Baron de Bastrop: Diplomat, Legislator, Fraud

Felipe Enrique Neri (1759-1827), a charming gentleman hailed in Texas as the Baron de Bastrop, paved the way for the first Anglo-American colony in Texas. No one knew he left his wife and five children in Holland or that he fled his country with a bounty of 1,000 gold ducats

Baron de Bastrop

Baron de Bastrop

on his head for embezzling taxes from the province of Friesland.

Neri arrived in Spanish Louisiana in 1795, claiming to be the Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch nobleman forced to leave Holland after the French invasion. After ten years of various business dealings, including settling ninety-nine colonists under a Spanish land grant, Neri appeared in San Antonio in 1806 assuming an air of gentility and posing as a loyal Spanish subject, adamantly opposed to the United States’ 1803 Louisiana Purchase. As the Baron de Bastrop, Neri opened a freighting business in San Antonio and soon gained enough respect to be appointed alcalde (mayor) in the ayuntamiento (local government).

If you read my blog on Moses Austin, you may remember that in an odd twist of fate, Austin chanced to meet his old friend Baron de Bastrop, whom he had known in Louisiana, on the plaza in San Antonio after the Spanish Governor flatly refused to even consider Austin’s request to establish a colony in Texas. In fact, the governor ordered Austin to leave San Antonio immediately. Under such contrary circumstances, it is obvious that Baron de Bastrop held considerable influence with the Spanish officials. He convinced the Spanish governor to accept Moses Austin’s grant request by arguing that Spain needed settlers occupying the country between San Antonio and the Sabine River as a cushion against the Indian threat; that Spaniards and Mexicans were not coming into Texas, rather they were leaving; and that Anglo colonization had already proven successful in Spanish Louisiana. Within three days the Spanish governor granted Austin permission to establish his colony in Texas.

After Moses Austin’s unexpected death, his son Stephen F. Austin came to Texas to apply for his father’s grant. In the meantime, Mexico had won its independence from Spain, and the Baron de Bastrop again used his influence with the Mexican authorities to negotiate an empresarial grant for Stephen to continue with the original plan to settle 300 families in Texas.

By 1823 Bastrop won appointment as Stephen F. Austin’s commissioner of colonization with authority to issue land titles. That same year, he tried and failed to establish a German colony on a site where the San Antonio Road (King’s Highway) crossed the Colorado River. However, from all accounts, he faithfully handled his duties for Austin. Even after Bastrop was chosen in 1824 as a legislator representing the new state of Coahuila and Texas, he served as an ideal intermediary for Austin with the Mexican government. He helped enact laws that were in the best interest of the colonists such as an act establishing a port at Galveston.

Mexican law required the salary of legislators to be paid by contributions from their constituents. Bastrop received such sparse payments that when he died on February 23, 1827, he lacked enough money for his burial. Despite the state of poverty in which he died, the Baron de Bastrop still claiming to be of noble birth in his last will and testament, left land to his wife and children.

After Stephen F. Austin fulfilled his original contract to settle the first 300 families in Texas, he secured another grant in 1827 for his “Little Colony,” which allowed settlement of another 100 families in the area that included the baron’s failed grant. Austin had noted in his first trip to Texas, the importance of that river crossing on the Colorado, and he named the community that developed at the site, Bastrop, in honor of his friend who had recently passed.

Although many people in his day viewed the Baron de Bastrop’s origins as suspect—some believed him to be an American adventurer—he held respect for his diplomatic and legislative work on behalf of Texas. In the past fifty years records from the Netherlands revealed the true story of his mysterious past.

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TEXAS CAPITOL PAID FOR IN LAND

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

The first big land giveaway in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande. Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to men eager to establish colonies in Texas. The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico. After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage the development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction. Finally, the state Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres of land in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building. By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northwest of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington. Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold. Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected. Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name. In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties. Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each. A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time. By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year. Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month. XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling. Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season. Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch. She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries. Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas. Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches. All the cattle had been sold by 1912, but the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963. One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion Parade where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Texas State Capitol

Texas State Capitol

Don Martin De Leon, Empresario

Soon after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico began issuing empresarial grants, contracts allowing men to bring settlers into Mexico’s northernmost state of Texas.  Ironically, of approximately thirty empresarial grants issued between 1821 and 1832, only one went to a Mexican.  Don Martín De León and his wife Doña Patricia De León were wealthy descendants of

Don Martin De Leon

Don Martin De Leon

aristocratic Spanish families who had immigrated to New Spain in 1750.  De León received his empresarial grant in April 1824 to settle forty-one Mexican families “of good moral character” on the lower Guadalupe River.  He had been in Texas since 1805, operating ranches along and south of the Nueces River and driving huge herds of cattle to market in New Orleans.

