If there is any thought that, among the early founders of our county, all were honorable and with no thought of personal gain, those rumors are dispelled by the plot of a couple of characters that wanted to carve out a portion of the Louisiana Purchase for themselves.
If the plot, engineered in the early 1800s by Aaron Burr and James Wilkinson had succeeded, those of us living in northeastern Oklahoma today might be citizens of a separate nation.
Burr, a Revolutionary war hero, first distinguished himself during the battle of Quebec while under the command of General Richard Montgomery. During the battle of Manhattan he was credited with saving an entire brigade from capture and later commanded a regiment that spent the harsh winter at Valley Forge.
After the war, Burr became a lawyer and entered politics. He ran for president in 1796 and came in fourth behind the eventual winner, John Adams. Burr was named Vice President during Thomas Jefferson’s second term and served from 1801 to 1805.
Following his term as Vice President, Burr ran for the office of governor of New York and Alexander Hamilton, who had served as the first Secretary of the Treasury, was opposed to him.
In the ensuing weeks, their disagreements became so heated Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel and mortally wounded him. Perhaps that and a few other events influenced Aaron Burr to enter into a conspiracy that would shape his personal legacy.
In the meantime, in 1803 the United States negotiated the sale of the Louisiana Purchase with France. So after he left the Vice Presidency, Burr leased 40,000 acres in present day Louisiana and conceived of a scheme to develop a western dynasty.
In 1805 he organized an expedition of about 80 men who, he claimed would settle on his land. Actually, this “small army” was to be used to infiltrate a part of the southwest portion of the Louisiana Purchase and Texas.
And, it was at this time he took General James Wilkinson, then governor of Louisiana, into his confidence. James Wilkinson was truly a “Teflon character.” He had accumulated, and would continue to accumulate what generously might be described as a “checkered background.” One historian described him “as a general that never won a battle or lost an inquiry.”
One of his contemporaries, serving as foreman of the jury during one of his trials stated, “He was the only man I ever saw who was, from the bark to the core, a villain.” Despite these observations, Wilkinson survived a court martial, two Congressional inquiries, a military court of inquiry for various offenses and a trial for treason. Also, earlier he had served in the Continental Army, but twice was compelled to resign.
In 1784 Wilkinson moved to Kentucky and conspired to have that state be the trade agency for Spain instead of the United States. It was also at this time he secretly agreed with the Spanish Crown to become a paid informant regarding United States intentions, an agreement that continued until his death.
Sometime during 1804-05, Burr took Wilkinson into his confidence and revealed his plan. In order to learn more about the region they were conspiring to control, in June of 1806, Wilkinson ordered Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to lead an expedition to “map the terrain, contact the native peoples and find the headwaters of the Red River.”
His son, James, Jr. who knew nothing of the conspiracy, was to explore and map the Arkansas River. Ostensibly, their findings would be valuable to the United States…it also would be valuable information for the conspiracy.
Shortly after, during the fall of 1806 and after their plot had been uncovered. Burr was captured in Alabama. During the trial that followed, his co-conspirator, the wily Wilkinson, became an informant. He produced an incriminating letter detailing the plot, but the evidence was thrown out when it was discovered that it was written in Wilkinson’s handwriting.
He said he had copied it when he lost the original. As a result of this and other inconsistencies, the Supreme Court dismissed the government’s conspiracy case against Burr.
By this time Burr was so indebt that he fled his creditors, and went to Europe for several years before returned to the United States. He died in 1836. Wilkinson, the “Teflon General,” once again landed on his feet and after serving in the War of 1812 and characteristically, losing more battles, was appointed United States Envoy to Mexico. Wilkinson, “the other conspirator,” died in 1825.
World history is fraught with intriguing treasonable acts committed by self serving individuals. The Burr and Wilkinson conspiracy set the stage as one of our first.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.