Wilkinson, James

Wilkinson, James
born 1757, Calvert county, Md.
died Dec. 28, 1825, Mexico City, Mex.

American army officer and double agent.

He served in the American Revolution under Horatio Gates and was involved in the Thomas Conway cabal. He settled in Kentucky in 1784 and schemed to ally the Kentucky region with Spain, though he was in fact working against Spain. He served as governor of part of the Louisiana territory (1805–06). He allegedly planned to conquer the Mexican provinces of Spain and conspired with Aaron Burr to establish an independent government; when he betrayed Burr's plan, he was investigated but cleared. In the War of 1812 he commanded U.S. forces on the Canadian border, but his campaign against Montreal failed.

James Wilkinson, portrait by J.W. Jarvis; in the Filson Club Collection, Louisville, Ky.

By courtesy of the Filson Club, Louisville, Ky.

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▪ United States military officer
born 1757, Calvert county, Maryland [U.S.]
died December 28, 1825, Mexico City, Mexico

      American soldier and adventurer, a double agent whose role in the Aaron Burr (Burr, Aaron) conspiracy still divides historians.

      Wilkinson served in the American Revolution (1775–83) as adjutant general under General Horatio Gates (Gates, Horatio) (1777–78). In 1784 he settled in Kentucky, where he was active in the movement for independent statehood. In 1787 he took an oath of allegiance to Spain and began intrigues to bring the western settlements of Kentucky under the influence of the Louisiana authorities. Until 1800 he received a Spanish pension and was officially known as “Number Thirteen.” At the same time, however, Wilkinson worked against the Spaniards. In October 1791 he was given a lieutenant colonel's commission in the U.S. Army, and after the U.S. purchase of Louisiana he became governor of that portion of the territory above the 33rd parallel.

      In his double capacity as governor of the territory and commanding officer of the army, Wilkinson attempted to realize his ambition to conquer the Mexican provinces of Spain and perhaps set up an independent government. In an agreement with Aaron Burr, he sent Zebulon M. Pike (Pike, Zebulon Montgomery) in 1806 to explore the most favourable route for the conquest of the Southwest. Wilkinson, however, betrayed Burr's plan to President Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson, Thomas), reached an agreement with the Spaniards to neutralize the Texas frontier, placed New Orleans under martial law, and apprehended Burr. In the ensuing trial (for treason) at Richmond, Virginia, Burr was found not guilty. Wilkinson himself was under suspicion and subjected to a series of courts-martial and congressional investigations. Nevertheless, he succeeded so well in hiding traces of his duplicity that in 1812 he resumed his command at New Orleans and in 1813 was promoted to the rank of major general. Later in the same year, by making a fiasco of the campaign against Montreal during the War of 1812 (1812, War of), he finally brought his military career to a dishonourable end. He obtained a Texas land grant shortly before he died in Mexico City.

Additional Reading
Thomas Robson Hay and M.R. Werner, The Admirable Trumpeter: A Biography of General James Wilkinson (1941).

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Universalium. 2010.

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