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.

The John Quincy Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart & Thomas Sully

John Quincy Adams portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1825, and Thomas Sully, 1829-30, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1825, and Thomas Sully, 1829-30, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

In researching John Quincy Adams for Napoleon in America, I came across a portrait in which Adams’ head was painted by Gilbert Stuart and his body by Thomas Sully. The story of how that painting came about is an interesting one, involving two of America’s great artists, the perseverance of Adams’ cousin Ward Nicholas Boylston, and the intervention of Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States. It also tells us something about John Quincy Adams’ dress sense.

Spendthrift Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart, one of America’s foremost portrait painters, was born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island on December 3, 1755. In 1775 he moved to England, where he studied art under Benjamin West. Though Stuart exhibited at the Royal Academy and commanded high prices for his paintings, he spent beyond his means. In 1787, he fled to Ireland to escape his creditors. In 1793, he returned to the United States, leaving a pile of debts behind him.

Stuart became famous for his portraits of George Washington, one of which appears on the American one dollar bill. In 1818, when Stuart was living in Boston, he painted a bust-length portrait of John Quincy Adams, who was then US Secretary of State. Adams noted in his diary on September 19 of that year:

I sat to [Stuart] before and after breakfast, and found his conversation, as it had been at every sitting, very entertaining. His own figure is highly picturesque, with his dress always disordered, and taking snuff from a large, round tin wafer-box, holding, perhaps, half a pound, which he must use up in a day. He considers himself, beyond all question, the first portrait-painter of the age, and tells numbers of anecdotes concerning himself to prove it, with the utmost simplicity and unconsciousness of ridicule. His conclusion is not very wide of the truth. (1)

Boylston’s warmest wish

John Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1783, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

John Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1783, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

John Quincy Adams’ cousin Ward Nicholas Boylston – a wealthy Boston merchant and philanthropist – hoped to engage Stuart to paint a full-length portrait of Adams. In January 1822 Boylston wrote to Adams:

Dear Sir may recollect that I mentioned both to the President as well as to yourself, it was my wish to have your portrait as a companion to [the portrait of JQA’s father John Adams by John Singleton Copley, which the Adams family had loaned to Boylston], to be taken by the most eminent American artist, and at some future day placed in the hall of the Anatomical Museum & Library [which] I am preparing funds to build at Cambridge [Harvard], & are yearly accumulating to which I mean to add some of the best of my family pictures by Copley, not from my family pride or ostentatious view—but solely as evidences of the genius of a native American artist, who arrived at that high degree of merit in his profession by the strength of his own unassisted natural genius without the benefit of a master or the opportunity of example by visiting the regions of ancient science or deriving from the works others any ideas for the improvement of his own. (2)

As Adams replied that this was something he would consider, Boylston set aside $600 for the painting. Three years later, when John Quincy Adams became America’s 6th president, Boylston reminded him of his desire for a portrait.

There is…one thing which I crave as a favour, and heretofore repeatedly express’d the warmest wishes of my heart to see accomplished, and thought, or fancied had your assent, namely that you would sit for your portraiture to be the companion to that of my dearly beloved and venerated friend your father which you bestowed on me. The period has now arrived when of all others is the fittest to commence the design without the additional reason, that I am too far in advance of years to speculate on time. You will therefore my dear friend permit me to indulge the hope, that when you revisit Boston you will allow as much time as your leisure will admit to the completion of my wishes. In anticipation I invited Mr. [Gilbert Stuart] to view the portrait of your father, as to size the drawing of the attitude and costume to your direction. (3)

In October 1825, Adams posed for his portrait, much to Boylston’s delight.

