1807 – Daniel Bissell’s Account of Aaron Burr

[The following is transcribed from Documents B275 and B363, Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Registered Series, 1801-1870, Microfilm M221, Roll 4 (May 1806-April 1808, B230-C278), National Archives and Records Administration. On May 30, 1807, the Secretary at War had sent Capt. Daniel Bissell a letter requesting Bissell state “in the most explicit manner all circumstances in any manner connected with Col. Burr or his party which took place at Massac or in its vicinity while he lay at the mouth of Cumberland River or on Cumberland Island or at the time he passed Massac, or while he continued in the immediate vicinity of that Port, including all communications received by you from Burr or any of his party.” See Secretary at War to Daniel Bissell, May 30, 1807, Letters Sent by the Secretary of War Relating to Military Affairs, 1800-1889, Microfilm M6, Roll 3 (Vol. 3, May 1, 1806-Dec. 31, 1808), National Archives and Records Administration.]

Fort Massac, July 10th 1807


The 6th Inst. I had the honour to receive your letter of the 30th May last; and in compliance with your request I have stated in the most explicit manner I was capable all circomstances in any way connected with Col. Burr or his party which took place at Cumberland, or while he was in the neighbourhood of that or this place; including all communications received by me from Col. Burr or any of his followers that comes within my present recollection.

This statement I have tested with the solemnity of an oath; and, Doctor Tuttle, being the only commissioned officer then with me at this port; and having acted in concert with me in this affair, I have thot it my duty to require his deposition to certain facts & submit, that, also, for your consideration.

I most sincerely revere your candor, and beg leave to observe that I [ ] to say, that my conduct will bear the test of investigation and most fervently wish it might be scand from the commoncement of my military career to the present moment; and that I might rise or fall by its merits or demerits. And have the honor to be most

Your Obedt Servant
[signed] Danl Bissell


Document A, page 1

Document “A,” page 1

From the 17th to the 28th of Decembr 1806 I had occasion to send to the mouth of Cumberland, Kentucky & its neighbourhood three times—Sergt. Jacob Dunbaugh had charge of the parties. See document A. When he returned from that place the second time the evening of the 25th he reported himself to me turnd to Mrs Bissell & told her that he had a barrel of apples which Col. Burr had sent her with his compliments. This was the first I heard of his being in the neighborhood—two men of decent appearance had laid at this landing in a large barge for several days. I enquired the course & was informed they were waiting for a boat that was to meet them with goods. One of those persons was named Hopkins the other Fort. I thot their stay singular & requested Doctor Tuttle to get acquainted with them & try to find out what their real object was.

Document A, page 2

Document “A,” page 2

About this time a Mr. Timothy Phelps of New Haven Connecticut arrived & spent several days with me. He was acquainted with Mr. Fort, and introduced him to me. I took an opportunity and requested Mr. Phelps to use his best endeavours & find out if possible what those men were waiting here for. He had several conferences with Mr. Fort. The other had gone to the mouth of Cumberland. Mr. Phelps told me he believed they were some of Burrs followers but could not find out for certain. I then beged his exertions to discover thro these men if posible what was Mr. Burrs object. He was frequently with Fort and invited him to my quarters. I took much pains by all decent means to find out the object of Col. Burr’s movements but neither of us could get from him any thing satisfactory on the subject. The morning of the 26th inst. I discovered that the other person had returned. Mr. Fort attended him to my qarters and introduced him to me. Mr. Hopkins then handed me a billet of which document B is a copy. They boath eat breakfast with me. Mr. Hopkins observed he should return to the mouth of Cumberland that day and asked if I had any commands. I answered in the negative and told him my Sergt. was going up with a skiff and he had better take a passage with him that he would go quick as he had to go to Centerville that day. He accepted the offer and went on board. The Sergt. returned the 28th reported himself & party and informed me that Col. Burr was still at the mouth of Cumberland or Smithland, that he had brought two old musketts & a [ ] with a Mr. Floyds compliments and request that my smith might reparair them. I observed that the smith was on duty & they could not be repaired.

"Document B"

Document “B”

