Journal-News, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 1994
Brigadier-General James Wilkinson made international intrigue his career
By Jim Blount
An officer called "one of the sleaziest characters ever to wear an American uniform" shared responsibility for the command of Fort Hamilton in the early 1790s.
Brigadier-General James Wilkinson, according to historian David L. Bongard, "was a drunkard, hopelessly addicted to intrigue; he was an agent in the pay of a foreign power; he was corrupt, greedy, dishonest and remarkable mostly for his numerous escapes from criminal prosecution; known as the general who never won a battle and never lost a court-martial."
Bongard's unflattering assessment of Wilkinson is in The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, compiled by Bongard, Trevor N. Dupuy and Curt Johnson, and published in 1992.
Thomas Robson Hay and M. R. Werner, biographers of Wilkinson, admit that "American history records little that is favorable or complimentary and much that is defamatory and critical of the career" of the Maryland native, whose military service spanned 40 years from the American Revolution through the War of 1812.
Wilkinson -- also a frontier trader, land speculator and political leader in Kentucky -- "had a propensity for intrigue and a strong desire to succeed in the word by whatever means he could employ," said Hay and Wermer. "He played fast and loose with business associates, government officials and political and military colleagues."
Wilkinson was second in command to General Anthony Wayne during the 1792-1794 campaign in this region. Wayne led the entire army while Wilkinson directed the infantry during the climatic Aug. 20, 1794, Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio. That victory ended Native American resistance to settlement in Ohio.
Before and after the 1794 showdown, Wilkinson periodically resided at Fort Hamilton. Because of his presence, a two-story log structure on the river side of the fort became known as the Wilkinson House.
It is believed he was sometime joined there by his wife, the former Ann Biddle, a daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family.
They were married in 1778, three years after Wilkinson, then 18, left his medical studies in Philadelphia to join Thompson's Pennsylvania rifle battalion in the revolutionary army.
In 16 months, he rose from private to lieutenant colonel. Wilkinson was appointed deputy adjutant general of the Northern Department in May 1777 and was breveted brigadier general eight months later.
His battlefield experiences included Quebec, Trenton, Princeton, Ticonderoga and Saratoga. He served as a staff officer under four generals, Nathanael Greene, Benedict Arnold, Arthur St. Clair and Horatio Gates.
In 1777, Wilkinson participated in an intrigue, called the Conway Cabal, in which some dissident officers tried to have George Washington removed as commander in chief. Their choice as a replacement was General Gates, who had requested the brevet rank for Wilkinson, a former member of his staff.
The incident didn't seem to block his advancement. In 1779 Wilkinson was appointed clothier general of the army. But he resigned in 1781 because of financial irregularities.
With the revolution ending, Wilkinson settled in Bucks County in eastern Pennsylvania. There he was appointed brigadier general of the militia and elected to the state legislature in 1783.
The next year, Wilkinson opened a new chapter in his life -- with a familiar plot -- when he moved west to Kentucky, then a part of Virginia. Kentuckians were already restless for statehood and Wilkinson soon was in the middle of the struggle.
(Next week's column will explore Wilkinson's controversial roles in Kentucky and Ohio military and political events.)
# # #
Journal-News, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 1994
James Wilkinson, foreign agent, pushed for Kentucky statehood
By Jim Blount
James Wilkinson didn't leave controversy and intrigue behind when he moved from eastern Pennsylvania to the Kentucky frontier in 1784. The future general -- whose revived military career would bring him to Fort Hamilton in the 1790s -- quickly found new causes ripe for his scheming.
While operating a small store in Lexington, the veteran of the American Revolution joined machinations to convert the remote Virginia county to a new state. Besides politics and his store, Wilkinson's new interests included land speculation, salt mining, milling and Mississippi River navigation.
In 1786, he founded Frankfort, which later became the capital of the first state created west of the Appalachians. Between 1786 and 1792, Kentucky advocates tried various ways to expedite the statehood process, which depended on Congressional action.
Wilkinson was in the middle of the plots, starting with a 1787 voyage to New Orleans, not then a part of the United States.
Founded by the French in 1718, the city had been the capital of Louisiana, a French colony, from 1722 until 1763. In the latter year, the treaty ending the French and Indian War ceded Louisiana to Spain, which retained New Orleans as its colonial capital.
