Philip Nolan 1771-1801
Written by: Travis Bryant
When studying the History of Kopperl and the surrounding areas, the subject of Philip Nolan must be discussed. From 1791-1801 Nolan led four expeditions to Texas where he traded with the Indians as well as captured wild mustangs by the thousands. He is considered the first of a long line of filibusters that helped free Texas from Spanish/Mexican rule. He is also credited with being the first Anglo-American to map Texas and was perhaps the first Anglo-American to view the beautiful area where Kopperl now exists. Spain had claimed the territories consisting of most of Texas since the year of 1519, but there was never much of a presence around the Kopperl area which made it the perfect place to capture wild mustangs under the Spanish radar. This story is exciting when studying Kopperl history and should not be overlooked!
Due to the extensive history and vast amount of theories and stories surrounding Nolan's life we chose not to cover everything from start to finish on this site. However, we did provide a basic overview and a timeline of his life below for you to read. Also, if you go to the file share tab you can find a folder titled Philip Nolan which contains a large assortment of photographs, maps, and documents related to his history. We wanted to provide a resource for you to do your own detailed research as well as see where the many stories surrounding Nolan originated. In the file you can find copies of the original letters written by Thomas Jefferson for Philip Nolan as well as others. If you have any research that you feel should be included in the file, please feel free to send it over to us.
There are several great books that cover Philip Nolan and a vast amount of information online. You can see the compiled lists below for both. I highly recommend the book: Philip Nolan and Texas Expeditions to the Unknown Land 1791-1801 by Maurine T. Wilson and Jack Jackson. Click here to see book on Amazon.
Books Related to Philip Nolan
Philip Nolan and Texas Expeditions to the Unknown Land, 1791-1801 by Maurine T. Wilson and Jack Jackson
The Man Without a Country by Edward Everett Hale
Philip Nolan's Friends by Edward Everett Hale
Memoir of Colonel Ellis P. Bean, Written by Himself, 1816
A Comprehensive History of Texas 1685 to 1897,
History of Texas 1685-1846, Henderson King Yoakum
Online Links for Further Research
The Era of Philip Nolan
Before going into the detailed history of Philip Nolan and his life, it is important to understand some of the details surrounding the last quarter of the 18th century. In the year of 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed which turned over the Louisiana Territories from French control to Spain. Just 13 years later in 1776, the United States declared independence from Britain by signing the Declaration of Independence. This placed most of the lands east of the Mississippi under United States control, but there were still territories that were not yet part of the United States and served as British Loyalist safe havens. The map below shows the distribution of lands in 1791 to help put everything into perspective. It is also important to understand the location and details surrounding some of the main territories and towns in the Nolan story.
Natchez passed from France to England with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. During the American Revolution Natchez served as a safe haven for British Loyalists. In 1779 it was captured by a Spanish expedition under Bernardo de Gálvez and remained under Spanish dominion until 1798 when the United States took possession and made it the first capital (1798–1802) of the Mississippi Territory. Natchez was a very important trade hub on the Mississippi river and also the terminus of the famous Natchez Trace. While Natchez was controlled by Spain it was frequented by American traders looking to take advantage of the Mississippi River's reach into the interior of North America. It was also a trade hub for travel into the Spanish Controlled East. As you can see on the map above, there was a border between the Colony of Louisiana and New Spain. A Spanish passport was required to enter New Spain and there were strict regulations regarding the trade across the border.
The French colony of Louisiana was ceded to the Spanish Empire in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. During the American Revolutionary War, New Orleans was an important port for smuggling aid to the American revolutionaries, and transporting military equipment and supplies up the Mississippi River. It remained a Spanish controlled economic hub until 1803 when the Louisiana Colony was briefly controlled again by the French (Third Treaty of San Ildefonso) before being sold to the United States (The Louisiana Purchase).
Spain had claimed ownership of the territory in 1519, which comprised part of the present-day U.S. state of Texas, including the land north of the Medina and Nueces Rivers. By 1891 Spain had built numerous Missions and Presidos in Texas. As mentioned above there were tensions between the long time Spanish colony of Texas and the newly acquired colony of Louisiana. You can see the map below which shows the distribution of Spanish missions and Presidos in 1795. You can see that most of the Spanish settlements were concentrated in South Texas and there would have been very little if no Spanish presence in the area of Kopperl at this time.
In the year of 1891 Philip Nolan resided in the very famous Gen. James Wilkinson's Kentucky residence. Nolan had worked for Wilkinson as his bookkeeper and shipping clerk for the past three years representing Wilkinson's business interests in New Orleans. New Orleans at this time was still a Spanish territory, but was a very important trade hub due to the Mississippi River's access to the interior. With Wilkinson's help in 1791 Nolan received a passport to visit modern day Texas for his first of four trading expeditions.
