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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Bonapartes in America

Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance

published by
Dorrance and Company,
Philadelphia, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11

 p202  X
Texas and Champ d'Asile

General Charles Lallemand, although president of the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and the Olive, never went himself to Alabama. He had a grander project in mind than vineyards and olive trees on the banks of the Tombigbee River. On the 17th of December, 1817, the schooner Huntress, under command of General Rigaud, and with a cargo of powder, muskets, sabres and cannon, sailed from Philadelphia for the Gulf of Mexico. This was the expedition which, under the leader­ship of Charles Lallemand, made a settlement on the Trinity River, Texas, famous ever afterwards as the Champ d'Asile, or Field of Refuge.

All that was back of that expedition will probably never be known. But we can be sure that Lallemand had in mind something more than just another agricultural enterprise, for had that been all, the Alabama settlement would have sufficed. As we shall see, Champ d'Asile was associated with a move against Spain in Mexico, and the rescue of Napoleon, perhaps the making of him or Joseph King of Mexico, or Emperor of all the South Americas.

In August, 1817, the French Minister at Washington, Hyde de Neuville, came into possession of a package addressed to "Monsieur le Comte de Survilliers, pour lui seul." It was sealed with the insignia of the Convention,  p203 the liberty cap on the head of a pike. About this device were the words, "Lakanal, Deputy to the National Convention." There were six documents in the package, all in the same handwriting. De Neuville first took the package to Richard Rush, Acting Secretary of State, and then to the Secretary, John Quincy Adams. Both de Neuville and Adams were satisfied that the documents were in the handwriting of Lakanal, whose name appeared about the seal on the package.

Who was Lakanal? Originally a priest and professor in the Pyrenees, Joseph Lakanal was a member of the National Convention and one of those who voted for the death of Louis XVI. For a time out of favor with Napoleon, he was afterwards made steward of the Lycée Bonaparte, and was the first member elected to the Institut de France. He became Inspector General of Weights and Measures and extended the use of the metric system. Proscribed as a regicide after the second restoration, Lakanal came in 1816 to the United States. He brought with him a letter of introduction to Jefferson from La­fayette. La­fayette speaks of him as "an officer of the University and Inspector General of the Metrical System, who abandons those functions and a handsome treatment to become a settler in the State of Kentucky. He has for several years been in the Representative Assemblies of France, and is going to seek in the United States Liberty, Security and Happiness." Lakanal did not present this letter to Jefferson, but went at once to Kentucky, where he purchased a farm in Gallatin County, on the Ohio River. On June 1, 1816,  p204 he wrote to Jefferson, enclosing the letter from La­fayette. In his letter to Jefferson, Lakanal says:

"Your Excellency: I have the honor to address you a letter which I had hoped to have the inestimable benefit of presenting to you personally; but events over which I have no control have changed my plans. Here I am upon the banks of the Ohio, upon an estate which I have just purchased: Gallatin County, in the vicinity of the French colony of Vevay.​a In this pleasant retreat I shall divide my time between the cultivation of my lands and that of letters. I purpose writing the history of the United States, for which I have been collecting materials for the past ten years. The spectacle of a free people supporting with obedience the salutary yoke of law will lessen the grief which I feel in being exiled from my country. She would be happy if your pacific genius had guided her destinies. The ambition of a single man has brought the enraged nations upon us. My country, prostrate, but struck by the wisdom of your administration, wishes for such as you of the new world to raise herself from her ruins. I hope that in writing your history and that of your predecessors, more or less illustrious, the picture will prove the painter, and that, sustained by the beauty of my subject rather than by my own ability, I shall be able to say, 'I have reared a memorial which shall endure forever.' Deign, your Excellency, to receive the tender and respectful homage of your very humble and very obedient servant, Lakanal."

The life of the American nation seemed so short in comparison with the hoary kingdoms of Europe, that  p205 a clever man like Lakanal thought it no task to write the history of the Republic when resident in a Kentucky wilderness, and with a thousand miles between him and documentary sources. But Jefferson took him seriously, and replying said: "I am happy that in your retirement the subject to which you propose to avert your mind is an interesting one to us. We have not as yet a good history of our country, since its regenerated government. Marshall's is a mere party diatribe, and Botta's only as good as could have been expected from such a distance. I fear your distance from the depositories of authentic materials will give you trouble. It may, perhaps, oblige you at times to travel in quest of them. Should your researches bring you into this section of the country, and anything here be worth your notice, we shall be glad to receive you as a guest at Monticello and to communicate freely anything possessed here."

