In November 1800, 31-year-old Philip Nolan led more than two dozen heavily armed men out of the American town of Natchez in route to Spanish possessions in Texas in search of wild horses.
He had only recently married Fannie Lintot, the daughter of Bernard Lintot, a well-to-do Natchez resident. By the time Nolan kissed his wife goodbye, she was pregnant.
Across the Mississippi River at the Spanish Post of Concord, Jose Vidal, Concordia and Vidalia's founder, found out about Nolan’s venture. Vidal, a Spanish officer, had served as secretary to the Spanish governor at Natchez for nine years before the Americans took over in 1798. That same year Vidal established the Post of Concord.
As determined as Nolan was to disregard Spanish authority, Vidal was just as determined to enforce it. Nolan would end up dead.
The youngest man on Nolan's last ride was Ellis Bean, a 17-year-old from Tennessee who already knew a good bit about danger and adventure by the time his flatboat landed under-the-hill at Natchez.
ELLIS BEAN FROM TENNESSEE
Born in 1783, Bean wrote in his memoir that he "had a common education given me, and such as a frontier country could afford. At the age of 17 years, I had a great desire to travel and see other parts of the world. To see some foreign country was all my desire. My father said I was too young, and would not consent. But as the town of Natchez had fallen to the United States, and was a good market for the produce of Tennessee, he consented that I might bring to that country a boat-load of whiskey and flour; all of which being made ready in a few days, I started in company with a young man from the same place, by the name of John Word, who had some lading with me."
Three hundred miles below Knoxville at Muscle Shoals, the men's vessel broke apart when it slammed into a rock. They lost all of the cargo with the exception of a "small trunk of clothes." Bean's partner "concluded then that he would return (home); but I would not for I wished to see that country. I knew that I had some relations in Natchez, and, although I had lost my cargo, I could get some money from them to return to my country again. So I resolved to continue my journey."
With $5 in his pocket, Bean "bid adieu" to Word and after "some days travel," landed in Natchez but "at first saw no person that I knew." Later, he said, "I was walking on the sand-beach, when a small boy came and asked me if that boat was from Tennessee. I told him it was. He then asked me if there was any man on board by the name of Bean. I told him that was my name. He said his mistress had told him that if there was any one on the boat of that name he must come to the house with him. But I did not go with him; so in about half an hour, came down an old lady, with her daughter."
The "old lady" was Bean's aunt, who "told me she was very happy in seeing me, and that I must go and live with her. I went that night to her house. The next morning I wrote to an uncle of mine that lived within 12 miles, to send for me. He sent me a horse and saddle, and I went to see him. I liked much better this place; but in about 15 days I fell sick; and, after suffering very severely for a month, I began to get better."
After a short time in Natchez, Bean and Nolan became friends. He said Nolan had been "for some years before trading with the Spaniards in San Antonio. He told me that he was going to make another voyage to that country in October, and entreated me to go along with him. I readily agreed to go, and stated it to my uncle. But he would not hear to it, and said that I should not go." That, of course, was all the encouragement Bean needed to do just the opposite. Plus, he had been told that the party would seek gold and silver mines out west.
"A few days afterward my uncle and aunt were absent from home, and Nolan came by, with some young men, then on his voyage. When my relation came home in the evening, I was gone."
DESERTERS IN LOUISANA
Bean wrote in later years that before Nolan's men reached the Red River, three men "got lost from our party while out hunting. We stopped and hunted for them several days, but could not find them. We supposed they would return to Natchez."
But the three were not lost. They had left on purpose.
One, Mordecai Richards, was a 45-year-old farmer from Natchez who had known Nolan for almost a decade. (The other two men were John King and John Adams.)
During the spring of 1800, Richards had tended to several hundred horses Nolan pastured at his home along the Homochitto River not far from Fort Adams in Wilkinson County. Fort Adams was a military installation built in 1799 under the supervision of Gen. James Wilkinson, Nolan's mentor. Wilkinson County is named in honor of the controversial general, a traitor, who had been a paid spy for the Spanish, a fact not documented until years after the general’s death.
As Nolan and his men raced westward for Texas in December 1800, an exhausted Richards made it back to the Post of Concord and later provided Vidal with a glimpse of the early days of the expedition. Richards would give another statement later to the commander at Ft. Miro (present day Monroe, LA) who was embarrassed that his garrison of soldiers had not stopped Nolan earlier when he was in their grasp.
Like most of the men recruited for the journey, Richards did not realize the Spanish army was searching for the expedition. Nolan avoided crossing the Mississippi into Louisiana at Vidalia, choosing instead to follow the river northward through Mississippi Territory to Walnut Hills (Vicksburg). Many of the men, including Bean, would later say they thought the Mississippi Supreme Court had approved the expedition.
