The First Texas Novel

Two books vie for the honour of being the first Texas novel, and both were written by Frenchmen. One of the books has a connection with Napoleon and includes several of the characters in Napoleon in America. The other – set during the Texas Revolution – was written by a disaffected Catholic priest who played a role in the early church in the United States.

L’Héroïne du Texas

An idealized depiction of the Champ d’Asile (setting of the first Texas novel) by Joseph Claude Pomel, 1823

An idealized depiction of the Champ d’Asile by Joseph Claude Pomel, 1823

Though Texas was described in non-fiction books as early as 1542, with the publication of La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, it was not until 1819 that the first novel set in Texas appeared. It was published in Paris under the title of L’Héroïne du Texas: ou, Voyage de madame * * * aux États-Unis et au Mexique. The author was identified as Monsieur “G…n F……n.” Although it claims to be a true story, L’Héroïne du Texas is a fictionalized account of the ill-fated 1818 attempt by Napoleonic exiles to establish an armed colony in Texas called the Champ d’Asile.

The heroine referred to in the title is Ernestine Dormeuil, a virtuous young beauty who marries Edmond, a 28-year-old French army officer. The first half of the book is taken up with their meeting and falling in love in Paris. After Napoleon’s defeat, the newlyweds emigrate to the United States. There they join other French exiles who plan to start a colony in Texas, which was then part of Spanish-ruled Mexico. The group sails to Galveston Island, home of Jean Laffite. After a month and a half on Galveston, they set out to cross the bay and go up the Trinity River. They are caught in a storm. Ernestine revives a colonist who nearly drowns. Once at the site of the colony (near present-day Liberty, Texas), Edmond builds a house. Ernestine decorates it and cultivates a garden. A deer follows her around, eating out of her hand. She befriends the local Indians and inspires everyone with her benevolence and good humour. The colony’s leaders – Generals Charles Lallemand and Antoine Rigaud – extol her as a model to follow.

After a few idyllic months, Spaniards compel the colonists to evacuate Champ d’Asile. Sadly, the colonists return to Galveston, but not before two Frenchmen are killed in a battle with some Indians. At Galveston they are visited by a hurricane (this part is true), in which Ernestine saves some lives. Finally they arrive safely in New Orleans, where Ernestine’s parents and brother join them from France.

Any possible excitement in the tale is overwhelmed by the monotony of almost constant commentary about Ernestine’s goodness and Edmond’s and others’ adoration of her.

Ernestine was cherished and revered by the whole colony, she was, so to speak, the guardian angel; everyone consulted her, followed her advice, took her as a model, offered her as an example to follow. (1)

In 1937, L’Héroïne du Texas was published in English as The Story of Champ d’Asile, translated by Donald Joseph and edited with an introduction by Fannie E. Ratchford. A reviewer panned it as a “lavenderish novel” and “saccharine tale,” “the primary part of the story being a pressed-flower sentimental romance occurring in Paris.” He concluded:

We doubt seriously that ‘The Heroine of Texas’ deserves immortality in English translation printed in any type, on any paper, whatsoever. (2)

The characters of Edmond and Ernestine were inspired by two of the colonists at Champ d’Asile: Dr. François Viole and Léontine Desportes. They probably met in America. They were married in 1817 or 1818 at the French “Vine and Olive” colony in Demopolis, Alabama, which they helped found. Neither of them were youngsters. Léontine was born around 1777. She had been a maid to General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes’ wife Stéphanie, who was related to Napoleon’s mother. When Léontine first arrived in the United States from France, she was suspected of carrying papers related to a plot to rescue Napoleon from Saint Helena. (3)

Whether the author was himself at Champ d’Asile, or wrote L’Héroïne du Texas based on idealized reports of the colony that were published at the time, the French settlement depicted in the novel bears little resemblance to the actual Bonapartist colony. The author claims there were around 400 colonists, many of them women and children; in fact, there were fewer than half that number, including four women and four children. The novel presents Champ d’Asile as an agricultural settlement, whereas in fact it was a military colony. There is nothing in the book about the conflict between Lallemand and Rigaud and their respective followers (see Narcisse & Antonia Rigaud: Survivors of the Champ d’Asile). According to Professor Alexandra Wettlaufer, “the noble and idealistic heroine of this account of Champ d’Asile stands as an allegory for the colonialist myth of La France itself, bringing enlightenment and ‘life’ to the empty lands of the uncivilized world.” (4)

Mexico Versus Texas, A Descriptive Novel

The Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle, 1895

The Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle, 1895

The first English-language Texas novel was titled Mexico Versus Texas, A Descriptive Novel, Most of the Characters of Which Consist of Living Persons. It was written “by a Texian” and published in Philadelphia in 1838. Four years later, the book was reissued with some minor changes under the title of Ambrosio de Letinez, The First Texian Novel, A Description of the Countries Bordering on the Rio Bravo, with Incidents of the War of Independence. This time the author was given as A.T. Myrthe, which is assumed to be a pseudonym for Anthony Ganilh, whose name appears after the title page in the registration of copyright. Ganihl was a Catholic priest who was born in France and came to the United States in the early 1800s.

