Stanley Nelson

Even before a Mississippi Territory grand jury convened in early 1807 to hear treason allegations against former vice-president Aaron Burr, there was a sense throughout Natchez country that Burr was being mistreated. 

For two years, he had traveled from New York City to towns along the Ohio, villages and communities in Kentucky and Tennessee as well as Natchez and New Orleans on the Mississippi. True, he had talked about conquest and had visited with revolutionaries. Burr even sought foreign assistance from a British minister to the U.S. With others, he talked about war with Spain and he talked about the vulnerability of Spanish’s possessions – including Mexico and Texas. In late 1806, the U.S. and Spain had almost gone to war along the Sabine River. 

When Burr arrived in Natchez country in January 1807, local officials were worried after President Thomas Jefferson painted Burr’s expedition as dangerous. It was rumored that he was descending the Mississippi with hundreds – maybe thousands of men – in a flotilla of boats loaded with guns for war. But once here, his force totaled 100 men or less and while a few dozen muskets may have been hidden from authorities, there was no chance Burr’s group could have taken on even a weak militia. 

And there was this attitude: Who cared if Burr warred with the Spanish. Few Americans saw anything wrong with western expansion. And few liked Spain. 

Anti-Spanish sentiment in Natchez had been heightened before Burr’s arrival due in part to the demise of Philip Nolan, a young go-getter who traveled to Spanish Texas in 1800 with two dozen men to catch wild horses to tame and later sell in Natchez and New Orleans. The Spanish, which also controlled Louisiana at the time, had warned Nolan not to trespass into Texas. When he did, they tracked him down and after he refused to surrender, killed him in 1801 in a gunfight. 

When word reached Natchez there was outrage. And many wondered what had become of Nolan’s men who had been taken prisoner. Between Burr’s departure from Natchez in February 1807 and his federal trial in Virginia in August, anti-Spanish sentiment grew even more. 

In Natchitoches, La. in May 1807, six years after Nolan's demise, Spanish soldiers released American Captain Zebulon Pike and his party. The 28-year-old Pike had wandered onto Spanish-claimed territory while looking for the origins of the Red and Arkansas rivers. Spanish soldiers took him to Mexico where he visited with Nolan's men, who were still being held captive. 

One prisoner, Natchez resident David Fero, told Pike that the men had lost all hope of being released and feared execution. Pike promised that once he reached American soil he would let the world know the fate of Nolan's men. 

At Natchitoches on the Red River, which had become a U.S. possession following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Pike fulfilled his promise to Fero and the American prisoners when he penned a letter to the Natchez Herald reporting the condition of the men. He called them "debilitated and half lost wretches." He asked the Herald, which published the letter in August 1807 – the month Burr’s treason trial began in Richmond, Va. -- to inform newspapers in other states where some of the men had family or friends so "their connections may receive the melancholy assurance of some being in existence, and that others are beyond the power of tyranny and oppression." The news caused a stir in Natchez as most considered it an outrage that the men had even been imprisoned. 

Pike listed the names of 12 of the prisoners and provided what little information he knew about each, including the death of one by execution. In the years to come, some would return home. Others were never accounted for. 

‘MANY WERE FASCINATED’ BY BURR 

Eight months prior to the publication of Pike’s letter in the Natchez Herald, Burr had been apprehended and taken to Washington, the Mississippi Territory capital six miles inland from Natchez. 

Burr was free under bond until a grand jury was empaneled. 

According to Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, “Col. Benajah Osmun, with whom Burr passed much of his time while waiting, signed the bond, with Lyman Harding. Colonel Fitzpatrick searched the boats for signs of a military expedition, in vain, and subsequent rummages along the river bank proved futile. The boats were brought down to Natchez and the men paroled. On January 22, Mead ordered the arrest by Col. Claiborne of every one of the ‘restless spirits about Natchez who evince a hostile disposition to the views of the government and favorable to the designs of a man now in custody.’ 

“Comfort Tyler, Harman Blennerhassett, Senator Smith of Ohio, and other distinguished characters arrived after the arrest of Burr, and the number of boats increased to about thirteen, the total number of the party to about one hundred.” 

The Natchez Herald reported, according to Rowland, that “Burr and his men were caressed by a number of the wealthy merchants and planters of Adams county; several balls were given to them as marks of respect and confidence.” 

