Friday, December 16, 2011

Not Groucho, Some Other Clown —The Republic of Fredonia

The reconstructed flag of the Republic of Fredonia.  Red and white to symbolize the supposed Anglo/Cherokee alliance, listing leaders of the rebellion, including two Cherokee chief later executed by their own tribe for involvement.

There are historians of Texas.  Then there are Texan historians.  The latter bear the same relationship to real historians as Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich do to Abraham Lincoln.

When reviewing the seizure of Nacogdoches on December 16, 1826 by a gaggle of adventurers led by Haden and Benjamin Edwards and the subsequent establishment of the alleged Republic of Fredonia, the Texan historians get all squishy with admiration.  Sure the Republic lasted only 40 days before being the Edwards brothers and their cronies fled for their lives with the approach of a small force of Mexican troops and Stephen Austin’s Anglo colonists.  But the admiring “historians” claim that the sorry episode was the “true origin” of the eventual successful Texas Revolution.  One of them claims, although “premature ... [the rebellion] sparked the powder for later success.”

A premature ejaculation is more like it.  This comic opera operation was sillier Rufus T. Firefly’s tenure as head of Freedonia.

After Mexico won its independence from Spain the new nation struggled to find a way to keep control of its most northerly and remote possession, the thinly populated Department of Béxar in the State of Coahuila y Tejas.  During the Revolution American filibusterers took advantage of the chaos with plots to seize Texas and establish a slave holding republic.  Filibusterers were adventurers who were so sure of their racial superiority that they believed that they could knock off any former Spanish possession with a drunken corporal’s guard.  None of the plots came near succeeding, but the adventurers stayed to squat and settle.  And some promoted phony land schemes that attracted even more Anglo settlers.  

The numbers of Americans in Béxar was beginning to rival native residents and threatened the established land grants of major rancheros.  The Mexican government responded by creating the Empresario system which granted large concession to Americans who would agree to organize colonies, respect Mexican land claims, swear loyalty to their new nation, and regulate unrestricted immigration.

Austin was the first Empresario to set up his colony.  And he was determined to meet all of the conditions the Mexicans demanded.  Edwards was another early Empresario.  In fact, his concession bordered Austin’s to the south.  He and his brother came from an aristocratic family from Virginia and had established a large plantation in Mississippi.  He was a slave trader, land speculator and at heart a filibusterer.

Edwards arrived at the city of Nacogdoches in August of 1825 to take possession of his concession.  While Austin was scrupulous with locals and Mexican official, Edwards and his companions began to run roughshod over the locals almost from the first moment of his arrival.  Part of his grant overlapped the jurisdiction of the Pueblo of Nacodoches which had an established government under an alcalde, Luis Procela.

Defying the terms of his agreement, Edwards immediately began abrogating the land claims of established residents and ordering them to vacate their property.  Some were recent American arrivals who were either squatting or who had bogus deeds sold them by earlier filibusterers.  But many had valid land grants dating back to Spanish rule 70 year earlier.  When Procela and his municipal clerk began attesting to the validity of the old grants, ignored them.

By December Edwards was joined by 50 colonists, who paid him in hard cash for land he claimed to control.  Under the agreement with Mexico, Edwards was required to raise a militia when he got that first 50 to defend not only his own interests, but existing residents from occasional raids by Comanche, Waco, and Towakoni tribes.  It was the moment Edwards was waiting for. 

He formed his militia, but was outraged when they elected local landowner and clerk of Nacodoches, Jose Antonio Sepulveda as captain.  Edward invalidated the election and declared himself in command.  Then he demanded a new election for alcalde.  A stooge of Edwards was elected in the disputed election and local appealed for help from Juan Antonio Saucedo, the administer of the Department of Béxar at San Antonio de Béxar.   In March Saucedo overturned the election results.  Typically, Edwards defied the order.

He left for Louisiana, ostensibly to recruit more colonists, but locals suspected he was recruiting an armed force.  Edwards left his younger brother Benjamin in day to day control of his holding.   Benjamin, however, was not able to enforce his brother’s style of iron rule.  Local began to rebel and a vigilante group of dislocated earlier Anglo settlers began harassing Edwards’ colonists.  Benjamin appealed to the Governor of Coahuila y Tejas for military support.

Instead in October of 1826 the Governor, having got an earful from long time residents, revoked Edwards’s grant and ordered both brothers and their chief thugs to leave Mexico immediately.  Instead Haden rejoined his brother and picked up his business as if nothing had changed.

