Irishman Philip Nolan, a well-educated man in his late twenties, became the embodiment of Spanish fears of American encroachment into Texas. An immigrant to Kentucky, he started working for General James Wilkinson as a secretary and bookkeeper. The American general was crafting a trading relationship with the Spanish in New Orleans at the expense of American interests and Kentucky sovereignty. Wilkinson’s plans came to nothing as the Spanish grew suspicious, but Nolan gained valuable experience in Spanish affairs and learned the language.
By 1791, Nolan left Wilkinson’s employment and set out on his own. Armed with a passport from Spain’s governor of Louisiana, he pushed into Texas seeking to contact, and trade with, the Indians there. Officials in the Provincias Internas refused to recognize the passport, seized his property, and sent him back to New Orleans. Even so, the bold Irishman took fifty horses for sale.
Nolan tried his luck again in 1794-1795, again with a Spanish Louisiana passport. This time he went directly to the Spanish authorities in Texas, explained his purposes, and received their tenuous blessings on the enterprise. His prudence allowed him to trade for 250 horses, which he drove to markets in the Mississippi Valley.
Nolan hired on with an American surveying expedition in 1796, which tainted his relations with the Spanish. Even so, Nolan headed into Texas again in 1797, this time heading a wagon train of trade goods bound for Béxar. Even though officials in Mexico City ordered his arrest, the local leaders in Texas liked Nolan and granted him safe return to Louisiana in 1799. This time the plucky Irishman drove 1,200 horses to market.
Nolan pressed his luck. Unable to get another Spanish passport, he decided to enter Texas without permission at the head of thirty adventurers to whom he promised wealth, fame, and fortune. His second in command, Peter Ellis Bean, kept a diary of the expedition.
The Spanish, tipped off that Nolan was again hunting mustangs in Texas, sent a squad of troops from Nacogdoches to intercept him. They caught up with his party in present-day Hill County, Texas. When the Americans refused to surrender, the Spanish opened fire. Nolan fell, as did many of his men. The others, including Bean, surrendered and spent the next decade in Mexican prisons.