Summary Information
Title: James Wilkinson Papers
Collection Number: DAR.1937.09
Creator: Smith, Samuel Harrison, 1772-1845
Creator: Wilkinson, James, 1757-1825

Collection Dates: 1790-1818
Extent: 0.42 linear feet (1 box)

Language: English

The papers contain correspondence to and from James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory, high ranking official in the United States Army, and informant of, and suspected co-conspirator in the Aaron Burr conspiracy. Also included in the collection is a copy of a letter from Andrew Jackson to the governor of New Orleans, William C. C. Claiborne, and a letter written by Harman Blennerhassett, a plotter in the Burr conspiracy. Of note is the official document Wilkinson writes as commander in chief of the United States Army to Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamante, governor of Coahuila and acting governor of Texas, Wilkinson's dispatch of Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore and chart the new frontier. Digital reproductions of this collection are available online.

ULS Archives Service Center
University of Pittsburgh Library System
7500 Thomas Boulevard
Pittsburgh, PA, 15260
Date Published:

July 2007

Finding aid prepared by Kristin Justham.
Revision Description:
November 2009:
Controlled access terms revised (dar)


While James Wilkinson was embroiled in various scandals and plots, such as the Aaron Burr conspiracy, he managed to attain prominent military and government posts. Eventually, at the height of his military career, Wilkinson would rise to the position of commander in chief of the Army of the United States.

Wilkinson was born in Benedict, Maryland, in 1757, and died in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 28, 1825. He married Ann Biddle of Philadelphia on November 12, 1778, and had four children. After her death in 1810, Wilkinson married Celestine Laveau Trudeau, with whom he had twin daughters.

Enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, Wilkinson's studies in medicine ended in 1775 when he joined Thompson's Pennsylvania rifle battalion to fight in the Revolutionary War. Wilkinson served under Colonel Benedict Arnold, General George Washington, and as an aide to General Horatio Gates; he was eventually brevetted as a major general from November 1777 to March 1778. He also served as secretary to the board of war from January to March 1778. Due to his participation in the Conway Cabal, Wilkinson was forced to resign his positions as major general and secretary in 1778. This was a conspiracy to replace George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army with Horatio Gates. He served as clothier general of the army from 1779 to 1781.

In 1803, Wilkinson and Governor William C.C. Claiborne took possession of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States, and in 1805 Wilkinson was appointed the first governor of the territory by Thomas Jefferson. That same year, Wilkinson came under suspicion of being a co-conspirator of Aaron Burr in a treasonous plot to separate the western states from the Union. After receiving Burr's notorious ciphered letter in October of 1806, Wilkinson informed President Jefferson of Burr's plan and claimed no knowledge of the conspiracy.

In 1811, Wilkinson was court-martialed for taking payment from Spain while serving as general of the United States Army. Though he was acquitted, after his death it was revealed that he had, in fact, drawn a regular pension from Spain for his work to separate the western areas from the United States. He served as a senior officer in the United States Army for over a decade and was commissioned a major general in the War of 1812.

After leading two failed campaigns, the Battle of Crysler's Farm and the Second Battle of La Colle Mills, Wilkinson was relieved of his military duties and went on to publish his autobiography, Memoirs of My Own Times, in 1816. Intending to settle a colony in Texas, he was awaiting approval from the Mexican government when he died.

Collection Scope and Content Notes

The collection mainly consists of letters from James Wilkinson to his friend Samuel H. Smith, a major general in the Maryland Militia during the War of 1812, and United States senator and representative from Maryland. It is in these letters that Wilkinson is the most open, with frank comments about his foes in the territorial government, as well as about Burr, his allies, and the conspiracy trial. An example of Wilkinson's candidness can be seen in a postscript in a letter dated December 10, 1806. In it he writes, "I shall live to laugh at my vile detractors as I have done all my life -- and after being crowned Emperor of Mexico, in place of Burr, I will return to spend the eve of my life in my native state and not far from Baltimore." In another letter dated June 20, 1807, he forthrightly states that he believes the conspiracy trial will not last more than four months, as Burr will attempt to flee justice. In the same letter, Wilkinson remarks that he believes an assassination attempt will be made on his own life.