A letter I rec’d yesterday from Mr. I.P. Davis informed me he had had an opportunity of seeing you at Mr. Quincys in company with Mr. Stuart, and that you had consented to sit to him for your full length portrait four days this week, for which you cannot conceive half the pleasure it convey’d to me, or the obligations I owe you for this condescension to my long and fervent petitions for this object of my wishes, and do hope that Mr. S will go on with diligent and unremitting labour to finish it before the end of the year. I shall haunt him as the evil spirit did Saul, and employ the energies of Mr. I.P. Davis who has great influence with him to get it out of his hands into mine with as few put offs as possible. (4)

The prerogative of genius

Boylston knew that Stuart often took a long time to finish his paintings. Stuart didn’t do sketches. He worked directly on the canvas, completing the head during the initial sittings, and then – in need of money – moved on to start the next commission. In 1825, a visitor noted that she saw in Stuart’s room “a portrait of Webster, Mr. Quincy, President Adams and lady, Bishop Griswold, Mr. Taylor &c. They were all unfinished.” (5) Like Copley, Stuart had once received a commission to paint a full-length portrait of John Adams. John Quincy Adams wrote to Copley in 1811, “in pursuance of this engagement he actually took a likeness of the face. But Mr. Stuart thinks it the prerogative of genius to disdain the performance of his engagements, and he did disdain the performance of that.” (6)

Among Stuart’s unfinished works was a portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the first wife of Napoleon’s brother Jérôme. According to Stuart’s daughter Jane:

Jerome Bonaparte, the husband of Madame Bonaparte, was anxious to have her portrait completed, it having been in an unfinished state for some time; but as sitters were crowding in upon my father, this request could not be immediately complied with. Bonaparte deemed it an insult to be so neglected, and when the two came together – Bonaparte and Stuart – the painter thought that the remarks addressed to him were impertinent: the result was Bonaparte could not get possession of his own or his wife’s portrait on any terms. He sent his friends to offer any price, but these offers made no impression on Stuart.

In time, Mr. Patterson, Mrs. Bonaparte’s father, came to Boston and sat for his portrait. In the course of conversation with Stuart, this picture was mentioned, when the painter had it brought down from the garret. Mr. Patterson was delighted with it, and my father presented it to him, which he could ill afford to do, to convince the world that he did not value his work as much as he did his position as an artist. (7)

President hornpipe dancer?

A delay in finishing John Quincy Adams’ portrait may have been caused by a dispute over what Adams should wear. Boylston wanted Adams to be painted in the formal attire that he wore as American Minister to the Court of St. James’s in London. He would thus match the garb in which his father appeared in the Copley portrait. Adams preferred a more everyday outfit. Boylston complained to John Adams:

[T]he intention of the pantaloons I shudder at. What? To convey the idea of the very first character in the nation as a sailor or hornpipe dancer is too intolerable to be admitted. (8)

John Quincy Adams refused to yield.

I have confirmed myself in the opinion that the portrait should be painted in plain black pantaloons and boots under them. A round hat should be also introduced, whether in one hand or on a table is immaterial. (9)

Boylston continued his objections.

The pantaloons…appear to meet universal disapprobation in Boston, and likewise in the circle at Quincy, particularly by my ever-beloved friend your father, who declares war against them, insomuch he says if he can procure a painters brush, & he lives to see it finished, in the manner you have directed, he will deface them and desires me to give you his opinion. (10)

Two months after the October sitting, there was still no progress on the painting. Boylston wrote to the President:

I spent an hour of admiration, in examining [the portrait], and really think Mr. Stuart never has, in any thing I’ve yet seen, equalled this splendid spirit of his great talents—but alas! I have an uphill labour to induce him to go on; he says his room is not large enough to finish items, but that he has an expectation Mr. Alston will oblige him by giving up his large room for that purpose; when that will be obtained is impossible for me to say. I have however some hopes, that in these hard & money pressing times, I shall starve him into action. (11)

But there was no further work on the portrait. In August of 1826, Boylston wrote to Adams that he was going to offer Stuart $100 in addition to the $600 “which has lain idle a year distinctly appropriated for that purpose and apart from any other fund. If he should die before he finishes…I see some difficulties that may arise to prostrate all my hopes.” (12)

Speculation is awake

Boylston was the first to die, on January 7, 1828. Stuart died six months later, on July 9. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, the co-founder of Harvard Medical School, took up Boylston’s cause. He wrote to John Quincy Adams:

My old friend Gilbert Stewart died about ten days past; and yesterday I called upon the widow and children…. In the course of the visit we talked about the fine head he had painted of yourself…. I took pains to ascertain Mrs. Stewart’s ideas and feelings about it, knowing she had been assailed by some ‘speculators’ on that head.

