Today in French Quarter History, August 22nd, 1787. James Wilkinson began the “Spanish Conspiracy” when he signed a document in New Orleans. In it, he pledged his allegiance to the Spanish Crown and renounced his American citizenship. Wilkinson coded his subsequent documents for Spain using Spanish Cipher 13. This would morph into Wilkinson’s code name, Agent 13.
James Wilkinson and Benedict Arnold
James Wilkinson enlisted in the Continental Army in 1777. The man who signed him up was Benedict Arnold, of all people. Ten years later Wilkinson would betray his country too. Does it take a traitor to know a traitor?
James Wilkinson and the “Spanish Conspiracy”
Wilkinson made his first appearance in New Orleans in 1787 when he met with Spanish Lousiana Governor, Esteban Rodriguez Miro. This was the beginning of the Spanish Conspiracy. The Spanish controlled navigation on the Mississippi River and charged American river men high tariffs. Wilkinson managed to persuade Miro to give Kentucky a trading monopoly on the river. However, Miro wanted something in exchange. Fearing that Kentucky would become part of the United States, he expected Wilkinson to work towards having Kentucky become a Spanish territory. Using Spanish Cipher 13, Wilkinson heavily encoded important information that he passed onto the Spaniards. Spain paid him handsomely for this. Although he failed to turn over Kentucky, his escapades as Agent 13 were far from over.
America’s Highest Ranking Military Officer
Wilkinson rose in the ranks of the US army and became its highest ranking military officer. President Jefferson chose him, together with Charles Claiborne, to officially receive the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803. Claiborne became governor of the Territory of Orleans, including New Orleans. Wilkinson became the military governor for the rest of the Louisiana Territory. All the while, Wilkinson strove to continue his work for Spain as a spy in exchange for payment from the Crown. He committed one of his most despicable acts during this time. He made Spain aware of the true intention of the Lewis and Clark expedition. That was to find a waterway from the US to the Pacific Ocean to encourage US westward expansion, which is what Spain feared most.
James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr
Does it take a traitor to know a traitor? Well, if it does, Wilkinson and Burr were made for each other. In this case, Wilkinson would betray both Spain and the United Staes. The duo met in 1804 and then corresponded about the “Burr Conspiracy.” This affair called for Burr and Wilkinson to seize New Orleans and afterward, establish their own personal kingdom! Their kingdom was to extend throughout the Southwestern United States and into parts of Mexico.
Wilkinson Chickens Out
Fortunately for the US, Wilkinson would soon show his true colors in 1806. He was worried about being found out, so he betrayed Burr to President Jefferson. In February 1807, government agents captured Burr near Natchez and brought to Virginia to stand trial for treason. Although Wilkinson was present and testified against Burr, he was acquitted. In 1811, Wilkinson was court-martialed for his role in the Burr Conspiracy. He was exonerated too.
Major General, the War of 1812
During the War of 1812, the army promoted Wilkinson to Major General. After successfully occupying Mobile in Spanish West Florida, he took command of the St. Lawrence River theatre. There, he failed miserably twice so the army relieved him of duty. Although his court-martial acquitted him, the army discharged him in June of 1815. The following year, he published a book in an effort to clear his name.
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