Gustave Aimard, the Frenchman who wrote Westerns
In doing research for Napoleon in America, I read several novels set in Texas in the mid-19th century. One of the authors of such works was Gustave Aimard, a French adventurer who wrote over 70 popular novels about the New World. Aimard was the illegitimate son of the wife of René Savary, Napoleon’s police minister and one of the characters in Napoleon in America. Through his Corsican father, Aimard may have been distantly related to Napoleon himself.
Gustave Aimard was born Olivier Aimard in Paris on September 13, 1818. Aimard’s mother, Marie-Charlotte-Félicité de Faudoas-Barbazan de Segnanville, a member of the old French aristocracy, was married to Savary, the Duke of Rovigo, who had once been Napoleon’s Minister of Police. Savary had been living in exile from France since Napoleon’s 1815 defeat. Neither spouse was faithful. Félicité’s lover was Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de la Porta, a Corsican-born Napoleonic general and diplomat who was probably a distant relative of the Bonapartes. Sébastiani became a politician during the Bourbon Restoration and later served as French Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was most likely Gustave Aimard’s father.
When Aimard was born, Félicité already had seven children, ranging in age from two to 16. She gave the baby to a family by the name of Gloux, and paid them to raise him. By the time he was 12, Aimard had fled to sea as a cabin boy aboard a merchant vessel. In 1835, at 17, he joined the French Navy. A few years later, he deserted during a stopover in South America (either in Mexico or Chile – sources differ).
Gustave Aimard spent approximately a decade in the Americas. He visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. He hunted unsuccessfully for gold in California. He spent time as a trapper in New Mexico and Texas. He later claimed to have been adopted into a Comanche tribe. He also claimed to have visited Spain, Turkey and the Caucasus.
By 1847, Aimard was back in France. That year his half-sister Fanny (Françoise, the Duchess of Choiseul-Praslin, Sébastiani’s daughter with his first wife) was brutally murdered by – it is thought – her husband, who committed suicide a week later. These events contributed to the start of the French Revolution of 1848, in which Aimard served with the garde mobile, a force of young working-class men who remained loyal to the Second Republic during the uprising in Paris in June.
In the early 1850s, Aimard returned to North America as part of a mercenary expedition under Count Raousset-Boulbon. The force tried to secure the independence of Sonora from Mexico. After the expedition was defeated, Aimard went back to France.
In August 1854, Gustave Aimard married Adèle Lucie Damoreau, a “lyrical artist.” They had at least one child, a daughter. Aimard started writing adventure stories based on his experiences. He produced novels at an impressive pace. He wrote at least 78 of them, many of which first appeared as newspaper serials. His books – early versions of the “Western” genre – were translated into English and other languages and became extremely popular. European readers had an appetite for tales about the New World.
He knew of Indian life and Indian customs first-hand; and his comments upon America, though not profound, evidently met with the approval of the many Frenchmen who read his stories. … [S]ome of the heroes of Aimard are actual persons, and his scenes are drawn from his own experiences on prairie and desert. … Under the name of Valentine Guillois, the author himself appears in many of his romances; and a number of other characters were probably drawn from direct personal observation. With some startling exceptions, the author is substantially true to the geography, the flora, and the fauna of the countries he uses as backgrounds. He takes endless pains to explain all the old customs, rites, and ceremonies introduced, and asserts in footnotes that he had witnessed certain horrible scenes he uses, such as one man’s cutting out the tongue of another. …
If the reader wants Indian fights, he can find them in every novel. If he is interested in highwaymen, pirates, spies, he will find an abundance of them. Wars of the whites are there. So are duels with knives, single combats with revolvers or with rifles; combats against apparently insuperable odds; sleeping draughts, abductions, scores of them; white women in the power of Indians; fathers banishing their sons; lynch law; a mother trying to sell her daughter, whom she does not recognize, into prostitution; an insulted father throwing a young man’s present to his daughter, consisting of $150,000 in gold, to the beggars outside his window; the ‘wake’ of a four-year-old child put on a chair in his best clothes with a crown of flowers on his head, and surrounded by drunken men and women; horrific secret societies, such as the revolutionary Dark Hearts of Chile, with passwords, solemn meetings, and oaths resembling those of the Ku Klux or a college fraternity; a maiden buried alive in the lowest vault of a convent in Mexico; a man buried up to his armpits…and left to starve on the desert; terrible avalanches that block the way of travelers over the Andes and leave them suspended over gorges of unknown depth; mountain storms in the Rockies that convert the country into a raging sea; prairie fires; battles with cougars by day and night – these are only samples of the thrills provided by Aimard. (1)
The books were criticized for their repetitiveness, as well as for a lack of realistic characters.
