The Highs and Lows of Gov. James Wilkinson

3, March 2017

Occasionally there are figures who weave in and out of history, connecting seemingly disparate people and events. It’s like when an infamous recurring character’s name pops up in the credits of a television show: You just know things are about to get messy.  

James Wilkinson was one such person. Throughout his lifetime he had been called a conspirator, drunkard, slanderer, traitor, insurgent, perjurer—and the Louisiana Territory’s first governor.

Color portrait of Gen. James Wilkinson in high-necked military garbPortrait of James Wilkinson by John Wesley Jarvis, ca. 1820–1825. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wilkinson was born outside of a small town in Maryland called Benedict in 1757. (Insert foreboding music here.) After working as a physician’s apprentice and opening his own practice, he met army officials—including, yes, Benedict Arnold—who stoked his interest in joining the military. From the very start his army career was a rocky one. He fought a bloodless duel with his boss, then went on to outfit George Washington’s troops as clothier general until accusations of corruption surfaced and he was forced to resign in 1781.

Hoping to enjoy a literal and figurative reversal of fortune, Wilkinson resettled in what is now Kentucky, where he courted the favor of both Spain and the United States, pledging to help Spain wrest control of Kentucky while simultaneously pushing for its admittance to the Union. Wilkinson was also paid by Spanish officials to leak U.S. secrets, including the details of Lewis and Clark’s journey. Spanish troops repeatedly tried and failed to capture the explorers and end their expedition—and possibly their lives.

Rumblings of Wilkinson’s suspected treason intensified, yet he became commander in chief of the U.S. Army in 1796. President Thomas Jefferson even chose to name him governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1805. Jefferson had hoped Wilkinson could create stability among the territory’s Spanish influences, its longtime French inhabitants, and the influx of American frontiersmen—reality didn't turn out that way. As the book A History of Missouri recounts:

Wilkinson turned out to be a most unfortunate choice, for in his attempt to bring order to the unsettled frontier the new governor had soon alienated most of his fellow officials and a large segment of the population. . . . The appointment must have come as welcome news to the hard-pressed general, who for some time had sought an additional office to help alleviate his chronic financial difficulties.

Sepia-toned portrait of second vice president Aaron BurrPortrait of Aaron Burr, ca. 1836. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

A few months after Wilkinson took office, ex–vice president Aaron Burr traveled to St. Louis, where he and the governor held a series of secretive talks about breaking the Mississippi Valley region away from the fledgling United States and forming their own nation. When their plans were uncovered, Wilkinson pinned the blame squarely on Burr to minimize his part in the conspiracy.

Wilkinson didn’t escape unscathed, however, as the spectacularly titled work Proofs of the Corruption of General James Wilkinson and of His Connexion with Aaron Burr with a Full Refutation of His Slanderous Allegations in Relation to the Character of the Principal Witness Against Him reveals. In it, surveyor Andrew Ellicott, one of Meriwether Lewis's former teachers, had this—and many other things—to say about Wilkinson: 

The important trust which has lately been committed to him forms a motive infinitely stronger than any personal consideration—knowing, as I do, that he has for years been the pensioner of a foreign power, that his hire was paid to the dismemberment and ruin of his country. . . . I owe it to my country to call their attention to the amazing blindness, the willful incredulity! Or the cooperation in guilt that has thus invested a detected traitor with the means of completing his treason.

Though never imprisoned for his offenses, Wilkinson’s life unraveled following the accusations of treason, corruption, and perjury. Demoted from his army rank for neglect of duty and drunkenness, he headed to Mexico in 1822. He died there three years later—broke, alone, and waiting on a land deal that never came to pass.

—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor

EDITOR'S NOTE: You can find a copy of Proofs of the Corruption of General James Wilkinson, as well as a collection of James Wilkinson's own papersin MHM's Library and Research Center located at 225 S. Skinker Boulevard.

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