Monday, May 5, 2014

The Neutral Ground, A Legacy Of The Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana 1806

Blogger's Note:  The phrase 'neutral ground' is as old as New Orleans.  It is as unique to the city as 'gumbo', 'red beans and rice', 'making groceries,' and traditional jazz.  Used to describe the grassy green space between city streets, a common ground for joggers, street cars, and the occasional crowd of Mardi Gras revelers, the term is a familiar one.  But do we know as much about it as we think?  Tracing the origins of this phrase back to the early days of the Louisiana Purchase, we find it had a much different meaning.

(Above):  The City of New Orleans has many green spaces, including the neutral ground area between streets that are lined with Live Oak and palm trees.

From the article Neutral Ground Agreement by Archie P. McDonald, PhD:

"The Neutral Ground Agreement was an accord between Spanish General Simon Herrera and American General James Wilkinson regarding the undefined and highly disputed border between their nations and more importantly their overlapping fields of operation.

(Above): The Neutral Ground (Strip) as defined in this 1814 map of Louisiana.

The Agreement was, in short, a way for these two generals to avoid a conflict that might have escalated into a war. It was not sanctioned formally by either government, so far as conceding advantage to the other about the eventual location of the actual border. First, last, and always, it was a bargain to prevent fighting by two field commanders. Here¹s how it came about.

(Above): A portrait Lieutenant Colonel Zebulon Pike who was sent by General Wade Hampton to Natchitoches with orders to contact the Spanish and form a joint expedition into the Neutral Ground.
When Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Purchase to the United States in 1803, it came without a definite western border. First claimed by France, surrendered to Spain in 1763, reclaimed by France in 1797, then transferred to the US in 1803, none of the nations involved ever had agreed that the Sabine River was the boundary. America coveted land at least as far west as the Brazos and the Spanish thought their eastern neighbors should not encroach west of the Arroyo Hondo. 

Major General James Wilkinson, along with Lieutenant Colonel Simón de Herrera, formulated the temporary compromise know as the "neutral ground agreement" in 1806.

Because Herrera, military commander of Spain's northern provinces, or Wilkinson, the US military commander of the American Southwest, wanted to start a war, they did something sensible: they talked. Herrara came to Nacogdoches and Wilkinson to Natchitoches, frontier towns about ninety miles apart. Their emissaries met in the middle, and, after parleying a while, proposed the Neutral Ground Agreement.

The land between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo, on a line between Nacogdoches and Natchitoches, and north and south of that line, was declared "off limits" to soldiers of either command. The assumption was that if Spanish and US soldiers were not in one another's presence there would be no fighting.

That part worked. But as we know from physics and nature, there is a reaction to ever action. In this case, the Neutral Ground attracted a population that relished not having soldiers, or law enforcement, from either nation to interfere with their fun."


(Above): The site of neutral grounds in New Orleans serve a much different purpose today, such as a staging ground for Mardi Gras revelers.

Fun Fact: Following the signing of the Neutral Ground Agreement, some American settlers took Spanish land grants known as the Rio Hondo claims. Others simply squatted on unclaimed land. This lawless area also attracted exiles, deserters, political refugees, fortune hunters, and a variety of criminals. Eventually, the highwaymen organized to the degree that they manned outposts and organized spies in order to better fleece travelers and avoid the American and Spanish military.  In 1810 and again in 1812 the two governments sent joint military expeditions into the area to expel outlaws.