The Spanish administrators and Wilkinson became key players in a series of events which have been labeled the Spanish Conspiracy. The purpose of Wilkinson's self-serving trip to New Orleans in 1787 was to visit Esteban Miro, the Spanish governor.
Enmeshed in the Kentucky statehood campaign was the question of use and control of the Mississippi River, whose western banks and southern outlet were part of Spanish Louisiana.
Geography dictated that Kentuckians -- and later early settlers in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois -- had to rely on New Orleans as the trading center for their agricultural goods. Their economy depended on navigation rights on the Mississippi and trading privileges at New Orleans -- both of which had been limited by Spanish authorities.
By promising to cooperate with Spain, Wilkinson secured from Miro a monopoly on trade down the Mississippi River to the vital port city.
Back home, while capitalizing on his river rights, Wilkinson spoke for statehood. Meanwhile, Spain paid him $2,000 a year (until 1800) to work for separation of western territories from the United States to become Spanish possessions. The agreement also required him to inform Miro of political and possibly military actions which could threaten Spain's American interests.
In 1789, on a second trip to New Orleans, Wilkinson negotiated the first of several loans or gifts from Spanish leaders. But Wilkinson's finances collapsed when diplomatic efforts reduced the possibility of Spain tightening controls on American use of the Mississippi and New Orleans.
His condition prompted a return to military service in 1791, as the U. S. started a second campaign against the Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. It was during that failed expedition that Fort Hamilton was constructed.
In March 1792, Wilkinson was promoted to brigadier general. He was next in line of command to General Anthony Wayne, who guided the army to victory over the native Americans Aug. 20, 1794, in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
Throughout their stormy four-year relationship, until Wayne's death in 1796, Wilkinson was Wayne's leading critic.
While undermining his superior, Wilkinson maintained contact with the new Spanish governor in New Orleans. He remained valuable to Spain because some disgruntled westerners, still concerned about the "Mississippi Question," continued to threaten separation from the United States.
From Fallen Timbers in August 1794 until late 1796, Wilkinson lived and entertained much of the time at Fort Washington in Cincinnati in a lavish style allegedly subsidized by Spanish money.
(Next week's column will inspect Wilkinson's career after he left Fort Hamilton.)
# # #
Journal-News, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 1994
General James Wilkinson had role in Aaron Burr's plot and arrest
By Jim Blount
Despite his continued conniving, General James Wilkinson's career escalated after defeat of the Native Americans in the Ohio region in the 1790s.
With the pre-mature death of General Anthony Wayne in 1796, Wilkinson became the senior officer in the United States Army. Between 1797 and 1803, he held commands at Detroit and on the southern frontier while continuing to speculate in land and promote his interests.
The veteran of the American Revolution, who had been second in command to Wayne during operations in this region, also continued his contacts with Spanish officials in New Orleans.
He had been accepting pay from Spain while helping to direct the army which manned Fort Hamilton from 1792 through 1795. The fort's two-story officer's quarters was commonly called the Wilkinson House because of his periodic presence.
His long-term collusion with Spain and self-serving plots against individuals -- including Wayne and other superiors -- was known or suspected by President Washington, Wayne and other leaders.
"To relieve Wilkinson from duty," said biographers Thomas Robson Hay and M. R. Werner, "would have been an unwise act on the part of the administration. It would have made him disgruntled and placed him beyond official control.
"Around him would have rallied all the discordant and embittered elements in the Western country, and he could have caused the government considerable embarrassment. He still had many loyal and powerful friends not only along the Western waters, but in Philadelphia and other places in the East," the biographers asserted.
His biographers said Wilkinson "cultivated the friendship of trappers, traders, Indians, Spaniards and French on the Mississippi, and he raised up for himself an active and vocal support in the army, so much so that his supporters were spoken of as the 'House of Wilkinson.' "
Dec. 20, 1803, Wilkinson joined Gov. William C. C. Claiborne of Mississippi Territory in receiving possession of the Louisiana Purchase from the French at New Orleans. In 1805, when Louisiana Territory was created, Wilkinson was named its governor.
From his headquarters at St. Louis, he ordered explorations of the region, including those of Zebulon M. Pike. Later, some authorities questioned the motives of Pike's 1806-1807 mission to the Southwest. Was it to gain information for the U. S., or for a possible Wilkinson land scheme?
During this time, Wilkinson had several meetings with Aaron Burr. The encounters produced more questions than answers about Wilkinson's motives and patriotism.
