Neutral Strip and Outlaws

Spain was much displeased because of the sale of Louisiana to the United States and at once began to manifest her dissatisfaction by incursions on the frontiers. The Spanish officials who had remained in New Orleans under the short regime of Napoleon were also reluctant to release their authority. But when General Wilkinson, in command of the Western army, arrived with instructions to install and uphold the civil officers of the United States, the Spaniards "gracefully bowed themselves out." With a few trivial exceptions the change of government at New Orleans and other points along the Mississippi was accomplished in a very peaceable manner, and in a few years the Latin citizens of the young republic were happily reconciled to the new order, and subsequent history bears ample proof of their patriotic loyalty. But the western frontier of Louisiana was the scene of Spanish hostility to the United States The boundary between French Louisiana and Spain's Mexican empire had never been definitely fixed, and at the time of Jefferson's great purchase Spain claimed all of Texas as well as a strip of land in Louisiana lying between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo, a tributary of Red River, seven miles west of Natchitoches, extending north along Red River and south, on an imaginary line, to the Gulf. Several years had elapsed, still no agreement had been reached as to the western boundary, nor was the matter adjusted until 1820, when the United States acquired the Florida territory by purchase and by the terms of the same treaty relinquished to Spain all claims to Texas, the Sabine River being designated as the boundary.

During the first three years following the occupation of Louisiana by the United States, Spain had exhausted many efforts to retain her sovereignty in the territory lying between the Arroyo Hondo and the Sabine, but the army kept a vigilant guard on every move made by the Spaniards. In 1806, General Wilkinson and the Spanish general, Herrera, entered into an agreement which provided that this territory should be neutral until the matter could be adjusted by their respective governments. Thus, for fourteen years this section had no government of any kind, and as a consequence it became the rendezvous for outlaws from the United States, Mexico and other parts of the world. It was the home of robbers, murderers and plotters against the authority of constituted governments. The whole of Sabine parish was included in this turbulent "No Man's Land" and all stories concerning it are therefore pertinent to these simple annals. Natchitoches became the chief army post on the frontier. That city had been, long before the purchase, headquarters for political plotters and "soldiers of fortune."

In 1800, Phillip Nolan, an adventurer from the United States, conceived the idea of leading a filibustering expedition into Texas. Three years previously, with the consent of the Spanish governor of Louisiana, he went to Texas, ostensibly to procure horses for the army, but he seems to have had plans of greater moment than corralling bronchos. On this trip he made a map of the country as well as seeking the friendship and trade of the Indians of the plains. With a party of about twenty of his countrymen he returned to Texas and was gathering up some horses in the vicinity of the present city of Waco when his little band was surrounded by a large number of Spaniards, who had become suspicious of the Americans. Nolan refused to surrender and a fierce" battle ensued. Early in the engagement Nolan fell mortally wounded. The fight was continued by the Americans, under the command of Peter Ellis Bean, until their ammunition was exhausted, when, upon promise that they would be permitted to return to the United States, they surrendered to the Spaniards But Spanish officers on the frontiers were not very scrupulous when it came to redeeming their promises, and this instance was no exception. The Americans were carried to Mexico, imprisoned and were constantly subjected to most cruel treatment. The number was reduced to nine, by battles and deaths in prison, and in 1807 one of them was hanged by order of the viceroy, after lots had been cast to determine which of the nine Americans should be the victim of the executioner. With the exception of Bean, there is no record as to the fate of the other members of the band. Bean managed to escape from the prison, but was recaptured and kept in chains until the breaking out of the Mexican revolution, when he was liberated, after giving his promise that he would fight for the king of Spain. He fought for a short time, but when the opportunity came he deserted and joined the army of the revolution which was fighting for independence and a republican movement. Bean distinguished himself in many battles for skill and bravery and endeared himself to the Mexican patriots. It is related that he married a rich Mexican lady and when Mexico gained her independence he was given a position as an officer in the army. While in the service of the republic he met the famous filibusterer, Lafitte, accompanied him to New Orleans and rendered splendid aid to General Jackson and his heroic army in the memorable defeat of the English in their last attempt to invade the United States.

