later, Nolan was seen riding off with Cesar. Sargent advised Mississippi Attorney General Lyman Harding that Cesar "has been forcibly withdrawn from his duty by a Mr. John Minor and a Mr. Nolan ... in direct violation of express stipulation verbally made with his master." 

Take legal action and get Cesar back, Sargent asked Harding, adding "that from an affray between some Indians and white people, death will probably ensue to one of the former, who are now numerous in the country and threaten vengeance. My interference can not be made for want of an Interpreter." 

Throughout April 1800 this crime consumed much of Sargent's time. One of the wounded Indians was expected to die, the chiefs were upset and the governor feared retaliation. He wanted the white men responsible arrested and wanted to communicate this to the chiefs but could not. Cesar had been taken from government services. He feared that Cesar would soon be "out of the country." 

In a letter to the territorial judges, Sargent said the entire matter concerning Cesar would be settled once Stephen Minor returned to Natchez. Sargent was certain Stephen Minor would "reprobate" those who had taken Cesar. But it was too late. 

 

NOLAN’S EARS REMOVED 

 

Out in Texas, Cesar had joined Nolan in visits and conferences with Native Americans. When food ran short, they survived on horse meat for several days. Cesar also journeyed with Nolan and five other men to recover horses stolen by a band of Comanches. For nine days the men walked in the cold of winter before they reclaimed their animals. 

Now Cesar, Nolan and the other men found themselves looking down the gun barrels of scores of weapons, including a cannon, of a Spanish military force. Despite that, Nolan refused to surrender. 

He passionately urged his men to fire with accuracy and waste no ammunition. And he emphasized that if they kept the Spanish out of their makeshift fort that maybe the Spanish would withdraw just long enough to allow them to escape. If you surrender, Nolan said, the Spanish would put them in chains and make them slaves. 

Before the outbreak of gunfire, two of the Spaniards in Nolan’s camp dashed outside and ran into the Spanish lines. They carried with them Nolan’s carbine and presented it to Spanish Commander Miguel Francisco Múzquiz. Five of Nolan’s were captured, meaning that only 20 men were left to fight against 120. 

The youngest man who had joined Nolan’s effort was 17-year-old William Danlin, a native of Pennsylvania whose family had moved to Natchez when he was a child. Cesar was the oldest at age 46. Most of Nolan’s men had lived in Natchez for at least a year, some much longer. In addition to Pennsylvania, they were natives of Louisiana, Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, South Carolina and Maryland.  One -- 25 years old Michael Moore -- like Nolan, was a native of Ireland. 

Once seven members of Nolan’s party were in Spanish hands, the gunfire erupted. It’s uncertain who fired first. 

The battle waged on for two or three hours until approximately 9 a.m. when a cannon ball fired by the Spanish hit and killed Nolan.  

“His companions,” wrote historian Jack Jackson (Philip Nolan and Texas), “realizing that they could not hold out much longer, and remembering their leader’s warning with regard to the cruelty of the Spaniards, decided to abandon the fort and take to the woods in a desperate effort to make their getaway. They took refuge in a ‘cave,’ pulling some rocks over its entrance to protect themselves, while balls from the enemy’s escopetes ‘played around us like hail.’” 

Cesar and the remaining Spaniards from Nolan’s side surrendered. 

Briefly the Spanish troops ceased firing and asked the men to surrender but they refused. After the gunfire resumed, Thomas House emerged unarmed. He asked for water and was given a drink. Múzquiz urged him to return to his comrades and convince them to surrender. 

“House then returned to his companions, and a few minutes later, {David} Fero, with two pistols and a large knife in his belt, came out from the intrenchment and advanced towards the Spanish troops,” wrote Jackson. “Fero explained that he and his men had not surrendered before because Nolan had urged them to die before surrendering to the Spanish, for they were very cruel and would enslave them. 

“Múzquiz replied that they were mistaken, for if they surrendered, they would be treated in no such manner, but they would have to give up their arms. Fero returned to consult his companions, and, after a brief conference, he returned with them.” 

Múzquiz gathered his prisoners and his troops to prepare for the march to Nacogdoches where the fate of the men would be determined. But first the two slaves – Cesar and Robert – asked if they could bury Nolan. 

The commandant consented, but first he had Nolan’s ears cut off for transport to the Texas governor in San Antonio. 

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