Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series.
The Red River Expedition of 1806 was supposed to be another in a string of scientific triumphs for the United States as it explored the new territories of the Louisiana Purchase. Captain Richard Sparks, Thomas Freeman, and Peter Custis led a team along the Red River into Southwest Arkansas and into North Texas to the source waters of the Red River in what is now the Texas Panhandle to learn about the local Native American tribes as well as the geography, plant life, and animal life. However, it would end in failure after a stunning betrayal.
Three months into the expedition, the voyage had been slow but successful as it entered Arkansas. It soon turned along the river and headed toward Texas. By July 28, the team was about halfway along the length of the river, roughly northwest of New Boston. At a bend in the river, an area now called Spanish Bluff, the team suddenly noticed a large force of Spanish troops, heavily armed.
Sparks, the commander of the nearly four dozen army troops on the Red River Expedition, estimated that perhaps a thousand Spanish soldiers had assembled against them, an incredibly large force for the area at the time.
Regardless of what legal claims the United States or Spain had on the Red River as a boundary in what is now Bowie County, Texas; all the Americans realized that their lives were at risk. They were entirely at the mercy of the Spanish army. The Spaniards had orders to defend what they considered Spanish territory with deadly force if necessary.
Somehow, the Spanish had located the party. Francisco Viana, commander of Spanish forces in East Texas, had received information in Nacogdoches that the Red River Expedition was moving up the river by April and sent a letter of protest to American officials. His forces raced to the Red River to intercept the group.
The Americans were stopped and held. With tension surrounding each hour and the negotiations of Sparks, Viana ordered them down the river back into the United States. Badly outnumbered, the expedition agreed, barely escaping with their lives. The encounter had lasted a full day, and it could easily have ignited a war between the two countries. Not long afterward, the Red River Expedition crossed back from Texas into what is now Arkansas and continued back down the river without incident.
The source of the betrayal was from within the highest levels of American government. The source, U. S. Army Gen. James Wilkinson, had long worked as a spy for Spain, supplying information on American activities for a price. Personal profit was his only loyalty.
Wilkinson’s treachery was widely suspected at the time. Fellow officers, and even friends and aides never entirely trusted him, but they were never able to collect enough evidence. Their patriotism meant staying faithful to the law though Wilkinson would not. In 1805, Wilkinson had been named territorial governor for the Louisiana Territory, which through a somewhat confusing naming scheme meant the territory north of what is now Louisiana, including Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. What is now Louisiana was the District of Orleans.
Wilkinson, at one point the most senior member of the army, continued his betrayals in his new post. As soon as he learned of President Thomas Jefferson’s plans for exploring the Louisiana Purchase, he secretly told Spain of these plans – for a price. Spain, fearful of Americans pushing into their territory, was determined to see the voyages fail. In the end, the Red River Expedition was sabotaged. The lives of American citizens and American troops under Wilkinson’s command were put in mortal danger by his actions.
By 1807, Jefferson replaced Wilkinson with his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, now a great hero to Americans after the successful Lewis and Clark Expedition. Wilkinson was later forced out of the army after his disastrous performance in the War of 1812. However, he would somehow manage to find his way back into political good graces and named ambassador to Mexico in 1816.
Wilkinson died in 1825 as he attempted to cash in on his position as an ambassador with a large land grant for himself in Texas. He was buried in Mexico City. Several decades after his death, around the 1850s, a large cache of correspondence was found within Spanish colonial records in Louisiana, showing without a doubt that Wilkinson was actively working as a spy for Spain and had betrayed the United States on numerous occasions, including his information on the scientific expeditions into the West.
None of the leaders of the Red River Expedition ever saw the direct evidence that the voyage had been compromised. In spite of the disastrous effort, they went on to lead respectable lives. Custis became a respected doctor and planter in North Carolina until his death in 1842. Freeman served as surveyor general of the United States until his death in 1821. Though the expedition had cataloged hundreds of species of animals and plants and established a cordial relationship with the Caddo tribe, the abrupt halt of the expedition left the data in a haphazard and disorganized state. In later years, the Red River Expedition was largely forgotten over the diplomatic disaster that resulted.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.