Monday, January 16, 2017

Doctors and Lawyers

In a moment of frustration after his hold on the army began to slip, Gutiérrez complained in his diary that the American volunteer force was “mostly doctors and lawyers gifted in all matters, especially in the matter of rascality.”[1] An exaggeration perhaps, but the expedition did attract a number of young professional men who may have sought military success to burnish their reputations in the status-conscious era, when a few months of service could earn one the honorific “Major” or “Colonel” for the rest of one’s life. Among the educated adventurers who joined the army was David Phelps. A previously unidentified member of the expedition in the existing literature, his participation is referenced in his family history. Born in Connecticut, he was a relative of a Revolutionary War general, Noah Phelps, who had helped capture Fort Ticonderoga. For his part, David Phelps fought at the Battle of Wyoming, Pennsylvania (1778), in which some patriot survivors of the battle were reportedly massacred by Iroquois allies of British loyalists. He later attended Yale and became a doctor. He moved west and may have lived in Kentucky.[2] The new territory of Louisiana at the time was still bursting with new immigrants, and Phelps, who had married a widow, apparently trailed relatives of his new wife to the region. He settled in Catahoula Parish, where he was the community’s first doctor.[3] In addition to his wife’s older children from her previous marriage, Phelps had two children under ten years old living with him listed in the 1810 census. Phelps was around 46 years old at the time.[4] Catahoula Parish, about ten miles west of Natchez, was one of several new parishes carved out of existing ones by Gov. Claiborne in the decade following the Louisiana Purchase. Practicing medicine in a rural area, even a growing one, was not very lucrative given the lack of hard currency, and Phelps appears to have struggled. In 1809, the doctor went into debt to a neighbor for the sum of $500, putting up as collateral property, household goods, livestock, and two slaves named Dick and Kate.[5]
Phelps’ motivation in joining the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition was likely financial and possibly included land speculation, for which he later showed a clear interest. Phelps survived the Battle of Medina and fled northward, but was captured by the royalists at Spanish Bluffs. He was imprisoned in San Antonio, but later released and walked home to Louisiana. He actively traded land, and in January 1823 bought a tract near Sicily Island, Louisiana, along the Mississippi River, for $100 and then sold the same land for $400 later that year.[6]
Two other participants who left budding professional careers to join up were the brothers Darius and Orramel Johnston. Their grandfather, Achibald Johnston, was a captain in the American Revolution and then ran an iron works in Connecticut.[7] His son, John Johnston, attended medical school and then joined the westward movement to Kentucky, where he settled in Macon County, then on the frontier, and began what would become a prodigious family that encompassed twelve children, Darius was the third, Orramel the fifth, and three wives. The eleventh child, a half-brother who was nine years old when Darius and Orramel went to Texas, was Albert Sidney Johnston, who later rose to fame in the armies of the Republic of Texas and the Confederacy. It is due to him that most of the family history is preserved.[8]
The Johnston family was middle class and well-educated by frontier standards. Darius and Orramel were known to have studied under private tutors, perhaps Mann Butler, who later instructed their younger brother Albert Sidney. If so, Butler was known to be a strong nationalist and disciple of Henry Clay.[9] Darius studied at Transylvania University in Lexington and then studied law under William T. Barry, who served in the Kentucky legislature and later rose to be U.S. Postmaster General under President Andrew Jackson. Orramel followed his father into the practice of medicine, studying in New Orleans.[10] When they joined the expedition in 1812, Darius was 23, Orramel 20. They survived the Battle of Medina but were evidently captured and imprisoned for a time. They were released and returned to the United States, both with constitutions wrecked by the experience. Darius died in 1819 at 29, Orramel in 1826, at 34.[11] The Johnstons were well-connected with the elites of Kentucky and Louisiana. An older brother, Josiah Stoddard Johnston, was a member of the Louisiana territorial legislature until 1812, and later a member of Congress. He knew and courted the Kempers for their political support, and married the daughter of Dr. John Sibley, the U.S. Indian agent and avid supporter of the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition.[12] 
Orramel, like his politician brother, was politically minded. An 1818 essay on banking and finance that shows him to be well educated and squarely in the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian mindset on the issue: “We learn from the history of antiquity,” Johnston wrote, “the deplorable and lamentable fact, that money was the cause of the downfall of its governments, and under its scourge, the fairest flower of republican virtue withered.”[13] Spouting a proto-nullification doctrine in opposition to the bank, he also sounds a populist note opposed to the consolidation of capital, calling on a convention to “destroy entirely the old constitution and form a new one & expressly say that there shall be no banks.”[14]
Orramel, though only a youth, had the boldness to write a cryptic letter to an unknown correspondent of some apparent influence in May 1812, asking the reader to “forward this letter to Mr. James Madison President of the United states of America with all the haste imaginable it contains something of a very serious Nature the faster it is forwarded the better it is for him.” The contents of the forwarded letter are lost.[15] 
In a separate letter written a month later from Natchitoches that exists in the papers of James Monroe, Johnston reveals what he is afraid is a “very excentrick movement contrary to the orders of government.” He warns an unknown reader (who apparently forwarded the letter to Monroe, of “a man by the name of Colonel Bernado, but goes by the title of the Spanish Ambassador and a Mr. Shaler who is the American Counsel who have lately arrived here about six weeks ago from the Federal City no one knows their business yet.” Johnston further reveals that General John Adair, a “Major Welsh” and a “Captain Glass” are recruiting volunteers. Not privy to the plans, Johnston says it remains to be seen “whether Mr. Bernardo and Mr. Shaler are here under the cloak of deception.”[16]
Thus, as late as a month before the departure of the expedition which he would himself join, Orramel Johnston was completely in the dark about its purposes. He likely suspected another Burr plot due to the actions of Adair, and felt it his patriotic duty to write a letter to be forwarded to Madison and another to Monroe about the affair. Either someone close to Shaler set his mind at ease about the expedition, or he may have joined it to continue his self-appointed role as a spy over the operation. No further letters have come to light to answer this question.
It was Darius, however, who played a role in what would become the most critical event of the expedition: the trial and subsequent execution of fifteen Spanish officials by the Junta. After their capture, Mexican revolutionaries seemed bent on summarily judging them. Kemper, the new leader of the American contingent following Magee’s death, appointed Darius Johnston to serve as counsel for the accused. The Junta prevented him from speaking, however, and the court subsequently found the Spaniards guilty. Only a threat of violence by the Americans saved their lives and commuted the sentence to banishment, but the reprieve was short-lived and they were executed shortly after leaving San Antonio.[17] Darius left no known writings that provide more insight into the event, but the brutal crime soured many Americans on the whole enterprise. Along with Gutiérrez’ very non-republican constitution, the murder of the Spanish royalists disabused American notions that they were fighting a battle for liberty as they conceived it. Another blow, for those who may have hoped for America to press claims on part or all of Texas according to their conception of the borders of Louisiana, was that Gutiérrez, who only months before, when in desperate straits was ready to exchange the entire province, now made Mexican ownership of Texas non-negotiable when he seemed to be victorious. Though other Americans continued to flock into Texas even at this late date, many of the original members of the expedition quit it or embraced a new leader, Toledo, who soon arrived in Texas.

