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
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.
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
Lafitte 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
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
© Clay Coppedge
March 1 , 2010 Column
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