In 1801, Philip Nolan’s men were transported to Mexican prisons where they feared they would spend the rest of their lives.
Weeks later, news of the deadly ending of their Texas expedition reached Natchez, the home of Nolan and his men. Natchez would later learn that one prisoner died in prison, and another, Ephraim Blackburn, had been executed.
Approximately two dozen men – mostly American, some Spanish, and two slaves -- had followed Nolan to Texas in 1800 to catch and tame wild horses for sale back east. Nolan had been involved in that trade for a decade but he had crossed Spanish authorities on that final trip, especially Jose Vidal, the Spanish commandant at the Post of Concord (Vidalia).
Vidal spent weeks trying to derail the expedition, even asking the Mississippi Territory Supreme Court in Natchez to issue a ruling to forbid Nolan’s trip to Spanish possessions. But the American justices said they had no such authority.
In east central Texas, the Spanish caught up with Nolan. He was killed by the blast of a cannon in a gunfight. A handful of his men escaped. Others were put in chains as they awaited trial.
They were initially held in Nacogdoches, the largest eastern settlement in Texas at the time. The site was the former home of the Caddo Indians for generations before the Spanish established a mission there in 1716. From there, the prisoners were transported to the Texas capital of San Antonio, where the governor lived.
Trial proceedings for the prisoners went on for years and some of the men ended up in the Mexican town of Chihuahua, where in the spring of 1807, 28-year-old U.S. Army Captain Zebulon Pike arrived.
Pike had been detained by Spanish solders while looking for the headwaters of the Red and Arkansas rivers. His journey began in Missouri and continued through Kansas and into Colorado, where he saw a mountain peak that today is named in his honor. Spanish officials stopped his party in New Mexico and escorted the men to Santa Fe. Later, they were taken to Chihuahua in Mexico to be questioned by a Spanish general.
While there, Pike came into contact with some of the American prisoners from the Nolan expedition. He also came into contact with a former Natchez and Vidalia surveyor who boarded with a member of the Nolan party, a slave named Cesar who had served as an Indian interpreter for the Mississippi Territory governor.
‘NOT WHAT MY HEART DICTATED’
Before the Spanish departed Natchez and the Americans took possession in March 1798, a local boy named John Peter Walker was hired on a surveying job with the American boundary commission. Walker helped mark the new American-Spanish boundary separating the United States/Mississippi Territory on the north and Spain on the South. That line began east of the Mississippi River and still today marks the north/south border of Louisiana and Mississippi. Not long after that, Walker went to work for the Spanish in Texas and Mexico and became invaluable as a mapmaker.
Years after Nolan's death and the imprisonment of many of his men, Pike met Walker and Cesar. Pike noted that Walker "had living with him an old Negro (Cesar), the only one I saw on that side of St. Antonio, who was the property of some person who resided near Natchez, and who had been taken with Nolan."
Walker, wrote Pike, had known Cesar back in Natchez and because of that he "obtained permission for old Cesar to live with him." Of Cesar, Pike noted, "I found him very communicative and extremely useful."
Pike also met American David Fero, a native New Yorker about the age of Pike. A resident of Natchez for about 18 months when the Nolan expedition left town, Fero once served under Pike's father, who served the U.S. Army frontier outposts.
With tears in his eyes, Fero told Pike of the situation of the prisoners. While most were well treated, they were not free men. Many were allowed to take jobs to provide for themselves. But they still had not been sentenced and were fearful of execution.
The day before Pike left the town, Fero asked Pike to notify the families and friends of the prisoners about their situations. Pike promised to do so and "bid him adieu, and gave him what my purse afforded, not what my heart dictated."
Pike immediately appealed to Spanish officials for the men's release before the Spanish marched him back on U.S. soil. Along the way, Pike observed herds of wild horses in the "thousands."
‘HALF LOST WRETCHES’
On Wednesday, July 1, 1807, Pike and his men were released in Natchitoches, La., on the Red River. The settlement, established by the French in 1714, had been a U.S. possession since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Pike wrote in his diary: "Language cannot express the gaiety of my heart, when I once more beheld the standard of my country waved aloft!"
