Letter from James Wilkinson to Thomas Jefferson (October 21, 1806)


Natchitoches, October 21st, 1806.

Sir.—Whatever may be the general impropriety, I persuade myself that on a subject irrelative to my official obligations, I shall be excused for addressing you directly and confidentially-, but I have another and a more cogent reason for deviating, in this instance, from the ordinary course of my correspondence. It is possible the momentous occasion of this letter, and the vital importance attached to it, may have excited solicitudes to beguile my understanding and delude my judgment; and in such case I trust the integrity of the intention will secure me your confidence, and that this letter, with the communication it covers, may find their graves in your breast. For although my information appears too direct and circumstantial to be fictitious, yet the magnitude of the enterprise, the desperation of the plan, and the stupendous consequences with which it seems pregnant, stagger my belief, and excite doubts of the reality, against the conviction of my senses; and it is for this reason I shall forbear to commit names, because it is my desire to avert a great public calamity, and not to mar a salutary design or to injure any one undesignedly. I have never in my whole life found myself under such circumstances of perplexity and embarrassment as at present; for I am not only uninformed of the prime mover, and ultimate objects of this daring enterprise, but am ignorant of the foundation on which it rests, of the means by which it is to be supported, and whether any immediate or collateral protection, internal or external, is expected. Among other allurements proposed to me, I am informed you connive at the combination, and that our country will justify it; but when I examine my orders of the 6th May, I am obliged to discredit it-these imputations. But should this association be formed in opposition to the laws, and in defiance of government, then I have no doubt that the revolt of this territory will be made an auxiliary step to the main design of attacking Mexico, to give it a new master in the place of promised liberty. Could the fact be ascertained to me, I believe I should hazard my discretion, make the best compromise I could with Salcedo, in my power, and throw myself with my little band into New Orleans, to be ready to defend that capital against usurpation and violence. It is true the works of the place have mouldered to ruin; yet I think they may by extraordinary exertions, in a few weeks, be rendered defensible against an undisciplined rabble acting in a bad cause. But, sir, with my instructions before me, and without evidence of the design, principle or support, of the corps of associates expected from the Ohio, I dare not turn my back on the Spaniards, now in my front, and abandon this scene of disaffection to the certain evils which, without some strong measure of prevention, may possibly accrue in New Orleans.

If it should be found necessary to the preservation of exterior engagements or internal security, or to the support of the laws and government, to oppose the meditated movements from the Ohio, I would recommend the immediate adoption of the following measures, viz: 1st. The troops from the bank of the Missouri, from St. Vincents, South-west Point, and Massae, to take post at the Iron Banks on the Mississippi, about fifteen miles below the mouth of the Ohio, with the artillery at those posts, and orders to prevent the passage of persons or property (down the river) except under such passports as you may think proper to prescribe. I prefer the Iron Banks, because the river at that point is confined to a narrow bed, and may be effectually commanded, and I would recommend Captain D. Bissel, now at Massae, for the command: 2d. A squadron of sloops of war and gun boats should be ordered to take possession of the mouth of the Mississippi within the bar, to prevent the entrance of all armed vessels and transports, unless particularly licensed by government: 3d. A competent regular force should be levied and organised to pursue the outlaws, to shut them up and compel them to surrender at discretion.

By the first step, it would be proposed to cut off supplies of provisions and prevent the junction of auxiliaries from the sources of insurrection. By the second, to destroy every hope and expectation founded on co-operation of maritime force: and the third speaks too plainly for itself to need explanation.

Amidst the uncertainty and doubts which perplex me, I feel disposed to adopt the following conclusions: should the conduct of the Spaniards in my front justify it, I shall take the precaution either to go myself, or to send Colonel Cushing, to New Orleans, with every man who may be safely detached from this point, in order to put the words of the Forts St. Charles, and St. Louis, in the best possible state of defence, time and things may enable me, to secure the cannon, arms, military stores and other public property, against any lawless attempt, by whoever made.

If the designs of the combination should be pointed against the government, our communication by mail will be cut off, and all doubtful characters travelling from this quarter towards the Atlantic will be stopt: I have, therefore, judged it expedient, to silence suspicion, and to secure and accelerate the arrival of this dispatch to your hands, to cause the bearer, Lieutenant Thomas A. Smith, a young officer of good promise and entire trust, ostensibly to resign his commission and quit the service; it is, therefore, necessary you should instruct the secretary of war to reject his resignation and continue him on the rolls; and I hope, sir, should he acquit himself with satisfactory discretion and promptitude, on the journey he has undertaken, that you may give him some mark of your approbation, and send him back to me. Reposing, with entire confidence, in your justice and your wisdom, that no application will be made of this letter, which the national interests do not exact; I hold myself ready to receive and execute your orders, when and where you may think proper to direct.

And am, Sir,

Your faithful and obliged soldier and servant,


This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.