Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Philip Nolan, 24 June 1798

To Philip Nolan

Philadelphia June 24. 1798


It is some time since I have understood that there are large herds of horses, in a wild state, in the country West of the Missisipi, and have been desirous of obtaining details of their history in that state. mr Brown, Senator from Kentuckey, informs me it would be in your power to give interesting information on this subject, and encourages me to ask it. the circumstances of the old world have, beyond the records of history, been such as admitted not that animal to exist in a state of nature. the condition of America is rapidly advancing to the same. the present then is probably the only moment in the age of the world, and the herds abovementioned the only subjects, of which we can avail ourselves to obtain what has never yet been recorded and never can be again in all probability. I will add that your information is the sole reliance, as far as I can at present see, for obtaining this desideratum. you will render to Natural [his]tory a very acceptable service therefore, if you will enable our Philosophical-society to add so interesting a chapter to the history of […] animal. I need not specify to you the particular facts asked [for?] as your knowledge of the animal in his domesticated, as well as [his] wild state, will naturally have led your attention to those particulars in the manners, habits, & laws of his existence, which are peculiar to his wild state. I wish you not to be anxious about the form of your information. the exactness of the substance alone is material: and if, after giving in a first […] all the facts you at present possess, you could be so good, on subsequent occasions as to furnish such others in addition as you may acquire from time to time, your communications will always be thankfully recieved. if addressed to me at Monticello & put into any post office of Kentucky or Tenissee, they will reach me speedily & safely, and will be considered as obligations on Sir

Your most obedt. humble servt

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); torn; at foot of text: “Mr. Nolan.”

Little is known of the origins of Philip Nolan (ca. 1771–1801), a native of Northern Ireland. By the late 1780s he served as James Wilkinson’s bookkeeper and business agent in New Orleans, where he disguised Spanish payments to Wilkinson as the proceeds of tobacco speculation. In 1791 Nolan began the first of a series of prolonged trading forays from Natchez, entering Texas with goods and returning with mustang horses. When TJ wrote the above letter Nolan was on an expedition in which he collected more than a thousand horses. Although Nolan obtained passports for his early trips, Spanish authorities grew suspicious of his facility at playing different officials off against one another and his evident connection to the American surveyor Andrew Ellicott. With a party of armed men but lacking safe-conduct papers, Nolan again went to Texas in the autumn of 1800 and began to round up horses. In March of the following year he was killed by soldiers dispatched from Nacogdoches. The expectation of TJ and others that Nolan might provide detailed information about various aspects of the natural history of the western regions was never realized (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends , 16:47981; William Dunbar to TJ, 22 Aug. 1801).

At a small dinner party hosted on 1 Mch. 1798 by geologist William Maclure, TJ exhibited his interest in the wild horses that roamed the western plains. A year earlier Wilkinson had informed TJ of Nolan’s travels, and in all likelihood Volney had encountered Nolan in Kentucky in 1796. On 12 Feb. 1799 Daniel Clark of New Orleans answered the above letter on behalf of Nolan, who seems never to have written TJ himself. Over a year later Wilkinson expected the horsetrader, one of whose associates also knew about American Indian sign languages of interest to TJ, to pay the vice president a visit. However, Nolan apparently changed his plans and never made the call, disappointing TJ in his hope of purchasing a mustang for use as a saddle horse (Niemcewicz, Under their Vine description begins Julian Ursin Niemcewicz, Under their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797–1799, 1805, with some Further Account of Life in New Jersey, Elizabeth, N.J., 1965 description ends , 46–7; Dan L. Flores, ed., Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration: The Freeman & Custis Accounts of the Red River Expedition of 1806 [Norman, Okla., 1984], 32–3, 131–2n; Dan L. Flores, ed., Journal of an Indian Trader: Anthony Glass and the Texas Trading Frontier, 1790–1810 [College Station, Tex., 1985], 13, 103–4n; Volney to TJ, 24 Aug. 1796; TJ to Dunbar, 16 Jan. 1800; Wilkinson to TJ, 22 May, 1 Sep. 1800).

Index Entries