Was Wilkinson directly involved in the mysterious Burr Conspiracy, possibly a key leader? Or, was the general merely listening and gathering information?
When Burr and his cohorts came down the Mississippi River in 1806, Wilkinson warned both President Thomas Jefferson and Spanish officers in Mexico. He also occupied and declared martial law in New Orleans, and arrested others as Burr conspirators.
In May 1807, possibly to save his own skin, Wilkinson was the principal prosecution witness in Burr's treason trial before Chief Justice John Marshall.
After Burr was acquitted, Wilkinson returned to New Orleans and subsequently returned to military service before and during the War of 1812, gaining the rank of major general.
Controversy still followed him. He was involved in several courts martial and hearings. In an 1814 court-martial he was acquitted of charges of drunkenness and neglect of duty.
In June 1815 the master of intrigue was honorably discharged from the army. He went
to Mexico in 1821 to obtain a land grant in Texas. Wilkinson died Dec. 28, 1825, near Mexico City.
# # #
Journal-News, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1994
Swamps posed health problems in Butler County
By Jim Blount
Two large bottomlands -- now within Fairfield and Hamilton -- troubled early Butler County residents until public funds paid to eliminate the problem areas.
The Big Black Swamp covered parts of Fairfield and Union townships. It was described in an 1875 county atlas as "several thousand acres of inundated or swamp lands, covered with a dense growth of timber, such as ash, elm, sycamore and burr oak."
The atlas placed the troublesome tract in an the area then known as Change Bridge. Later, it was called as Flockton (or Flocton) in Section 17 of Fairfield Twp. Today it is south of Tylersville Road near the present Seward Road crossing of the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
The soggy region appears to be the same area mentioned in a January 1827 status report on the Miami-Erie Canal, then under construction through Butler County.
The report said during the spring of 1826 canal engineers discovered "that the ponds at the head of Mill Creek" as the canal leaves "the valley of Great Miami, would in that season of the year entirely overflow the banks of the canal, and for some months remain in that situation."
"This evil," the report said, "would not only at times interfere with the use of the canal, but would in a measure destroy it." The canal commission "found it necessary to drain the pond by making a cut one mile and 70 chains in length."
The swamp, said the Combination Atlas Map of Butler County, published in 1875, "was a terror to the people living on the elevated lands adjoining, causing fever and ague every fall. In their then condition, the lands were considered of little value."
"About the year 1830," the atlas said, "an act was passed by the legislature authorizing the county commissioners to levy a tax on certain adjacent lands for the purpose of raising money sufficient to reclaim the lands, and thus render the district healthy."
April 30, 1839, John W. Erwin, a Hamilton engineer, was hired to direct the project, which, the atlas said, converted the area into "one of the finest farming districts in Butler County," thanks to the digging of eight miles of drains.
In a section of Fairfield Twp., said an 1882 county history, "a deep, black, heavy soil, almost inexhaustible, extends for three miles east and west and very nearly the same distance from north to south. This, now the richest portion of the township, was once thought the poorest, but has been drained and cultivated, until it now brings a very high price."
The Historical and Biographical Cyclopedia of Butler County, published in 1882, refers to the Fairfield Twp. swamp as the Big Pond, a name also given the once watery bottomland now within Hamilton.
"A change in the course of the river not many years before the opening of the Northwest Territory left a decidedly baleful condition about a mile below Fort Hamilton," wrote Mrs. Alta Harvey Heiser's 1941 book, Hamilton in the Making.
"This was the Big Pond, said to have covered 100 acres of land. Old plats show that it was shaped like a big question mark, which trailed off and lost its dot in the river," Mrs. Heiser said. "It was quite broad in the loop at the top, which fitted closely into a high embankment (west of present South Hamilton)."
"Formerly, the river had made one of its fantastic loops here," she explained. "Then came a flood, date unrecorded, which helped the river cut a straightened channel, leaving this evidence of its former course," she observed.
The Big Pond was a health hazard. "Chills and fever caused the death of many soldiers in the fort," Mrs. Heiser said, "and continued to cause trouble for the people who settled near."
Starting in 1831, she said, "a tax was levied to raise money for draining the pond," but the project wasn't completed and later became tangled in legal controversies.
By the 1840s, only two or three acres remained under water. Later, the Big Pond became the northeast part of the area known as Peck's Addition, a 200-acre residential development proposed in 1875 and annexed to Hamilton in 1908.
# # #