The novel appeared two years after Texas succeeded in winning its independence from Mexico. In an opening dedication to Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas, Ganilh sets the tone for the book.

Nothing is so well adapted as literature to develop the genius of a new country, and the struggle of Texas against Mexico affords a noble subject for a work of imagination, in which the utmost power of description may be taxed, without fear of sinning against probability. The Texians may be considered as leading a crusade in behalf of modern civilization against the antiquated prejudices and narrow policy of the middle ages, which still govern the Mexican Republic. The eyes of the world are upon them. The north of Mexico expects its deliverance at their hands, and if Texas be faithful to the call of Providence, power, glory, and immense wealth await her among the nations of the earth. (5)

Ganihl continues this theme in the preface, where he lays out his reason for writing the novel.

It is this contest and moral strife between the imperfect civilization of the fifteenth century, which still sways the land of Anahuac, and that of modern times, which has already effected an entrance into the country that we have, in the present work, undertaken to depict. As the collision between the two opposite systems became more strongly developed during the last campaign against Texas, we have thought that, by connecting the information we could communicate on the subject with the adventures of an officer who highly distinguished himself during that sanguinary struggle, we should render our work more entertaining. (6)

Like L’Héroïne du Texas – but much more successfully – the novel sets a romantic plot against the backdrop of historical events. The book opens during the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. The hero, Ambrosio de Letinez, is born in Mexico to an American father and Mexican mother. His mother dies in childbirth and his father returns to the United States, leaving the baby to be raised as a Catholic by a kindly parish priest. However, the hero’s maternal grandfather, the Count of Letinez, sends his brother – another priest – to retrieve the boy.

Eighteen years later, Ambrosio is a tall, handsome cavalry commander in the Mexican army. Serving under General Urrea, he is off to fight the “insidious colonists of Texas” who have declared themselves independent. After engaging with the Texians at Mier, Captain Letinez rescues a young American lady named Sophia Linton who had been taken captive by Comanches. He sends her with an escort to Matamoros, so she can catch a ship to New Orleans and be reunited with her father in Texas. Letinez visits Miss Linton several times in Matamoros, declares his love for her and proposes marriage. Miss Linton protests that she cannot accept while she is under his protection; moreover, it would not be appropriate as long he is pledged to fight against her father’s cause. She sails to New Orleans but is shipwrecked and winds up in St. Patricio on the banks of the River Nueces. When she is taken by villains, Letinez rescues her. He then tries to reunite her with her father, Major Linton, whom he encounters at La Bahía (Goliad). While Letinez marches off with his company, Miss Linton arrives at Goliad at the start of the massacre. She sees her father among the prisoners and vows to die with him, which convinces the Mexicans to spare Major Linton’s life.

After the Battle of San Jacinto, Letinez is taken prisoner. This gives him a chance to study the Anglo-American way of life.

He saw in the Texian yeomanry a bold, undaunted race, of an outward bearing bordering on the profane…yet, at bottom, humane, hospitable, and generous.

He concludes that the Anglo-Americans enjoy a “more advanced state of civilization…whether political, moral, economical or religious. (7)

Letinez escapes with the aid of a slave and crosses the Texas wilderness. Reaching Matamoros, he is reunited with Miss Linton, who finally agrees to marry him, with her father’s blessing. But Mexican law throws up obstacles: they need to get their original baptismal certificates; they have to prove they have never been married; they need special dispensation from the Pope or the Bishop of Monterrey because she is a Protestant. Or they can just bribe a priest. Another wrinkle involves the imprisonment of Letinez for agreeing to fight a duel to defend his bride’s honour. Finally he and his betrothed learn that they are, in fact, cousins. But it all works out. Reunited with his father and his great-uncle, Letinez learns he will inherit a considerable fortune. All the necessary paperwork and dispensations are received and the lovebirds finally tie the knot.