[1] Elizabeth Howard West, “Diary of Jose Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, 1811-1812,” The American Historical Review, 34, no. 1 (Oct., 1928): 59.
[2] Oliver Seymour Phelps, and Andrew T. Servin, The Phelps Family in America and their English Ancestors, Vol. 1 (Pittsfield Mass: Eagle Publishing Company, 1899), 402.
[3] Alcee Fortier, ed. Louisiana: Comprising Sketches of Parishes, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons, Arranged in Cyclopedic Form, Vol. I (Century Historical Association, 1914), 174.
[4] “David Phelps Born 1764 in CT Died in LA” (accessed July 18, 2016).
[5] “Catahoula Parish Louisiana Courthouse Records” Sourced from: Ark-La-Tex Genealogical Association, Volume 13, No. 1, (Jan. 1979). (accessed July 17, 2016).
[6] Carol Young Knight, First settlers of Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, 1808-1839 (Aledo, TX.: Self-Published by Carol Young Knight, 1985), 83-85. The land in question has the same boundaries in the records. The purchaser of the land is listed as a John J. Bowie, likely the same John J. Bowie who was the elder brother of Alamo defender James Bowie.
[7] Charles P. Roland, Albert Sydney Johnston, Soldier of Three Republics (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 6.
[8] William Preston Johnston, The Johnstons of Salisbury (New Orleans: L. Graham and Son, 1897), 153-4.
[9] Roland, 9-10.
[10] Johnston, 7.
[11] Johnston, 8.
[12] Davis, 288 and Johnston, 6.
[13] Orramel Johnston, The Chartered Rag Light, Or an Impartial View of the Banking System in the United States (Maysville, Kentucky: A. Crookshanks, 1818), 4.
[14] Orramel Johnston, 8.
[15] “Orramel Johnston to an Unidentified Correspondent, 18 May 1812 (Abstract),” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 5 November 1811–9 July 1812 and supplement 5 March 1809 – 19 October 1811, ed. J. C. A. Stagg, et al. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 395–396.]
[16] Orramel Johnston to Unidentified Recipient The Papers of James Monroe, University of Mary Washington.
[17] Bradley, 68.

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