About seven o’clock the evening of the 29th a boat landed which from the noise appeared to have a number of persons on board. Doctor Tuttle & myself walked down to the landing where we saw the following gentlemen with whom we had formerly been acquainted Mr. Hill & Haymaker—one of those persons introduced me to a Mr. Smith & a Mr. Tyler. I invited them to my quarters. They walked up and suped with me when before the light I recognis’d Mr. Tyler. I had seen him at Pittsburgh in 1805. He informed me that Col. Burr was on his way down that he was unwell & would stall all night in the bend of the river above this. Before or after supper some one of them observed that their boat would return. I then gave them an invitation to stay & take a pallett with me. Tyler, Haymaker and Smith I think did so. The boat returned and these gentlemen retired. Some time later in the night after I had been asleep my centinal in front of the garrison haild. It wakened me & I heard the gentlemen making a noise as if they were getting up. I immediately left my bed and went out on the porch without dressing. At that moment some one answered from the boats and said they wer Col Burrs boats and that they would stop below the point. Having before made up my determination to see and make myself acquainted with the situation Burr moved in I had spoken to and agreed with Doctor Tuttle and some other gentlemen to watch the movements of him and his party when they should arrive. I thot his passing at that time having been told he would stay in the bend above the garrison was singular & suspicious. I dressed myself went out and watched them undiscovered untill their boats were all brot to as the found good landing along the shore. I then returned to my quarters. Mr. Tyler had gone to the boats. The other gentleman remained. Early in the morning of the 30th Ist I went down in my boat & waited on Col. Burr. The gentlemen all left my quarters at the same time & some of them went with me. After the usual salutations with Col. Burr he said he was verry unwell and could not do himself the pleasure to waite on Mrs. Bissell & myself—that he also felt a delicasy in going to any military post—that he was afraid of being suspected of haveing some evil intension about him as it appeared from recent facts, his haveing been persicuted & prosecuted in Kentuckey that he was a suspicious character & he wished to avoid any thing that could possibly give or create the least suspicion. I replyed he need not apprehend any danger on that score that I should be happy if he would go up & take breakfast with me if not he would dine with me that day—Mrs. Bissell would be verry happy to see him. He expressed his regret at not haveing it in his power to call on me and declined excepting any of the civilities I had offered him. He hoped he said to steer clear of further persecution—that he was willing myself or any other person should know his true motives in descending the river—that he was bound with a few young men to settle a tract of new country that his object was lawfull & laudable & that instead of being persecuted he ought to be applauded for his enterprise or words to that effect. He then asked me if I had heard from below. I replied I had not. He said that General Wilkinson had made a compromise with the Spaniards at the Sabine, that he was sorry & that the General ought to have fought them. I replyd that I presumed the General must have been instructed by government—that he was a known soldier & a faithfull friend of his country & had it been necessary & consistant with his orders I knew he would have attacked the Spaniards if they had been three to one. This subject was droped and Col Burr inquired if I knew of any opportunity of sending to the lead mines & St. Louis. I told him that on the 31st I should muster and inspect my garrison that I should send Sergt Jacob Dunbaugh the next day to Bell Fontaine via St. Louis express to advise Col. Hunt of the arrival of the public cloathing medisine & hospital stores for his post & its dependencies—that Dunbaugh had a good horse and if he could be induced to ride he might go by the lead mines for at that season I thot the back road would be better than those near the River and that the former might be traveled on horseback much sooner than the latter could on foot.  Col. Burr said if Dunbaugh would ride his horse he would pay him well for it. I then left his boat returned to the garrison and found several of his followers there, one or two of them whose names I do not recollect applied to me for permission for my smith to fix a pistol or two, & one of them asked me if the swoard [ ] was done that the Sergt. brought down. I replied they were not. The man who had been on duty but if he was then off duty and they would compensate him for it he might go into the shop and do their work. The smith told me afterwards that he did several little jobs of work for them and received one dollar and seventy five cents. At [ ] nine oClock AM I went to the parade and after the guard was relieved Sergt Jacob Dunbaugh came to me and asked if I would give him a furlough for twenty days. I told him I would or that I would see about it and observed that I had an idea of sending him to Bell Fontaine but some other person would answer. He said he coud get paid for going to New Madrid that he had some private buisiness of his own and some to do in that neighbourhood for James a private soldier in my company. I then told him he might have a furlough for twenty days after muster & inspection was over. Soon after a young man handed me a billet of which the paper marked C containes a true copy. I then went to my quarters and held a conference with Doctor Tuttle, Mr. Moses Austin & Horace Austin.

"Document C"

Document “C”

I requested and it was agreed that each should use his utmost endeavors to find out by any posible meanes what Burr’s motives in descending the Rivers might be and if it was found injurious to the United States or contrary to its laws I should make an imediate report to the proper Department. Doctor Tuttle had several acquaintances with them over whome he thought he could have some influence.