There is a fair amount of ecclesiastical commentary in the novel, often critical of Catholic abuses in Mexico. An American tells our Mexican hero:

[W]e are pure in morals, at least, far more so than your people. There are no highway robberies amongst us, nor thefts, except what proceeds from negroes. Whenever we feel tempted to wrong our fellow-citizens, we go about it in a mild, peaceable manner, under cover of law! The party attacked is in no bodily fear: he can foresee and take his measures! In point of chastity, also, the most important and influential qualification of Northern nations, we are infinitely superior to you. Lust is, with us, hateful and shameful: with you, it is a matter of indifference. This is the chief curse of the South: the leprosy which unnerves both body and mind. It is what caused the Roman empire to sink under the assaults of the Northern barbarians…. The Southern races must be renewed, and the United States are the officina gentium for the New Continent. Your country cannot withstand the shock, nor your people resist. How could they? Who is there to rouse them and direct them? Your priests? Are they not sunk into gross immorality and ignorance? What will a sacrilegious priesthood, loaded with concubines and bastards, do for you? Are they not polluted to their heart’s core? Have they not introduced a pestilent distinction between morality and religion? It is not so with Protestantism. Christianity is, with us, one and the same thing with morality, or, at least, we never attempt to separate them. There are, undoubtedly, hypocrites amongst us also; but, I would say, comparatively few; and they know that they are cheats and condemned. They cannot trust in outward rites as possessing any value of themselves, in order lay a deceitful ‘unction’ to their souls. (8)

These are strong words coming from a French Catholic priest. Why would Father Anthony Ganihl favour the Anglo-Protestant cause?

Who was Anthony Ganihl?

Anthony Ganihl was born in France sometime in the late 18th century. He came to the United States as a deacon, entered the seminary of St. Thomas in Bardstown, Kentucky around 1817, and was ordained shortly thereafter. In 1819, Father Ganihl became a priest at the Holy Cross congregation in Bardstown. A man “of excellent mental gifts and of great learning,” it was thought he might deliver the sermon at the consecration of the Cathedral of St. Joseph on August 8, 1819, but he was rejected owing to the fact that being French, “the language of the country did not ‘come trippingly’ off [his] tongue” and his “style of eloquence was too staid and sober a character to be altogether acceptable to the people on an occasion that called especially for rejoicing and gratulation.” (9)

In early times in Kentucky it was not an unusual thing for missionary priests to receive challenges from sectarian ministers to debate with them points of religious doctrine. Most generally these challenges were respectfully declined, but occasionally they were accepted, and the debate followed. While Father Ganihl was serving the Holy Cross congregation, a challenge of this nature was sent to him by a Baptist minister known throughout the country as Elder Elkins. The subject proposed was ‘the correct mode of administering Christian baptism.’ Father Ganihl only knew of his challenger that he was a man of gigantic stature, with a voice of corresponding compass. He concluded to accept the challenge, however, and at the proper time he was on hand with a few members of his own congregation. The debate had been advertised from mouth to ear throughout the district, and an immense crowd had gathered to hear the discussion, which was to be held out of doors, some standing, some sitting on improvised seats, and some lolling on the grass in comfortable expectancy of a wordy fight from which they would be able to extract amusement at least. The elder was complaisant, and he politely asked Father Ganihl to mount the stand and give his reasons for adhering to the Catholic mode of administering baptism. The priest thank him for his courtesy, and at once began his discourse. He first stated the doctrine of the Church in reference to baptism, and then urged its necessity and the obligation which rested upon men to receive it. He then defined the mode of its administration adopted by the Church. He quoted largely from the Bible, from church history and the Fathers, and he showed his learning by frequent references to Greek and Latin authorities on the subject. He concluded by declaring that the vast majority of those who had borne the Christian name from the beginning, had been brought into the fold through the administration of the sacrament as it is now prescribed by the Catholic Church. He here signed to his opponent, who was standing within the inner circle of auditors, immediately fronting him, that he was ready to exchange places with him. But that individual, as it appeared from the sequel, had no notion of exhibiting his ignorance in that company. From the beginning of Father Ganihl’s address, he had shown symptoms of restlessness, and now that it was his time to speak, he stood for a moment as if transfixed. Suddenly, and without a word of explanation or apology, he turned in his tracks, elbowed his way through the crowd, mounted his horse and sped away as if a legion of devils were at his heels. At first the crowd appeared bewildered; but a moment later a shout arose from it that could have been heard a mile. Among the priest’s friends who were present that day was Walter Burch. … Mounting the vacated stand, he cried out: ‘Well done, Elder Elkins! I tell you what boys,’ he added, turning to the crowd, ‘the elder has proved himself this day to be a man of sense; the wind has been knocked out of him, and he has gone to recover it.’ (10)

In 1822, when Edward Fenwick was consecrated as Cincinnati’s first bishop, Ganihl offered his services to that diocese. In 1830, Fenwick made a will that named Ganilh and two other clergymen (Father Nicholas Young and Father Frederick Rese) as his executors and listed property that was to be held in trust until turned over to his successor.

