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Updated: May 18, 2021

The year was 1791. A gentleman by the name of George Washington had been president of the young United States of America for just two years. James Madison's Bill of Rights had just been ratified and Old Glory still had 13 stars. The United States was becoming a nation built on a solid foundation that would surely last generations.

At this point the United States did not extend any further west than Georgia, and Spain controlled all territories to the west. The Territorial Map of 1791 below shows how much growing the United States still had to do.

Now that we made it through the preface, I have a question. Have you heard of the Nolan River? If you live anywhere around Kopperl, the answer to this question is likely yes; and so the story begins.

The Nolan River shares the last name of Philip Nolan who in 1791 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 Comanchees 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.

Location of Philip Nolan's Historical Marker and Death
Historical Marker
Puelles Map of 1807 Showing Location of Fuerte Nolan (Nolan's Fort)

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