Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Scorpions in a Bottle: The Greene Expedition

The latest section of Scorpions in a Bottle follows the former American rebels as they make the dangerous trek from Virginia to Spanish Texas that would later be immortalized as the Wilderness Walk. This section follows on from the account of the Loyalist reaction of 1778-79.

* * *

The southern expedition was more successful. Under the command of Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, this expedition gathered near Williamsburg in the spring of 1780, intending to travel overland to the province of Tejas in New Spain. Three quarters of its members were from the Southern colonies, and included a number of slaveowners who brought their Negro slaves with them. This led to some friction with members from the northern colonies, who believed that the overland route would be dangerous enough without the added difficulty of keeping watch on hundreds of slaves to prevent their escape en route. Governor Bland attempted to persuade General Clinton to forbid the Greene expedition to remove any Negro slaves from the colonies -- not out of humanitarianism, but for fear that the expedition’s slaves would escape their control and join Marion’s raiders in the western hills. Despite these efforts, the Greene expedition included roughly 500 slaves, along with some 3,000 to 4,000 white colonists. [1]

Greene’s reasons for taking the more difficult overland route, rather than sailing to New Orleans or the mouth of the San Antonio River, were twofold. Firstly, he intended to augment the expedition’s numbers by traveling through the Southern colonies and recruiting disaffected former rebels. Secondly, he hoped to blaze a trail through the wilderness that would allow later settlers to follow him to the new settlement. The first aim proved successful: uncertainty concerning the numbers of the Greene expedition are due mainly to colonists who joined after the departure from Williamsburg, who may have numbered anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 people. The second aim was, on the whole, a failure. The difficulties encountered by Greene’s expedition made the overland route unpopular, and practically all colonial emigration to Tejas after 1782 arrived via ship.

Greene’s original plan would have seen the expedition travel by road from Williamsburg to St. Augustine, Florida before traveling west along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans. However, news of the British government’s decision to cede Florida to Spain forced the expedition’s leaders to revise their plans on the fly, and the decision was made in July to strike west into North Carolina. The expedition reached Kings Mountain, South Carolina, and paused to reorganize, before continuing west. However, by September a combination of unfamiliar terrain and skirmishes with the local Indian tribes made it clear that they would be unable to reach the Gulf Coast by winter, and the expedition turned back to winter in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Setting forth again in April 1781, the Greene expedition was able to travel west after engaging Indian guides among the Cherokee. The expedition struck the Mississippi River in August, then traveled downstream to Baton Rouge, which they reached in early September. The journey was difficult, and almost half the people on the expedition had either turned back, or died from disease. Baton Rouge had been under Spanish rule since the North ministry ceded the Floridas in 1780, and most members of the expedition wanted to settle there permanently. Had they done so, the subsequent history of the North American continent would have been very different. However, the arrival in November of a second party of 800 former rebels, who had traveled by ship from Charles Town, South Carolina, convinced the surviving members of the Greene expedition to press on to Spanish Tejas in the spring. [2]

During their stay in Baton Rouge, the leaders of the Greene expedition came into contact with the Acadians, French settlers from Nova Scotia who had been forced from their homes during and after the Seven Years’ War. Many Acadians feared (presciently, as it proved) that the aggressive, land-hungry British colonists would soon expand into Spanish Louisiana, and they looked with interest on the expedition’s plans to establish a new settlement in Tejas. As a result, when the Greene expedition resumed its journey in April 1782, it was accompanied by some 200 Acadians and other Francophone residents of Louisiana.

For decades, French settlers in Louisiana had engaged in illegal smuggling with Spanish colonists in Tejas. These contacts between French and Spanish colonists proved fortunate for the new arrivals, since it allowed them to establish friendly relations with the Spanish settlers upon their arrival in Tejas in the summer of 1782. Particular assistance was provided by Father Jean Baptistee de Gray, an Acadian priest who had been expelled from Nova Scotia during the Seven Years’ War. With de Gray’s assistance, the exiled Americans were granted permission by Governor Domingo Cabello y Robles to establish several settlements on the Trinity River, including Jefferson City, Arnold, and Henrytown, the latter a port at the mouth of the Trinity River. The Acadians established a separate settlement called Lafayette near the Spanish settlement of Nacogdoches. By November 1782, the new settlements had been well-established, and the American exiles set to work creating a new society in a strange land. [3]

1. In his account of the Greene expedition, Hamilton claimed that the Negro slaves were never meant to be transported to the new settlement, but were supposed to be sold en route to help finance the journey. Farewell to Change, p. 117.

2. Richard Bennett. The First Group: Pioneers in the Wilderness (Mexico City, 1933).

3. Rafael Coronado. 1782: The Founding of Jefferson (Jefferson City, 1982).

No comments: