Americas,  ER,  United States

The Spanish Conspiracy

General James Wilkinson Photo Credit- Independence National Historical Park Collection in Philadelphia, PA.

The beginnings of the United States of America were not as cut and dried as our high school history textbooks would like us to believe.  We did not declare independence from Great Britain then happily stand shoulder to shoulder to enforce manifest destiny and grow the country from sea to shining sea.  There were a lot of tipping points where the fate of the country could have been changed from the actions of greedy men.  The Spanish conspiracy was one of those tipping points.

In the 1780’s the revolution was over, but the country was still in a state of flux.  People pushed west into Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee from the original eastern states.  One of those people who moved west to seek his fortune was General James Wilkinson.  He was a veteran of the Continental Army, and despite his suspected participation in the “Conway Cabal” to overthrow George Washington, still had a decent reputation.  By 1785, Wilkinson had become involved in politics in the Cumberland Territories- the area around Kentucky and Tennessee.  At that time, that area was part of Virginia and were actively petitioning to separate and become their own state.  On the other hand, the Spanish were stirring up attacks on the Cumberland settlements by the Creeks under the leadership of Alexander McGillivray.  Trade was cut off by these attacks, and the settlers could not navigate the Mississippi River as it was also controlled by the Spanish.  The new Congress had no desire to pick a fight with Spain after just getting out of one with Great Britain.  The western settlers were effectively cut off and not happy.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana Photo Credit- Google Images

In 1787, Wilkinson traveled to Spanish held New Orleans to meet with Louisiana Governor General Esteban Miro.  Miro was the highest ranking officer of the Spanish Empire in North America, and Wilkinson pitched him a deal.  Kentucky would split from the United States and set itself up as a “buffer” state between the new United States and the Spanish Empire in the New World.  While the Spanish allowed Wilkinson to bring his good to market with no duty charges, no one else in Kentucky got that sweet deal.  In fact, the Mississippi would remain closed to everyone else, while Wilkinson would whip up trouble in the Kentucky assembly demanding the Washington administration to intervene, which they were not about to do.  In exchange for these exclusive trade rights and thousands of dollars, Wilkinson pledged allegiance to His Catholic Majesty, King of Spain.  I’m not a legal scholar, but I’m pretty sure that’s treason.  Wilkinson became known as “Agent 13” and was put in contact with Manuel Gayoso, the Governor of the Natchez District.

Wilkinson and Gayoso’s correspondence is breathtaking in its treasonous content.  Wilkinson’s goal was to become “the George Washington of the West.”, and happily provided the names of his countrymen who were susceptible to Spanish gold.He was also not above selling out his other countrymen who had similar ambitions.  In 1789,  Colonel George Morgan had the idea of starting a new Spanish colony on the west bank of the Mississippi near the mouth of the Ohio River.  This eventually became the town of New Madrid.  Wilkinson was afraid this new colony would cut off the trade monopoly he was planning for his new state when Kentucky broke away.  To head that off at the pass, he gleefully began a smear campaign about the settlers Morgan had recruited as well as Morgan himself to his Spanish masters.  He wrote, “This Colonel Morgan … is a man of education and understanding, but a deep speculator. He has been bankrupt twice, and finds himself at the present moment in extreme necessity.”  Then in what had to be extreme irony or complete lack of self awareness, questioned Morgan’s sincerity saying “ruled by motives of the vilest self-interest.”  True or not, it worked and the colony did not receive the needed support from Spain.

The biggest blow to Wilkinson’s scheme happened in 1789, when the Council of the Indies opened the Mississippi to transport for goods by Westerners as long as they were willing to pay a duty.  This was his whole casus belli for splitting off from the United States.  The death knell was the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo, or Pinckney’s Treaty, on October 27, 1795.  This treaty gave the Westerners unfettered free access to the Mississippi.  The Spanish fort built on the Chickasaw Bluffs, now Memphis, to protect their territory from American incursions was turned over to the Americans.  It was now under the command of a young officer named Meriwether Lewis.  

As for Wilkinson?  Well, his dreams of separating from the United States had not died.  Later he became involved in another conspiracy with the infamous Aaron Burr.  For more on that, please see this post:

He has also been implicated in the possible murder of Meriwether Lewis, however, that is speculation.  Let us just say, it would not have been out of character.  Please see this post for more on that:


Sources available on request