Monday, January 16, 2017

The “Neutralians”

Some refugees relocated to the Neutral Ground, which had been established in 1806 to prevent war, but which had become a lawless region and a thorn in the side of two nations. One of these was Anthony Parish, also known as Antonio Pared, a native North Carolinian who had been living in Nacogdoches since 1798, working as a carpenter, but who had been expelled for illegal trade. He, Quirk, and other refugees hoped to return to their homes and likely found the expedition a convenient vehicle for doing so and legitimizing their trade. The Neutral Ground also attracted deserters, criminals and ruffians from both nations, and it was for this reason that Lt. Augustus Magee had been sent to clean it up.
Most contemporaries pointed to the Neutral Ground as the prime source for early recruits. These men, or “Neutralians” as an 1872 novel about the war dubs them, were among the more shadowy of the participants. As the author, Hesper Bendbow, explains, “It was then, as it still is, notoriously difficult to get out of those south-western border-men a connected and detailed account of their own exploits; and as they were even poorer writers than talkers when they themselves were the theme, they have since dropped off, one by one, without giving the public their experience.”[1] The apparent leader of the Neutralians was James McKim, who William McLane says “commanded the border ruffians” in the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition. McKim, who had been branded as punishment for some offense in North Carolina, kept a journal (now lost) and reportedly entertained his fellow soldiers by reading from it. Expedition member Warren D.C. Hall described him as a “fit associate of the robbers along the Sabine.”[2] Another of this rough clan was William Francis, who had fled arrest by Louisiana Governor W.C.C. Claiborne. Francis would later lead a pivotal raid at La Bahía that precipitated the final battle that lifted the siege.[3]
The most colorful Neutralian of whom we know a great deal was Aylett Buckner, a notably strong and physical Scots-Irish redhead, who was supposedly given his nickname “Strap” for his size and strength. Much of “Strap” Buckner’s history has come down in the manner of tall tales and frontier exaggeration. Buckner, so the stories say, “Hunted the strongest game with no other weapon than his bare fist; and the wildcat, the wolf, and bear soon became scarce.”[4] It is difficult to separate reality from fiction in such stories, but the known details of “Strap” Buckner’s life indicate a kernel of truth behind the myth: He was young, hot-headed, querulous and courageous, perhaps to a fault. Originally from Eastern Virginia, Buckner may have migrated to Kentucky on the eve of the expedition, briefly served in the militia, before making his way South in 1812.[5] Buckner was an early soldier in Magee’s army and survived the war, making his way to Natchez, where legend says he captained a river barge and befriended one of his passengers, Stephen F. Austin. He made his way back to Texas, first as a squatter, later as an early Austin Colony settler. His correspondence with Austin in seeking to solidify the title to his farm indicates a strong passion for land.  Buckner, by then in his early 30s, was a single man with four servants and one slave. Nonetheless, he begged the empresario for the opportunity to buy as much as 1,000 additional acres. The land may have been for speculative purposes, but Buckner expressed genuine attachment to his property, telling Austin of a desire to be buried on it.[6] Buckner’s politics were complicated. He was at various times Austin’s nemesis or a trusted Indian fighter for the empresario. He opposed the Fredonian Revolution, yet took part in the 1832 Battle of Velasco, during which he was killed.
Is Buckner a typical “Neutralian?” If the record of him in Kentucky is any evidence, his stay in the Neutral Ground was absurdly brief. Certainly he did not stake out and farm land – his letters to Austin indicate he did not permanently settle there until 1819. Indeed, it is plausible that he and many alleged Neutral Ground participants may have simply used the lawless region as cover for joining the expedition in the first place, as it gave them immunity for activities that would otherwise by prosecutable under the 1794 Neutrality Act. This suggests a possible answer to one of the most enduring mysteries of the expedition: How did Augustus Magee, who had been commended by the Army for his vigorous, even brutal “cleaning up” of the Neutral Ground, successfully recruit participants from that same region? Buckner’s story suggests the answer: the Neutralians were hardly homogeneous. In addition to the border ruffians Magee targeted, there were likely American-Spaniard exiles seeking to re-open their smuggling networks between Texas and Louisiana and Americans who merely located there to await the signal for the invasion. Harris Gaylord Warren notes that there were three groups of men assembling in the neutral zone, one, a group of “idlers,” another of “somewhat more respectable” men from Mississippi, and a third, under Patterson and Smith, was “still more respectable.”[7] It is also possible that the Neutral Grounders were somewhat of a strawman for American officials who had no desire to stop the filibuster or enforce the Neutrality Act, and could cite lack of jurisdiction as an excuse for less-than-vigorous efforts to intervene. Regardless, while many contemporary sources indicate a large percentage of Neutral Ground residents in the expedition, among the more than 120 filibusters identified for this paper, fewer than a half dozen can be confirmed as Neutralians of more than a few weeks’ residence.

[1] Hesper Bendbow, More Than She Could Bear (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1872), 10-11.
[2] Henry Walker, ed. “William McLane's Narrative of the Magee-Gutierrez Expedition, 1812-1813,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly. 66: No. 4 (April, 1963), 569.
[3] Walker, 582.
[4] Don Blevins, A Priest, a Prostitute, and Some Other Early Texans: The Lives Of Fourteen Lone Star State Pioneers (Guilford, Conn: The Globe Pequot Press, 2008), 26.
[6] “Buckner, Aylett C.,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association. (accessed August 1, 2016).
[7] Harris Gaylord Warren, The Sword Was Their Passport: A History of American Filibustering in the Mexican Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943), 25.

1 comment:

  1. Much new stuff. I love it.

    "he captained a river barge and befriended one of his passengers, Stephen F. Austin"

    A river barge is, for all practical purposes, a super size keel boat. Keel boats has a lengths of perhaps 40-45 feet. The barge could be greater than 55 feet. It's exciting to discover the barge belonging to Buckner for the boatman. Reuban Kemper, brother of Sam likely had a barge. The estate of Peter Sides listed a boat in the descriptive inventory of his probate. That "barge" connection, to me, is a new find. Thanks, Amigo.

    A barge