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.