Louis Lagrenade and Others to the President
[24 Jan. 1791]
May it please your Excellency
We The free coloured people of the Island of Grenada, having taken into Consideration a Writing, the purpose of which (they are informed) is your Excellency’s generous disposition of giving that unfortunate Class of People, an Asylum in the southern parts of the States of your Excellency’s Government; have inclosed herewith, a Copy of the same humbly requesting your Excellency to Confirm its authenticity; in order that they may have that faith in it which a subject of such magnitude requires. Such an Act of your Excellency’s Generosity, will excite their deepest gratitude and they will deem themselves peculiarly blest, if their unhappy Situation in these Islands can have touched your Breast so as to move your Benevolence to furnish them with the means of coming out of their Captivity, and to introduce them into a new Canaan, where they will enjoy all the Happiness of that precious Liberty, which, you gloriously and generously defended, and maintained in favor of Your illustrious Countrymen. Your Excellency’s rendering this a Certainty, will determine Sixty thousand free Coloured Individuals, to Settle in Your Country for the Honor and prosperity of their Family’s, and there to enjoy a tolerable existence; them and their Slaves will be fully sufficient to form their Establishments.
It will be then that the plains of America (from that time become the Happy residence of People capable of the Highest Gratitude, for the Clemency bestowed upon them, by Your Excellency and the Honourable Congress) will be with greater Certainty, the Asylum of Peace free from the disturbance, of all those who might endeavour to interrupt the Continuance of the Happiness of our Benefactors; which we would always support with the same resolution, and ardour, as they themselves have shewed; an example to all the Nations of World, in procuring for themselves that independency which they now enjoy. It is with those sentiments that we are in Hopes to attain to those days, so Happy and so desirable, which will enable us to prove to You, all the veneration, and respect, with which we Have the Honor to be. May it please Your Excellency Your most Humble and Most Obedient Servants The Committee,
J. N. Pre. Saulger
RC (DLC: Washington Papers); in clerk’s hand except for signatures. RC (same); in French, signed; addressed: “His Excellency Georges-Washington, Esquire. Président of the United States of America &c &c. &cra. Philadelphia”; endorsed as received 12 July (i.e., June) 1791.
The enclosure accompanying this “very unexpected address” was an unsigned and undated communication addressed “To the Free Men of Colour in the West India Islands.” This extraordinary document opened with the assurance that it was being transmitted by a person deeply interested in “the future ease and happyness of a people…who seems to be almost without Existance in their present situation.” The undisclosed author, inspired by the spectacle of a free, prosperous, and independent America, declared that while mankind for many centuries had suffered oppression and calamities in utter darkness, “the Great Arbiter of the Universe” had so illumined the minds of men that kingdoms and states could now establish themselves in righteousness forever. He pointed to the Americans as having founded their independence on principles of liberty and justice, thereby setting a glorious example for Europe and all the universe. But, while the free colored people of the West Indies were numerous enough to obtain such blessings, their circumstances were in stark contrast to those enjoyed by Americans.
The unknown author therefore urged this oppressed people to establish themselves as a free and independent society. Far from being a mere exhortation, the document—referred to by its author as a “Narrative”—conveyed the specific suggestion that the free persons of color in the islands establish themselves as a “Colony in the Southern parts of North America…from which Noble and Wise Institution they will be able to extricate themselves and their offspring from a Land of torment and misery wherein they are despisd, and Ill treated by Laws which is unreasonable for any Freeman to endure neither can they bear up against it so as to merit a reform to their advantage… .O! ye free Coloured People of the West Indies and your offspring instead of flourishing round ye like the young olive plants are daily dwindling into thorns and Briars for want of proper Cultivation and rural amusements. Your sons for want of Education under a free Government are rais’d up in Idleness and your Daughters are all Sacraficed as Victims to the Brutish lust of those whom have no other Generosity or respect towards them than to your eternal disgrace and to their shame and Confusion.” Such was the unhappy state of the free persons in the islands, but it was one from which they could escape.