Many of the letters reference Wilkinson's ongoing political conflicts with Return J. Meiggs, a politician from Ohio and judge in the Louisiana and Michigan territories; Judge John B. C. Lucas, chief justice of the Louisiana Territory; and Samuel Hammond, a member of the armed forces and Georgia state senator. Lucas served as a congressman from 1803 until he replaced Wilkinson as civil and military governor of the upper Louisiana Territory in 1805. Wilkinson often writes of his thoughts on political and military matters, discussing tensions with England and talk of an embargo against them, which would become the Embargo Act in December, 1807. The letters also frequently refer to Aaron Burr and detail Wilkinson's involvement in the ensuing conspiracy trial from his point of view.

The first letter in the collection introduces a friend, John Coburn, to the governor of the District of Natchez, Manuel Gayoso. Wilkinson's papers contain a copy of a letter from Andrew Jackson to Claiborne. In it, Jackson warns Claiborne to guard against internal and external enemies, which refers to Wilkinson as "the General." There is also a letter from Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irish immigrant who was one of Burr's co-conspirators, to a Dr. Wallace. In this letter, Blennerhassett requests the retrieval and shipment of personal effects left behind after his attempted escape and capture for his involvement in the Burr conspiracy. James Brown, who was appointed attorney for the United States in New Orleans by Thomas Jefferson, writes personally to Wilkinson. Brown's letter covers political matters and Wilkinson's professional struggles.

Envelopes do not accompany the letters and in some cases the addressee is not known. In one instance, denoted by brackets around the name, it has been assumed that the recipient of the letter is Samuel H. Smith, as at that time, he was a confidant of Wilkinson and was in frequent correspondence with him.


The Wilkinson letters are arranged chronologically and include description at the item level.

Subject Terms

  • Burr Conspiracy, 1805-1807
  • Embargo, 1807-1809

Corporate Names
  • United States. Army. -- Officers

Personal Names
  • Burr, Aaron, 1756-1836
  • Claiborne, William C. C. (Charles Cole), 1775-1817
  • Cordero y Bustamente, Manuel Antonio, 1753-1823
  • Dearborn, Henry, 1751-1829
  • Gayoso de Lemos, Manuel, 1747-1799
  • Hammond, Samuel, 1757-1842
  • Hodgdon, Samuel, 1745-1824
  • Jackson, Andrew, 1767-1845
  • Lucas, John B. C. (John Baptiste Charles), d. 1842
  • Meiggs, Return Jonathan, 1764-1824
  • Smith, Samuel Harrison, 1772-1845
  • Wilkinson, James, 1757-1825

  • Louisiana -- History -- 1803-1865
  • Louisiana -- Politics and government -- 1803-1865
  • Spain -- Relations -- United States
  • United States -- History -- 1783-1815
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1789-1809
  • United States -- Relations -- Spain

Access and Use
Access Restrictions:

No restrictions.

Acquisition Information:

Gift to the Darlington Memorial Library in 1937.

Alternate Format:

Copies of the letters and typed transcripts of eight of the letters (April 25, 1806; June 1, 1806; June 8, 1806; June 10, 1806; June 10, 1806; June 16, 1806; June 17, 1806; and October 14, 1806) are on file. Included is a copy of a morning report of the Garrison of New Orleans dated December 23, 1806. Digital reproductions of this collection are available online.

Custodial History:

This collection was located in the Darlington Memorial Library in the University’s Cathedral of Learning until 2007 when it was moved to the ULS Archives Service Center for processing, storage, preservation and service. However, it remains in the custodianship of the ULS Special Collections Department.

Preferred Citation:

James Wilkinson Papers, 1790-1818, DAR.1937.09, Darlington Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh

Processing Information:

This collection was processed by Kristin Justham in October and November of 2006.