She seemed resolved that no artist should paint a body to it if she could prevent it; for I perceived she had imbibed to the full all those high notions of her husband’s superiority to all other painters; and she spoke as if determined not to swerve from what she knew was Mr. Stewart’s sentiments. …

Mrs. Stewart told me that she was fixed in her wish that none but yourself should possess the head in question; but I drew from her this idea, that she was not willing that anyone should have the whole canvas, lest they should paint a body to it; and it is this which induces me to write at this time, to obtain your ideas and directions on the subject…. [S]peculation is awake, with a view, I suspect, of obtaining a popular picture for exhibition.

If in the regular course of probate business this picture should be exposed to sale by auction, how much above two hundred dollars would you wish any friend of yours to bid for yourself? Or rather, and with more propriety, will you express your ideas and wishes to me on the subject….

The widow expresses a reliance on my judgement and friendship: she shall have it, provided you obtain that head, and the canvas entire as it now is: for I fear if any one should make a bargain with her for the head, she would cut the canvas to a kit-kat size. I find she is disposed to adhere pertinaciously to the extravagant whims of her heteroclite husband. Neither solicitation nor argument, — nor honour, nor justice could move, at times, that strange man, Gilbert Stewart, who was about as (strange) selfish a man as ever lived. (13)

John Quincy Adams expressed interest in the painting, though he noted that “as it has been once paid for by Mr. Boylston, I should certainly not be inclined to pay for it again. In no event would I take it in any other condition than that in which it was left by Mr. Stewart, or with any condition other than that I should dispose of it as I might think proper.” (14)

Thomas Sully in harness

John Quincy Adams portrait by Thomas Sully, drawing 1824, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fletcher Fund, 1938)

John Quincy Adams by Thomas Sully, drawing 1824, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fletcher Fund, 1938)

The portrait – which Boylston had bequeathed to Harvard University – was acquired from Stuart’s estate. Thomas Sully was engaged to finish it.

Born in Britain on June 19, 1783, Sully emigrated to the United States with his family in 1792. He learned the art of miniature painting from his brother-in-law, John Belzons. In 1807, Sully spent three weeks studying portrait painting under Gilbert Stuart in Boston. He also went to England and studied with Benjamin West. Upon his return, Sully settled in Philadelphia and cornered the portrait market there. In December 1824, based on three sittings, he painted a full-length watercolour study of John Quincy Adams seated at a table, an oil study, and a bust-length portrait, before completing the final oil portrait. He was a logical choice to finish the Stuart portrait.

In August 1829, Adams sat for Sully, who made a study in chalk. Sully started work on Stuart’s unfinished canvas in December. He charged $350 to complete the painting. Adams saw the finished portrait at an exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum in September 1831.

My own portrait by Stuart and Sully was also there. Except the interest naturally felt in the portraits by those to whom the originals, many of them now deceased were known, there was not much to attract notice in this exhibition. (15)

Two years later, when asked for a picture to be used by the New York Mirror for a plate showing the first seven presidents, Adams wrote:

If you wish to have anything bearing a resemblance to me, the head of Stuart’s Portrait at Cambridge is the only one that can serve as an original for it…. No engraving from any other Pictures will, as a likeness be worth a five cent piece. (16)

The head was praised by others, including William Dunlap, who wrote:

If we judge by the portrait of the Hon. John Quincy Adams, the last head he [Stuart] painted, his powers of mind were undiminished to the last, and his eye free from the dimness of age. This picture was begun as a full-length, but death arrested the hand of the artist after he had completed the likeness of the face; and proved that, at the age of seventy four, he painted better than in the meridian of life. This picture has been finished; that is, the person and accessories painted, by that eminent and highly gifted artist, Mr. Thos. Sully; who, as he has said, would have thought it little less than sacrilege to have touched the head. (17)

The body of the portrait did not receive the same praise. Sculptor Horatio Greenough wrote:

I suffered grief at seeing Stuart’s Head of Mr. Adams filled up by somebody else and were it mine so help me God I would give a thousand dollars to restore the blank canvas as Stuart left it. Not that I think the artist who finished that picture incapable of producing a masterpiece but because the 2 minds do not work well in double harness. (18)

The John Quincy Adams portrait by Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully remains part of the Harvard University Portrait Collection.

