Episode 11 – Parlez-vous français?
Over the previous 10 episodes I focused primarily on the Native Peoples and the early Spanish explorations and attempts to colonize Texas. Today I will delve a little deeper into the French experiences in Texas. As we know the slogan “Six flags over Texas” is the slogan used to describe the six nations that have had sovereignty over some or all of the current territory of Texas, two of those are Spain (1519–1685; 1690–1821), and France (1685–1690). If you’ll notice the French “rule” ran for only 5 years, now the question arises whether France ever truly ruled Texas or if their flag flew in a very limited way in the territory.
Remember how in episode 9, I discussed how France and Spain had been involved in a war that last for years. Once the war ended, there was still tension between the two nations and that extended to their “colonies” or explorations in the New World. That tension increased after La Salle of France made a claim to Texas by establishing what is referred to La Salle’s Texas Settlement on the Texas coast in summer 1685. Who as La Salle and what was this settlement?
He was actually much like the Spanish adventurers who also explored Texas, he was born into the family of a wealthy wholesale merchant. His family name was actually Cavelier and he took the title La Salle, from the name of a family estate near Rouen. He was educated by the Jesuits and briefly studied for the priesthood. Finding himself unsuited for the priesthood, he left the society when he was 22. Now drawing a very small allowance from his family, he sailed for Canada in 1666, where the priests of St. Sulpice (Sul-peace), granted him land near La Chine (La Shin) rapids, above Montreal, where he built a fortified village, acquired a substantial interest in the fur trade, and began learning Indian languages.
He heard about a great river system, and he thought that it must flow all the way to the Gulf of California and thus would provide passage to China. He sold his holdings in 1669 and undertook his first major exploration. His foray into the unknown did not start well, his followers deserted him and forced him to turn back well short of the Mississippi. He made a couple of trips back to France in 1674 and 1677, and while there he received a patent of nobility and a seigneurial (seine-ur-eal) grant that included the Fort Frontenac site (Kingston, Ontario), then a trade concession to the western country.
He built and launched the first sailing vessel and he initially focused on the Great Lakes, and then began trying to establish a chain of trading posts across the Illinois country and down the Mississippi. By this time, the Mississippi had already been travelled by another French explorer, so La Salle knew that the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Pacific Ocean. He conceived of a warm-water port-fortified against Spanish and English incursion-on the Gulf to serve his commercial empire. La Salle devoted the next three years to laying the cornerstones of his visionary plan. He created several alliances with native tribes, built a port city at Niagara and a fort among the tribes of the Illinois confederation. In the winter of 1682, he sledded down the frozen Illinois River to the Mississippi and, after the river was free of ice, descended it by canoe to reach the mouth of the eastern passes on April 7, 1682. Upon arrival, he claimed all the lands drained by the Mississippi for France and he named the territory La Louisiane in honor of the French King, Louis XIV. He returned to France late in 1683 and obtained royal support for a voyage to the Mississippi through the Gulf of Mexico, in order to establish a colony “a secure distance” from the river. The voyage, which sailed from La Rochelle on July 24, 1684, was plagued by multiple misfortunes and he missed the mouth of the Mississippi and landed his colonists at Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast on February 20, 1685, he still believed that the mouth of the Mississippi river was nearby.
From his Fort St. Louis, on Garcitas Creek in what is now Victoria County, he explored westward possibly as far as the Pecos River and eastward beyond the Trinity River, in an effort to figure out where he was. On his second eastward journey, intended to reach his post on the Illinois River, La Salle was slain by Pierre Duhaut, a disenchanted follower, on March 19, 1687, “six leagues” from the westernmost village of the Hasinai (Tejas) Indians. The description of the location would seem to indicate it took place at a point east of the Trinity River, some distance from either the Grimes County or the Cherokee County locations that are most often the ones considered by historians.
Although La Salle’s projects ended in failure, his explorations were landmarks. He was responsible for opening the Mississippi valley for development, and his entry into the Gulf of Mexico sparked a renewal of Spanish exploration in the entire Gulf region. His abortive colony gave the French a claim to Texas and caused the Spaniards to occupy eastern Texas and Pensacola Bay. Because of La Salle the United States was able to register a claim to Texas as part of the Louisiana purchase; the boundary question between Spain and the United States was complicated until the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. Overall La Salle was not exactly the best of leaders, and for the most part he was a failure of the 200 colonists he landed in Texas in 1685, barely fifteen remained alive five years later.
As I’ve mentioned before the Spanish, because of their rivalry and disputes with the French were concerned about French plans for the Mississippi region. They immediately responded to rumors of a French presence on the Tejas coast. Between 1686 and 1691 they dispatched a total of nine expeditions from New Spain (Mexico) to Tejas, four by sea and five by land, to search for the French. They pursued leads provided by the Indians but encountered only a few French survivors of La Salle’s settlement, several of whom returned with them to New Spain. I have discussed how the Franciscan priests travelling with the various expeditions established the first Spanish mission in Tejas in 1690, and they continued to notify officials in New Spain of any rumors of French incursions in the region.
While the French did not have success establishing long term settlements in Texas they played a role in the development of Texas and their presence has been fairly continuous since those early days.
In 1700 Louis Juchereau de St. Denis made an expedition up the Red River, and in 1714 he crossed Texas from Natchitoches, Louisiana, to San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande in an attempt to open an overland trade route with the Spanish in Mexico. In August 1718 Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe established a trading post among the Caddo Indians in the area of present Red River County. He and his party entered a bay on August 27, 1721, which they thought to be San Bernardo and hostile Indians forced La Harpe to withdraw. Another French trader at Natchitoches, Joseph Blancpain, also engaged in trade with the Indians of Texas until his capture in 1754. In April 1817 the French pirate Jean Laffite set up a “republic” on Galveston Island. His settlement grew to more than 1,000 persons, reached its peak of prosperity in 1818, and was abandoned early in May 1820. In 1818 a group of Napoleonic exiles under Gen. Charles Lallemandattempted to make a settlement at Champ d’Asile, on the Trinity River near the site of present Liberty, but the settlement had to be abandoned because of food shortages and threats from Spanish authorities.
On February 14, 1840, a commercial treaty was made between France and the Republic of Texas, and with the making of the treaty French interest in Texas increased. A French chargé or minister was sent to the republic, and plans were made for sending French colonists to Texas. One such plan, the Franco-Texian Bill, proposed sending 8,000 French soldiers to the Texas frontier. The bill was introduced in the Texas Congress in 1841 but failed because of popular opposition. Snider de Pellegrini, director of a French colonization company, arrived with fourteen immigrants at Matagorda in July 1842, but his efforts to found a colony failed. The most successful of French colonization projects was that of Henri Castro, who in September 1844 founded Castroville, west of the line of the frontier. Victor Prosper Considérant founded, near present day Dallas, a socialistic colony named La Réunion, which flourished briefly in the middle 1850s but ultimately failed because of poor soil, inexperienced farmers, poor financing, and too much individualism.
The French who came to Texas in search of better social, political, and economic conditions contributed to the state in extending the frontier and in encouraging cultural development. The census of 1850 showed 647 French-born men in Texas; that of 1860 listed 1,883. In 1930 the census showed 10,185 persons of French nationality in the state. In 1990 there were 571,175 people of French descent in Texas.
So while the influence of the French is not as deeply ingrained in Texas as the Spanish influence they did play an important part in building the territory.
Texas State Historical Association – https://www.tshaonline.org/home/