This was made possible, the author asserted, by the free and generous sons of America. Having enlightened all Europe and made manifest their determination always to support with their lives and fortunes the great birthright of mankind, liberty and independence, they now offered as a lasting testimony of their concern for the good of mankind “a full and free Asylum to all the World to partake of the Blessings of Peace free liberty and ample protection in her extensive and Fertile plains and City’s.” The golden choice lay with the islanders: “It is to you Free Coloured people that is wandering in the West India Islands and have no place of abode, That I now do myself the Honour to address. Now is the time for ye to be rais’d from your Slumbers and enlighten yourselves and look forward to a land Now offer’d to you a Land of Freedom and ease flowing with milk and honey. A Land of great comforts where you may form a Colony of your own appoint your own Laws and Government under your own People for your Mutual prosperity and the encouragement of arts Sciences and agriculture. Your young men will then be taught to tread the paths of Virtue and Wisdom and your Daughters will be esteem’d the Virtuous and amiable and which must in a short time make you a Nation of great Respectability by freely embracing the present Moment of Establishing your selves to be a Free people, For who cannot but tremble at your former as well as present Situation which is little short of the Most abject Slavery a Character greatly to be dispised by all [Men] of genus and generosity.”
The “Narrative” closed with a glowing account of this New Canaan waiting for settlement: “The Clime is mild and Healthy. The Soil rich and Fertile Capable of producing all manner of Necessaries for the subsistance of Mankind. Cotton. Indigo. Tobacco. Wheat. Rye. Oats. Barley. Corn. peas. potatoes. and all manner of Vegetables…and also white oak Staves. Pitch pine. Cyprys shingles For Turpintine and Pitch. The Forrest is well stored with Game. The Rivers affords a great variety of Fish and the extensive Meadows is Capable of raising immense Herds of Cattle. Indeed it can be said with much propriety that no part of the Continent of North America can boast of superior advantages and none equal in Salubrity of Climate and Fertility of Soil” (Unsigned and undated Tr, in clerk’s hand, in DLC: Washington Papers).
It is not surprising that Lagrenade and the other members of the committee who transmitted this astonishing communication to the President should have sought to have its authenticity confirmed. The document was wholly devoid of the kind of specific details that even so dubious a venture as the Scioto Company felt obliged to give to prospective emigrants. It pointed to no particular part of southern America for the location of the proposed independent “Colony.” It did not define the terms upon which the free persons of color could claim title and stipulated nothing as to the extent of territory they might expect to inhabit. It did not, as Lagrenade and the others indicated, suggest that the invitation was extended by the President of the United States but only presumed to speak on behalf of the free and generous sons of America. Possibly the person who conveyed the document to the islanders sought to provide such particulars, including—if the original lacked a signature—the identity of the author.
That unknown person, writing with evangelical fervor, may have been prompted by a concern for the good of mankind in general and for the oppressed islanders in particular. But that this was his sole object is very doubtful. The suggestion that the independent “Colony” be established in the South, the timing of the proposal (which must have been written in the late autumn of 1790), and the glowing description of the climate, soil, and productivity of the region all indicate the presence of another and less altruistic motive. They also point to a particular source. On 20 October 1790 a gentleman in Lexington, Kentucky, writing to his friend in Philadelphia, gave a description of upwards of a million acres lying on and about the Yazoo River to which the South Carolina Yazoo Company claimed title under a 1789 grant from Georgia. This description appeared in Bache’s General Advertiser, 24 Nov. 1790, and reads in part as follows: “The soil is superior to the very best in Kentucky…and the whole face of the extensive country is well watered, abounding in sweet springs—the woods replenished with game, and the rivers, creeks and brooks with fish of all kinds. The whole territory is well timbered…the finest country on earth for horned cattle, horses, sheep and hogs, and deemed the very best for corn, tobacco, indigo, cotton, hemp and flax… . The lands abound with pitch pine trees, although no pine barren. The staples will therefore be staves, heading, lumber, tobacco, cotton, corn, indigo, silk, naval stores, provisions of salted flesh, fish, coarse linens, cordage, sail duck, Indian meal and flour.”
The lengthy communication from the gentleman in Lexington also stated that 100 families had already taken possession of the Company’s territory; that its Agent General would soon depart for the land with a battalion of cavalry, artillery, and riflemen; that General Scott would follow with 500 families; that General Wilkinson would bring 1,000 fighting men and their families by Christmas; that General Sevier would take a similar number; and that both Indians and Spaniards had been reconciled to the settlement. Internal evidence in this communication proves beyond question that its author, whose assertions of fact existed chiefly in his own imagination, was James O’Fallon, physician, soldier, adventurer, land speculator, and dabbler in foreign intrigue who in the autumn of 1790 was in Lexington as Agent General of the South Carolina Yazoo Company and who had been indiscreet enough not only to describe the lands and the military preparations for their settlement in the letter published in the newspaper, but also to do the same in a communication to Washington asking authority to proceed-all in direct violation of the laws governing intercourse with the Indians as announced in the President’s proclamation issued only a month earlier (O’Fallon to the President, 25 Sep. 1790, ASP, description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends Indian Affairs, i, 115–17; see O’Fallon’s comparable descriptions of his plans in letters to Governor Esteban Miró and others in “Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765–1794,” ed. Lawrence Kinnaird, AHA, description begins American Historical Association description ends Ann. Rpt 1945, iii, pt. ii, 338, 338–41, 341–2, 357–64, 379, 395, 395–8).
The obvious parallel between the description of the territory given in the communication to the free persons of color and that in O’Fallon’s letter to his friend in Philadelphia does not prove that the adventurer was the author of both. But the former was written by an American who, for some reason, hoped to see an independent black settlement in the southern parts of America, a region whose occupation by westerners was being more conspicuously advocated by O’Fallon at that moment than by anyone else. O’Fallon’s overweening ambition to establish on the Yazoo “the most flourishing … settlement ever formed”; his assurances to Governor Miró that this would be a barrier between the Spanish territories and those of the United States, from which the Yazoo colony would secede; his similar assurances that the settlement would protect his own country from Indians and Spaniards, made at the very time that he informed an accomplice, secretly and wholly without foundation, that Washington had promised his protection to the venture; his prolix, flamboyant, repetitious style with its grammatical awkwardnesses and peculiar phrasing (e.g., “reiteratedly repeated”)—these and other factors seem to point to O’Fallon as the most likely author of the proposal for a black state in the South. Among other circumstances lending support to the conjecture, perhaps none could have been more compelling to O’Fallon than the need for his proposed settlement to have a barrier to protect itself against Indians and Spaniards. Perhaps the unknown emissary who conveyed the letter to the islanders may have indicated, as O’Fallon did in the letter published in Bache’s General Advertiser, that adjacent to the Yazoo settlement lay 500,000 acres suitable for rice, the cultivation of which would have been more congenial to the island blacks than to emigrants from Kentucky. Settlement at that location, too, would have provided a barrier to protect the Yazoo colonists. It should be noted in this connection that Lagrenade and his associates pledged to Washington their support “against all…who might endeavour to interrupt the Continuance of the Happiness of our Benefactors.” This was the same kind of assurance O’Fallon had given both to the Spanish and to the Americans. It is plausible to suppose that the emissary conveying the letter to the free blacks may have prompted them to make such a pledge.
It is also pertinent to note that O’Fallon was a friend of Thomas Paine, having arrived in America the same year the author of Common Sense did; that his writings in support of the patriot cause were considered so inflammatory for the time as to land him in prison in North Carolina; and that, two decades later, Paine in Paris complimented him with this appeal: “If [you are] as yet in the habits of writing; this My Dear Doctor, is your precious time. Never was there a cause so deserving of your pen” (Paine to O’Fallon, 17 Feb. 1793, “Letter of Thomas Paine, 1793,” Louise P. Kellogg, ed., AHR description begins American Historical Review, 1895- description ends , xxix [Apr. 1924], 501–5). The letter “To the Free Men of Colour in the West India Islands” rings with the same kind of ardor for the principles of the Revolution that O’Fallon had exhibited when he first came to America. In the absence of the original of that letter, its authorship cannot with certainty be attributed to him. But both in its grandiloquent style and in its quixotic proposal it seems to accord with all that is known of his overblown schemes and intrigues, every one of which—like this one—was doomed to failure.
The free blacks of Grenada and their slaves were denied even a reply to the appeal to Washington. TJ advised Washington to ignore the matter since any action by the United States would amount to an intervention in the internal affairs of another government. But the prospect of an independent settlement of 60,000 free blacks on the southern borders, even if justifiable in terms of international law, he also regarded as undesirable (TJ to Washington, 20 June 1791; see also note to the opinion of the Attorney General on legal action to be taken against O’Fallon, which TJ helped prepare, 14 Feb. 1791, and Murray to TJ, 12 May 1791).