The rightfully elected alcalde, Samuel Norris, an American who had married into a prominent local family and championed the rights of long time residents, ruled that Edwards had wrongly taken the property of local landowner and given it to one of his colonists.  Norris had the colonist evicted and resorted the original owner, outraging Edwards.  Another supporter was arrested for trading with the Indians without a license.

On November 22 forty of Edwards’s men under a Col. Palmer arrested Norris, Sepulveda, and the commander of the small garrison.  Charged with corruption, Edwards had them tried by a kangaroo court which removed them from office, banned them for life from office, and appointed another alcalde.

Edwards knew that he was pushing his luck and that authorities in San Antonio would probably move against him.  He still did not have a large enough force of colonists to assure his protection, so he opened up negotiations with a large band of Cherokee living just north of his grant.  These had arrived few years earlier fleeing oppression in the States.  They had long desired, but never gotten, a grant from the Mexican government.  When Edwards promised them “clear title” to all the land north of his, they agreed to support him.

Evidence suggests that the attack on Nacogdoches on December 16 was pretty much what Edwards had planned all along.  He undoubtedly hoped to have more colonists from the states, and maybe the support of other Empresarios.  But events had moved too quickly, he was forced to march with just 30 men.  That was enough to seize the Old Stone Fort in the town and not much else.  But he was confident that any day cup to 400 Cherokee warriors would join him.  That would be enough to defend the town.  Maybe even enough to march on San Antonio.

But the warrior did not show up.  Neither did other American settlers, many of them unnerved by the alliance with the Cherokee.

Still Edwards pressed on and declared the Republic of Fredonia on December 21.  He sent an appeal to the Cherokee to join him and invited Stephen Austin to throw in as well.  For good measure he sent a rider to Louisiana begging for aid from the U. S. Army.

The Army, quite naturally, ignored the appeal.  And Austin rather than join the rebellion prevailed upon the Cherokee to abandon Edwards.  Saucedo promised the tribe that Mexico would make the land concessions they had long sought.  

 Lieutenant Colonel Mateo Ahumada marched from San Antonio with 110 troops.  Austin joined him with 250 of his colonists.  Together they marched on Nacogdoches on January 22.

Meanwhile Norris, the deposed alcalde, and 80 poorly armed and untrained volunteers attacked the Old Stone Fort on their own.  Firing from a position of strength the 20 Fedonians inside repulsed the attack after a 10 minute gun fight.

But Edwards knew that an organized force was coming that could not be so easily repulsed.  On January 31 an advance party of 70 Austin militia entered the town.  Edwards and his supporters fled toward the Sabine River without firing a shot.  The militia stayed in close pursuit but the Edwards brothers and most of their company made to the safety of the U.S. shore.

On February 11 Ahumada and Saucedo arrived in the town with the Mexican troops.  The Republic of Fredonia was kaput.

The Cherokee playacted the suspicious Mexican authorities by executing the two chiefs who had made the treaty with Edwards—Richard Fields  and John Dunn Hunter .  Cherokee did eventually gain some land concession and this splinter of the tribe remains in Texas to this day.

Rather than accelerate a genuine independence movement, the Mexican government moved quickly to firm up its control. Anastacio Bustamante, the Commandant General of the Eastern Interior Provinces arrived to take control.  He pardoned all participants except the Edwards brothers, their military commander Col. Palmer, and a local merchant.  The merchant was the only one captured and was sentenced to death, but had that sentence commented.

Because raids by tribes on long standing residents and colonists alike had been used by Edwards to rally support, Bustamante determined to move against the Comanche, Waco, and other tribes in force.  He gathered up a sizable force, but all tribes decided to sign treats before action was launched.  Although the smaller Waco and other tribes returned to nuisance level raiding—stock thievery mostly—after the Army was mostly withdrawn a year later, the powerful Comanche kept their peace for many years.

Most importantly the Mexican government imposed harsh new emigration measures affecting even loyal Empresarios like Austin.  For a while Anglo immigration slowed to a trickle until another generation of adventurers started migrating illegally in the 1830’s.  But that is another story.

Hayden Edwards did return to Nacogdoches after the Texas revolution.  He was able to reclaim some, but far from all of his holdings.  He died there in 1849.  His younger brother Benjamin died in 1837 while running for Governor of Mississippi.

Despite his evident combination of racism, avarice, aggression, and incompetence, some Texan historians still hold up Haden Edwards as a patriot and hero.

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