Wilkinson, James (1757–1825)

By: John Edward Weems

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: October 3, 2017

James Wilkinson, whose many self-seeking adventures included service as the senior officer in the United States Army but only indirect involvement with Texas, was born in 1757 in Calvert County, Maryland. He was the second son born into the family of a respected Maryland merchant-planter, Joseph and Betty (Heighe) Wilkinson, who had established an estate near Benedict. The American Revolution interrupted Wilkinson's study of medicine in Philadelphia. He was commissioned a captain in 1776 and served under Benedict Arnold. Later, after service with Gen. Horatio Gates and after being brevetted a brigadier general, Wilkinson became involved in the Conway Cabal against George Washington and was forced to resign from the army, although he later returned to active service. In 1783 Wilkinson moved to Kentucky and established commercial connections in New Orleans, and in 1787 he swore allegiance to the Spanish governor there in return for payment, although he never helped Spain vitally. Wilkinson conferred with Aaron Burr in 1804 and 1805, possibly about setting up an independent nation in the west for their mutual advantage. Some speculated that they planned to invade Mexico. In 1805 the Thomas Jefferson administration gave Wilkinson the governorship of the Louisiana Territory; his headquarters were located in St. Louis. In 1806 Jefferson ordered Wilkinson to the southern frontier, and he was eventually removed from the governorship. At this point, in an effort to save himself, Wilkinson exposed Burr's plot to invade Mexico, and he suggested moving his troops to New Orleans to establish a defensive position. Before his move, Wilkinson negotiated with Spanish military commander Lt. Col. Simón de Herrera and established a Neutral Ground. Arriving in New Orleans, Wilkinson declared martial law and exercised what many felt was an abuse of power. Wilkinson testified at Burr's trial in Richmond, Virginia. After a series of public accusations, as well as military difficulties, President James Madison ordered a court martial to try Wilkinson, but he received a verdict of not guilty on December 25, 1811. Wilkinson's Spanish involvement was not proved until long after his death, following research in Spanish archives, including collections taken in Havana after the Spanish-American War. In 1778 he married Ann Biddle, and they had four children. After his first wife's death, on March 5, 1810, he married Celeste Laveau Trudeau, with whom he had two children. Philip Nolan, the first notable Anglo-American explorer in Texas, was Wilkinson's protégé. Jane Long, "the mother of Texas," was his niece, and he supported the 1820 Long expedition to invade Texas. Wilkinson himself hoped to be awarded an empresario grant to settle a colony in Texas. He may have had some business dealings with Stephen F. Austin. He was waiting for Mexican approval when he died on December 28, 1825, after an extended period of failing health. He was buried in Mexico City.

Dictionary of American Biography. James R. Jacobs, Tarnished Warrior: Major-General James Wilkinson (New York: MacMillan, 1938). John Edward Weems, Men Without Countries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969). James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times (3 vols., Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1816).

  • Military
  • Soldiers
Time Periods:
  • Mexican Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John Edward Weems, “Wilkinson, James,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wilkinson-james.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 3, 2017

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