1st Texas Expedition
He set off with a small amount of trading goods only to be intercepted by the Spanish Texas authorities who confiscated his goods with suspicions. This would be a turning point for Nolan and perhaps the stories of Daniel Boone inspired his next move. He went north of the Spanish settlements and lived among the Comanche and other Indian tribes for the next two years. The map below shows the numerous Spanish Missions at that time which includes the famous San Antonio de Valero (Alamo) which was established in 1718. You can see that the general region of Kopperl does not have any Spanish Missions or Presidios at that time and was most likely an area explored by Nolan over these two years. Nolan hunted, traded, and captured fifty wild horses which he drove back to Louisiana in late 1793 or 1794.
2nd Texas Expedition
By June of 1794 Nolan was back in Nacogdoches with a new passport and an objective of bringing horses back to Louisiana for a militia regiment. Nolan had new contacts in Texas by this point and returned to New Orleans in 1796 with 250 horses. The best horses were taken to Natchez, and Frankfort, Kentucky to sell. While in Kentucky Nolan visited again with Capt. Wilkinson and received a "secret" shipment of Spanish Silver. Over the two expeditions to Texas Nolan had gained a vast amount of information about unexplored Texas, but not without making the Spanish officials suspicious of his activities and loyalty. These suspicions were further enhanced when Nolan arrived in Natchez (Spanish) from a mapping expedition with Andrew Ellicott who was a boundary commissioner for the United States. Before long Nolan had his mind set back on Texas.
3rd Texas Expedition
In July 1797 Nolan departed on his third expedition with the mission of bringing more horses back to Louisiana. At this time trade between Louisiana and Texas was strictly prohibited, but that did not stop Nolan from arriving back in modern day San Antonio Texas with a large load of trade goods as well as eight companions. He presented his credentials and was allowed to travel to south Texas in search of Horses. While this was taking place the governor of Natchez had written the viceroy of Mexico, warning that foreigners like Nolan were stirring up the Indians not in their favor. After some controversy Nolan was forced to leave Texas in 1799 but not without more than 1,200 horses. On December 19, 1799, Nolan married Frances Lintot, daughter of a prominent Natchez planter. He intended to meet with Thomas Jefferson, who had written him in regards to the wild herds of horses in Texas, but the meeting never took place. Nolan was soon planning for another trip to Texas even though he would not be able to obtain another passport.
4th Texas Expedition
Knowing it would be a dangerous endeavor, Nolan returned to Texas with a group of well armed men in October of 1800. The group made their way to the area north of Nacodoches and then proceeded to a tributary of the Brazos River that we now know as the Nolan River. This really brings the story close to home! His party built a small fort and some horse corrals in a box canyon and began catching mustangs. Although the exact location of the fort and box canyon is not known, it is thought to be near Blum. On March 21st or 22nd of 1801 Nolan and his party were attacked by the Spanish with suspicions of him being an American Spy. Grapeshot from a Spanish cannon struck Nolan resulting in his death. The rest of Nolan's party surrendered and were imprisoned for years in Mexico, but we will save that story for another day.
Philip Nolan was perhaps the first Anglo-American to ever visit our area and see the beautiful town site of modern day Kopperl. It is very likely that he lived and traded with the local Indians villages that surrounded Kopperl as early as 1791. Picture the Spanish Military of 1801 pulling cannons through our area. Nolan is recognized as the first of a long line of filibusters that eventually led to freeing Texas from Spanish and Mexican rule.
The stories about Nolan and the people that surrounded him seem to be endless and there is a vast amount of information in regards to the fate of the rest of his party. I did not go into extreme detail in this short article, but plan to add a ton of Philip Nolan research to this website for you to look at if you have further interest.
If you are headed north on hwy 174 towards Cleburne you will find the historical marker dedicated to Nolan on the right side of the hiway just past the Nolan river. It is said that his slave buried him after his death under the large Oak Tree behind the historical marker. Also, what is thought to be the original grave stone of Philip Nolan resides in the Cleburne Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum.
How do we know the specific location of Nolan's Fort?
There are two main sources for locating the exact location of Nolan's fort.
The Puelles map of 1807 shows the Nolan River and Mustang Creek with a reference to Fuerte nolan. See below.
The Pierce family, who were descendants of the Pierce who accompanied Nolan in 1801 placed a gravestone at the current historical marker in 1842 led there by a map handed down through the family.
In the early 1900s a Pierce Descendant took a family member to this exact site and said it is where their family had been buried beside Philip Nolan.