You might also enjoy:

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

Last Words of Famous People

  1. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IV (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 130.
  2. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 14 January 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, Boylston’s mother was a first cousin of John Quincy Adams’ grandmother.
  3. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 15 March 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  4. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 4 October 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  5. Mary Tyler Peabody Mann to Miss Rawlins Pickman, January 27, 1825, quoted in Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (New York, 2004), p. 318.
  6. George C. Mason, The Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart (New York, 1894), pp. 144-145.
  7. Martha Babcock Amery, The Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley (Boston, 1882), p. 90
  8. “To John Adams from Ward Nicholas Boylston, 27 March 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  9. “From John Quincy Adams to Ward Nicholas Boylston, 8 November 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  10. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 22 December 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  11. Ibid.
  12. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 15 August 1826,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  13. Quoted in Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 125-126.
  14. Ibid., p. 126.
  15. John Quincy Adams Diary 38, 1 October 1830 – 24 March 1832, pp. 261-262 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004.
  16. Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife, p. 132.
  17. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, Vol. I (New York, 1834), p. 209.
  18. Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife, p. 133.

When Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte

Louisa Adams by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1821-1826

Louisa Adams by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1821-1826

In Napoleon in America, Louisa Adams – the English-born wife of then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams – listens with interest as Elizabeth Hopkinson talks about travelling with Napoleon and his older brother Joseph to upstate New York. That vignette is set in April of 1822. In real life, Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte in September of that year. Joseph was a ladies’ man who had already fathered two illegitimate children in the United States. Louisa was an elegant woman, comfortable in the courts of Europe, who liked to charm and be charmed. Here’s how the two of them got along.

Behaving like a fool

After spending the summer of 1822 in Philadelphia nursing her sick brother, Louisa Adams accepted an invitation to visit her friends Joseph and Emily Hopkinson in nearby Bordentown, New Jersey. The Hopkinsons were friends and neighbours of Joseph Bonaparte, who had fled to the United States after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Joseph owned a large estate called Point Breeze, on Crosswicks Creek near the Delaware River.

Louisa arrived in Bordentown on September 16, 1822. She met Joseph – who had once been King of Naples, and then King of Spain, but now called himself the Count of Survilliers – the next day.

[A]after dinner we set out to walk to the spring. We had got about half way when we met the Count Survillier, who stopped and spoke to the Ladies, and was introduced to me: when he politely asked us to walk with him through his grounds to which I assented. I however as usual behaved very much like a fool on the occasion: for their Kings and no Kings place us in a very awkward situation; between the fear of wounding their feelings, and the natural antipathy which I have to courting, what the world call great folks, and of appearing to arrogate upon my own elevated station; which though, it may be transient, is while I possess it thought much of by others. I spoke sometime to him in English, but at last addressed him in French. He showed me two very fine paintings, and displayed all the beauties of his grounds with much attention, offering us flowers which he cut himself, and peaches which he selected and presented to each. As the evening was rapidly setting in, I was anxious to get home; but he was so urgent for me to see his daughter [Charlotte Bonaparte] that I consented to walk in, and was introduced to her little Ladyship, who I thought a very pleasing and well bred young woman. She is not handsome; though I think her countenance very expressive, and the style and character of her face pleased me, although in general it produces a contrary effect. She was urgent in her invitation to me, to stay; and expressed a desire to become more acquainted; to all of which I answered suitably declining her civility, on the plea of leaving Borden Town immediately. The Count has a charming countenance, the form of the face very much like Napoleon’s, but the expression entirely different. He is friendly and unceremonious in his manners; in his person very much like the Emperor when I saw him, large and heavy, though he moves about with a good deal of activity. He performs the civilities he offers like a man who has been used to do so by proxy; and seems when he wishes to mark attention, to look round him, rather with a view of ordering it to be done, than with readiness to do it himself. But there is so much easy good humour about him, and he looks so much like a good fat substantial farmer, that were we not pre-acquainted with his history, no one would suspect he had ever filled a throne. In this little village he is adored; for he has made ‘the Widows heart to sing with joy,’ and has been [‘a father to the fatherless’ and tho’ a King has showered blessings around him, thus proving himself far more than a King—a good man!! General l’Almand [Henri Lallemand] accompanied him. He was riding in a common Jersey Waggon with two Horses. We returned home and I was lectured by the Ladies for my impoliteness in not having spoken French in the first instance, and not having been more courteous to his Majesty, whose peaches I refused upon the plea of ill health. I acknowledged my fault, and promised to behave better the first opportunity. (1)

Laughing heartily

Joseph Bonaparte by Charles Willson Peale, 1820

Joseph Bonaparte by Charles Willson Peale, 1820

That opportunity arose three days later, on September 20, at a party at Point Breeze.