Map of Texas Colonies

Map of Texas Colonies

De León’s grant lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s, the first and most successful of the colonies.  De León named his settlement Guadalupe Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico.  The first twelve families arrived by October and the others, delayed by drought and floods in Northern Mexico, arrived the next spring.  Each family received a town lot, one league (4,228 acres) of land for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) for farming.  Upon completion of the colonization the empresario received five leagues.

One of De León’s sons-in-law platted the town and the empresario designated the main street “La Calle de los Diez Amigos” (The Street of Ten Friends) for the ten homes of citizens who were charged with the welfare of the town from 1824 to 1828.  Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons.  From 1828 to 1835 alcaldes (mayors) governed the colony.  De León served as the first alcalde followed by two of his relatives.  Not all the colonists were Mexicans; sixteen families, primarily Irish immigrants, also settled in the colony.  A devout Catholic, De León brought in priests from La Bahía (present Goliad), Nacogdoches, and San Antonio until the founding in late 1824 of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  The colonists built a school and a fort, organized a militia, and started a courier service with the neighboring Austin colony.

Victoria quickly became a cultural center as the family maintained contact with friends who were kings, emperors, and both military and political leaders in the United States.  The children and grandchildren were sent to schools in the major cities of Europe and the business of the colony was considered among the most substantial.  Cattle, horses, and mules were the primary business and the family corralled wild Longhorns and mustangs by the thousands.10friends650x335

De León’s five-league ranch, which spread along Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County, probably included the land where the Frenchman La Salle built Fort St. Louis in 1685.  Many claim DeLeón’s cattle brand, which he had registered in 1807, was the first in Texas.  It consisted of a connected E and J meaning “Espiritu de Jesús, the brand used by Jesuits for hundreds of years and adopted by the De León family in Spain.

De Leon Cattle Brand

De Leon Cattle Brand

From the beginning of his colony, De León, a wealthy and cultured man, looked with disdain at the Americans in surrounding colonies.  His attitude and the preferential treatment he received as a Mexican citizen added to tensions among the neighboring settlements.  The boundaries of his colony were not clearly drawn and in disputes with other colonies, the Mexican courts usually sided with De León.  The ensuing squabbles led to hatred and mistrust between De León and Green DeWitt whose colony at Gonzales lay just to the north.  And De León tried unsuccessfully to have the government annul the grant for an Irish colony to the south.

De León died at age 68 in the 1833 cholera epidemic, leaving his wife and ten children an estate of about a half million dollars.  His sons completed the settlement, which made the De León and the Austin colonies the only two in Texas to fulfill their empresarial agreement.

The family members were strong Federalists and as troubles brewed with the Centralists government under the Mexican Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence.  The De León’s took part in all the plans for the revolution; they served in the army or helped in other ways to aid the Texas cause.  They contributed so substantially to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were arrested as traitors.

Despite their contributions, after Texas won independence, Anglo-Americans began coming into Texas looking for land and charging the De Leóns as Mexican sympathizers.  After the murder of one son and the severe injury of another, the family, one of the wealthiest in Texas, left all behind and fled to safety in New Orleans. Three years later, the oldest son Don Fernando De León returned to Victoria and spent the remainder of his life in unsuccessful litigation for the return of the family’s property.

In 1972 a Texas historical marker was placed in Victoria’s Evergreen Cemetery honoring the De León family.  Attendees at the dedication included Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria for whom the town is named.

Map Legend:  De Leon’s Colony — Blue

Austin’s Colony — Yellow

DeWitt’s Colony — Orange

Irish Colonies — Green

The Texas Navy

The Republic of Texas existed from March 2, 1836 until February 19, 1846 and during most of that time it boasted its own navy with a history as colorful as its government.  As Texas settlers, unhappy with the Mexican government, prepared to go to war for independence from Mexico, officials of the interim government realized ships would be needed to keep Mexico from blockading the Texas coast and to keep supplies coming from New Orleans to support the army. Historians estimate that three-fourths of the troops, supplies, and money needed for the rebellion came via shipboard from the port at New Orleans.

The provisional government in November 1835 passed a bill providing for the purchase of four schooners and they issued letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to defend the Texas coast until the navy ships could be put into service. On January 5, 1836, the Texas Navy became a reality with the purchase of a former privateer rechristened the Liberty. The Invincible, a Texas-Navyschooner built originally for the slave trade, was commissioned a few days later and the Independence, a former United States revenue cutter, which had been used to enforce customs regulations and catch smugglers, became the third purchase.  Finally, the Brutus completed the Texas naval fleet.  Immediately, the little band of ships sailing the Gulf of Mexico kept General Santa Anna’s army from receiving supplies, forcing it to forage for food as it marched across Texas. The ships also captured Mexican fishing vessels, sending their supplies to the volunteer Texas army.

