What does commutation mean?

November 30th, 2010

Back in 1780, Congress, responding to Washington’s appeals, voted that all officers who continued to serve until the end of the war should receive half pay for life.  In 1783, Congress adopted the “Commutation Act,” which changed the arrangement to five years full pay in money or interest bearing securities.  But because of a shortage of funds, the Confederation couldn’t pay the principal or the interest.  Speculators capitalized when Congress later provided payment of the certificates.  One of Joseph Howell’s duties at the office of Army accounts was verifying appropriate documentation for commutation claims.

How to Handle Spies, circa 1796

November 15th, 2010

In May 1796, Secretary of War James McHenry wrote a private letter to Major General Anthony Wayne at Fort Washington, warning him of the presence of three men with “traitorous intentions.” The men—Thomas Powers, Georges-Henri-Victor Collot, and Joseph Warin—were on a mission for the French government to reconnoiter the United States’ military position in the Western Territory, and encourage people to secede from the Union.

What was really happening at this time? Louisiana was under Spanish control, but holding the colony was proving too costly. The Spanish realized that they would inevitably be forced to return the territory to the French. Collot, a French general and one time governor of Guadalupe, was paroled by the British to the United States following his surrender of that island. Collot was recruited to undertake a detailed reconnaissance mission of the area, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Although he was provided with official papers from both the French and the Spanish, his mission was regarded with immediate suspicion by the Federalists. McHenry wasted no time ordering Wayne and Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, to be alert to the movements of Collot and his confederates. McHenry’s goal was to find grounds to detain Collot and search his papers, while at the same time offering this proviso: “You will not however understand by this that either vigorous or unlawful means are to be employed to obtain them; for tho’ the crimes of traitors affect a whole people, it is nevertheless proper to respect the rights of humanity in their chastisement.”

In correspondence from Wayne to McHenry, we learn that Collot has managed to elude capture thus far, though Wayne states “I trust the nefarious machinations by the enemies of our country shall be fully discovered, and the prime movers receive the punishment due to their demerits.” Likewise St. Clair is given the slip, although he assures McHenry he would follow Collot himself, if only he had the funding. Collot is finally arrested by Zebulon Pike, commander at Fort Massac (Illinois), who searched his boat, opened his trunks, and examined his papers. Collot, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, wrote everything in French, which no one at Fort Massac was able to read. In his July 26, 1976 letter to Collot, Pike comments that “you have been indefatigable in surveying the Ohio, by taking the courses, distances, heights, etc., as well as reconnoitering the adjacent area for which you exhibit no authority.” It was unclear at that time what legal authority, if any, applied to such a case, and Pike was unable to hold Collot or his papers. The Collot case, along with other, better remembered incidents, fed into the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

The irony, of course, is that Pike was right. Collot proved to be a gifted surveyor in addition to being a talented military strategist, and his voluminous documentation of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, along with the surrounding countryside, was certainly the most detailed and accurate in existence at that time. Collot finally returned to France, but he had been away too long, and fallen out of favor. The French, having given up any significant plans of holding onto Louisiana, had no use for Collot. Fortunately a French publisher recognized the value of his work, and there was a posthumous 1826 publication of his journeys titled Voyage dans l’Amérique Septentrionale.

The letters held by the Papers of the War Department are from the Indiana Historical Society’s Northwest Territory Collection.


Kind and Friendly Treatment of the Indians

November 1st, 2010

During the mid-1790s the Indian policy of the federal government under George Washington was to accommodate the southern Indian tribes as much as possible. Even though the northern Indians had been defeated in 1794, it still behooved Washington and his advisers to avoid conflict with the southern tribes so as not involve the United States in another costly Indian war. Also it seemed that Washington genuinely wanted to treat the Indians as fairly as he would other Americans. Evidence of that attitude can be seen in a document contained in the William Irvine Papers of the Papers of the War Department. In a lengthy letter, dated 11/26/1795, sent to James Byers, who was to be in charge of two new trading posts in Georgia and the Southwest Territory, Secretary of War Timothy Pickering describes in detail how the Indians are to be treated as they do business at the two posts. Business with the Indians should manifest the “liberality and friendship of the United States” which he hoped would “lay the foundation of a lasting peace.” “Unfair dealing” was strictly prohibited and the value of the skins traded by the Indians should be the same as their market value in Philadelphia. The use of credit by either the traders or the Indians was strictly regulated and allowed on a case-by-case basis only by the War Department. Those who were employed at the posts were to maintain “a character of perfect probity and sobriety.” Pickering would have preferred that whiskey not be sold to the Indians but, if sales could not be avoided, whiskey was to be sold in “such small quantities as may guard them against drunkenness.” He closes this five-page letter, by stressing “the necessity of kind and friendly treatment of the Indians who may visit your station.”