George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Winthrop Sargent, 29 July 1790

From Winthrop Sargent

Vincennes [Territory N.W. of River Ohio]
29th July 1790

Sir

Mr Joseph St Marie1 a Citizen of Vincennes of good Character, has made Representation to me2 of a Seizure upon his Property by an Officer of his Catholic Majesty, and within what is understood to be the Territory of the united States—Which I beg Leave to Lay before your Excellency3—with very great Respect I have the Honour to be your Excellency’s most Humble & devoted Servant

Winthrop Sargent

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Territorial Papers, Territory Northwest of the River Ohio.

Secretary of the Northwest Territory Winthrop Sargent had been acting since 11 June 1790 as territorial governor in the absence of Arthur St. Clair.

Sargent noted in his executive journal that on 29 July 1790 he received Joseph St. Marie’s representation, “which I have transmitted to the President of the United States” (DNA: RG 59, Territorial Papers, Territory Northwest of the River Ohio). St. Marie’s representation provided the administration with an opening to assert its rights and engage in diplomatic maneuvers with the Spanish court over the “Mississippi Question.” The Nootka Sound controversy between Great Britain and Spain as well as the accession of a new monarch to the Spanish throne contributed to the administration’s perception that an opportune time had arrived to press American claims to free navigation of the Mississippi (see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 19:429–518).

1Sometime after 1772 French merchant and trader Joseph St. Marie, Sr., had settled probably at Vincennes, an early eighteenth-century Wabash River French fur-trading post ceded to Great Britain in 1763. St. Marie claimed he fought in defense of America, and he may have supported George Rogers Clark’s capture of British Fort Sackville at Vincennes in February 1779. He was one of the 143 heads of families who proved residence at Vincennes in or before 1783 and was thus entitled to a 400–acre land grant as authorized by the Confederation Congress on 29 Aug. 1788 (Lux, Vincennes Donation Lands, description begins Leonard Lux. The Vincennes Donation Lands. Indianapolis, 1949. In Indiana Historical Society Publications, vol. 15, no. 4. description ends 435, 445, 488; ASP, Public Lands, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:13, 292, 300; JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 34:472–74).

2See enclosure, below.

3Although no evidence has been found pinpointing the arrival of Sargent’s 29 July 1790 letter and its enclosure, Julian Boyd’s assumptions that they reached the capital in December 1790 and that GW handed them over to the secretary of state on 8 Dec. with other papers sent by Sargent at the end of July are probably correct (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 18:499, 19:505–6). St. Marie’s appeal was filed in the State Department at least by 15 Jan. 1791, by which date GW (or his secretary) had forgotten its details, as shown by Tobias Lear’s 15 Jan. 1791 letter to Henry Knox: “T. L. is Commanded by the President to request that the Secretary of War will, on Monday, when he takes into consideration the subject alluded to in his letter of this date, bring likewise to view, & consider, the memorial of a Frenchman an Inhabitant of the Western Country upon an injury which he has suffered from the commander of one of the Spanish posts. This memorial is lodged in the Office of the Secy of State with the last Report of the Secy of the Western Territory” (DLC:GW).

After the administration missed the gambit provided by the Nootka Sound crisis because of the usual transatlantic delay of at least six weeks in receiving European news, Jefferson seized upon the 3–year-old Spanish confiscation of St. Marie’s property as an appropriate vehicle for forcefully presenting to the Spanish court America’s claim to free navigation of the Mississippi (see Jefferson to GW, 8 Aug. 1790, source note). Although St. Marie’s earlier memorial had languished in the files of the central government since late 1788 or early 1789, the secretary of state acted on the case only in the spring of 1791, a year after having assumed his duties. He sent a copy of St. Marie’s most recent appeal to American chargé in Spain, William Carmichael, instructing him to demand Spanish indemnification to St. Marie. Jefferson wrote on 12 Mar. 1791: “We cannot omit this occasion of urging on the Court of Madrid the necessity of hastening a final acknowledgment of our right to navigate the Mississippi: a right which has been long suspended in exercise, with extreme inconvenience on our part, merely with a desire of reconciling Spain to what it is impossible for us to relinquish” (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 19:522–24, 505–10).

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