The Count and Countess [Charlotte] received us in a very friendly and sociable way, and we chatted on various subjects, until we were called to what he terms Tea; that is a dinner in all its forms with the addition of tea and coffee. … I had some conversation with the Count…. He told me he knew Mrs. Crawford; and was very inquisitive about Washington, which he said he heard was very brilliant in winter, and a pleasant residence. … When we rose from the table he showed me his fine pictures, and regretted that I had not seen them by day light, entreating me to come again; and politely saying he would take no denial: after which we seated ourselves round a table, and examined his daughter’s drawings, and some curious paintings on copper of natural history, from all the known parts of the globe. We then talked of the Theatre, and he asked me if I had seen Talma; and I took the opportunity of hinting how much I should be gratified if he would read a tragedy to us, as I had heard that he piques himself upon his talent, having studied with La Rive, who he told me he had taken to Naples with him, and made him director of the French Theatre there. He seemed much pleased at the request, and immediately sent for his book, and chose the Tragedy of Andromaque. I was almost sorry for the choice as I could not help thinking that in the fate of Marie Louise, there was a little similitude; for both her Son and herself became hostages to Austria, though under different circumstances. He desired his daughter to read with him, and she took the parts of Andromaque, and Hermione, and it is long very long since I have had such a treat…. The Countess reads elegantly, and they have both the style and manner of Talma, with a little less energy; which he told me was more the manner of La Rive. To me however this was an improvement as I do not love to see the passions ‘torn to rags and tatters;’ and do by no means think ranting an embellishment, or an expression of true feelings. I am not connoisseur enough to say any thing more of the paintings, than that they are many of them in the finest style…. There is a Titian that is exquisite; some Vernets and Teniers and Murillos that are beautiful….

[The Count] told me that he had restored the fashion of bull fights in Spain, for which he had often condemned himself; but it was to court popularity with the people. Naples he cannot speak of without regret; but if he grieves for the change in his situation, it does not appear; for he looks the picture of happiness and content. We all laughed heartily when we got home; for intending to invite Miss Mease who is not handsome, but a most charming woman to stay the night; in English; he said ‘will you sleep with me.’ You may suppose this occasioned a complete squall among us we were all so diverted. (2)

Labouring hard to amuse

Charlotte Bonaparte

Charlotte Bonaparte

The following evening the Hopkinsons returned the favour by having Joseph and Charlotte over.

We laboured hard to amuse them, and I fear did not achieve the enterprize; as I am sure I was devoured by ennui…. The Countess does not understand much English, and Joseph speaks it very little; and the Ladies of this family will not speak French. You may therefore imagine our difficulty; added to which the young Lady [Charlotte] looks for amusement from every body, without making the least exertion to amuse herself…. They left us at eleven o–clock, and we all felt relieved, as [Joseph] appeared in very bad spirits; there is a great deal of bonhomie about him, but his address is altogether awkward, though he makes every possible exertion to be gallant. (3)

Louisa was, nonetheless, flattered by Joseph’s attention. In the same letter to her husband (who remained in Washington), she wrote:

[M]ethinks I hear you say? ‘I hope my dear your head is not quite turned by all the fine things you meet?’ I answer I hope not, but almost fear to ask myself the question. (4)

Louisa and the Hopkinsons accepted an invitation to breakfast at Point Breeze the next day (September 22). After breakfast, they walked in the gardens, viewed paintings, and boated on Crosswicks Creek, where Joseph “ordered fishing tackle to be prepared and every thing made ready for that amusement, as he understood that it was [Louisa’s] favorite diversion,” until she objected and asked to land instead. (5)

On September 23, Louisa went over to say goodbye, as she intended to leave Bordentown the next day.

