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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

The French Threat in the Mississippi Valley in the Early Republic

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

The decade from 1793 to 1803 was a critical period in American history in terms of foreign relations as well as the maintenance and expansion of the new republic’s territory. One of the greatest threats to the country at this time does not receive the attention it deserves; the scheming and plotting to involve the US in war against Spain by French agents While our last post, “French Influence in the Early Republic: The Citizen Genet Affair” addressed the larger view of the French Minister’s actions, it only lightly touched on what could have been the most threatening piece of his mission to the new United States; the desire of the revolutionary French government to induce the frontiersmen of America to seize Louisiana, and the Floridas in order to reestablish the French empire in North America. This scheme by France, which almost certainly would have drawn the United States into a war with Spain, depended upon the active support of the American people, and particularly upon irate Kentuckians, as well as some well-known Revolutionary War heroes, to aid her in expelling the Spanish from the approaches to the Mississippi.

How the Spanish Came to Control Florida, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast

The first European explorers to visit Louisiana and the Gulf Coast came in 1528 when a Spanish expedition led by Panfilo de Narváez sailed through Pensacola and Mobile Bays and found the mouth of the Mississippi River. Other expeditions through the area followed but none of them made any land claims for Spain.

The French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle named the region Louisiana in 1682 to honor France's King Louis XIV. In 1698, the Spanish settled Pensacola and in 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, a French military officer from Canada founded the first permanent French settlement in the Louisiana Territory, Fort Maurepas (at what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi, near present-day Biloxi, MS). In 1702, d'Iberville, from his base at Fort Maurepas, founded a settlement on the Mobile River. The French colony of Louisiana originally claimed, by royal ordinance of 1722, all land claimed by France south of the Great Lakes between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies.

Portrait of Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville
Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville

Following the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years War in Europe), France was forced by the Treaty of Paris of 1763 to cede most of its territory east of the Mississippi to the Kingdom of Great Britain, to including the area around Mobile that would, in conjunction with the Spanish holdings in the Florida panhandle, become the British Colony of West Florida. Spain, drawn into the Seven Years War on the side of France due to the Pacte de Famille, was forced to give up its claim to East Florida and Pensacola and demanded reparations from France. To satisfy these demands, the area around New Orleans and the parishes around Lake Pontchartrain, along with the rest of Louisiana, became a possession of Spain.

When France entered the American Revolution against England in 1778, Spain, due once again to the Pacte de Famille, declared war on England in 1779, creating a de facto alliance with the United States. On 25 June, a letter from London, marked secret and confidential, went to General John Campbell at Pensacola from King George III and Lord George Germain. The letter instructed Campbell that it was the object of greatest importance to organize an attack upon New Orleans. Unfortunately for Campbell, and the British war effort, the secret communication fell into the hands of Bernardo de Gálvez, colonial governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba. After reading the communication from King George III and Germain, Gálvez swiftly and secretly organized Louisiana and New Orleans for war.

Portrait of Bernardo de Gálvez
Bernardo de Gálvez, Colonial Governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba

Gálvez carried out a masterful military campaign defeating the British colonial forces at Fort Bute, Baton Rouge, and Natchez in 1779, freeing the lower Mississippi Valley of British forces. In March 1780, he recaptured Mobile and in May of 1781, Gálvez's most important military victory over the British forces occurred when he attacked and took Pensacola, the British (and formerly, Spanish) capital of West Florida, leaving the British with no bases on the Gulf Coast or the Mississippi Valley and Spain in control of the Gulf Coast, Louisiana, and the Mississippi River valley.

The Peace of Paris of 1783, a set of treaties that ended the American Revolutionary War, gave Spain both East and West Florida, in addition to the Louisiana Territory they already controlled. Additionally, it set the western boundaries of the United States at the Mississippi River and guaranteed Americans the right of free navigation of the river.

The French Effort to Gain Control of Louisiana and the Floridas

In November 1783, Bernardo del Campo, Spain’s chargé d'affaires in London, reported that swarms of discontented Americans were crossing the mountains into the Mississippi Valley, where they might soon become a serious menace to Spain's neighboring possessions. The rapid growth of Kentucky and of the American settlements at the Illinois, and shipments of American corn down the Mississippi, combined with what the Spanish saw as the greedy ambition of the Americans, made them a menace to Mexico. Spain had a remedy, however, for it could strangle the American West by closing its only commercial outlet, the Mississippi.

