On August 22, 1801, in a letter to the President of the United States, William Dunbar of Natchez delivered bad news.
It concerned the recent demise of 31-year-old Philip Nolan, a Natchez horse trader who had months earlier drawn the interest of Thomas Jefferson. The President had once written Nolan: “I have understood that there are large herds of horses in a wild state in the country west of the Mississippi and have been desirous of obtaining details of their history in that state."
Dunbar and Jefferson had been corresponding for a few years. The former was a planter, surveyor and scientist who would later help Jefferson plan the proposed exploration of the Ouachita, Red and Arkansas rivers following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1804-05 Dunbar would lead the Ouachita exploration up to the hot springs in Arkansas.
As a Justice of the Peace, Dunbar married Nolan and his bride Fanny Lintot in Natchez in December 1799, months before Nolan departed Natchez with two-dozen men to catch wild horses in Spanish Texas. The Spanish had warned Nolan not to make the journey, but he went anyway. A Spanish military force cornered Nolan at his crudely built fort/corral in east-central Texas and killed him with a cannon shot, making him the only fatality of the skirmish.
Many of Nolan’s men were taken prisoner and held in Mexico for almost two decades.
Dunbar wrote the president: "We have been lately cut off from our usual communication with that country (the west) by the imprudence of Mr. Nolan who persisted in hunting wild horses without a regular permission; the consequence of which has been that a party being sent against him, he was the only man of his company who was killed by the random shot.
“I am much concerned for the loss of this man. Altho' his eccentricities were many and great," Nolan "was not destitute of romantic principles of honor united to the highest personal courage, with energy of mind not sufficiently cultivated by education ... "
With “the guidance of a little more prudence," Nolan might have "conducted himself to enterprises of the first magnitude.”
A LEGEND IN TEXAS
In the Lone Star State, Nolan is remembered fondly. In the region of east-central Texas where the Spanish caught his tiny band of horse hunters, there are granite markers dedicated to his memory. A tributary of the Brazos River is known today as the Nolan River.
To Texans, Nolan's death at the hands of the Spanish became a symbol of independence. He is remembered as a daring frontiersman, a pathfinder who refused to answer to Spain and who believed that on the frontier, anyone had a right to claim whatever he was big enough to wrestle, whether it be wild horses or unmapped lands.
Nolan was one of the first Americans – second only to Native Americans -- to take on a superior Spanish military force in Texas. His band of about 20 men was outnumbered 6 to 1 in a gunfight against the Spanish force of 120 men.
Thirty-five years later, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett and William Travers and their men, numbering from 189 to 257 (a figure still debated), faced odds of at least 9 to 1 against Santa Anna at the Alamo in 1836. While Nolan was the only fatality in his battle, every man fighting for Texas inside the Alamo died. The fact that both Nolan and Bowie were imperfect men didn't matter once they were transformed into legend by death.
‘BEYOND THE BOUNDS’
James Wilkinson, once the commanding general of the American army, who called Nolan "a child of my own raising," lamented the death of his 31-year-old protégé, calling the adventurer's last foray into Texas an act that was "beyond the bounds of propriety and discretion." He remembered Nolan as cheerful, optimistic and enthusiastic, yet recklessly bold. A strong man and excellent horseman, Nolan was a dashing figure in Natchez.
Wilkinson said Nolan had an unbridled nature that could "not be restrained," and did not always consider the consequences of his actions. The general said the passion of Nolan’s “imagination frequently transported him beyond the rules of ordinary expression."
That these two men were involved in some underhanded activities there can be little doubt. Whether they were scheming, as often alleged, to take over some of the lands west of Mississippi remains conjecture. What is clear is that many years after Wilkinson's death, a historian found evidence in a search of the archives in Spain that confirmed the suspicions of many.
The historian learned that Wilkinson had been on the Spanish payroll for many years while serving as a brigadier general in the U.S. army. The Spanish identified the general as "Secret Agent 13." Nolan's lifelong association with Wilkinson, whom he called "the protector of my youth," simply adds to the mystery of the horse trader.
Wilkinson was well familiar with this region of the country years before the U.S. organized the Mississippi Territory in 1798. He commanded the construction of Fort Adams in present day Wilkinson County after the Americans gained possession of Natchez from the Spanish. Nolan kept some of the horses that once ran wild in Texas on land along the Homochitto River.
Wilkinson County is named after the traitor general. A nationally popular Civil War-era short story by Edward Everett Hale – “The Man Without A Country” – was set at Fort Adams and the lead character was Lt. Philip Nolan, who renounces his country and is convicted of treason. He is sentenced to live the rest of his life as a prisoner on Navy warships, never to set foot on ground again.
As the years pass, the fictional Philip Nolan grows to love the United States and regrets his treasonous ways. He asks to be buried at Fort Adams or New Orleans and that his epitaph read: "In memory of PHILIP NOLAN, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands."
Hale would later say that the lead character was not based on the real Philip Nolan, a man Hale claimed to have never heard of until after his story was published.
‘DELIVERED OF A SON’
The family of the real Philip Nolan, however, didn’t gain anything from the legend Nolan would become. His widow, Fanny Lintot, was living in Baton Rouge when news came of her husband’s death. Between the time of their Natchez marriage and Nolan’s department for Texas, less than 10 months had passed. That’s all the time they had together.
Three months after Nolan's death, Fanny gave birth to their son, Philip, on Friday, June 26, 1801. In those days, childbirth was a life and death situation. Many things could, and often did, go wrong. An emotionally drained mother-to-be didn't help matters.
At the age of 22, Fanny was already in a precarious situation before she delivered her son. She spent weeks worrying over the fate of her husband and when she learned of his death she was devastated, her heart broken into a thousand tiny pieces. Her will was shattered, too.
Little Philip was born on Friday, June 26, 1801. Twenty-four days later on Monday, July 20, 1801, Fanny Lintot died in the home of her sister Mary Steer.
An obituary noted that "this amiable young woman, languishing under the corrosion of grief for the unexpected fate of her beloved husband and advancing in pregnancy, was delivered of a son, whose birth the unhappy mother survived but a short time. Thus fell in the bloom of youth a worthy and accomplished member of society."
It is believed that the Lintot family reared young Philip, who apparently did not enjoy a happy life. One writer reported that he became a “moral and physical weakling.” Orphaned at three weeks of age, Phillip died of tuberculosis at the age of 21.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Nolan the horse trader “is often credited with being the first Anglo-American to map Texas, but his map has never been found. His observations were passed on to Wilkinson, however, who used them to produce a map of the Texas-Louisiana frontier around 1804.”
Historian Jack Jackson (Philip Nolan and Texas), wrote that the “truth about Nolan is as much a mystery today as it was when he perished in the Texas wilderness … Perhaps we will never know what drove him to his tragic destiny, but the need to know seems destined to persist. Philip Nolan – bold pathfinder, reckless mustanger, conniving entrepreneur, passionate adventurer, betrayed filibuster, martyred freedom fighter – lives on in the American consciousness, in fact and in fiction.”
While his tragic end came due to many reasons, it was primarily over wild horses, brought by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s and thriving in the American Southwest by the time of Nolan’s death in 1801.
Wild horses must be broken to be useful to their masters.
But horse trader Philip Nolan could not be broken.