The Independence

The Independence

After Texas won independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, the Liberty escorted the ship carrying the injured General Sam Houston for medical treatment in New Orleans.  That’s when the navy experienced its first setback—the Liberty remained in New Orleans for repairs and when the new Republic of Texas could not pay its bill, the Liberty was sold.  Similarly, the following September the Brutus and the Invincible were in New York for repairs and when the city’s customs collector realized the Republic of Texas could not pay the bill, the gentleman paid the tab himself.  Meantime, Mexico refused to ratify the treaty that General Santa Anna signed after his army’s defeat at San Jacinto and despite not having the military strength to launch a full attack on Texas, Mexico continued to make threatening forays along the coast.  The schooner Independence captured several small ships off the Mexican coast and after undergoing repairs in New Orleans in April 1837, started back to Galveston when it was forced to surrender after a four-hour gun battle with two Mexican ships.

With the loss of half its fleet, the secretary of the Texas navy and its commodore decided that the men needed a cruise to inspire confidence.  President Houston believed Texas needed the ships to patrol the coast, not go on a cruise raiding Mexican towns.  Nevertheless, the cruise took place and when the Invincible returned to Galveston it drew such a deep draft that it could not cross the bar into the harbor.  As it sat at anchor waiting for high tide to allow it to proceed, two Mexican ships attacked.  The Brutus, which has managed to enter the harbor, sailed out to help in the fight and ran aground on a sandbar.  After a daylong battle, the Invincible attempted to enter the harbor, went aground and was destroyed.  The Brutus, last of the ships of the Texas Navy, was lost the following October in a storm at sea.

Although the Republic of Texas had no active navy from September 1837 until March 1839, Mexico was too preoccupied with problems at home to take advantage of the unprotected coastline,

Schooner San Antonio

Schooner San Antonio

which gave Texas time to purchase six ships at a cost of $280,000.  In March 1839 a steam packet was purchased and renamed the Zavala, the first ship in the second Texas Navy, followed by the San Jacinto, the San Antonio, the San Bernard, the brig Wharton, the sloop-of-war Austin, and the Archer completed the second fleet.

Brig Wharton

Brig Wharton

Political differences existed from the beginning of the republic between President Houston and Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar and came dramatically to the surface in December 1838 when Lamar became the second president of the Republic of Texas. Whereas Sam Houston wanted Texas to use its ships to protect the coast and insure the republic’s increased industry and commerce, Mirabeau B. Lamar encouraged the navy to pursue an aggressive policy of raids to keep Mexico busy defending its coastline.

During Lamar’s three years as president he initiated a friendly relationship with the Yucatán that had declared itself independent from Mexico.  In December 1841, just as Sam Houston was returning for a second term as president, Lamar sent the Austin, San Bernard, and the San Antonio to the Yucatán for defense against Mexico.  Immediately after Houston’s inauguration, he ordered the fleet to return.

In the meantime, the only mutiny in the Texas Navy occurred in New Orleans on February 11, 1842.  The schooner San Antonio was in port to be refitted.  Apparently concerned the sailors and marines would desert, the officers confined the men to the ship and went ashore.  The men got drunk on liquor that was smuggled aboard and Sergeant Seymour Oswalt led a mutiny in which a lieutenant was killed.  Eventually the men were brought to trial; three were flogged; four were hanged from the yardarm of the Austin; and Oswalt escaped from jail.

Mirabeau Lamar had appointed Edwin Ward Moore, a ten-year veteran of the United States Navy, commodore of the second Texas Navy and Moore was as determined to defend the Yucatán as Lamar.  Moore had constant problems financing the repair of his ships and because paydays did not come regularly, he had trouble recruiting enough men.  The Zavala had been allowed to rot and was eventually sold for scrap.  Houston, determined to reduce spending in his second term, withheld funds allocated by Congress for the navy.  Moore raised almost $35,000 to repair his ships and when it became clear he could not raise enough money in New Orleans to refit the ships, Houston ordered him back to Galveston.  Hearing of renewed Mexican troubles on the Yucatán, Moore arranged to supply Texas ships to Yucatán for $8,000 a month.  He sent the San Antonio to the Yucatán but it was lost at sea.  Just when the Austin and the Wharton were ready to sail from New Orleans, commissioners arrived with orders from Houston instructing Moore to sell the fleet immediately for whatever price he could get.  Further, Houston suspended Moore from command and told him to return immediately to Texas.  Moore convinced the commissioners to allow him to take the vessels back to Texas and as he embarked on the trip, he got word that Yucatán was about to surrender to Santa Anna. Commodore Moore headed for the Yucatán.  The resulting battles against the much larger Mexican vessels did not produce a victory, but it broke the blockade of Campeche and allowed Texas ships to get supplies to the forces fighting the Yucatán land battle.  After a week the Mexican force sailed away, Yucatán was not retaken, and Moore believed Texas was spared the invasion that would have followed if Mexico had captured the Yucatán.

