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Champ D’Asile

by Clay Coppedge

If a few Frenchmen and their allies could have had their way, Texas might have become part of a new Napoleonic empire. Two of Napoleon’s generals seem to have had this in mind when they founded a colony called Champ D’Asile (Place of Asylum) at a site about three miles up the Trinity River near the present-day town of Liberty.

The official version of the colony’s founding had it that Champ D’Asile would be a place of asylum for officers and refugees from Napoleon’s army and empire after the Battle of Waterloo ended Napoloen’s reign. One of Napoleon’s generals, Charles Francois Antoine Lallemand, led the colonists into Texas under a banner of agriculture. They were to cultivate “vines (grapes) and olives” on that red Pineywoods dirt, a dubious proposition at best.

The real intention seems to have been to establish a French military outpost in Spanish Texas that might help Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, take Mexico, rescue his dictator-brother from exile in St. Helena and then take over North America. This kind of plan – taking over the world or at least a large part of it – was typical of the Bonaparte boys. Joseph Bonaparte also had some experience as a ruler of Spain, courtesy of his brother, and he was in the United States at the time.

A Gen. Antoine Rigaud brought about 150 people to Galveston early in 1818. The French settlers hung out with pirate Jean Laffite and his brother Pierre until Lallemand showed up with a motley assortment of more troops, including Spanish, Polish and Americans. Laffite’s men led the colonists up the Trinity to their new home away from home in what turned out to be a “neutral” territory.

Texas was under Spanish rule at the time but an eastern portion was located in a neutral territory that wasn’t well-defined in the Louisiana Purchase. (The man who would eventually claim the state, Sam Houston, was in Alabama fighting with Andrew Jackson against the Creeks at the time.)

Both the Spanish and the United States had three concerns about the new French settlement: location, location and location. Both countries wanted the territory but had agreed to leave it alone until the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase could be more firmly established. Then here come the French, just barging into the place like they owned it.

By any material reckoning, the French fared poorly at Champ D’Asile. They spent a lot more time with military maneuvers than they did with agriculture. No vines. No olives. Nor had they anticipated the sultry heat of an East Texas summer, or the mosquitoes. Though ostensibly an agricultural settlement, the people at Champ D’Asile basically set about starving themselves to death. Some drowned. Others poisoned themselves trying to live off the land. At least a couple were captured and eaten by the Karankawa.

Perhaps a bigger mistake was made in trusting a pirate. Jean Laffite provided his fellow Frenchmen with provisions and boats but, ever loyal to the highest bidder, he probably also reported their activities to the Spanish. Whether he told them or not, the Spanish found out and ordered Mexican troops to find Champ D’Asile and destroy it. Since the settlers were already in the process of destroying the settlement without help from the Spanish or anybody else, Lallemand ordered the settlement abandoned.

Most of the people at Champ D’Asile ended up back at Galveston as unwanted guests of Laffite. The colonists who survived an 1818 hurricane at Galveston soon scattered and went their own not-so-merry ways. And that was the end of Champ D’Asile as its unfortunate inhabitants knew it.

The United States responded to the incident by ordering Jean Laffite and his men to pack their bags and sail away. The nettlesome “neutral territory” where Champ D’Asile had been located was removed in an 1819 treaty and the Sabine River was designated as the boundary between Texas and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, back in France, Champ D’Asile became a symbol of French resistance to the monarchy. Artists opposed to King Louis XVIII portrayed the French vets as noble farmer-soldiers whose peaceful pursuits were destroyed by the evil Spanish, who sent troops to Texas to kill them.

Several French novels were written about the failed experiment, most notably “Heroine du Texas.” Though written from the vantage point of Paris, it might have been the first novel ever set in Texas.

Less than two decades later, perhaps swayed by the misty but unrealistic accounts of the patriots at Champ D’Asile, the French became the first European power to officially recognize the new Republic of Texas.


© Clay Coppedge
March 1 , 2010 Column
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