Frontier Colonel James B. Many

Illustration of Zebulon Pike’s adventures exploring the upper Mississippi, where Pike encountered James B. Many in 1806. [Source: The Boy’s Story of Zebulon M. Pike, edited by Mary Gay Humphreys (New York, 1911)]

Illustration of Zebulon Pike’s adventures exploring the upper Mississippi, where Pike encountered James B. Many in 1806. [Source: The Boy’s Story of Zebulon M. Pike, edited by Mary Gay Humphreys (New York, 1911)]

Colonel James B. Many, the US Army officer who is sent to investigate Napoleon’s activities in Napoleon in America, spent most of his career on America’s western frontier. His life is typical of that of many frontier officers during the first half of the 19th century: protecting settlers, dealing with Indians, guarding against foreign intrusions, and charting a vast territory in which transportation and communications were difficult, all the while making do with few resources from Washington.

Bloody Americans

James B. Many was born in Delaware around 1775. In 1798, he entered the United States Army as a first lieutenant in the Second Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers. After the United States purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon in 1803, Many was sent to Arkansas Post to formally accept the transfer of Fort San Esteban – renamed Fort Madison by the Americans – and the surrounding region in early 1804.

In April 1806, Zebulon Pike, on his expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River, encountered Many at what is now Rock Island, Illinois, north of St. Louis.

[W]e observed a barge under sail, with the United States flag, which, upon our being seen, put to shore on the large island, about three miles above Stony river, where I also landed. It proved to be Captain Many, of the artillery, who was in search of some Osage prisoners among the Sacs and Reynards. He informed me that at the village of Stony Point the Indians had evinced a strong disposition to commit hostilities; that he was met at the mouth of the river by an old Indian, who said that all the inhabitants of the village were in a state of intoxication, and advised him to go up alone: this advice, however, he had rejected. That when they arrived there, they were saluted by the appellation of the Bloody Americans, who had killed such a person’s father, and such a person’s mother, brother, &c.; the women carried off the guns and other arms, and concealed them: that he had then crossed the river opposite to the village, and was followed by a number of Indians, with pistols under their blankets: that they would listen to no conference whatever relative to the delivery of the prisoners; but demanded, insolently, why he wore a plume in his hat; and declared that they looked upon it as a mark of war, and immediately decorated themselves with their ravens’ feathers, worn only in cases of hostility. (1)

After spending a number of years in New Orleans, Many was transferred in 1814 to Sackett’s Harbor, New York. The change was not to his liking. On November 27 of that year he wrote to James Monroe (then Secretary of State and Secretary of War), asking to be ordered to New Orleans or Mobile for duty. He said he had served 8 or 9 years in the South and, being accustomed to the climate, he flattered himself he would be useful there. (2)

Many was granted leave (his first in 14 years) and went to Charleston, where he was put in charge of troops in the harbour. By August 1816 he was back in New Orleans, sending an estimate for the amount of clothing and funds necessary to equip the four companies of artillery stationed in the Eighth Military Department. In December 1817, he wrote that he had been ill and was “greatly in want of officers…. I want men & have no recruiting funds.” In September 1821, he asked for a leave of absence, saying, “I have had but two furloughs in 23 years service, and those but for a short time.” (3)

Fort Jesup

In 1822, Many became lieutenant-colonel of the Seventh Infantry Regiment. The following year, he assumed command of newly-established Cantonment Jesup (later called Fort Jesup), which is where he has his fictional encounter with Napoleon and his men. The fort, located 22 miles southwest of Natchitoches, Louisiana, was close to the Mexican border. Its purpose was to guard against incursions from Mexico, and to protect frontier settlements from domestic disturbances. When, in 1827, the War Department considered abandoning Fort Jesup and creating a new fortification further west, Colonel Many argued against the move:

[Y]ou can always have an efficient force at [Fort Jesup]…ready to move in any direction..[and its location is] well calculated to protect the planters and others on the Red River against their slaves. (4)

The kitchen at Fort Jesup, the only original structure remaining at the historic site, where James B. Many served as commanding officer for many years.

The kitchen at Fort Jesup, the only original structure remaining at the historic site, where James B. Many served as commanding officer for many years.

In 1824-25, Many was posted to Fort Gibson and Fort Towson in Oklahoma, and to Fort Smith, Arkansas. By October 1825, he was back at Cantonment Jesup. Clergyman Timothy Flint encountered him there.