A very angry President Sam Houston claimed Moore’s cruise was illegal and charged him as a pirate, a murderer, a mutineer and an embezzler.  When Moore reached Galveston on July 14, 1843, he was welcomed by a harbor full of boats loaded with cheering people. Houston discharged Moore dishonorably from the Texas Navy for disobedience of orders, fraud, piracy, desertion, and murder.  Moore insisted on a court martial and was acquitted of all the charges except disobedience.  The following year he was cleared of disobedience.

The political battles had not ended.  Texas had attracted volunteers to fight in its War for Independence by passing a bounty act on November 24, 1835, promising 640 acres for two years of military service.  Veterans of the Texas Navy did not get a single acre of almost ten million acres that were distributed as bounties.  President Sam Houston vetoed a resolution on January 6, 1842, that would have allowed navy veterans to receive a bounty claiming they were an “unnecessary extravagance.”  He added, “Generally, the seaman has no interest (except a transitory one) on shore.” An effort to reintroduce the bill and pass it over Houston’s veto met no success.

The Texas Navy had come to an end.  The Republic of Texas was negotiating with the United States to join the Union.  As part of annexation, the Austin, Wharton, Archer, and San Bernard became part of the United States fleet.  Their officers hoped to be included in the transfer, but US naval officers were against the plan and the Texas ships were declared unfit for service.

The Texas Navy was forgotten until 1958 when Governor Price Daniel established a Third Texas Navy.  In October 1970 Governor Preston Smith reestablished the headquarters for the Third Texas Navy at its original base in Galveston.  The new organization serves as a commemorative nonprofit, chartered by the State of Texas to assure the survival of Texas naval history.

Baron de Bastrop: Diplomat, Legislator, Fraud

Felipe Enrique Neri (1759-1827), a charming gentleman hailed in Texas as the Baron de Bastrop, paved the way for the first Anglo-American colony in Texas.  No one knew he left his wife and five children in Holland or that he fled his country with a bounty of 1,000 gold ducats on his head for embezzling taxes from the province of Friesland.

Baron de Bastrop

Neri arrived in Spanish Louisiana in 1795, claiming to be the Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch nobleman forced to leave Holland after the French invasion.  After ten years of various business dealings, including settling ninety-nine colonists under a Spanish land grant, Neri appeared in San Antonio in 1806 assuming an air of gentility and posing as a loyal Spanish subject, adamantly opposed to the United States’ 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  As the Baron de Bastrop, Neri opened a freighting business in San Antonio, and soon gained enough respect to be appointed alcalde (mayor) in the ayuntemiento (local government).

If you read my blog on Moses Austin, you may remember that in an odd twist of fate, Austin chanced to meet his old friend Baron de Bastrop on the plaza in San Antonio after the Spanish Governor flatly refused to even consider Austin’s request to establish a colony in Texas.  In fact, the governor ordered Austin to leave San Antonio immediately.  Under such contrary circumstances it is obvious Baron de Bastrop held considerable influence with the Spanish officials.  Bastrop convinced the Spanish governor to accept Moses Austin’s grant request by arguing that Spain needed settlers occupying the country between San Antonio and the Sabine River as a cushion against the Indian threat; that Spaniards and Mexicans were not coming into Texas, rather they were leaving; and that Anglo colonization had already proven successful in Spanish Louisiana.  Within three days the Spanish governor granted Austin permission to establish his colony in Texas.

After Moses Austin died and his son Stephen F. Austin (blog of October 5) applied for his father’s grant, Baron de Bastrop again used his considerable influence to secure permission for Stephen to continue with Moses Austin’s grant to settle 300 families in Spanish Texas.

By 1823 Bastrop won appointment as Stephen F. Austin’s commissioner of colonization with authority to issue land titles.  From all accounts, the baron faithfully handled his duties even after he was chosen in 1824 as a legislator representing the new state of Coahuila and Texas.  He served as an ideal intermediary for Austin to enact laws that were in the best interest of the colonists such as an act establishing a port at Galveston.

Mexican law required the salary of legislators be paid by contributions from their constituents, resulting in such sparse payment that when Bastrop died on February 23, 1827, he lacked enough money for his burial.  Despite the state of poverty in which he died, the Baron de Bastrop, still claiming to be of noble birth in his last will and testament, left land to his wife and children.

Although many people in his day viewed his origins as suspect—some believed him to be an American adventurer—he held respect for his diplomatic and legislative work on behalf of Texas.  In the past fifty years records from the Netherlands revealed the true story of his mysterious past.