Published on September 1st, 2020 | by Joshua Chanin0
French Involvement in Early Texas
French involvement in Texas had a rocky start at the end of the seventeenth century.
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle—here shortened to La Salle—had established a thriving Jesuit community near present-day Kingston, Ontario in the 1660s. Fort Frontenac flourished, chiefly due to La Salle’s charm on the indigenous women and fortunate peacekeeping efforts with the Native leaders.
Since most of New France was a barren wasteland, the government was impressed at La Salle’s successful efforts at populating the region. In the 1670s, La Salle, who was known for his thirst for adventure, undertook a couple of expeditions down the Mississippi River; he surmised that taking possession of the river and Gulf of Mexico would be crucial to France’s colonial empire in North America.
He returned to France in the early 1680s to acquire a large fleet, sail the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and set up a permanent trading post at the mouth of the Mississippi. On July 24, 1684, Captain La Salle, with four ships and 300 men at tow, commenced his unforeseeable voyage that would re-introduce Texas to the people of the Old World.
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle was required to reject his father’s renowned, yet controversial political legacy when he joined the Jesuit’s religious order. Britannica
La Salle miscalculated the route and instead landed at Matagorda Bay in Texas on February 20, 1685. Like many other European expeditions in North America, his party was initially plagued with diseases, malnutrition, dehydration, and Native attacks that spring. The remainder of La Salle’s group—which totaled 180 civilians—established a colony at Garcitas Creek.
The settlement had several small cannon, makeshift fortifications, a chapel and cluster of wooden huts, and a two-story trading post built from the wreckage of Aimable, the group’s supply ship. La Salle named the Texas colony Fort St. Louis, in honor of the renowned French ‘Sun’ King Louis XIV. The colony gradually prospered in the first two years of its existence, chiefly due to La Salle’s strong leadership and its strategic location on the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet, in spring 1687, La Salle became hungry for another adventure, and took a majority of the colony’s settlers north by the Sabine River—La Salle would later be killed in March 1687 by Pierre Duhant, a disgruntled ex-soldier. Only 30 inhabitants were left behind at Fort St. Louis; many were former prostitutes from Paris who hardly knew how to use a gun. Defenseless and without a powerful figurehead like La Salle, the civilians of Fort St. Louis were sitting ducks, waiting for death to cast a dark shadow over them.
In the winter of 1688, the Karankawa Natives entered the camp under the moonlight and massacred all the adults. Jean-Baptiste Talon, then 10-years-old, recalled in an interview that since there was no one on guard, the Natives “had little trouble slaughtering them all…[the children] were reared and loved by some of the savage women…as if they were their own…” A Texas Beyond History scholar vividly painted an image of what might have happened at that bloody, tumultuous scene: “The chilling Indian yells; the fearful cries of women and children; the chanted litany of Récollet friar and Sulpician priest; the moans of the dying; and the shrill squeals of pigs as arrows were shot into them too.” When the killing ceased and the children taken away, the Natives then proceeded to tear apart the books and ransack the fort’s supplies, paintings, and other treasures. After the looting, the huts were burned and destroyed.
The news of the Fort St. Louis Massacre angered the French, who were determined to seek justice and find the remnants of the former colony. After six land marches and five sea voyages, Spanish forces under General Alonso de León discovered the remains of six houses and eight cannon, with no cannonballs. The general buried the scraps of three victims—one still had a bloody-stained dress draped over its bones and an arrow pierced in the fabric—and relayed the news to the Spanish and French Kings.
Bust of Louis Juchereau in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The Gilmer Mirror
Louis Juchereau de St. Denis—here shortened to Louis Juchereau—oversaw French colonies in the New World that fared better than La Salle’s Fort St. Louis. A Beauport native, Louis Juchereau was given command of two forts in late 1699—one on the Mississippi River and the other in Biloxi Bay—that were both equipped with heavy cannon and strategically placed to protect French ships against the formidable English and Spanish navies. The French government applauded Louis Juchereau for his successful peacekeeping efforts with the Natives; the gentle officer reestablished ties with the Karankawa and Caddo Natives. Mr. Juchereau was also an instrumental player in Franco-Spanish relationships during the early years of the eighteenth century—some historians believe that the Frenchman had secretly wanted to be Spanish; he traveled with Commander Diego Ramón to the Rio Grande and established six Spanish missions and one presidio in East Texas between 1716 and 1717.
Louis Juchereau’s talent in navigating the uninhabited lands west of the Mississippi River contributed to the Europeans’ expanded geographical knowledge of the New World. After a brief stint as the unofficial French ambassador to Mexico City, Mr. Juchereau married Manuela Sanchez-Navarro, daughter of a wealthy Spanish land owner. Louis Juchereau’s deep connections to the Spanish government, along with the trade that occurred between French forts on the Mississippi River and Spanish missions in East Texas brought the former European rivals closer together in a harmonious alliance.
Sketch of (L-R) Governor William Claiborne, Jean Lafitte, and Andrew Jackson in 1815. Library of Congress
Unlike Louis Juchereau, Jean Lafitte, a French smuggler operating out of New Orleans, turned his back against the Spanish in the nineteenth century. Lafitte entered the illicit smuggling business when he established a bootlegging warehouse with his brother at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1805. He outfitted privateers headed towards the Caribbean Islands and Texas, and arranged the contraband trade underneath the table. Following the United States Embargo Act of 1807, Lafitte moved his operation upstream to Barataria Bay, far away from the U.S. naval base so foreign ships could easily smuggle in goods without being stopped by custom officials. Since he spoke English and French and had perfected aristocratic mannerisms, Lafitte’s business was very successful and lucrative. Lafitte refused to help the British after they wanted a stronger presence in the Lower Mississippi Valley, instead, assisting Andrew Jackson and the American soldiers prevail over the redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.