Sympathizing with the French scholar on the banks of the Ohio, Jefferson said to him: "The affliction of such a change of scene as that of Paris for the banks of the Ohio, I can well conceive. But the wise man is at home everywhere, and the mind of the philosopher never wants occupation. I weep indeed for your country, because, although it has sinned much (for we impute of necessity to a whole nation the wrongs of which it permits an individual to make it the instrument) yet its sufferings are beyond its sins, and their excesses are now become crimes in those committing them. We revolt against them the more too, when we see a nation equally guilty wielding the scourge instead of writhing under its infliction at the same stake. But this cannot  p206 last. There is a day of judgment for that nation, of resurrection for yours. My greatest fear is of premature efforts. It is an affliction the less for you, that you now see them from a safe shore; for to remain amidst sufferings which we cannot succor is useless pain."

The intercepted documents which Hyde de Neuville brought to the State Department, and signed by Lakanal, consisted of the following:​1

1. A letter headed Ultimatum. The letter addresses one as "Your Majesty," and speaks of "Your August Dynasty." The "King is to have nothing to do with the mysterious enterprise," but he is to expect "everything from the goodness of his cause, and the attachment of the brave Spaniards, seconded by all the friends of the cause of nations arrayed against Power imposed by Force."

2. A Report. This is addressed to His Majesty, the King of Spain and the Indies, by his Faithful Subjects, the citizens composing the Napoleonic Confederation. The Report goes on to speak of possible difficulties in passing through the lands of the Indians, and the attacks of the Spaniards. But "at the present moment our success is ascertained, or there is nothing certain on earth." His Majesty, King Joseph, is humbly entreated to put 65,000 francs at the disposal of the Commissioners in the near future.

3. A Petition. The Petition asks Joseph to exercise his rights of sovereignty, distribute crosses, ribbands,  p207 create marquisates and confer on Lakanal a "Spanish distinction."

4. A vocabulary of the Indians on the Mexican frontier.

5. A list of the Indian tribes in northern Louisiana.

6. A Mysterious Vocabulary, or cipher, made up of forty columns of alphabets, with a Latin word corresponding to each letter. All correspondence is to be headed with the word "Oratio," or Prayer which will make the correspondence appear to be an abstract of the Lord's Prayer and have a good effect upon the minds of the Spaniards, "who are generally attentive to all religious forms."

It is small wonder that this document created an immense stir in French and Spanish official circles at Washington. When the matter was brought to the attention of President Monroe, he made inquiry of William Lee, formerly United States Consul at Bordeaux and on friendly terms with the Napoleonic exiles. Lee reports that French officers have sounded out Mexican patriots as to a plan to have the French exiles assist them in a rising against Spain; that the two Lallemands and Colonel Galabert are at the head of the scheme and that eighty French officers and one thousand men have already been engaged. The settlement on the Tombigbee River, according to Lee, was part of the general plan, for few of the grants were ever occupied, and the sale of shares of that settlement was to help finance the Mexican expedition. Lee tells Monroe that many of the higher French officers are not in sympathy with the project. In a conversation with Lallemand, that  p208 general said that all he proposed against the Spanish in Mexico was with the expectation that the United States Government would wish well to a revolution in Spanish America. In this, Lallemand was not mistaken. In a later report Lee writes to Monroe that there is a plan to make a base of the Danish Island, St. Thomas, and thence launch an expedition at Panama into Peru, and another against Mexico.

Thoroughly alarmed, both the Spanish Minister, Onis, and the French, de Neuville, asked Monroe to take vigorous measures to suppress the conspiracy. Adams finally suggested to the President that the documents be published, with a prefatory note by the Secretary of State. Adams wrote the note, and in it said, referring to the documents: "The projects which they disclosed are of a nature to excite in no common degree the merriment as well as the indignation of our readers. That foreigners, scarcely landed on our shores, should imagine the possibility of enlisting large numbers of the hardy Republicans of our Western States and Territories in the ultra-quixotism of invading a territory bordering upon their country, for the purpose of proclaiming a phantom King of Spain and the Indies, is a perversity of delirium, the turpitude of which is almost lost in its absurdity."

Upon further deliberation, Monroe decided not to publish the documents. General Lallemand himself came to Washington and assured Adams that he had no thought of any project contrary to the laws and the peace of the United States. If the Government of the United States regarded him as an object of suspicion, he  p209 would seek another asylum. Adams reassured him, but told him that his name had been connected with a scheme to put Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of Mexico. As for the mysterious Lakanal documents, Lallemand said that he did not know Lakanal and that Joseph Bonaparte had refused to receive the documents, and that that was the cause of their being intercepted. Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia was asked by Monroe to keep a close watch on the Lallemands and their associates. Biddle reports the sailing of the expedition in December, 1817, and that the Lallemands have gone to New Orleans. Monroe wonders if the conspiracy sketched in the Lakanal documents is not in reality one which is to be undertaken by the Spaniards against the United States. But Biddle thinks that the Lallemands are cruising about in the Gulf of Mexico, waiting to see if Onis, the Spanish Minister, will pay them to go to the aid of the Loyalists in Mexico, or, if not, go on in favor of the rebels.