No copyright restrictions.

Related Material:

There is a copy of a letter in the James Wilkinson Papers from Martin Luther to an unknown recipient, which briefly refers to the Burr trial. The original letter is housed in the Darlington Autograph Files, along with other materials related to this collection.

Collection Inventory

Box 1
Folder 1 James Wilkinson to Manuel Gayoso, March 26, 1790

Written from Lexington, Kentucky, and presumably going to Natchez, this is a letter of introduction for John Coburn to Manuel Gayoso, the governor of the District of Natchez. Wilkinson states Coburn is superior to any adventurer who has gone down the Ohio that season.

Folder 2 James Wilkinson to Samuel Hodgdon, March 9, 1792

Wilkinson writes a very short note from Fort Washington to Hodgdon concerning letters relating to "public business of importance" addressed to Col. Spencer and Capt. Gano. The letters are not part of this collection.

Folder 3 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, April 25, 1806

This is a document titled Pro Bono Publico [for the public good], written by Wilkinson in St. Louis to expose the duplicity of Judge Lucas. It is a testimony of what has been said by the judge about the state of America, her relationship with France and about the clause in an Act of Congress about land titles. Wilkinson states that he will claim authorship of the document if it is publicized or if Judge Lucas inquires.

Folder 4 Samuel Hammond to James Wilkinson, June 1, 1806

Hammond writes from St. Louis to request Wilkinson's approval for the formation of a military corps. He also requests permission to commission officers in order to "quell the apprehensions of the inhabitants" and to protect the town and District of St. Louis.

Folder 5 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 4, 1806

In this letter, Wilkinson comments on the character of Judge Lucas, Col. Meiggs, and Col. Hammond. He also discusses a murder case involving Hammond's nephew.

Folder 6 James Wilkinson to Samuel Hammond, June 8, 1806

This official letter from St. Louis, not in Wilkinson's hand, denies the formation of the corps requested in Col. Hammond's letter of June 1. Wilkinson reasons that, as more than half of the people on the list are not citizens, the group was formed without the sanction of law and his approbation.

Folder 7 James Wilkinson to Henry Dearborn, June 10, 1806

[The end of the letter states that it is an extract of a letter to the Department of War, presumably to the Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn.] In the letter, Wilkinson discusses the meeting of an association headed by Hammond's nephew and a refugee from Canada, which, he writes, was formed for sinister purposes. He remarks that Hammond was aware of these purposes. Additionally, Wilkinson relays that rumors have spread regarding plans for Hammond to replace him as governor in three weeks time. The letter concludes with a note that the troops are in good health but their "numbers are insufficient for the claims and calls of the services, at a point so remote and exposed and embracing such extensive Indian relations."

Folder 8 James Wilkinson to [Samuel H. Smith], June 10, 1806

Written from St. Louis, Wilkinson confides that he has of late withdrawn from the public eye, and writes of the recent activities of Lucas and his associates. He refers to their attack on a Mr. Donaldson and sends enclosures to be published in an attempt to vindicate Donaldson [the whereabouts of the enclosures are unknown]. Of the recent Zebulon Pike exploration, Wilkinson conveys that he is in possession of Pike's chart of the Mississippi. He includes a brief description of Pike's journey, stating that the chart and Pike's river journal are prepared for the president, but are too bulky to be mailed.

Folder 9 James Wilkinson to Henry Dearborn, June 16, 1806

In this letter, [signed by, but not written in Wilkinson's hand] Wilkinson discusses leaving St. Louis for Fort Adams in order to execute the instructions of the president. He informs Dearborn that the troops' guns were unfit for service, and several thousand stands of muskets were needed at Fort Adams. Wilkinson adds "the Mexicans fight all on horseback" and states they may need "horses to find them & sabers to meet them."

