Aaron Burr Plot and A Branch of the Pryor Family

aaron-burrCan you believe the “Got Milk” ad that featured the peanut-butter-mumbler who flubbed “Aaron Burr” is now more than 20 years old? You may think of milk when someone says Aaron Burr, but maybe you’ll start thinking “Mr. Pryor.”

You know what they say, Karma is a bitch. Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and by 1807 Burr was on trial not for Hamilton’s death, but for treason– he had been caught red-handed in the western territories trying to stir up an armed force to grab land. What pulled me into the Aaron Burr plot is the mention of a Mr. Pryor being party to the plot. If you like to read original historical records the transcript of Burr’s impeachment trial is available as a free Google Book (see book).

Burr was set on claiming parts of FL, TX, and Mexico which when under Spanish rule in 1806. Click on map to visit PBS website.

First, The Timeline

The timeline is important to not only figure out what happened when, but in the case of Aaron Burr crossing paths with Mr. Pryor it also helps to keep the characters straight. You’ll see Fort Massac highlighted because it comes up a few times when looking at this tale.

Dec. 14, 1799 Alexander Hamilton becomes Senior Officer of the Army and Fort Massac (now in Massac County, IL) came under his control.

Jun. 15, 1800 General James Wilkinson succeeded Hamilton to office of Senior Officer of the Army, and thus had control of Fort Massac.

Nov. 11, 1803The Lewis and Clark Expedition set out for the west and stopped at Fort Massac to pick up soldiers who had volunteered for the expedition. Nathaniel Pryor had joined the part at Louisville so it’s probable that he made this stop at the fort.

Jul. 11, 1804Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the US, killed Alexander Hamilton in a Duel.

Mar. 4, 1805 – Aaron Burr finishes term as Vice President.

Jun. 1805Aaron Burr traveled to Fort Massac to meet with General Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana Territory (see National Parks Service website). Burr was trying to gain Wilkinson’s support for his plan to grab land. Wilkinson, though, was part of the final acts that led to Burr’s capture.

Sept. 23, 1806The Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis.

Dec. 26, 1806 – A Mr. Pryor was on board Aaron Burr‘s boat when he disposed of a weapon stockpile at New Madrid (then in Indiana Territory, now in MO).

The Aaron Burr Plot, History’s Villain

The more I read about Aaron Burr and his plot to form another country, the more I’m convinced this a greatly overlooked moment in history. President Jefferson had bought the Louisiana Territory from the French and sent out representatives of the US, The Corps of Discovery, to explore it in 1803. Yet, Burr who was a sitting Vice President— in fact he was Jefferson’s VP– had killed one of the Founding Fathers (Hamilton) and shortly after he left office he was involved in an attempt to rally support to grab territory from Spain.

Colonel Aaron Burr, Late Vice President of the United States for Treason, and for A Misdemeanor, In preparing the means of a Military Expedition against Mexico, a territory of the King of Spain, with whom the United States were at peace.
(partial title of the trial transcript)

My thoughts: I think he was prosecuted not because of making a move against a foreign neighbor, but out of fear he would go into the new Louisiana territory. Is this starting to sound like a plot line from “House of Cards?”

Let’s heap a salacious coincidence on top of all these linked characters. During the Revolution General Wilkinson and Aaron Burr had worked in Benedict Arnold‘s office (see reference).  Were they really traitors or did they just look like traitors because of this earlier association with a known traitor?

Mr. Pryor, Burr, and the Floyds

While looking at the Burr treason trial transcript I saw Davis Floyd was mentioned several times. When I looked him up online researchers of the Floyd family have him as the younger brother of Charles Floyd, first cousin of Nathaniel Pryor on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The affidavit of David Fisk on page 186 says that Davis Floyd was living at “The Falls of the Ohio” in Indiana Territory at the time of the Burr plot (OK, that’s kind of interesting because Nathaniel Miguel Pryor who ventured into California claimed he was born there in about 1806). Floyd enticed him to join a party of men going down river on Burr’s mission, he saw stockpiles of arms while aboard a boat and was told General Wilkinson was going to be part to Burr’s “expedition.” He also implicates several men, including Floyd, as being in close conversations with Burr.

