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He is not to be confused with the fictional Philip Nolan of "The Man Without a Country" by Edward Everett Hale whose background was only loosely based on the real Philip Nolan's exploits. Hale had intended to make his fictional character Philip Nolan's brother, but, misremembering the real Nolan's name as "Nathaniel", named his character "Philip" (the apostles Philip and Nathaniel being frequently mentioned together in the New Testament). In editions printed after Hale discovered his mistake, the word "brother" was therefore changed to "cousin", and Hale wrote The Real Philip Nolan by way of atonement.
Nolan was born to Peter Nolan and the former Elizabeth Cassidy in Belfast, Ireland, in 1771 . He was apparently well-educated. At the age of fifteen, he went to work for the Kentucky and Louisiana entrepreneur James Wilkinson as his business secretary and bookkeeper (1788–1791). He handled much of Wilkinson's New Orleans trade and became conversant in Spanish. During this time, he became acquainted with Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos Amorín y Magallanes, the district governor for Natchez.
In 1791, using the influence of Wilkinson, Nolan obtained a trading passport from the Spanish governor of Louisiana and West Florida, Esteban Rodríguez Miró. He left Wilkinson's employ and set out to trade with the Indian tribes across the Mississippi. The passport was void in Texas, and his goods were confiscated by Spanish authorities. Nonetheless, and after living with the Indians for two years, Nolan returned to New Orleans with fifty horses.
He made a second trip to Texas in 1794-1795, with a passport from the Louisiana governor. He made acquaintance with Texas Governor Manuel Muñoz and the commandant general of the Provincias Internas, Pedro de Nava. It was on this trip that he met his first wife. This time he brought back 250 horses.
In 1796, Nolan worked for Andrew Ellicott, boundary commissioner for the United States who was mapping up the Missouri River. Governor Gayoso de Lemos was not pleased when Nolan arrived at Natchez accompanied by the surveying party.
But Nolan managed to patch things up, at least with Governor Carondelet in New Orleans, and obtained a third passport to enter Texas, despite the fact that trade directly between Louisiana and Texas was still officially prohibited by Spain. Gayoso de Lemos was not fooled. He wrote directly to the viceroy of Mexico, warning him against foreigners (such as Nolan) who were stirring up the Texas Indians against Spanish rule.
In the summer of 1797, Nolan left on his third trip to Texas with a wagon train of trade goods, which he successfully brought to La Villa de San Fernando de Béxar, Spanish Texas (now San Antonio, the seat of Bexar County), where he insinuated himself in Spanish Texas society and married. Commandant General Pedro de Nava was ordered by the viceroy to deal with Nolan, but Governor Muñoz defended Nolan and provided him with safe conduct out of Texas. Nolan left his wife and daughter in Texas and came back to Natchez in the autumn of 1799 with more than 1,200 horses.
Nolan is sometimes credited with being the first to map Texas for the American frontiersmen, but his map has never been found. Nonetheless, his observations were passed on to Wilkinson, who used them to produce his map of the Texas-Louisiana frontier in 1804.
Philip Nolan was married twice, first to Maria Gertrudis Dolores Quiñones, with whom he had a daughter, Maria Josefa Nolan, born August 20, 1798, in what is now San Antonio. Philip was separated from Maria by, at least, July 1800 . He also married the former Frances Lintot, the daughter of Bernard Lintot, a prominent Natchez citizen, on December 19, 1799. Frances bore him a son Philip Nolan, Jr., in July 1801, after he had left on his fourth and final trip to Texas.
Nolan was unable to obtain any more passports from the Spanish authorities. He conceived or borrowed a scheme to go illegally into Texas and perhaps other Mexican provinces. There is considerable dispute about the exact nature of this filibustering expedition; some claim that he promised his men that they would seize riches and land and create a kingdom for themselves. Nonetheless, he convinced some thirty frontiersmen that the expedition would make them rich. They crossed the border in October 1800 and headed north of Nacogdoches to capture wild mustangs. The Spanish soon heard of their activities, and Pedro de Nava ordered their arrest.
On March 21, 1801, a Spanish force of 120 men under the command of Lieutenant M. Múzquiz left Nacogdoches in pursuit of Nolan, whom they encountered entrenched and unwilling to surrender just upstream from where the current Nolan River flows into the larger Brazos (now in Hill County, Texas). Several of Nolan's men surrendered immediately to the Spanish and after Nolan was killed, the remainder yielded. Nolan's ears were cut off as evidence for Spain that he was dead. The first-hand account of the expedition, capture and subsequent imprisonment is contained in the Memoirs of Ellis P. Bean, who was second in command of the expedition. In early 1949 Rev. Rhea Kuykendall, a descendant of one Joseph Pierce who had settled on the "old Dixon Grant" along Mustang Creek, found the weathered tombstone of Philip Nolan. Mustang Creek is near Blum and highway (174)