On June 26, 1784, Jose de Gálvez, governor in the Council of the Indies, and a councilor of state, wrote the Governor Gálvez, the intendant of Louisiana, and to Spain's agent in Philadelphia, directing them respectively to announce in the colonies and to inform the US Congress of Spain's exclusive right to the navigation of the Mississippi and to warn the Americans that, if caught, they would be arrested and their property confiscated pending the settlement of the questions at issue between Spain and the United States. This proclamation was published in Louisiana and communicated to Congress through the agency of the French chargé. A further declaration claimed Spain's exclusive right to navigation of the river as far as she owned both banks. The proclamation claimed that England's right to the navigation of the Mississippi depended on the possession of the eastern bank and, since Spain had conquered this bank during the war, England's pretended cession of the free navigation to the United States was an attempt to cede something that England did not possess.

In the spring of 1785, Don Diego de Gardoqui arrived in America to negotiate a commercial treaty, with instructions not to surrender Spain’s claim to the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi. On 25 August 1785, a month after receiving Gardoqui’s credentials, Congress instructed John Jay, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, “to stipulate the right of the United States to their territorial bounds, and the free Navigation of the Mississippi.…” Jay and Gardoqui entered negotiations but were soon deadlocked over the Mississippi. Consequently, on 3 August 1786 Jay asked Congress if, since Americans could not effectively use that right at present, they would give up the navigation for a period of twenty-five or thirty years.

Portrait of John Jay
John Jay

Southern delegates in Congress, especially those from Virginia, responded angrily to Jay’s request, and a bitter three-week debate ensued. Congress on 29 August voted seven to five to repeal Jay’s instructions respecting the Mississippi. The vote was sectional—the seven Northern States (Delaware was absent) voted for repeal; the five Southern States against it. Congress insisted that the debates be kept secret, but news spread quickly throughout the United States. Southerners and Westerners were indignant. Many of them believed that Jay had already given up the American right to the navigation of the Mississippi for twenty-five or thirty years and militant Westerners threatened to raise thousands of troops and drive the Spanish out; war seemed imminent in the West.

The news of the debates endangered the stability of the Union and the movement to strengthen the central government. The already wide breach between the Northern and Southern states widened even further. The attitude of people in the Western settlements further threatened the Union. In late 1786 and early 1787 a letter circulated in the West, declaring that, if Congress ceded the navigation of the Mississippi, the allegiance of Westerners would go to Great Britain. Between November 1786 and March 1787, several state legislatures considered the Mississippi question. In November 1786 the New Jersey legislature instructed the state’s delegates to Congress to oppose the closing of the Mississippi and in December 1786 and January 1787, the Virginia and North Carolina legislatures similarly instructed their congressional delegates that any cession of the right of navigation would violate the Articles of Confederation.

On 3 July the Maryland Journal published three important items on the Mississippi: (1) two letters from the Falls of the Ohio dated 4 and 6 December, protesting Congress’ attempts to make Westerners “vassals to the merciless Spaniards” and threatening to raise 20,000 troops to march against the Spanish; (2) a circular letter from Danville, Ky., voicing alarm over the proposed treaty with Spain and requesting that Congress be petitioned; and (3) a letter from Fayette County, Ky, expressing the hope that the Constitutional Convention would help Westerners by increasing the powers of Congress.

Citizen Genet Attempts to Fan the Flames

By the time the new French chargé d'affaires, Edmond Genet, arrived in America in 1793, the Mississippi, vital for moving western grain and animal products to markets, had been closed for almost 10 years and the young US Congress seemed to be doing little to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, the Washington administration seemed unresponsive to western matters. The west was ready to rebel, and Genet saw an opportunity to recover French territorial losses in North America.

Portrait of Edmond Charles Genêt
Edmond Charles Genêt

Upon his arrival in Charleston, Genet at once communicated the plan that he had drawn up to Governor Moultrie, the well-known Revolutionary leader. Genet and the consul, Mangourit, both report that a complete confidence existed between them and "this venerable veteran, the sincere friend of our Revolution." A few days later the consul visited Savannah to talk with General Mackintosh and others afterwards engaged in the expedition against Florida. As we can see, far from concealing the purpose of his visit from Moultrie, he induced that obliging official to grant him letters of introduction. Thus, Genet's brief visit to Charleston had sufficed to set in action the Florida side of the intrigue, which he left in the hands of the energetic French Consul Mangourit.

Meanwhile, on February 2, 1793, with his military career in a shamble and his prospects for prosperity doubtful, George Roger Clark wrote a letter offering his services to the French ambassador hoping to earn money to keep his estate. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Genet found the letter awaiting him. In this letter, Clark gave an account of his plans for the invasion of Louisiana and the capture of New Orleans and announced his readiness to start if aided by some frigates and provided with three thousand pounds sterling to meet expenses.