His novels presented a curious and, when his mind was fresh, a picturesque mixture of the styles of Eugène Sue and Fenimore Cooper. But as he wrote too fast to observe carefully the world in which we live, and to reflect upon it; he entirely depended upon mere impressions and his imagination. Novel after novel was turned off in rapid succession. There was never any time for the mind to lie fallow. Those qualities with which he was liberally gifted became impoverished. The intellect ran in unchanging channels, and there was a terrible sameness in about fifty of the…works of fiction that he wrote. (2)
Among Aimard’s most popular books were The Trappers of Arkansas (1858) and The Gypsies of the Sea (1865). His series about the Texas war of independence consisted of The Border Rifles (1861), The Freebooters (1861) and The White Scalper (1861). Gustave Aimard opened The Border Rifles with a lament on the plight of Native Americans.
The immense virgin forests which once covered the soil of North America are more and more disappearing before the busy axes of the squatters and pioneers, whose insatiable activity removes the desert frontier further and further to the west….
Is this constant disafforesting and clearing of the American continent a misfortune? Certainly not: on the contrary, the progress which marches with a giant’s step, and tends, before a century, to transform the soil of the New World, possesses all our sympathy; still we cannot refrain from a feeling of pained commiseration for that unfortunate race which is brutally placed beyond the pale of the law, and pitilessly tracked in all directions; which is daily diminishing, and is fatally condemned soon to disappear from the earth whose immense territory it covered less than four centuries ago with innumerable tribes.
Perhaps if the people chosen by God to effect the changes to which we allude had understood their mission, they might have converted a work of blood and carnage into one of peace and paternity, and arming themselves with the divine precepts of the Gospel, instead of seizing rifles, torches, and scalping-knives, they might, in a given time, have produced a fusion of the white and red races, and have attained a result more profitable to progress, civilization, and before all, to that great fraternity of nations which no one is permitted to despise, and for which those who forget its divine and sacred precepts will have a terrible account some day to render. (3)
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Gustave Aimard fought in the Battle of Le Bourget, in which the French first retook, and then lost, a town just outside of Paris.
He had a deal of Corsican energy, which, unfortunately for him, was associated with a thin skin and aristocratic nerves. In the siege he organised a corps of journalistic francs-tireurs. They had no experience of firearms beyond what they had acquired in salles d’armes and duels. Aimard led this band of riflemen to Le Bourget, which village they received credit for taking. It was one of the episodes of the siege which was the most glorified, et pour cause. Captain Pen and Captain Sword were rolled into one, and the former puffed the latter in the newspapers. Aimard was courageous and manly. If his corps had been worthy of its captain, it would have performed feats of collective valour and acted up to the reputation which it gave itself. The Le Bourget triumph was quickly followed by a sharp reverse, and the free-shooters of the Press were obliged to retire hastily from the village from which they claimed they had helped to drive out the Prussians, to the more congenial Boulevards. Aimard, who had been all his life dreaming of military adventures, and creating heroes after his own image, was quite worthy in the sortie that he made of the children of his brain. But he was disgusted at the Falstaffian boastfulness, and care for a whole skin of some renowned men of his band. (4)
Aimard wrote about the lost war, but his readership was not interested in something so close to home. Moreover, naturalism in literature was beginning to come into fashion.
Zola’s human piggeries, and Guy de Maupassant’s Holywell-streetisms left no place for Aimard in the book-market. (5)
In 1879, Gustave Aimard made a voyage to Brazil, where the literary community of Rio de Janeiro greeted him as a hero. After returning to France, Aimard became afflicted with both physical and mental illness. The latter was characterized as “folie des grandeurs.”
The breakdown in his health was shown in erysipelas. As the skin healed, the brain became disordered. He raved about his high ancestry, and the injustice of the law, wrote letters to his ‘cousin’ (the Emperor Napoleon) and his nephews, the De Choiseul family, and prepared a brief for a lawyer who was to establish a claim to the sovereignty of the island of Corsica and to the Byzantine Empire. This Empire he claimed through the Sebastianis and Commenas, from whom Madame Junot was also descended. Aimard had heard, when he was a boy, that Sebastiani, when he went as Ambassador to Constantinople, was instructed to find out whether it would be possible, with the help of Russia, or against her, if necessary, to set up again the Lower Empire. If it could be restored, he was to have been the Emperor. (6)
The fact Aimard had never been acknowledged by his biological family did not deter him from holding these pretensions.
Gustave Aimard died on June 20, 1883, at Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital in Paris at the age of 64. Despite his literary success, he was not a rich man, having assigned the copyrights of all his books to his publisher for a modest life pension of £140 a year, the equivalent of roughly £16,000 today. (7)
You can read many of Gustave Aimard’s books for free on the Internet Archive.
You might also enjoy:
- Virgil L. Jones, “Gustave Aimard,” Southwest Review, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Summer, 1930), pp. 452-455.
- Truth, Vol. 13, No. 339 (London, June 28, 1883), p. 907.
- Gustave Aimard, The Border Rifles: A Tale of the Texan War, translated by Frederic Lascelles Wraxall (London, 1861), pp. 1-2.
- Truth, Vol. 13, No. 339 (London, June 28, 1883), p. 907.
- Daily News (London), June 27, 1883.
If the reader wants Indian fights, he can find them in every novel. If he is interested in highwaymen, pirates, spies, he will find an abundance of them.[p>
Virgil L. Jones