Later that month 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, who he said were "debilitated and half lost wretches." He asked the Herald, which published the letter in August, 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 were arrested in the first place.
In his letter, Pike listed the names of 12 of the prisoners and provided what little information he knew about each, including the death of one.
DEATH ON A DICE ROLL
After many court sessions on what to do with the men, who were tried as outlaws, a ruling issued from Spain arrived in Mexico shortly after Pike was released in Natchitoches. The verdict was that two of the 10 men who fought until the end in the battles against Spanish troops in east-central Texas, were to be executed. The rest were to be imprisoned for 10 years. The Spaniards had already held the men for seven years. One Spanish officer wanted to let the men go, but he was overruled.
On Monday, November 9, 1807, in Chihuahua, nine of the men drew lots to determine who would face execution. One of the prisoners, Joel Pierce, had previously died, as related by Pike. Because of that, the Spanish determined that only one of the nine men would die.
Pierce, a native of North Carolina, was 22 in 1800 when the Nolan expedition left Natchez, where Pierce had lived for the previous 18 months. In Mexico, Tennessean Ellis Bean shared a room with Pierce until he died. Pierce told Bean, "I shall not leave you until I die, which I expect will be in a few days. Yet I shall die in the company of a countryman."
Then, Bean said, Pierce, "laid himself down. The distress of my friend afflicted me more than ever, but I could not help either him or myself. I had yet a little money; with it I sent and got some wine; and, after a little while, a lady sent me some dinner and I got him up, and he ate some." Pierce died days later.
On the fateful day of the dice roll, nine men, beginning with the oldest, were made to kneel in front of a drum on which sat a glass tumbler. Two dice were placed in the tumbler and each man made a roll. The man with the lowest number faced execution.
Following is the order and each man's throw:
• Ephraim Blackburn, 3 and 1, making 4.
• Luciano Garcia, 3 and 4, making 7.
• Joseph Reed, 6 and 5, making 11.
• Davis Fero, 5 and 3, making 8.
• Simon Cooley, 6 and 5, making 11.
• Jonah Walters, 6 and 1, making 7.
• Charles King, 4 and 3, making 7.
• Ellis Bean, 4 and 1, making 5.
• William Danlin, 5 and 2, making 7.
Blackburn, the oldest man in the group at 53, threw the lowest number. A Pennsylvanian, Blackburn had fought in the American Revolution despite his Quaker beliefs. Before he was put to death, he converted to Catholicism and was baptized.
On Wednesday, November 11, 1807, two days after throwing the unlucky "four,” Blackburn was hung in the Plaza de Los Urgangas in Chihuahua. Just when or if his widow, Prudence Rich, learned of his fate isn't known.
‘OUR GALLANT LEADER’
Ellis Bean, who disobeyed his uncle's directive not to leave Natchez with Nolan in 1800, found employment as a prisoner in a trade of his youth and made shoes. He later learned to make hats and became sought after for his skills. All of the prisoners were allowed the freedom to move about town to work deep in Mexico.
Bean was freed from prison in Acapulco in 1810 to fight with Mexican revolutionaries, and later made his way to Louisiana in 1814 to fight with Gen. Andrew Jackson, also a Tennessee man, in the Battle of New Orleans. Bean returned to Tennessee for a while afterward.
Later he became an Indian agent at his old stomping grounds in East Texas and amassed thousands of acres of land before his death in 1846 at the age of 63. He died in Mexico with his Mexican wife. (He also had a wife in Texas). His fighting spirit and fearlessness marked him until death.
Despite his years of imprisonment due to his participation in the Nolan expedition of 1800-1801, he held no ill will and nothing but respect for Nolan, whom Bean called "our gallant leader."
The news of Nolan’s death and the imprisonment of his men infuriated Natchez. Even President Thomas Jefferson was curious about Nolan’s fate. But taking the news the hardest was Nolan’s young wife, Fanny, who had bore a son his father would never hold.