‘BEYOND OUR POWER’
That American court had been called into session by Mississippi Territory Gov. Winthrop Sargent to hear Vidal's complaint opposing Nolan's trip. But because the judges found no evidence that his intentions were to harm the Spanish or its possessions, Sargent did nothing to stop Nolan.
Some of Nolan's men volunteered to join the expedition only after the court ruling. As new recruits, they felt reassured by the court's decision but may not have understood that the Spanish had the right to stop them once they stepped onto lands claimed by Spain.
In court, Vidal estimated the expedition would include up to 40-armed men, a dangerous group even for soldiers to confront. Actually, the total number was less than 30, but still a formidable force. Most of Nolan's men were armed with carbines and pistols. Nolan himself carried a carbine and a brace of pistols. He told the judges the weapons were needed strictly for defensive purposes.
But Vidal made it clear to the American that the Spanish opposed this venture. He added that the Spanish passport Nolan showed the court was outdated.
Chief Justice Seth Lewis, speaking on behalf of the three-man court, told Vidal it was "beyond our power and contrary to the constitution of the United States to prevent one or more citizens from leaving the territory when it cannot be proved with evidence that their intentions are hostile."
NOLAN ON THE RUN
From initial testimony taken from Richards and from other members of the expedition, it is known that Nolan's party left Natchez with only basic goods including weapons, blankets, clothes, shovels, axes, leather for saddles and a few other items carried by three pack-horses. Also brought along were branding irons to put Nolan's mark on the wild horses he and his men captured.
John Henderson, a Natchez resident fluent in Spanish, French and English, was known to be a trusted friend of Nolan's. Henderson's name appears on Nolan's 1799 marriage certificate to Fannie Lintot. He would later serve as treasurer of Adams County.
Henderson left Natchez on October 28, 1800, in a boat with other goods for the Nolan expedition. Vidal found out and had Henderson stopped at Rapides (present day Alexandria) on the Red River and confiscated the merchandise. Vidal later explained that he believed Henderson was also being used by Nolan to report "all the movements and operations" of the Spanish in their attempts to stop the Nolan party.
Ellis Bean wrote years later that once Nolan and his men crossed the Mississippi River at Walnut Hills the group traveled westward until running into 19 Spanish soldiers near Fort Miro. He said the Spanish claimed they were looking for Choctaw Indians, though it is believed they were in search of Nolan.
Nolan asked the Spanish if they wanted to see his passport, but the commanding officer said no. It’s unclear why they let Nolan’s party proceed, but it may have been because they were outnumbered. Bean said it was because the Spanish were cowards.
While Nolan’s party was encamped near Fort Miro that night, they heard a constant bombardment of cannon, unnerving to many of the men. By the time they crossed the Ouachita, 50 Spanish soldiers were searching for Nolan. By then, some of Nolan's men were concerned about their safety and about their leader's judgment.
‘I HOLD THEM AS HIGHWAYMEN’
The commander at Fort Miro sent a message to the commander at Natchitoches on the Red River informing him to be on the lookout for Nolan, but 10 of Nolan's men intercepted the messenger, broke his carbine in half, took his provisions and sent him back to Fort Miro. There, the angry commander fired off another missive to Natchitoches. This time he repeated his original message that Nolan was out to steal horses from Spain, adding that now, following the mistreatment of the messenger, "I hold them as highwaymen."
Richards reported some in Nolan's party were concerned when they encountered Spanish soldiers and some began to question the authenticity of Nolan’s passport. As a few began to express alarm, one asked Nolan about the passport point blank, a question that drew his ire.
Nolan told the man that the questions were "discouraging my party." He said none of the men should "meddle in this affair," adding that he (Nolan) was the only law, and if anyone deserted or "hides in the woods ... Luciano (Garcia) will catch him," and "will hang him afterwards like a dog." (Garcia, 39, was a resident of Nacogdoches, TX, and a member of this final expedition.)
But Richards took that chance.
In his disposition to Vidal, Richards said Nolan intended to go through the country of the Caddo Indians in northeastern Texas, erect a fort in case of attack, "examine the mines and other precious things" in the "unknown land" farther west as well as catch wild horses.
Richards said Nolan told him that the horses would be driven to Illinois and Kentucky. There, Nolan planned to meet with "friends and others who wait our arrival ... next August or September." Then, the British would "conquer those lands" or "gather the riches." All in Nolan's party would become rich.
Richards original confession was somewhere between the truth and fiction. Rumors such as a British invasion down the Mississippi or threats against Spain from other governments seemed to resonate throughout the Mississippi Valley during this volatile time in the history of America.
But Richards was rattled. As a man who knew Nolan and once worked for him, Richards realized something was not right by the strained interaction between Nolan and the Spanish soldiers, and by Nolan's threatening manner.