Friday, April 27, 2018

Texas, France, and the Pig War of 1841

Here in Austin, Texas, one of the more important heritage-pieces is the French Legation, the oldest wooden-frame house in Austin, sitting in a location that was chosen extraordinarily well. It is a surviving testament to the days of Texas independence, an important French landmark on American soil, and the last physical trace of the Pig War of 1841.

Texas effectively won its independence from Mexico on April 21, 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto. Sam Houston caught the Mexican army by surprise, in what is certainly a candidate for one of the most one-sided victories in history: the larger Mexican army was routed by the Texans in eighteen minutes, eleven Texan soldiers died compared to six hundred fifty Mexican soldiers, three hundred Mexican soldiers were taken prisoner, and, of course, Santa Anna himself was taken, thus blocking the ability of Urrea and Filisola, who were still in charge of the bulk of the Mexican army in Texas, from doing anything further. The 1st Congress of the Republic of Texas convened in October of 1836. The Republic had a number of complicated issues to handle in its first few years. The capital was moved around several times, and it was only in 1839, under the second President of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, that the capital was moved to the central location of Austin.

For any young nation, diplomatic relations are absolutely crucial, and this was particularly crucial in this case, because Mexico intended to return. For exactly the same reason, establishing diplomatic relations was extremely difficult. The United States sent a chargé d'affaires in 1837. Other diplomatic recognitions were somewhat harder to obtain, although by the end the Netherlands, Belgium, and the short-lived Republic of the Yucatan had granted recognition. France signed a treaty with Texas on September 25, 1839, and was in some ways the most important, since it was the nation that was most interested in Texas's existence as an independent political state. King Louis Philippe I assigned Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, who had been attached to the legation in Washington, D.C., to be chargé d'affaires, and to establish a legation in Austin.

At the time, of course, Austin had only recently become capital and there was almost nothing here beyond a few cabins and stores. The capitol building itself was literally very little more than a large cabin. (The current, rather magnificent Capitol building is the third; the second Capitol building was not finished until 1853.) So Dubois had to rent a cabin downtown to serve as both his quarters and his headquarters until he could build a proper ambassadorial residence. He selected out the site, twenty-one acres, and started building a nice house there -- indeed, one that would easily be the most impressive building in Austin. The cabin he rented was owned by Richard Bullock, owner of The Bullock House, the only hotel in Austin, which was located at modern-day Sixth and Congress. The two seem to have taken an instant dislike to each other.

It was perhaps a disaster waiting to happen. Bullock was a frontiersman from Tennessee, rough, practical, and no-nonsense. Dubois was a more complicated fellow. History has not been particularly kind to him, and it is entirely his fault that it has not, but there are some things to be said in his favor. He had in his own way a real vision, and his vision was not entirely selfish; he did indeed have ambitions for eminence but he saw this as part of a larger project of building Texas-France relations into a matter of real importance (he had been instrumental in France's granting of the recognition in the first place). That may well have been part of the problem. He's sometimes mocked for styling himself 'Count' (he was just the son of an ordinary tax collector), but this may have been in part a way of getting more leverage in diplomatic discussions (perhaps effective in Washington but misguided in more rough-and-tumble Austin), and even at that late a date Americans tended to call most non-royal nobility 'Count' without real concern for the actual title and rank. I think perhaps the best way to think of him is indeed as a man of genuine vision, but one whose vision exceeded his actual diplomatic resources, and perhaps his competence, as well. It is certain that he came to Austin with big plans -- big for France, big for Texas, big for himself. And all these dreams were sent tumbling down by Richard Bullock's pigs.

Bullock let his pigs run free. Dubois complained about them. Bullock ignored him. Dubois insisted that the pigs were breaking into his stables to eat the food of his horses and that at one point they had managed to get into the house and start eating his diplomatic papers. One of Dubois's servants killed several of Bullock's pigs. When Bullock found out, he beat up the servant in the street and Dubois himself only barely escaped a similar beating. At this point Dubois exploded, and stormily demanded that the Texas government immediately punish Bullock for violating the law of nations and threatening an ambassador. The acting president of the time, David Burnet, seems not to have liked Dubois much more than Bullock did, and he was not the only one. The administration pointed out that Bullock had the right to due process, and Dubois took this news, or perhaps instead the tone and manner in which it was delivered, even worse. He sold the French Legation building and left Texas without the permission of the French government. He was sharply reprimanded for this, but French foreign minister filed a complaint on his behalf nonetheless, asking for an official apology and a promise that Bullock would in fact stand trial.

Meanwhile, Sam Houston became president and this official response was given in April of 1842. Dubois began to have serious health issues around this time, however, and left for France, leaving behind Jules Edouard de Cramayel as chargé d'affaires ad interim. He returned in 1844, intending to start again. He lived, however, in Louisiana, and only occasionally went as far into Texas as Galveston. He worked to keep Texas independent, but it was a lost cause and the French foreign ministry was holding him on a tight leash. Texas joined the United States in 1846 and the French Legation to Texas was dissolved.

Dubois went on to have a checkered career, rising very high in the diplomatic service during French Imperial expansion into Mexico, and crashing down as spectacularly under suspicion of financial shenanigans. A clever man, but one whose beginnings were always better than his endings.

The French Legation building had been sold to Fr. Jean-Marie Odin, a member of the Congregation of the Mission, a Vincentian religious society. The Holy See had established the Apostolic Prefecture for Texas -- essentially a pre-pre-diocese -- in 1839, and Odin had been assigned to that as Vice-Prefect. When in 1841 the Apostolic Prefecture became an Apostolic Vicariate -- essentially a pre-diocese -- he was named Apostolic Vicar. Apostolic Vicars are generally titular bishops, so he was consecrated titular Bishop of Claudiopolis in Isauria. He was not in the building very long, because the Holy See formed the Diocese of Galveston in 1847 and chose Odin to be its first bishop. The area under his jurisdiction didn't actually change much -- the Diocese of Galveston covered the whole of Texas -- but he moved to Galveston and did quite extraordinary well in that position. He would later be named Archbishop of New Orleans as the nation began to be overtaken by the Civil War.

When Odin moved to Galveston, he sold the French Legation to Moseley Baker, a war hero who had been wounded at the Battle of San Jacinto. But Baker died of yellow fever in 1848, and the house was sold again. The State of Texas purchased it in 1945. It's currently closed for restoration, but you can take a virtual tour of the grounds here.

French legation 2011

Incidentally, as you would expect, there was a Texas Legation in France, at 1 Place Vendôme, currently the Hôtel de Vendôme.

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