A few days after his arrival, Genet received two letters from André Michaux, the French botanist, to whom Jefferson had in January of that year given instructions on behalf of the American Philosophical Society for the transcontinental exploration which he proposed. Finding Michaux's exploring tour a convenient cover for his own designs, he selected him as his agent to go to Kentucky. Genet conferred with John Brown, the Kentucky congressman, who gave Michaux letters of introduction to Governor Shelby of Kentucky, and to George Rogers Clark.

The week before, he had received a letter from Charles DePauw, a Kentucky merchant, who, due to his trading voyages down the Mississippi, was familiar with the forts held by Spain on the route, and who had just come from New Orleans. In a paper written about 1808, DePauw related that on the twentieth of April 1793, he had taken part in a French dinner party in New Orleans, at which attendees discussed plans for a descent on New Orleans from Kentucky.

Portrait of George Rogers Clark
George Rogers Clark

Genet appointed Clark "Major General in the Armies of France and Commander-in-chief of the French Revolutionary Legion on the Mississippi River". Clark began to organize a campaign to seize New Madrid, St. Louis, Natchez, and New Orleans, getting aid from old comrades such as Benjamin Logan and John Montgomery, and winning the tacit support of Kentucky governor Isaac Shelby. Clark spent $4,680 ($70,871 in 2019 dollars) of his own money for supplies.

In November, Secretary of State Jefferson and Secretary of War Knox warned Kentucky Governor Shelby that Genet had dispatched four French agents – Citizens August Lachaise, Charles Depauw, Pis Gignoux and a carpenter named Mathurin – “with money . . . and with blank commissions” for an “expedition to descend the Ohio and Mississippi and attack New Orleans” The next day, General Arthur St. Clair dispatched a letter from Marietta, Ohio on the Ohio River warning Shelby “that General Clark has received a commission from the government of France, and is about to raise a body of men in Kentucky to attack the Spanish settlements upon the Mississippi” – and that “a large sum of money, a paymaster, and a number of French officers , are arrived at the Falls of the Ohio, and a number of boats for the expedition laid down.

In early 1794, however, President Washington’s patience ran out and he was finally provoked to act. He issued a proclamation forbidding Americans from violating U.S. neutrality and threatened to dispatch General Anthony Wayne and the American Army to Fort Massac to stop the expedition. This quickly cooled the ardor of the westerners for the project and the idea of invasion began grinding to a halt.

Picture of President Washington and his Cabinet

Meanwhile, In France, Genet’s supporters in the Girondist Party fell out of favor and the newly powerful Jacobins, having taken power in January 1794, responded to the United States protests of their minister’s actions sending an arrest notice which asked Genet to come back to France. Additionally, the French government revoked the commissions he granted to the Americans for the war against Spain. Clark was unable to convince the French to reimburse him for his expenses and Clark's reputation, already damaged by earlier accusations at the end of the Revolutionary War, was further maligned because of his involvement in these foreign intrigues.

Soon after arriving, Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, Genet’s successor, issued a proclamation (March 6, 1794) ending the expeditions on the Mississippi and against East Florida. It came when Clark and his friends were actively preparing for the descent of the Mississippi, and when troops were gathered at the St. Mary's and along the frontier of Georgia for an attack on St. Augustine. Had the proclamation been delayed, the attempt would certainly have begun.

Resolution of the Mississippi River Navigation Issue

Responding to pressure created by Clark’s expedition and the unrest in the west, on November 24, 1794, the Senate confirmed Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina as President Washington’s envoy to Madrid. The Congress charged him to negotiate a commercial treaty in which “our right to the free use of the Mississippi River shall be most unequivocally acknowledged on principles never hereafter to be drawn into contestation”.

Portrait of Thomas Pinckney
Thomas Pinckney

Pinckney's Treaty, also commonly known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo or the Treaty of Madrid, signed in San Lorenzo de El Escorial on October 27, 1795, declared intentions of friendship between the United States and Spain. It defined the border between the United States, Spanish Florida, and Spanish Louisiana, and guaranteed the United States navigation rights on the Mississippi River.

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Clark, G. R., Genet, E. C. “Correspondence of Clark and Genet: Selections from the Draper Collection in the Possession of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.” Washington, DC. Government Printing Office, 1897

Ford, Henry Jones. "Chapter VI, French Designs on America." Ford, Henry Jones.

Washington and His Colleagues. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1918. pp. 115-146.

Kaminski, John P. et al., eds. "The United States, Spain, and the Navigation of the Mississippi River." Kaminski, John P. et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. XIII. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1981. pp.149-152.

Kukla, Jon. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Turner, Frederick J. "The Origin of Genet's Projected Attack on Louisiana and the Floridas." American Historical Review, Vol. 3 No. 4. July 1898: pp. 650-671.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Policy of France Toward the Mississippi Valley in the Period of Washington and Adams." American Historical Review, Vol. 10 No. 2 Jan 1905: pp. 249-279.


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