Carondelet had strengthened the walls that immured the Creoles of New Orleans; but, outside, the messenger of their better destiny was knocking at the gate with angry impatience. Congress had begun, in 1779, to claim the freedom of the Mississippi. The treaty of 1783 granted this; but in words only, not in fact. Spain intrigued, Congress menaced, and oppressions, concessions, aggressions, deceptions, and corruption lengthened out the years. New Orleans – “Orleens” the Westerners called it – there was the rain difficulty. Every one could see now its approaching commercial greatness. To Spain it was the key of her possessions. To the West it was the only possible breathing-hole of its commerce.
Miró was still governing ad interim, when, in 1785, there came to him the commissioners from the State of Georgia demanding liberty to extend her boundary to the Mississippi, as granted in the treaty of peace. Miró answered wisely, referring the matter to the governments of America and Spain, and delays and exasperations continued. By 1786, if not earlier, the flat-boat fleets that came floating out of the Ohio and Cumberland, seeking on the lower Mississippi a market and port for their hay and bacon and flour and corn, began to be challenged from the banks, halted, seized, and confiscated. The exasperated Kentuckians openly threatened and even planned to descend in flat-boats full of long rifles instead of breadstuffs, and make an end of controversy by the capture of New Orleans. But milder counsels restrained them, and they appealed to Congress to press Spain for the commercial freedom which they were determined to be deprived of no longer.
Miró, and Navarro, the intendant, did well to be alarmed. They wrote home urging relief through certain measures which they thought imperative if New Orleans, Louisiana, the Floridas, or even Mexico, was to be saved from early conquest. “No hay que perder tiempo “-” There is no time to be lost.” They had two schemes: one, so to indulge the river commerce that the pioneers swarming down upon their borders might cross them, not as invaders, but as immigrants, yielding allegiance to Spain; the other, to foment a revolt against Congress and the secession of the West. These schemes were set on foot; a large American immigration did set in, and the small town of New Madrid still commemorates the extravagant calculations of Western grantees.
There had lately come to Kentucky a certain man whose ready insight and unscrupulous spirit of intrigue had promptly marked the turn of events. This was General James Wilkinson, of the United States service, a man early distrusted by President Washington, long suspected by the people, and finally tried for treasonable designs and acquitted for want of evidence which the archives of Spain, to which access could not at that time be obtained, have since revealed. This cunning schemer and speculator, in June, 1787, sent and followed to New Orleans a large fleet of flat-boats loaded with the produce of the West, and practising on the political fears of Miró, secured many concessions. By this means he made way for a trade which began at once to be very profitable to New Orleans, not to say to many Spanish officials. But it was not by this means only. At the same time, he entered into a secret plot with Miró and Spain for that disruption of the West from the East which she sought to effect. “The delivering up of Kentucky into his Majesty’s hands, which is the main object to which Wilkinson has promised to devote himself entirely,” so wrote Miró to the Spanish Secretary of State, January 8, 1788, and Wilkinson’s own letters, written originally in cipher, and now in the archives of Spain, reduced to the Spanish tongue, complete the overwhelming evidence. “When this is done, . . . I shall disclose so much of our great scheme,” etc. “Be satisfied, nothing shall deter me from attending exclusively to the object we have on hand” “The only feasible plan” – this was a year later – “. . .was . . . separation from the United States, and an alliance with Spain.” Such was the flat-boat toll paid by this lover of money and drink.
But, neither for the Kentuckian nor the Creole was an export trade more than half a commerce. Philadelphia partly supplied the deficiency, though harried by corrupt double-dealings. Miró and Navarro favored and promoted this trade; but Gardoqui, the Spanish minister at Philadelphia, not sharing in the profits, moved vigorously against it, and there was dodging and doubling-all the subterfuges of the contrabandist, not excepting false arrests and false escapes. The fire of 1788 gave Navarro excuse to liberate a number whom fear of the king had forced him to imprison, and to give them back their confiscated goods. Such was one branch of the academy that, in later years, graduated the pirates of Barataria.
The scarcity of provisions after the fire was made to help this Philadelphia trade. Miró sent three vessels to Gardoqui (who was suddenly ready to cooperate) for 3,000 barrels of flour, and such other goods as the general ruin called for. And here entered Wilkinson, and in August, 1788, received through his agent, Daniel Clark, in New Orleans, a cargo of dry goods and other articles for the Kentucky market, probably the first boat-load of manufactured commodities that ever went up the Mississippi to the Ohio. Others followed Wilkinson’s footsteps in matters of trade, and many were the devices for doing one thing while seeming to do another. A pretence of coming to buy lands and settle secured passports for their flat-boats and keel-boats, and the privilege of selling and buying free of duty. A profession of returning for families and property opened the way back again up the tortuous river, or along the wild, robber-haunted trails of the interior.
So the Creoles, in their domestic commerce, were striking hands with both the eastern and western “American.” As to their transatlantic commerce, the concessions of 1782 had yielded it into the hands of the French, and there it still remained. “France,” wrote Miró in 1790, “has the monopoly of the commerce of this colony.” It suited him not to mention Philadelphia or the Ohio. But war presently brought another change.