After Bishop Fenwick died in September 1832, Ganilh took the diocesan legal papers with him to Bardstown, Kentucky, where he had taken up a post as professor of modern languages in the college of St. Joseph at Bardstown. When Fenwick’s successor, John Baptist Purcell, assumed direction of the Cincinnati diocese in 1833, he requested that the papers be returned. Ganilh refused to send them. Bishop Purcell wrote in his journal:

Ganilh did not come to Cincinnati knowing how anxious I must have felt to have the estate settled up, he still remained at Bardstown where he teaches in the college. My lawyer advised me to go to him & insist on having all the papers, bonds, notes deeds, mortgages which he most unwarrantably abstracted from the state and diocese. The journey was dull & the weather very cold. … [I] had to argue Mr. Ganilh into a surrender of the Muniments. (11)

Ganihl was convinced that Father Rese had misused and embezzled funds left by Bishop Fenwick. He refused to give up his executorship until the funds were accounted for, and he started a lawsuit against Purcell for the property deeded to the Cincinnati bishop in Fenwick’s will. The court decided in Purcell’s favour, giving him title to the church property in the diocese. On April 10, 1835, Purcell wrote:

Revd. Mr. Ganilh came to this city on H. Thursday & left it on Easter-Sunday, on his way to Louisville, without coming near the Church to see God, say Mass, or speak to me! (12)

This experience must have soured Ganilh on the Catholic Church. In 1835 he left the college at Bardstown and presumably went to Mexico or Texas, as he writes with intimate knowledge of the country depicted in his novel. It is not clear what happened to him after that. According to a history of the Catholic Church in Kentucky, Ganihl’s “name does not appear in the Catholic Directory after 1841, and it is supposed he returned to France some time during that year.” The same source notes that Ganihl “was generally regarded by his associates of the clergy as somewhat erratic and shiftless.” (13) According to another source, Ganilh served as an officer in General Zachary Taylor’s army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. (14)

You might also enjoy:

What happened to the Bonapartists in America? The story of Louis Lauret

General Charles Lallemand: Invader of Texas

Narcisse & Antonia Rigaud: Survivors of the Champ d’Asile

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes: Unhappy in Alabama

Jean Laffite: Mexican Gulf pirate and privateer

  1. G…n F……n, L’Héroïne du Texas: ou, Voyage de madame * * * aux États-Unis et au Mexique (Paris, 1819), p. 73.
  2. Lon Tinkle, “Review: THE STORY OF CHAMP D’ASILE by Donald Joseph, Fannie E. Ratchford,” Southwest Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (April, 1938), pp. 358-359.
  3. Kent Gardien, “Take Pity on our Glory: Men of Champ d’Asile,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Jan. 1984), p. 250.
  4. Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, “French Travelers in Texas: Identity, Myth, and Meaning from Joutel to Butor,” in François Lagarde, ed., The French in Texas (Austin, 2003), p. 265.
  5. Anthony Ganihl, Ambrosio de Letinez, The First Texian Novel (New York, 1842), p. iii. The first edition includes only one sentence from this passage, namely: “Texas may be considered as leading a crusade in behalf of modern civilization against the antiquated prejudices and narrow policy of the middle ages, which still govern the Mexican Republic.” Anthony Ganihl, Mexico Versus Texas, A Descriptive Novel (Philadelphia, 1838), p. iii.
  6. Ganihl, Mexico Versus Texas, A Descriptive Novel, p. v.
  7. Ibid., pp. 208-209.
  8. Ibid., pp. 205-206.
  9. Ben J. Webb, The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky (Louisville, 1884), p. 270.
  10. Ibid., pp. 34-35.
  11. Mary Agnes McCann, “Bishop Purcell’s Journal, 1833-1836,” The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 5, No. 2/3 (July-Oct. 1919), pp. 240-241.
  12. Ibid., p. 255.
  13. Webb, The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky, 34-452.
  14. Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination (Oxford, 1988), p. 185.

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He saw in the Texian yeomanry a bold, undaunted race, of an outward bearing bordering on the profane…yet, at bottom, humane, hospitable, and generous.

Anthony Ganihl