Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

I found this outstanding book about early passports in America and instantly bought it. It’s fascinating to read how and with which content they issued the documents back then. Remember, Slavery back then was still common, and many passports mention slaves. I have never seen such a passport in reality, and to catch such a document would be very desirable.

THE PASSPORTS and even the geographic area referred to in this book need clarification because it is somewhat unusual to associate passports with travel within what is now the  United States. One has to recall that the southeastern states occupy an area often referred to as the southwest when these passports were written. The majority of passports collected herein authorized passage through Indian or foreign-held territory cast of the Mississippi River in 1770 – 1823. It is believed that this publication represents a complete source material available for early passports in the southeastern United States. Now in one place, the passport or mention of passage and the corresponding reference are given.

The research included primary sources whenever possible. If accessible, the original document was consulted and, in manuscript form, was researched extensively. However, when the author did not have access to the original document, it was necessary to depend on other Official records and correspondence, both published and in manuscript form, which was researched extensively. However, when the author did not have access to the original document, it was necessary to depend on other sources. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

Before 1824, the Secretary of War was responsible for the conduct of the Government’s relations with the Indian tribes, which included issuing passports. In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established within the War Department. That date was chosen as the point at which to conclude the coverage in this book since the later records are much more accessible to present researchers and contain little material of this type. Indian affairs remained the War Department’s responsibility until 1849 when they were transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior.

An example of one of the earlier laws concerning passports is contained in a treaty written by the Secretary of War, Henry Knox, and Creek Indian Chief Alexander McGillivray and communicated to the U. S. Senate on August 7, 1790, by George Washington. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

ART. 7 No citizen or inhabitant of the United States shall…
Go into the Creek country, without a passport first obtained from the Governor of someone of the United States, or the officer of the Troops of the United States commanding at the nearest military post on the frontiers, or such other person as the President of the United States may, from time to time, authorize to grant the same.1

Because Indian affairs fell under Federal jurisdiction and mainly involved appointed Indian agents, this was, at times, a source of irritation to the Governors. This occasionally led the latter to issue passports on their One finds passports issued and other officials. Own authority further fueled the controversy by the Governor of the Southwest Territory, Indian Chief Alexander McGillivray, Governor John Sevier, General Pickens, various Spanish officeholders, and even sundry prominent civilians, to name a few. Some traders gave illegal passports in exchange for a fee.

Regardless of who issued them, passports in America were supposed to have been granted only to those giving assurance of ethical conduct while traveling in the Indian or Spanish Country. Responsible authorities found it prudent to exercise caution in allowing persons to enter these lands. Makers who could so easily upset peace be kept out. With all manner of people swarming into new areas, whether with legal passports or flagrant trespassers, a certain amount of trouble arose. Territorial boundary lines often were sites of lawlessness. Indians, traders, immigrants, outlaws, and adventurers were all applicants for passports. These earliest passports were given to persons entering the Indian nations to trade, collect debts, recover stolen horses and slaves, remove property of white intruders, or pass through. In some cases, depositions taken for passports have survived while the passports have not. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

In seeking the required passports, the applicants were expected to furnish references of good character from local officials or others in a position to vouch for them. At times, some persons arrived at the embarking point without the necessary papers or passport, and there ensued much bitterness when the Indian Agent tried to detain them. Andrew Jackson provoked just such a situation when he returned from Natchez to Nashville in 1812 with some negro slaves.

After the southwest’s opening to settlers, passports were issued to those who came to the Mississippi River area or Spanish-held territory “to view the Country to settle or trade there. Many of these passports were issued in Georgia. A simple example of this type of record which exists in the Georgia Archives follows:

Executive Department
Wednesday, March 23, 1803

That Passports be prepared for Doctor James Walker and William Bird permitting them to travel through the Creek Nation which was presented and signed.2

No American boat was allowed to go to the Spanish Territory without obtaining a passport. One contemporary account is given in a letter written to Judge Harre Innes of Kentucky by Charles Wilkins describing his trips from Pittsburg to New Orleans in 1789 or 1790. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

I descended the Ohio & Mississippi from Pittsburg to New Orleans in the Spring of 1789, with a cargo of flour, by permission of Governor Mero, granted to Col. Daniel Clark. The following spring (1790), I again descended with a load of flour & merchandise. The duties demanded by the Spanish Government on shipments belonging to citizens of the United States were twenty percent ad Valorem on American produce…

It was the usual practice upon their arrival at Natchez for owners and Boat crews to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King of Spain; It was practiced by those who went to that Country at the time alluded above to induce the Spanish officers to believe, that they intended to become subjects & as preparatory to this step & previous to obtaining a passport to proceed, the Oath of Allegiance as administered, upon which a passport was granted, or permission to sell at Natchez was procured. Americans who migrated to that Colony were permitted to sell their property free of duty.

Various modes were adopted to evade the payment of the duties by adventurers to New Orleans, and it was practiced by others as well as myself, to petition the Governor for a grant of land under the pretense of becoming an inhabitant & I was induced to believe that the mildness of his Catholic Majesty’s Colonial Government was always spoken of with praise…3

Various American officials voiced complaints of the indulgence of the Spanish authorities in giving passes. In 1789 General James Wilkinson wrote of the Spanish Governor Gardoqui in his efforts to promote emigration to, and settlement in, Louisiana, viz:

He gives passports to everybody, and instead of forming connections with men of influence in this district, who should be interested in favoring his designs, he negotiates with individuals who live in the Atlantic States, who, therefore, have no knowledge of this section of the Country, and have no interest in it.4

By 1802, however, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Manuel De Salcedo, was having his problems. Writing to the Governor of the Mississippi Territory, he deplored:

I can’t do anything with… people (arriving here from America) without giving room for complaints, or my motives being wrongly interpreted because it is not the custom of the American Government to provide passports, as in Spain, when People travel from one place to another only when the Flats arrive here the Patrons, owners, and passengers present themselves; & even in that case, not without difficulty, as it were by force. .. .5

In the face of rapidly diminishing boundaries, the issuance of passes dwindled. By the time the Spanish had left our continent and the Indians had migrated west, the necessity of passports ceased and became just a footnote in history. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823

1. American State Papers. Indian Affairs, vol. I (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), p. 82. See page 124 for the Cherokee Treaty.
2. Georgia Executive Department, “Journal of the Proceedings of the Executive Department of Government, During the Administration of his Excellency of the State of Georgia…” volume dated November 1802 April 1805, p. 112. The Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta, Georgia.
3. Mary Verhoeff, “The Kentucky River Navigation.” Filson Club Publication No. 28 (Louisville, Kentucky, 1917), pp. 224-225.
4. Thomas Marshall-Green, The Spanish Conspiracy (Cincinnati: Robert Clark & Co., 1891), p. 313n.
5. Dunbar Rowland, ed., The Mississippi Territorial Archives, 1798-1803, Mississippi Department of Archives and History (1905) I:394-395.

The text was scanned with OCR software, mistakes might be visible.
Please follow and like us:


Stay updated on the latest articles & news on Passport History and Collecting!

*plus a FREE Passport Collecting Guideline!

Similar Posts


  1. A truly remarkable find. I would love to obtain one of those passports issued in Natchez. I visited Natchez a few years ago and it is such a picturesque town.

    A great article Tom – thanks!

    1. The book is a great read and gives me so much new information on early American passports for domestic travel. It will be a great challenge to find such a kind of document. Thank you, Brian. Cheers, Tom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *