A History of the French Legation in Texas

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This readable and thoroughly documented volume relates the fascinating story of the French Legation in Austin. The oldest house in the city, it was built in 1840-1841 as the residence of the French chargé d'affaires to the fledgling Republic of Texas. Alphonse Dubois, the self-styled "Count de Saligny," dazzled frontier Texans with elegant parties until he was recalled after less than a year in Austin.

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Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

PERCHED ATOP ITS HILL just east of Interstate Highway 35, the old French Legation looks out on downtown Austin, Texas. The changes that this old house has survived have been momentous. When the French Legation was built in 1840 and 1841, Austin was little more than a year old and consisted mainly of log buildings. The only two-story structures were the President’s House and a hotel, Bullock’s Inn. From the front porch of the Legation one could watch the construction of the 1850s Greek Revival Capitol and, when that building burned, of the great Renaissance Revival Capitol that stands today, its dome still visible from the porch of the Legation. In this century progress has eradicated all other evidence of the Austin that the builders of this house knew, save the street plan. Where Bullock’s Inn once stood on the northwest corner of Sixth and Congress, a giant office building now sprawls. The site of the wood-frame President’s House is now occupied by a granite and steel hotel and office building. And the site of the temporary Capitol of 1839 is marked by an inconspicuous plaque on Austin’s equally inconspicuous Municipal Building. The French Legation stands as a lone remnant of Austin’s earliest days—the days when Texas was a young republic, receiving in its new capital diplomatic representatives from the more polished cultural climes of Paris, London, and Washington. This little book is about one of those diplomats and about the pioneers and politicians with whom he lived. It is also about one pioneering Austin family, who bought the French Legation and made it their home. And it is about the many women and men who have recognized the historic importance of this old building and have given of themselves to preserve it.

 

1. The French Legation in Texas

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1.

THE FRENCH LEGATION IN TEXAS

IN FEBRUARY, 1839, Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, a representative of King Louis Philippe of France, arrived in the dusty little town of Houston, the capital of the Republic of Texas. Dubois was a secretary—that is, an administrative assistant—at the French Legation in Washington, D.C. His superiors sent him to investigate whether the French government should officially recognize Texas as an independent nation-state. He spent a month or so in Texas, meeting with government officials and writing reports to the foreign minister in Paris. In a manner that foreshadowed his later difficulties with the Texians and with his own government, Dubois was less than truthful in his reports. He claimed to have visited Nacogdoches and San Antonio—in what must have been record time—and neglected to mention that he had taken a vacation to New Orleans. He did, however, write a stirring conclusion in his report to the foreign minister: “The recognition of the independence of Texas by the Government of the King will bring great advantages to France for many years to come. We have a glorious opportunity before us; we must not let it escape us.” The government was persuaded—on September 25, 1839, France recognized the Republic of Texas by signing a Treaty of Amity, Navigation, and Commerce.1

 

1. The French Legation in Texas

ePub

1.

THE FRENCH LEGATION IN TEXAS

IN FEBRUARY, 1839, Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, a representative of King Louis Philippe of France, arrived in the dusty little town of Houston, the capital of the Republic of Texas. Dubois was a secretary—that is, an administrative assistant—at the French Legation in Washington, D.C. His superiors sent him to investigate whether the French government should officially recognize Texas as an independent nation-state. He spent a month or so in Texas, meeting with government officials and writing reports to the foreign minister in Paris. In a manner that foreshadowed his later difficulties with the Texians and with his own government, Dubois was less than truthful in his reports. He claimed to have visited Nacogdoches and San Antonio—in what must have been record time—and neglected to mention that he had taken a vacation to New Orleans. He did, however, write a stirring conclusion in his report to the foreign minister: “The recognition of the independence of Texas by the Government of the King will bring great advantages to France for many years to come. We have a glorious opportunity before us; we must not let it escape us.” The government was persuaded—on September 25, 1839, France recognized the Republic of Texas by signing a Treaty of Amity, Navigation, and Commerce.1

 

2. The Mansion of the Legation

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2.

THE MANSION OF THE LEGATION

DUBOIS DESALIGNY was never very happy about his accommodations in Austin, his “wretched wood shanty of three rooms.” On November 6, 1840, he complained to the French foreign minister: “I have been unable to find a suitable lodging,” noting that he had resigned himself “to receiving guests in this humble dwelling where I am now camping, rather than living, and I do the honors of the house as best I can.”35

He therefore decided to build his own house. Toward that end he purchased, on September 15, 1840, “a beautiful piece of property” from Anson Jones, whom he had known in Washington, D.C., when Jones had been Texas charge to the United States. The land Dubois bought from Jones was a little more than twenty-one acres just beyond the original boundary of town. It stretched from East Avenue (the present-day Interstate 35) to what is now San Marcos Street, and from Seventh Street north to Eleventh Street.36

In the letter to the foreign minister quoted above, Dubois mentioned that he was having “difficulty in obtaining building materials” for his house and that he was further delayed by the illness that kept him bedridden throughout most of August, September, and October. Indeed, he feared that he would not be able to move into the house before the spring. It is most likely, therefore, that work did not begin on the house until December of 1840 and that it was not completed until the middle of 1841.37

 

3. The Robertson Era

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3.

