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 was 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. Clergyman Timothy Flint met Colonel Many 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. (4)

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. (5)

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. In 1833, he led an expedition from Fort Gibson 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. 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.
  5. 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.
  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.

6 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.

  • Denise Hazeur Chisley says:

    Yes, Colonel Many had a daughter. Her name was Mathilde Many. He was never married. He is buried next to Mathilde Many Hazeur’s daughter, Genevieve Martine Hazeur. He is my 4th Great Grandfather.

  • Marion Couvillion says:

    Wow~! I have been researching Colonel Many for years and just happened on your post…(well done~!!, thanks~!) I do have most of the information you post here, but we may be able to broaden the story a lot, especially as related to General Wilkinson, Aaron Burr, and the death of Meriwether Lewis who I feel Wilkinson and even President Jefferson may have had more to do with this than history tells us. Wilkinson would not have been above killing him to take back the job as governer of Louisiana and to keep him quiet. It is my opinion that James Wilkinson was very much involved with these people and may show why, among other things, Colonel Many never progressed beyond Lieutenant Colonel, though he was very knowledgeable especially in artillery, which was lacking in early America wars… I think that Wilkinson was a first class crook, or more, and I am reminded of his type lately in the Trump era and what can be done with prevarication.

    Too bad that not many people have seen the importance of the Wilkinson situation in those early years before and after the Louisiana purchase, but land deals made many less than honest people very rich with the opening of the western territories.

    I grew up in the area of Fort Jessup and played in those ruins long before they tried to rebuild the fort. It was a Methodist church camp among the ruins and there was only one building standing then. I also have records of those forts and people along the Sabine in those times.

    I do have more information on Many and Fort Jessup, the Cherokee Strip, and Many’s retirement in New Orleans etc if you are interested, but though Many worked in Philadelphia for a time I have a problem putting his family together, the name Many brings up too “many”!

    I do have a (bad) print of a very old painting which I feel is of Colonel Many if you are interested. I was hoping to get an artist to repaint it.

    I was surprised to see that you live in Canada. You will note from my name that I am descended from the Canadian Couvillion’s or Quevillon from the Montreal area (Pointe aux Trembles) who came down to Louisiana to the Pointe Coupee and Avoyelles area of Louisiana. I have a lot of history in my name and family, another branch being the Broutins who were sent by King Louis first to Mobile then to the Mississippi, being involved in the establishment of New Orleans and still another side was from the English who came with John Winthrop to Boston. So History is part of my life.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wilkinson

    https://www.louisianatravel.com/articles/louisianas-no-mans-land

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Jesup

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your comments, Marion. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s interesting to consider the Wilkinson angle, as I hadn’t really thought about why Colonel Many never moved further up the ranks. I would be interested in seeing the other information you have about Many and will contact you privately about that. It’s nice to learn of your Canadian connection. My great-grandparents migrated the other way, from the United States to Canada.

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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