We were most hospitably welcomed at ‘Cantonment Jessup,’ a post within twenty-five miles of the Sabine, and situation the farthest to the southwest of any in the United States. They have very comfortable quarters, two companies of soldiers, and a number of very gentlemanly officers, the whole under the command of Col. Many. … It produced singular sensations, to see all of the pomp and circumstance of military parade, and to hear the notes of the drum and the fife, breaking the solitude of the wilderness of the Sabine. (5)

In 1831, Many was again in command at Fort Gibson. In 1833, he led an expedition from that fort with instructions

to ascend the Blue and Washita [Rivers], and scour the country between North Fork of the Canadian and Red rivers where white soldiers had never been seen. They were ordered to drive to the west any Comanche or Wichita Indians found there and if possible, to induce some of their chiefs to come to Fort Gibson for a conference where they might be impressed by the power of the United States in order to give security to the emigrating Indians. (6)

When nearing the Red River, one of Many’s men was captured by Pawnee Indians and carried away. Many and his force pursued the Indians for 12 days, until they were forced to abandon the hunt due to lack of food. Though the American was later killed, and Many returned without any hostages to impress with white men’s prowess, he claimed the expedition succeeded in driving back the Pawnees, thus providing more security for friendly Indians.

By 1836, Many was again commandant at Fort Jesup, in charge of the Third Infantry. General Sam Houston, as President of the Republic of Texas, called on Many for troops in August 1838, to help deal with a rebellion of Mexicans and Indians around Nacogdoches. Later that year, Colonel Many marched from Fort Jesup to expel about 160 Texans who had crossed the US frontier.

In 1843, the new town of Many, Louisiana was named after the popular Fort Jesup commandant, who reportedly “served as genial host for many cotillions, band concerts, parties and gatherings to glamorize the social life of the post where civilians were always welcome.” (7)

A Mardi Gras funeral

Though Colonel James B. Many retained command of the Third Infantry Regiment until he died, he in practice retired sometime before 1845. Lieut. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock called on him in New Orleans in March of that year and noted: “He seemed in pretty good health, but had not been in active command of the regiment for many years.” (8) When Hitchcock again called on Many four months later, he described him as “on sick leave from old age and its disabilities.” (9)

James B. Many died on February 23, 1852 in New Orleans, in his 70s (the 1850 US census gives his birth year as 1775, which would make him 76 or 77; a newspaper death notice gives his age at death as 70).

A rather singular incident took place whilst the funeral cortege of the veteran officer was moving slowly on its way to the cemetery. As it wheeled up Rampart street, it was met by the joyous and brilliant procession of hundreds of masquers and spectators, who were celebrating Mardi Gras. Here was a contrast – a scene in the everyday drama of life, the more startling for its naked truth and undeniable want of exaggeration. … The fantastic genius who imagined and engraved the ‘Dance of Death’ could not surpass that scene even in his strangest delineation of the armed skeleton ever present in man’s gayest hours. The impression it produced was instantaneous and general. The most frivolous participater in the follies of the masquerade could not resist the influence of an instantaneous awe and solemnity. The brilliant strains of music ceased; laughter and jests were hushed; and as the masquerade silently and decorously turned into a side street, and swept quietly away, the funeral procession moved slowly on its way towards the cemetery, amid the impressive silence of hundreds on hundreds of spectators. (10)

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  1. Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Exploratory Travels through the Western Territories of North America (Denver, 1889), p. 122.
  2. Carolyn Thomas Foreman, “Colonel James B. Many, Commandant at Fort Gibson, Fort Towson and Fort Smith,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 19, No. 2 (June 1941), p. 121.
  3. Ibid., p. 121.
  4. Junius P. Rodriguez, “Complicity and Deceit: Lewis Cheney’s Plot and Its Bloody Consequences,” in Michael A. Bellesiles, ed., Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History (New York, 1999), p. 141.
  5. Timothy Flint, Recollections of the Last Ten Years Passed in Occasional Residences and Journeyings in the Valley of the Mississippi (Boston, 1826), pp. 371-372.
  6. Grant Foreman, Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest (Cleveland, 1926), p. 104.
  7. Viola Carruth, Sabine Index, Many, La., April 21, 1999, http://files.usgwarchives.net/la/sabine/history/many.txt accessed September 19, 2015.
  8. A. Croffut, ed., Fifty Years in Camp and Field, Diary of Major-General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, US (New York, 1909), p. 190.
  9. Ibid., p. 193.
  10. The Daily Dispatch, Richmond, VA, March 9, 1852, p. 4, quoting the New Orleans Picayune.

2 commments on “Frontier Colonel James B. Many”

  • Rose says:

    I am looking for James Boyer Many daughters and wife. Have you found them.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Hi Rose – I didn’t know the B. stood for Boyer, and I have not come across any reference to Colonel Many having a wife or children. Good luck with your search! I’d be interested to know if you find something.

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[Captain Many] informed me that at the village of Stony Point the Indians had evinced a strong disposition to commit hostilities; that he was met at the mouth of the river by an old Indian, who said that all the inhabitants of the village were in a state of intoxication, and advised him to go up alone: this advice, however, he had rejected.

Zebulon Pike