In his book on Mississippi, historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote: 

“The surrender of Colonel Burr to the civil authorities did not restore the tranquility anticipated. A number of his followers, as ignorant of his designs as the rest of the community, dispersed themselves through the Territory, each giving his own version of the expedition. Among our citizens there was much diversity of opinion. 

“Many were fascinated by the proud demeanor and courtly manners of Colonel Burr. Some regarded him as the victim of the President’s jealousy and revenge. Some, in the spirit of party, vindicated because Jefferson accused him. A few there were, the vultures of society, who boldly eulogized him, and demanded his immediate discharge, because they hoped to share in what they believed to be his schemes of rapine and plunder.” 

In his book on Aaron Burr (American Emperor, 2011), historian David O. Stewart notes that while in Natchez Burr “talked with John Graham, Jefferson’s bloodhound, explaining that he expected the West to separate from the nation due to ‘moral, not physical causes’ – that is, the West would choose to secede, without any action by Burr. As for the invasion of Mexico, Burr said that would occur only if the United states were at war with Spain, or if Burr’s Ouachita lands had an ‘independent government.’ When Graham urged him to make a public declaration of his intentions, Burr demurred, objecting that ‘he was a party concerned, and that no statement of his could have any effect.’” 

At Burr’s trial in Virginia, Graham testified that he also spoke with Harman Blennerhassett, a financier of the expedition. Graham said that Blennerhassett “spoke of the settlement on the Washita {Ouachita River in northeastern Louisiana} as their object. He never positively told me it was, but he said they avowed it as their object. 

“I observed to him as a reason why I should think it was, that young men without families, or without any of the implements of husbandry, were engaged to go. He said that their arms were to kill turkeys or Indians. 

“He then launched out into an abuse of the Administration, their neglect of the Army and Navy, &c.” 

POINDEXTER: ‘NO EVIDENCE TO CONVICT’ 

Mississippi Territory Attorney General George Poindexter at the request of Acting Governor Cowles Mead was instrumental in assisting in the peaceful surrender of Burr. Poindexter knew before the grand jury convened in Adams County that he had no case against the former vice-president. After all, Burr had committed no crime in Mississippi. 

But Judge Thomas Rodney, a pro-Jefferson man, was determined to proceed because that’s what the President wanted. The other judge, the senior judge of three on the court, was Peter Bryan Bruin, an old friend of Burr’s. The two had fought in the Battle of Quebec during the American Revolution. 

The third judge was not in attendance. 

During Burr’s trial in Virginia, Poindexter explained his position: 

“I was … called on in my official capacity as attorney general to give a written opinion as to the course which ought to be pursued with Colonel Burr. I did so, and that opinion, I believe, was filed in the office of the Secretary of the Mississippi Territory. My opinion was that we had no evidence to convict Colonel Burr of any offense in the Mississippi Territory, to which a jury was about to be summoned, had no original jurisdiction of any prosecution, and could only take cognizance of points of law reserved at the trial in the circuit court; that, therefore, Burr ought to be sent under a sufficient guard, directed to the city of Washington, where the Supreme Court of the United States would be in session, and the judges attending from every part of the Union could direct the accused to be tried in the district where from the evidence it might appear that an overt act of treason had been committed. 

“But Judge Rodney thought differently, and a venire facias was issued, requiring the attendance of seventy-six jurors at an adjourned session of the supreme court of the Mississippi Territory held in February last. From the number of jurors attending, a grand jury of twenty-three persons was selected, who received a charge from Judge Rodney, and adjourned until the next day. 

“At the meeting of the court the next morning, I moved to discharge the grand jury: 

“1st, Because the court did not possess original jurisdiction in any case; 

“2d, Because the depositions submitted to my inspection did not furnish sufficient evidence to convict Colonel Burr of the offenses with which he was charged, so as to bring them within the Mississippi Territory; 

“3d, That a warrant might issue, transmitting the accused to a court having competent jurisdiction to try and punish him, if guilty of the crimes alleged again him. 

“The court being divided on this motion, it was overruled. The grand jury then retired. I determined to prefer no indictment, and left the court. 

“In the evening, while I was engaged in the Legislature, a message was sent me by the court requesting my attendance. I immediately repaired to the courtroom, and was desired to look at the presentments of the grand jury.” 

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