Pending the settlement of the Neutral Strip the army remained at Natchitoches, and in 1812 Augustus Magee, a young lieutenant who was stationed there, resigned his position in the army and began to organize a regiment for the invasion of Texas in aid of Mexico in her fight to end Spanish rule. The Americans and the Mexican republicans were successful in two or three battles, but ultimately suffered a disastrous defeat at the battle of the Medina. Of the eight hundred Americans who marched to the war only about eighty escaped the tremendous slaughter inflicted by the Spanish troops.

A few years later Dr. James Long, in league with a Mexican commander named Gutierras, led two expeditions against the Spaniards which were characterized by many deeds of daring, but terminated in defeat for their arms and the death of the brave doctor.

The exploits of these filibusterers took place in Texas, but their plots were hatched in the Neutral Strip, and it was here that the men engaged in the enterprises were assembled and tutored for their venturous campaigns. It was here that Aaron Burr, once vice president of the United States, expected to receive trusted recruits to put in execution his plan for the conquest of Mexico and Louisiana and the establishment of a Western empire over the destinies of which he should preside, but whose wild dream culminated in his indictment on a charge of treason, the disclosure of the Blennerhassett scandal and his complete disgrace.

There were two great avenues for travel through Sabine parish, the road from Natchitoches to San Antonio, opened by St. Denys, passing through Fort Jesup and the present town of Many, and the highway known as Nolan's Trace, blazed by the ill-fated adventurer, Phillip Nolan, which extended between Alexandria and Texas. Fallen Springs, four miles south of Many, was a popular camping ground for all who traveled the Nolan road, and in this vicinity many robberies and murders are alleged to have been perpetrated. Many stories are related about treasures of gold and silver which the robbers are supposed to have buried along these pioneer roads while hastening to escape the vengeance of their victims or the "regulators," and the wealth of travelers alleged to have been hidden to keep it from falling into the hands of the robbers. In later years many endeavors have been put forth to unearth these "wonderful treasures," but despite the aid of "mineral rods," and their reputed unfailing virtues, and the impecunious wayfarer who peddles "ancient" charts with directions for locating the long-hidden "pots of gold," if any man has recovered an amount sufficient to pay his poll tax for a single fiscal year he has kept the matter a profound secret.

Men like Nolan, Bean, Magee and Long are very kindly called filibusterers. They were not, indeed, desperadoes, but, no doubt, they enlisted, in their service men upon whose characters was stamped the brand of the bravo. In this age the Amer lean bandit was at the zenith of his glory. The times and the manners were favorable to the pursuit of his unlawful vocation, Natchitoches was the great trade-center of West Louisiana and a large portion of Texas. Immense herds of wild cattle and horses roamed the Great Plains and there was a large traffic in these animals. Traders were constantly engaged in driving them through Louisiana to the states east of the Mississippi where they found a market. Several months were often consumed in driving the herds to their destination, and while passing through the Neutral Strip it was a frequent occurrence for many of the animals to be separated from the droves by thieves who took them to a market of their own selection. Merchants also passed to and from the Spanish territory with their goods and were compelled to keep a vigilant watch for the nervy robbers. The country was ideal for the operations of the freebooter, as it was covered with heavy forests which were frequently made nearly impenetrable by magnificent brakes of wild cane and dense undergrowth's. In these wild seclusions the robbers found protection from their pursuers until they could finally escape with their stolen wares or livestock. The outlaws of Sabine were not unlike those who have infested other sections of our country during the early days of the nineteenth century. It may be observed that in the vanguard of the armies which have marched, through all ages of the world, holding aloft the torch of civilization, the robber has ever lurked and assiduously plied his trade, But he unusually flourished for only a brief period, and, if he escaped death from violence, he at least passed from earth "unhonored and unsung" no loved ones come to drop a pitying tear upon his grave, and no simple marba stela marks his earthly goal. Many of these characters left good homes to seek their fortunes in the border wilds, others perchance were fugitives from justice, but their names are now forgotten and their deeds are remembered only in connection with the stories of the pioneers.

 

Sabine Parish | AHGP Louisiana

Source: History of Sabine Parish, Louisiana, by John G. Belisle, Sabine Banner Press, 1913.

 

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