In October 1800, Jose Vidal, civil and military commander of the Spanish Post of Concord at present day Vidalia, forwarded a dispatch to the American governor of the Mississippi Territory across the river in Natchez.
In the message, Vidalia expressed grave concerns over horse trader Philip Nolan’s expedition into Spanish Texas, predicting that the "consequences may be fatal."
Nolan's journey out west presented problems not only for Natchez and the Post of Concord, Vidal indicated, but for two nations -- the United States and Spain.
Vidal’s missive arrived in the hands of Gov. Winthrop Sargent at the mansion Concord, the home built by the late Spanish governor, Manuel Gayoso, who had died of yellow fever in New Orleans a few months earlier. President John Adams had appointed Sargent as the first governor of Mississippi Territory in 1798.
Vidal informed Sargent that Nolan was trespassing on Spanish lands, complaining that Nolan had failed to acquire a legitimate passport required for passage.
"It appears singular to me," wrote Vidal, "that a person possessing the information this gentleman (Nolan) certainly does should attempt an enterprise so dangerous to himself and his followers, and so repugnant to the friendship existing between His Catholic Majesty and the United States."
At the time, the Spanish were especially concerned that the U.S. intended to claim more lands west of the Mississippi River, a belief that came true in 1803 following the Louisiana Purchase.
Also serving as the Spanish counsel at Natchez in 1800, Vidal said the purpose of Nolan's trip was allegedly for "taking wild horses." Those horses, Vidal pointed out, were the property of the "King, my master." With "an armed force," Nolan apparently planned "to invade" Spanish ground "with a strong hand" to take wild horses or whatever "may appear to this party valuable or worthy of removal."
Spain did not intend to allow this to happen. Vidal wrote that it "is probable that an armed force will be ordered to suppress this band acting in open defiance of the laws of this Kingdom." Should Spanish authorities catch up with Nolan and his men, Vidal warned, "the consequences may be fatal, not only to the parties concerned but to the friendship that subsists between our nations."
A GENERAL’S PROTÉGÉ
Philip Nolan, who was 30-years-old in 1800, was well known in Natchez, New Orleans, up and down the Mississippi and among the Indians. A horse trader with business experience, Nolan not only had friends in high places in both the American and Spanish governments, but friends in low places, too. Nolan could sip wine with a government official over dinner in New Orleans or guzzle whiskey with the outlaws until sunup under-the-hill in Natchez.
Born in Belfast, Ireland, the plucky, zealous, ambitious Nolan was a friend and protégé of Gen. James Wilkinson, who commanded U.S. military forces in the south. When in his teens, Nolan had handled Wilkinson's business affairs in New Orleans, paying his bills and getting an inside view of life among the movers and shakers.
Wilkinson had some underhanded dealings with Spanish officials and was connected to men like former Vice-President Aaron Burr during an American political era when secret plots were being hatched to seize the lands west of the Mississippi for personal profit and gain. It was a period of conspiracies, a time today's conspiracy theorists would have greatly enjoyed. The degree to which Nolan was involved in this remains conjecture, but during it all, he was scheming to build a personal fortune for himself, and he centered his operations primarily in Natchez.
‘RISEN FROM THE DEAD’
Nolan's first trip out west in 1791, with a passport from Spanish Gov. Esteban Miro, was a failure. He wrote Wilkinson that he had been "suspected for a spy by the Mexicans, and even by your old friend Gayoso." Whatever goods Nolan had obtained were all confiscated by the Spanish. Dejected and broke, Nolan lived with the Indians for two years, learned sign languages and survival skills, traded animal skins and watched wild horses thunder by in great herds.
In late 1793 or early 1794, Nolan ended his self-imposed hinterland exile and arrived in New Orleans with 50 mustangs. By June 1794 Nolan journeyed out west again before galloping into New Orleans in January 1796 with 250 horses, which were sold there as well as in Natchez and Kentucky. There was a great market for horses. Settlers needed them. Armies couldn't operate without them.
In February 1797, Nolan landed in Natchez in a flatboat boat with U.S. Boundary Commissioner Andrew Ellicott. Nolan first met Ellicott at his camp along Fort Massac on the Ohio River in present day Illinois. There, Nolan outlined the political situation in Spanish Natchez and discussed the people, information Ellicott said he found "extremely useful."
Later on the trip, Ellicott said Indians from the west side of the Mississippi arrived at camp. Unsuccessful in speaking to them in several different languages, Ellicott said Nolan "addressed them in signs, to which they immediately replied, and conversed for some time with apparent ease, and satisfaction. This was the first time I had either seen, or heard of this curious language." Nolan told Ellicott that the sign languages were "used by many nations" west of the river "who could only be understood by each other in that way."