The Mr. Austin had a relation along with them. About 10 oClock AM they repaird to the boats. When returned they informed me they were on board a number of the boats that they were there introduced to several persons who had the appearance of verry decent people & that they saw no one thing that could justify the suspicion of a military equipment or unlawfull expedition. Yet none of us were fully satisfied. Mr. Austin appeared to be extreamly anctious on account of his relation but ultimately assured me he could not make the least discovery to induce a belief that Burr’s views were not in conformity to the laws of his country. Mr. Floyd and Tyler came to my quarters while I was eating and dined with me. I made every inquiry and used all the art in my power to obtain such information as might be satisfactory on this subject but to no purpose the setling of a new tract of country was the avowed object. These men made many enquiries as to the number of boats that had passed and asked me if they could purchase any powder & shot. I told them I did not know of any on the bank but that the Doctor and myself had. They appeared verry anctious to get shot & I gave them a few charges that had been fixd for ducks & gees. Those gentlemen left me & I repaired to their boats about three oClock PM. I was on board every boat except Col. Burrs and examined how they were built, their loading and every particular about them. I then went to Col. Burrs boat. He met me at the bow and said he was sorry he could not ask me in, that his boat had been fird. I saw them extinguishing it. At that moment my waiter and one of the soldiers came up & presented Col. Burr a boiled turky, a [ ] tongue & several little necessaries with Mrs Bissells compliments & request that he would accept them. He did and walked a few steps from the boat and asked me if I intended to let Dunbaugh go to New Madrid. I told him I had promised Dunbaugh the indulgence of a furlough of twenty days. He said he wanted him to take back letters for him, that he would pay him well for his trouble. He then asked me if I could send two or three letters to his friends at St. Louis. I told him my express might take them. He wished they might have a more speedy conveyance & asked me if I knew of any one who could be hired to take them. I replied I did not but that I would do anything in my power to forward them agreeable to his wishes. He then handed me two letters, one was directed to Major Wescott St. Louis, the other was to a person at the led mines whose name I do not recollect. At the same time he handed me a five or ten dollar bill to defray the expense that should be incured. At this interview Col Burr informed me he would leave this place early the next morning and that Dunbaugh might follow him as soon as was convenient. I then shook hands with him. We parted & I did not see or hear from him again.

I made every possible exertion to forward his letters agreeable to his wishes but I could see no one disposed to take them untill my express left this the 1st or 2nd of January. I then inclosed the two letters & bank bill to Major Waistcott St. Louis & informed him to the best of my recollection that it was Col. Burrs wish that the letter should be immediately forwarded and that the inclosed bill was left with me to defray the expense of sending the letters or words to that effect.

[signed] Dan. Bissell

Indiana Territory
Randolph County

Be it known that on this Tenth Day of July, in the Year of Our Lord, 1807, came Personally before me Frederick Graeter, One of the Justices of the peace of the aforesaid County, Captain Daniel Bissell made Oath that the foregoing Writting is in all Things juste & true.
Near Fort Massac

[signed] Frederick Graeter

[In September/October 1807, Bissell testified at the Burr trial in Richmond, Virginia, and contradicted testimony of his former sergeant, Jacob Dunbaugh. The following letter was received by the Secretary of War on February 17, 1808, and was described in the letter register as “Enclosing documents in vindication of his character.”]

Fort Massac
December 28th 1807


When I had the honour to receive and reply to your letter of the 30th May in July last touching my knowledge & conce[ ] in Col Burrs movements about this place in Decr 1807 [sic] I did not know to what extent I was implicated in that mans designs by the deposition of the fugitive Dunbaugh, as given in at New Orleans; evidently for the purpose of working out his own selvation, by the ruin of my military reputation. Yet, I requested a court of inquiry into my conduct, as may be seen in my letters to Colonel Cushing and General Wilkinson and have since had the honour of a personal conference with the Genl., the result of which was the letter he was pleased to address you, relative thereto, from Richmond in Virginia, the 9th October.

Previous and subsiquence to that time, I have been enabled to fortify myself on all points against the machinations of Dunbaugh and to unmask and procure documents sufficient, to convict him, as an old, systimatic, and most unprincipled scoundrel. The more I think on it, the more I feel myself indebted to you Sir, for your favour of the 30th May; –you confided in my integrity and called on me for a statement of facts. It was generous in you—it was justice to me; — and after all that has been written by the Commanding General and myself on the subject, I do hope it would be unnecessary for me to trouble you with the enclosed documents, which I certainly should not have taken the liberty to do, had I been honoured with the notification that those of July have been received at your Department; and, was it not to make you Sir, and the President of the United States, particularly acquainted with the character of the man who has dared so roundly to assail my reputation.

I have served my country nearly twenty years in the character of a soldier, and without reproach; from a private sentinel to my present grade; and, I defy malignity itself to say with truth, that, I have ever committed an act, unworthy of my profession, in or out of the field;

You know, Sir, the sacred regard of a soldier for his honour, and can easily imagine the anxiety he feels, whenever it is assaild, even by the slightest bruise; and will therefore, I hope, be disposed to pardon me, if I have unnecessarily obtruded myself before you in this way, and with more than usual warmth of feelings about me.

I am also oppressed by domestic afflictions; my brother, Captain Russell Bissell, is no more. He expired at Bell Fontain, Louisiana the 18th instant.

With the greatest respect I have the honour to be
Your Obedt Humbl Servant
[signed] Dan. Bissell
1st Regt. US. Infantry