My favorite testimony comes from Jacob Dunbaugh, a sergant stationed at for Fort Massac.  I’ve read and re-read it several times and have to agree with the word that summed up this testimony in “The Life of John Marshall”, by Albert Beveridge (Marshall is the Supreme Court justice who presided over Burr’s trial)… it’s weird. Dunbaugh is told one night to stay inside a boat. He hears “chopping” sounds from Burr’s cabin, Dunbaugh disobeys the order and goes out to the top of the boat and sees Burr sinking bundles of guns into the river. Oh yes, and about the same time a Mr. Pryor and Mr. Tooly pop out of a window. Now was Mr. Pryor an on-looker like Dunbaugh or was he coming out to help Aaron Burr? Weren’t they all on this boat because they were in cahoots with Burr?

Who Was Mr. Pryor?

I know you’re probably asking yourself the same question I’m musing over. Who was this Mr. Pryor? Dunbaugh’s  testimony does little to ID him. First, he is identified as Mr. Pryor. I asked a friend who’s a vet, which army rank would be called Mr?  His answer jived with a website I found that shows the proper use of titles when addressing specific ranks. In today’s army the only position addressed as Mr. are warrant officers. I don’t know if any rank was addressed as Mr. two hundred years ago. My best guess is that this Pryor was not in the military at the time (probably not stationed at Fort Massac). There is also an account from a Robert Pryor:

One Robert Pryor of Sheppardsville, Kentucky, said that Floyd hired him and others for $12.50 per month and a promise of 150 acres of land at the end of a year’s service. Pryor said further that he left Louisville on December 12, 1806, in Floyd’s boat, and that the boat’s company included Alexander Ralston and about twenty others.
A Forgotten Man of Indianapolis, by Emmett A. Rice, pub. 1938, Indiana Magazine of History (see article)

This may be the Robert L. Pryor of Bullit County, KY who is speculated to be the the brother of Nathaniel Pryor. I found a newspaper article about another Mr. Pryor in September 1810: Mr. Pryor lost his shipment of whiskey barrels during a storm on the Ohio River. A group of Indians took advantage of his predicament, assaulting him and taking some of the barrels. This Mr. Pryor “then returned to Fort Massack (sic)” for help. It’s not a positive ID that these are the same Mr. Pryor, however it’s another Pryor in close proximity to Fort Massac.

So what the heck was going on? Nathaniel Pryor went off west with Lewis and Clark under the orders of President Jefferson. He comes back to the “east” with tales of bountiful land just in time for his brother and cousin to be involved in the Aaron Burr plot to form a country in the West.  Burr had been busy for a a while looking for funding and manpower in the western territories and southern states, even approaching Andrew Jackson and of course General Wilkinson. His plot may speak more of the underlying sentiments that bolstered the secession of the Southern States in 1861– the pioneers wanted land and freedom and were likely to be open to anti-Federalist ideas (anti rule from Washington D.C.), thus easily enticed to join Burr.

Another Look at Nathaniel Miguel Pryor

The Aaron Burr plot raises questions about another piece of Pryor history. I’ll elaborate on my thoughts about Nathaniel Miguel Pryor. Remember the story of him arriving in San Diego in 1828 (Mexican Territory, not California, U.S.A. at the time)? He and his “fur trapping” buddies from Kentucky were thrown into jail by the Mexican authorities. This Pryor claimed to have the same name as the explorer, he was born in the year of the Burr plot, and born at a location in the midst of the activities, and possibly had an uncle (Robert L. Pryor) who was aligned with Burr. You know what I think?– The Mexicans knew who he was and they weren’t being overly cautious!

Aaron Burr, death mask. He died of natural causes at age 80 in 1836.