‘A CHILD OF MY RAISING’
Nolan’s arrival in Natchez on Ellicott’s flatboat drew suspicion from Gov. Gayoso. Were the Americans scheming against the Spanish?
In Natchez, Nolan presented a letter to Gayoso written by Gen. Wilkinson, who reported that he considered Nolan "a child of my raising, true to his profession, and firm in his attachments to Spain. I consider him a powerful instrument in our hand should occasion offer. I will answer for his conduct. I am deeply interested in whatever concerns him, and I confidently recommend him to your warmest protection."
The phrases -- "firm in his attachments to Spain" -- as well as a "powerful instrument in our hands," certainly are tantalizing. At the same time, Nolan, who called Wilkinson "the friend and protector of my youth," was planning another horse-hunting trip west. He obtained a passport and noted in a letter to Wilkinson, "I have instruments to enable me to make a more correct map than the one you saw. Ellicott assisted me in acquiring a more perfect knowledge of astronomy and glasses; and Gayoso himself has made me a present of a portable sextant. My timepiece is good. I shall pay every attention." Planning to travel at least as far west as San Antonio, Nolan wrote, "I shall take 10 good riflemen," adding that "the Indian Comanches and Appaches are at war with the Spaniards, and I calculate a little fight."
Nolan's letter, like Wilkinson's, offers some interesting information. A U.S. citizen, Nolan was preparing to travel to the southwest possessions of Spain, and revealed that Gayoso, a Spanish official, and Ellicott, an American official, provided him with the tools of the cartographer and that Nolan had already charted one map and had shown it to Wilkinson, a general in the United States army. What were Nolan and Wilkinson up to?
More than 200 years later, the answers are still unclear, although it did become clear years after Wilkinson’s death that he was a traitor, having served as a paid spy for the Spanish while serving as a general in the U.S. Army. But in 1796 Nolan and Wilkinson were becoming cautious in their dealings. Nolan suggested to Wilkinson that a "letter from a trader in horses to a General of the federal armies" would confirm the suspicions of some and could be "fatal to me."
‘MY IMPLACABLE ENEMY’
In July 1797, when Nolan was preparing his next venture west, two flags were flying over Natchez. The Spanish were still in possession of the town and had a small army occupying Fort Panmure (Rosalie). The Americans, led by Ellicott, were encamped nearby awaiting the transfer of the settlement to American authority as part of a treaty between the two nations.
Gayoso was up to his neck in resolving a settler uprising, attempting to tranquilize the venomous Ellicott, worrying about the health of the populace during a hot summer of sickness and fevers, and preparing for the Spanish withdrawal. At the same time, Gayoso was expressing concerns to his superior in New Orleans about Nolan's proposed journey west: "He (Nolan) will take an active part against us; he is popular and enterprising; secure him."
But Nolan, who had the guile and the diplomacy to get his way by working Spanish authorities from New Orleans, Texas and Mexico against one another, received permission to make his trip and with 12 men headed to San Antonio. Once there, Nolan sold 2,000 pesos' worth of goods to offset his expenses.
In late 1799, Nolan rode into Natchez with 1,200 horses and learned that Gayoso had spent much time trying to get Spanish authorities in Texas to arrest him, a circumstance Nolan just barely avoided. In fact, Gayoso, now governor of Louisiana and based in New Orleans, was concerned about any American making friends with Indians on Spanish possessions, but Nolan was his chief concern. He described him as a "dangerous man and a sacrilegious hypocrite who had deceived the previous governor to get a passport." Nolan called Gayoso "a vile man, and my implacable enemy."
At Fort Adams south of Natchez, the 42-year-old Wilkinson wrote Nolan a letter of introduction to Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, detailing some of Nolan's discoveries out west. Jefferson wrote Nolan inquiring about wild horses, but it is unknown if the two men ever met.
Nolan's story is one of political intrigue coupled with cowboy themes. His final expedition became the first American "western" which ended for him in a violent way. His men would live to tell of his final great adventure.
What happened in Texas made Nolan the first of the frontier legends of the west, and in time a heroic figure. His story gave Texans something to talk about long before the Alamo. Even the American heroes at the Alamo – William “Buck” Travis, Jim Bowie and Davey Crockett -- were likely familiar with the last ride of Philip Nolan.
Before departing Natchez for good, Nolan did two things.
First, he got married.
Then, he recruited almost two-dozen men to ride with him.