Whatever the fog of mystery about the Lakanal documents, there is no dispute as to the facts of the Champ d'Asile settlement on the Trinity River. We have seen that General Rigaud sailed on the Huntress from Philadelphia, December 17, 1817. In the spring of 1818 Rigaud and his companions, and not a few women, reached Galveston, where the notorious corsair, and the scourge of the English and the Spaniards, Lafitte, had his lair. The French were warmly welcomed by Lafitte and his buccaneers, who assisted them to make a temporary camp. Some of the French, it is true, were alarmed at these allies. One of the expedition speaks  p210 of the followers of Lafitte as "freebooters gathered from among all the nations of the earth and determined to put into practice the traditions of the buccaneers of old. They gave themselves up to the most shameless debauchery and disgusting immorality, and only their chief, by his extraordinary strength and indomitable resolution, had the slightest control over their wild and savage natures. Thanks to him, the pirates became harmless neighbors to the exiles, with whom they often exchanged marks of political sympathy, crying amiably, 'Long live Liberty.' "

General Lallemand arrived at the Galveston camp in March and there was great rejoicing. "Songs of glory were sung. We drank to our fatherland, to our friends, who remained there, to our own good fortune, to the success of our enterprises, and the prosperity of the colony of which we were the founders."2

The settlers, to the number of four hundred, set out for the site on the Trinity River chosen by Lallemand; and now began their sorrows and woes. Crossing the bay in boats loaned by Lafitte, the expedition was driven up and down by a gale. Some of the boats were lost and some of the settlers were drowned. Lallemand then divided his company into two divisions, one going with the stores by boat up the Trinity River, the other with him overland. Soon they were lost in the tangles of the Texas wilderness. Out of supplies, they ate greedily of a poisonous plant which resembled lettuce, and scores lay groaning on the ground. An  p211 Indian, seeing the men in such distress, was shown the plant they had eaten. Raising his hands to heaven, the savage gave a cry of sorrow, disappeared, and presently returned with some herbs. Under his direction the smitten emigrants drank of his brew of herbs and presently recovered and took up the march.​b

Six days after they set out from Galveston, Lallemand and his party reached the site for the colony, where they found the boats and the supplies awaiting them. It is described as "An immense uninhabited plain, several leagues in extent and surrounded by a belt of woods down to the river. A fruitful soil, an abundance of plants and flowers, a river as wide as the Seine, but full of alligators, a sky as pure and a climate as temperate as that of Naples — such were the advantages of the place we had chosen and which we now christened Champ d'Asile."

A river as wide as the Seine, but full of alligators." Ominous words! But at first all went well. Everyone had a mind to work, and when they were not working they were drilling. Lallemand issued a Proclamation in which he said:

"Gathered together by a series of similar misfortunes, which at first drove us from our homes and then scattered us abroad in various lands, we have now resolved to seek an asylum where we can remember our misfortunes in order to profit by them. Strong in adversity, we claim the first right given by God to man, that of settling in this country, clearing it, and using the produce which nature never refuses to the patient laborer.

 p212  "We attack no one and harbor no warlike intentions. We ask peace and friendship from all those who surround us and we shall be grateful for the slightest token of their good will. We shall call the new settlement, 'Champ d'Asile.' This name, while it will remind us of our misfortunes, will also express the necessity which we have of providing new homes, in a word, of creating a new Fatherland."

In France a public subscription was opened for the benefit of the colony, and by July, 1819, amounted to one hundred thousand francs. Around their camp fires at night the emigrants in fancy once more followed the Emperor from Spain to Russia and from Germany to Syria. "At such times the settlement of Texas seemed far enough from their thoughts. They were eager to serve under the Mexican flag and to help that country throw off the Spanish yoke, after which they could easily persuade the Mexicans to give them a fast sailer with which to storm the island of St. Helena, carry off the Emperor in triumph, and crown him Emperor of Mexico."