Folder 10 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 17, 1806

[This letter appears to be a draft, as much of it is crossed out.] Wilkinson acknowledges that rumors of his removal were true, as he has received orders to go to the Territory of Orleans and take command of their standing contingent force. He writes of the difficulty in leaving his ill wife, but does not anticipate war. Hammond's nephew and continued problems with Lucas, Hammond, Meiggs, and company are also discussed.

Folder 11 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, September 20, 1806

Written from the Rapids of Red River to Smith in Baltimore, Wilkinson remarks on the boundary dispute with the Spanish, specifically citing Simon de Herrera, commandant of the Louisiana frontier, and Governor Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamante.

Folder 12 James Wilkinson to Governor Cordero, September 24, 1806

This is an official letter from United States army headquarters in Natchitoches regarding the contested boundaries of Louisiana and Texas. In it, Wilkinson demands the withdrawal of the Spanish troops to the west of the Sabine River and makes it clear that Cordero's actions in response to the request will result in either peace or war.

Folder 13 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, October 5, 1806

This letter from Natchitoches contains further discussion of the boundary dispute with Spain. Wilkinson also criticizes Dearborn and says the country is approaching a crisis.

Folder 14 James Brown to James Wilkinson, October 14, 1806

Writing from New Orleans to Natchitoches, Brown remarks on personal, political, and military matters.

Folder 15 O.S. to James Wilkinson, October 30, 1806

The author discusses matters with Wilkinson concerning Governor William C. C. Claiborne and the militia in New Orleans. Also discussed are the feelings of the American people in regards to their country and potential hostilities with the Spanish. There is a note at the bottom of the letter stating, "Offered in confidence and not to be employed to Claibornes [sic] prejudice."

Folder 16 Andrew Jackson to Governor William C. C. Claiborne, November 12, 1806

This is a copy of a letter from Jackson to Claiborne. Jackson stresses the need for continued vigilance by Claiborne regarding external and internal enemies and that he must "keep a watchful eye upon our General."

Folder 17 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, November 14, 1806

Writing from Natchez, Wilkinson discusses the atmosphere in New Orleans and criticizes Claiborne. He talks about Burr, Hammond, Meiggs, and others who oppose him. Wilkinson also lists changes he would like to see instituted in the army.

Folder 18 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, December 10, 1806

In this letter from New Orleans, Wilkinson talks about Burr and his emissaries, and about the letter Claiborne received from Andrew Jackson. He also discusses the state of the region, the people and their loyalties, and about problems in Europe affecting the United States. Wilkinson remarks upon Hammond and Meiggs as well.

Folder 19 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, February 17, 1807

Wilkinson writes from New Orleans to Smith relating his displeasure with Burr, calling him a scoundrel and liar. He notes Burr's daughter claims to possess evidence of Wilkinson's part in the conspiracy. He also comments that Burr says the letter Wilkinson possesses, which is an invitation to Wilkinson to take part in an act of military treason, is fabricated. He also discusses Claiborne and the corruptness of the people in the area.

Folder 20 Harman Blennerhassett to Dr. Wallace, March 11, 1807

Writing from confinement in Natchez to Wallace in Marietta, Ohio, Blennerhassett remarks that he has not yet been hanged. He asks Wallace to collect and send his belongings to Natchez.

Folder 21 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, May 10, 1807

Wilkinson, who writes from New Orleans, discusses Burr's conspiracy trial in Richmond. He comments that he looks forward to the impending scene at Richmond with pride, even if Burr and his allies lie and forge letters. Wilkinson believes Burr's associates could aid the prosecution in their case against Burr.

Folder 22 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 10, 1807

This is a short letter written from Hampton to Smith in Baltimore about Burr's trial.

Folder 23 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 19, 1807

Wilkinson, writing from Richmond, to Smith in Baltimore, discusses his time before the Grand Jury and the trial. He contends that Burr practices acts of treachery and intrigue against him every day. He also notes that he has enclosed the letter from Jackson to Claiborne [the enclosure is located in Folder 16].