On April 8, 1816, Lafitte was offered a bounty by the Spanish government to establish a government in Galveston on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Lafitte accepted the mission and money, yet with a twist: he made Galveston a renowned smuggling base so he could profit from the position. The Frenchman oversaw every minuscular detail on the island and often acted like a dictator, forcing the colony’s inhabitants to swear a long loyalty oath to him and issuing his own ‘Letters of Marque’ to only trust-worthy captains sailing out from Galveston.
One of Lafitte’s most frequent traders in the late 1810s was Sam Houston, then an aspiring Nashville attorney and unofficial government liaison with the Cherokee. The newfound colony—named Campeche, after a Mexican outpost down south—grew under Lafitte’s strict leadership; 200 sturdy wooden structures were constructed during the first couple of years, and the colony’s population soon peaked at 2,000 inhabitants. Since Lafitte controlled the waterways in and around Galveston, he personally selected the most lucrative transactions. His annual income would reach more than $2 million in stolen goods ($33.4 million in today’s currency). Owing to his smuggling success, Lafitte lived a lavish lifestyle, complete with servants and cabinets of the world’s finest silverware. In the early 1920s, Lafitte turned his back on the European power that had given him a prestigious post, and joined by a band of pirates, began capturing Spanish slave ships. The freebooters sold the slaves to custom officials in Louisiana for extra profit. Moreover, Lafitte captured several Spanish gold ships off the coasts of Texas and Cuba prior to his sudden death in a battle in spring 1823. Although his career was unlawful and his allegiances were skewed, Lafitte played a pivotal role in expanding New Orleans’s trade network and ethnic population.
Henri Castro’s historical marker. Photograph taken by Joshua Chanin
Following a bloody revolution in spring 1836, Texas achieved independence from Mexico. Since the new state’s inhabitants acquired thousands of acres of western territory in their treaty with the Mexican government, Texas became a land where one could easily seek out fresh opportunities. Starting on September 1, 1844, Henri Castro, former consul general for Texas at Paris, received permission from the French government and Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, in chartering 27 ships, and 485 families and 457 single men who were eager to start a new life in Texas. The French immigrants were each parceled land on the Medina River and established a community northwest of present-day San Antonio named Castroville.
The community elected a constable and two justices of peace to maintain civility. Despite a host of problems in the first four years of settlement—which included a cholera outbreak, droughts in the summers, and several Native attacks—Castro’s newfound French community thrived after 1848. Also, on June 16,1855, a 350-person French community named La Reunión was founded on the south bank of the Trinity River in president-day Dallas County. Unlike Castroville, this 2,500-acre community, ardently led by Victor Prosper Considérant, a French utopian Socialist, ultimately failed due to inexperienced farmers and the area’s poor soil.
Castro and Considérant inspired many other Frenchman to pack their bags and move their families out to Texas prior to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Owing to the immigration increase, the French government desired to create strong diplomatic ties with Texas’s government. Jean Pierre Dubois, the Dubois de Saligny, French foreign minister to Greece and Hanover, was sent to Texas in the late 1830s to investigate the economic prospects of the republic. After his visits to Houston and Galveston, Dubois sent glowing reports To Europe which persuaded the French government to recognize Texas as a sovereign nation, one of the three European states to do so. A treaty of friendship, commerce, and navigation would later be signed between France and the Republic of Texas. Despite failing to push the 1841 Franco-Texian Bill through in the republic’s senate—which would have offered assistance and housing to 8,000 French families in Texas over a 20-year period—Dubois, then the official French ambassador to Texas, brought the nations closer together by building his residence and office in Austin, the republic’s capital, in 1841.
The French Legation was constructed on a 21-acre plot east of Austin in 1841 and was a gathering ground for French and Texan dignitaries until 1845, when Texas was annexed by the United States; today, the structure is a state landmark and museum operated by the Texas Historical Commission. The Republic of Texas stood on its own feet for nine years until its welcomed admission into the United States, and although the diplomatic period between the Lone Star State and France was brief, Jean Pierre Dubois helped in solidifying a people’s bond that would last for lifetimes.
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of French families and singles settled in Texas. They brought their language, beliefs, and traditions from the Old World, and sought to start a fresh life in the New World. Although a collection of French colonies failed to gain traction in Texas, the population of French-speaking inhabitants and their descendants continued to rise in the Lone Star State, even after the Texas Revolution and the Civil War. According to the 1990 Census, over 571,000 Texans had French descendants. The Frenchman’s influence and opportunistic character shaped the state’s early history, and over time, the current rich culture.
As a Texas historian, I am proud to study, write, and lecture about the history of a land that was uniquely crafted by a diverse assembly of civilizations, and look forward to witnessing the next generation of French and European immigrants passionately contribute to the fruitful, evolving story of Texas.
Nancy Nichols Barker, “Devious Diplomat: Dubois de Saligny and the Republic of Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 72 (January 1969): 324-334.
Paul Chesnel (trans. Andrée Chesnel Meany), History of Cavelier de La Salle, 1643-1687 (New York: Putnam, 1932).
Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991).
Kenneth Hafertepe, A History of the French Legation (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1989).
Francis Parkman, The Discovery of the Great West, new ed. (New York: New American Library, 1963).
Jack C. Ramsey, Jean Lafitte: Prince of Pirates (Waco: Eakin Press, 2006).
Bobby D. Weaver, Castro’s Colony: Empresario Development in Texas, 1842-1865 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006).
Robert S. Weddle et al., eds., La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987).
This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.