Lagarde, François, ed. The French in Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. xiii, 330 p. ISBN 0292747349, hbk. $55.00, 029270528X, pbk. $24.95.
The presence of Germans in Texas has long been studied, and now François Lagarde has assembled twenty-one essays by a variety of experts in order to define the French presence in that region. Many of the later essays, involving such remarkable works as Paul Cret’s 1933 plan for the University of Texas campus at Austin, or Raoul Josset’s 1936 sculpture at Fair Park, Dallas, lie outside the scope of this journal. But the first six essays summarize the latest ideas about the French in this terra incognita before the 1840s.
Robert Weddle’s “New Look at the Explorer La Salle” begins with the extraordinary discovery and investigation in the 1990s by the Texas Historical Commission of one of La Salle’s boats, the Belle, and of his long-lost fort in Victoria County. Weddle has published extensively on La Salle, and here gives a summary of the latest research. While acknowledging that much more work is needed, he summarizes his view of La Salle by remarking that he was a dreamer who “never knew quite as much as he thought he knew” (p. 10).
The next chapter concerns the confused period when the French wished to expand westwards from the newly founded New Orleans, and the Spaniards tried to counter them. Among the French explorers of this period were Simars de Bellisle, Jean Béranger and Bénard de La Harpe; it is thanks to their observations that we have some ideas about the nature of the tribes of coastal Indians. In chapter 3, Patricia Lemée summarizes the latest research on Juchereau de St-Denis. Canadian by birth, he upheld the interests of France in the 1720s and 1730s from his base at Natchitoches, now in Mississippi, over against the Spaniards, whose easternmost base was at Los Adaes, near St Augustine in what is now east Texas. In some ways, this is a story of misadventures: hopeless misunderstandings of coastal cartography, ignorance of the actual state of Franco-Spanish relations in Europe, and an inability to raise the forces needed for decisive action. Still, the career of St-Denis is instructive, not least for his influence among the Indian tribes.
Chapter 4 deals with the influence of Athanase de Mézières, who in effect succeeded St-Denis as the most influential French figure at Natchitoches. Like St-Denis, he greatly extended French influence among the Indian tribes in what is now Texas, and even after the region passed to the Spanish Crown in 1762, he continued to work to establish peaceful trading among the Europeans and Indians of the region. The stability which he established lasted in effect down until the time in the nineteenth century when the Anglos began entering the area that was now under the distant rule of Mexico.
Succeeding chapters bear less on the process of exploration, and more on the extraordinary political manoeuvers that marked the period when it was by no means clear that Texas would one-day form part of the United States. Chapter 5 tries to establish the main outline of the careers of Louis Aury and Jean Laffite, whose piratical activities still resonate among the residents of the Gulf Coast, and chapter 6 describes the rise and fall of Champ d’Asile, a colony briefly established on the Trinity River in 1816 for some members of Napoleon’s defeated army.
Like the previous chapters, these two are well documented, and offer a summary of the latest research. The Gulf Coast from 1680 to 1820 was a territory both ill known and hotly disputed; the opening chapters in this volume both draw our attention to often obscure French visitors, and invite us to investigate them further.
The University of Texas at Arlington