THE ROBERTSON ERA

JOSEPH W. ROBERTSON AND HIS WIFE, Lydia Lee Robertson, were Austin pioneers. Joseph Robertson was born in South Carolina in 1809, attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and then practiced medicine for a year in Alabama. There he married Ann Philips, by whom he had two children, John and Elizabeth. He came alone to Texas in 1836; having found a place to live between Bastrop and the future site of Austin, he returned with his family the next year. Dr. Robertson represented Bastrop County in the Fourth Congress of the Republic of Texas (1839–40), which created Travis County out of part of Bastrop County. The Robertson family later moved to Austin, the county seat of Travis County, and Dr. Robertson opened a pharmacy on Congress Avenue in 1841. But in June of that year, Ann Philips died and was soon followed by her daughter Elizabeth. Dr. Robertson was left a widower with a young son.55

His second wife, Lydia Lee, was born in 1820 in Cincinnati, Ohio, then the largest city in the American West. In 1840, perhaps seeking adventure on the frontier, Lydia, her sister Julia, and their brothers Joseph and John moved to Austin. The Lee sisters were beautiful and talented, skilled in the arts of drawing and signing. Mirabeau B. Lamar was inspired to write a poem to Lydia, and the Lee sisters’ singing drew the praise of their next-door neighbor on Pecan Street, Alphonse Dubois de Saligny. The Lee family remained in Austin even after the capital was removed to Washington-on-the-Brazos; on September 7, 1842, Lydia gave her hand in marriage to Joseph Robertson.56

 

4. Restoring the House

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4.

RESTORING THE HOUSE

THE DAUGHTERS OF THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS had long been associated with the French Legation, thanks to one of their number, Lillie Robertson. The organization was founded by Betty Ballinger and Holly Bryan Perry in 1891 as the Daughters of the Lone Star Republic; at the first annual meeting in 1892, the name was changed to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. As their first president the Daughters elected Mrs. Anson Jones, widow of the last president of the Republic of Texas. The objectives of the organization were—and still are—“to perpetuate the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved and maintained the Independence of Texas,” to encourage historical research and publication on the Republic of Texas, and to promote the celebration of Texas Independence Day (March 2) and San Jacinto Day (April 21), which commemorates the battle in which the Texan army defeated the Mexican forces under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Many Daughters were active in collecting artifacts from the era of the Republic of Texas; starting in 1903, some of these were displayed in a room in the State Capitol. These artifacts became the nucleus of the DRT Museum, which occupies the second floor of the historic Land Office Building just southeast of the Capitol. In 1905, the DRT became the custodian of the Alamo, the greatest shrine of Texas independence. Thus, there was ample reason to think that the Daughters might take on the task of restoring the French Legation.62

 

5. The Contents of the House

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5.

THE CONTENTS OF THE HOUSE

TWO PIECES OF FURNITURE IN THE HOUSE are said to remain from the days when it was the mansion of the French Legation, the sofa and armchair in the parlor. Miss Emma Kyle Burleson, a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, donated the chair to Miss Lillie Robertson and the sofa to the DRT Museum in 1917. (The sofa returned to the Legation in 1956.) Miss Emma had purchased this furniture in 1907 from Virginia Wilson Spence, who came from an old Austin family. In a letter preserved in the Texas State Archives, Mrs. Spence explained that her father, Captain William McFarland Wilson, had bought these pieces from his good friend Colonel Thomas William Ward, who had purchased them from Dubois when Texas was admitted to statehood. Actually, Ward would have had to purchase them from Eugene Pluyette in April, 1842, the last Austin saw of the French Legation, but Mrs. Spence’s letter contains convincing details. She wrote that her father bought the furniture when Colonel Ward was appointed U. S. consul to Panama; indeed, President Franklin Pierce did appoint Ward to this post in 1853. Moreover, the rosewood frames of the sofa and chair are of a type made in New Orleans in the 1840s. Dubois could certainly have purchased them while on his way to Texas or on one of his numerous visits. This simplified version of the Louis XV style must have appealed to his patriotism as well as to his taste.76

 

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