Folder 24 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 20, 1807

In this letter written from Richmond , to Smith in Baltimore, Wilkinson mentions the trial, which he does not believe will be finished in four months. Wilkinson relates events surrounding Burr's attempted escape before his eventual capture. He also requests Smith send him some letters from the Burgoyne Campaign as he intends to introduce a chapter of "interesting incidents that marked the campaign" into his appeal. Additionally, Wilkinson remarks he has been bored since his arrival by old friends. It is worth noting that one such friend is Light Horse Harry, otherwise known as Henry Lee III, Robert E. Lee's father.

Folder 25 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 24, 1807

The letter, written from Richmond and sent to Baltimore, details Burr's attempt to discredit Wilkinson's testimony and discusses the trial.

Folder 26 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 24, 1807

Wilkinson, writing from Richmond, relates to Smith the grand jury concluded that Burr and Blennerhassett would stand trial for misdemeanors and treason. In the letter, Wilkinson remarks that whatever the outcome, Burr will be marked as a traitor. He also mentions the number of men Burr has stationed in the city. This information was related to Wilkinson by his own spies.

Folder 27 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, June 29, 1807

This is a brief letter about Burr, and about Wilkinson's upcoming visit to Washington.

Folder 28 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, July 5, 1807

This short letter discusses the Burr trial and is written from Washington to Smith in Baltimore. Efforts to have Wilkinson brought up on charges of suspicion of treason were thrown out, with a decision coming back thirteen to three in his favor. He was also exonerated of charges that he violated the constitution.

Folder 29 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, July 8, 1807

Wilkinson notes, in this letter from Washington, his receipt of the document from the Burgoyne Campaign he had requested earlier from Smith. He reports of Burr's failed attempts to "thicken the clouds of suspicion around him." Wilkinson talks about Congress assembling, possible hostilities with the British and their expulsion from America's waters. Included are discussions of preparations for offensive and defensive measures against the British, as well as talks of an embargo against them.

Folder 30 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, July 27, 1807

Wilkinson writes from Washington to Smith in Baltimore. He remarks on the possibility of war with England and about the likelihood of men from Jamaica taking New Orleans in a coup de main. He is concerned they may also occupy other areas, and derive aid from the Creek and Choctaw Nations, and from "our over disaffected citizens."

Folder 31 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, July 30, 1807

This is a short note written by Wilkinson in Washington to Smith in Baltimore and is a cover letter for one or more documents pertaining to Burr [which are not in the collection].

Folder 32 James Morrison to Samuel H. Smith, March 30, 1808

Morrison's letter from Lexington includes a discussion of the political conditions in the state, military affairs and personal information. In a postscript, Morrison conveys his hope that Wilkinson will "come out immaculate compared with his numerous enemies."

Folder 33 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, November 2, 1808

Marked private, the letter, written in Washington, describes Wilkinson's meeting with Vice President George Clinton, in which they agreed the embargo against England should not be raised. Wilkinson relays Clinton's fears that the country is coming to a crisis.

Folder 34 James Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, May 2, 1809

This letter is written from New Orleans by Wilkinson to Smith in Washington and discusses current politics.

Folder 35 Joseph Wilkinson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1809

Wilkinson, in Huntstown, writes a brief note to Smith, in Baltimore, about political matters and meetings seemingly related to an upcoming election.

Folder 36 James Wilkinson to --, February 25, 1816

In Philadelphia, Wilkinson comments on family matters concerning his grandfather, and discusses the presidential election. A postscript notes his plan to leave in August to become a planter of sugar and cotton on the Mississippi.

Folder 37 James Wilkinson to H. Thompson, January 14, 1818

Writing from New Orleans, Wilkinson describes a long illness he recently suffered, one that spread throughout Norfolk, Charleston, and New Orleans. He writes of family matters and notes that he has had to borrow money. Wilkinson also discusses national and international events, commenting on the Spanish, Indians, world politics, the power of the president, and the United States military.