But dreams of an empire in the realms of Cortez, and dreams of delivering Napoleon from his St. Helena prison, vanished with the approach of an armed force from the Spanish garrison at San Antonio. General Lallemand and his followers said farewell to Champ d'Asile and withdrew to Galveston. There a terrible tropical storm engulfed their island refuge and swept away their last comforts and their last hopes. Some reached New Orleans by the grace of Lafitte, who loaned them a ship; the rest toiled overland through  p213 the Texas wilds till they reached the Louisiana settlements, where they were received with no little kindness. Through sickness, perils by the sea, perils by the wilderness, and perils among the savages the original company had been reduced to a mere handful.

Rigaud, called a "Martyr of Glory" by Napoleon, who left him a hundred thousand francs, remained in New Orleans, where he died in 1820. Lakanal, who was not with the Texas settlement, but whose name figured so prominently in the plans for the "Napoleonic Confederation," became president of the College of Orleans at New Orleans, the beginning of the University of Louisiana. His service was brief, for there was a popular prejudice against him when it became known that he was an apostate priest.​c The younger Lallemand wrote at New Orleans a treatise on artillery, the favorite theme of the Napoleonic writers. He afterwards removed to Bordentown, New Jersey, where he died in 1823. Charles Lallemand returned to Europe and fought with the revolutionists in Spain. Returning to America, he conducted a school in New York. The revolution of 1830 made it possible for him to return to France. The last post held by the commander of the veterans at Champ d'Asile, the man who possessed the "sacred fire," was that of military governor of the island of Napoleon's birth.

Napoleon's death in 1821 forever put an end to the dreams and the plots of his followers in America to rescue him from his prison and place another crown on his head. So great had he been to them that it did not seem possible that any prison could hold him. As the  p214 exiled Jew by the waters of Babylon sighed "when Zion he thought on," and said, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember not thee above my chief joy,"​d so the veterans of Napoleon, wherever fate had driven them, warmed their hearts with the recollection of the fame and glory to which the Emperor had led them. All vanished now, that fame and glory; yet in its afterglow henceforward they trod the path of life.

In his song which was much sung on the bars of Paris in 1818, "Champ d'Asile," Beranger does not exaggerate what glory meant to Napoleon's veterans. Freely translated, and in prose, this is what Beranger imagines the settlers of the Champ d'Asile as saying to the "savages" of Texas:

"A Captain of courageous exiles, craving a refuge afar, thus to distrustful savages spake: "Europe has banished us. Happy children of the forests, hear the tale of our sorrows and our woes. Savages, we are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.​e

"Still our Glory makes kings tremble and exiles us from our humble homes, those homes from which we went forth to defend our rights. Twenty kingdoms fell before us, and we were rushing to conquer Peace, which, alas, ever fled before Victory. Savages, we are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.

"In far‑off India, England trembled when the songs of our conquering soldiers disturbed the ancient echoes of the Pyramids. Ages upon ages will not suffice to tell  p215 the story of our deeds. Savages, we are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.

"At last, One Man from out our ranks thus spake to all at earth: 'I am the god of this world!' Kings on their thrones heard and fled apace, saluting from afar his sceptre, and dreading the awful wrath of his thunderbolts. Savages, we are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.

"Alas, he fell; and we who followed him upon a hundred battlefields, weeping over our prostrate Fatherland, and praying for its resurrection from the dust, now land upon your distant shores. Savages, we are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.

"The Captain ceased. Then spake the savage chief: 'Peace, warriors of France! God stills the wildest tempest. Behold our textures: these shady groves, these fields with plenty blessed, these rivers full of life; all, warriors, all are yours. Upon this Tree of Peace let us engrave these words you speak: Savages, we are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.

"Thus with words of love and peace was the Field of Refuge set apart. Arise, then, new City of our hopes! Against the fickleness of fortune be thou an everlasting rest! Who knows, but at some distant age, our sons, who shall recount the glory of the past, here may say — 'We are Frenchmen. Have pity on our Glory.' "​3

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Champ d'Asile Monument

Recently dedicated to the French colonists, Trinity River, Texas

The Authors' Notes:

1 Bagot to Castlereagh, 1817, Hudson Lowe Papers, British Museum.

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2 Girard, Adventures of a French Captain, Formerly a Refugee at Camp Asylum.

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3 Beranger, Poems, Lippincott Co., Phila. 1889.

Thayer's Notes:

a A mischaracterization at best; Vevay, across the Ohio in Indiana, was a Swiss colony.

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b A correspondent comments: "Une crise de foie, followed by a tisane — how very French."

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c Substance and tone of the objections are nicely rendered by Grace King New Orleans, The Place and the People, p185.

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d Psalm 137:4‑6.

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e See Strabo, IV.5.2 and note.

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Page updated: 26 Feb 13