I asked for the Lady [Charlotte] intimating my wish to take leave—but she was taking her drawing lesson or rather sitting for her portrait, and I would not disturb her. She however made her appearance just as her father had invited us to see a Venus of Titian…which he keeps close to his bed; I could not affect modesty as I had said, that I had seen a number of fine pictures in Europe, and he put his hands over his eyes, as if very much shocked making grimaces, and hanging his head, saying that all the American Ladies were so distressed, and ashamed, that he was obliged to hide them. He showed me two beautiful miniatures of his mother, one of his wife, and one of his daughter; a number of superb guns: a manufactory of which he had established at Naples of a very light and beautiful kind: 1 of which he sent to Alexander; another to the King of Bavaria; and 1 to Napoleon. He is fond of shooting and an excellent shot. He likewise brought out some fine old books, with illuminated plates and some beautiful modern editions, and a number of knickknacks such as the French delight so much in—and a fine likeness of Napoleon. (6)

Extending her stay

Point Breeze, Joseph Bonaparte's estate in Bordentown, New Jersey

Point Breeze, Joseph Bonaparte’s estate in Bordentown, New Jersey

Joseph prevailed upon Louisa to stay longer in Bordentown. She dined at Point Breeze again on the 24th. On the 25th, they all took a boat to Bristol in Pennsylvania to visit acquaintances, and on the 26th and 27th Joseph and Charlotte visited at the Hopkinsons. On the 29th, Louisa saw Joseph for the last time.

At four o’clock we went to Point Breeze, and immediately after a consultation took place to decide how we should amuse ourselves; and it was determined that the barge should be prepared, and that we should row down the creek for an hour or two previous to dinner. We walked into the grounds, and went to see some pictures in a house belonging to him, in which the strangers are lodged who visit him; and here one of the Miss Monges exhibited a scene which I confess astonished me a little. When he asked me to walk up stairs, he desired Miss Monges to see if her apartment was in a state to be seen; expressing his doubts upon the subject—and giving her time to make arrangements. On our entering the apartment which is very handsome, he observed that one of the window curtains was closed, and obscured the prospect; and went directly to it took the pin out of the curtain, and pulled out two gowns, and a dirty flannel petticoat, which Miss Cora had thus concealed, and gave them to her sister; when Miss Cora walked in, and on his speaking to her about her slutishness, she seized him by the collar of his coat and held her finger in his face, shaking it in a threatening attitude; so disgusting, that we could scarcely forbear expressing our indignation at her ill manners, and her vulgarity…. He avoids every thing like distinction, and says he wishes to be considered as an American gentleman only. We had a charming dinner and afterwards the Tragedy of Iphigenie of Racine, which he read in a fine style assisted by his daughter, Miss Monges, and Capt Sarry. Mr Hopkinson says he is a fine scholar; and he appears to me to be a man of taste and judgement, without parade and ostentation…. On parting I thanked him for his polite attention, as well as his daughters; and expressed a hope that I might be enabled to make some slight return at some future day—to which they replied they only wished that my stay could be prolonged among them, and that they regretted very much the necessity of my departure—Walked home with Gen [Lallemand]. (7)

Louisa returned to Philadelphia. A few days later, Joseph’s servant arrived with a small painting from Charlotte, “begging my acceptance of it as a remembrance, it being done by herself. I wrote my thanks and took the same opportunity of expressing my sense of her father’s attention.” (8)

On October 6, Louisa wrote to her son Charles, who was at Harvard with Joseph’s nephew Jerome Bonaparte.

I have passed a couple of weeks at Borden Town with Mrs. Hopkinson’s family and became acquainted with Joseph Bonaparte who was most kind and attentive to me during my stay. He told me that his nephew young Bonaparte was in college and I understood was your classmate. He is said to be a very fine young man and it would give me great pleasure if by your civilities to him you would in some measure repay my debt to his uncle to whom I fear I shall have no opportunity of returning the civilities which he literally showered upon me during my stay in his delightful neighbourhood. (9)

You might also enjoy:

Louisa Adams, social charmer

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

Joseph Hopkinson, Joseph Bonaparte’s great friend

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American nephew

When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

  1. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 16 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  2. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 19 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  3. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 21 September 1822 to 23 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 27 September 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  8. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 2 October 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,
  9. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to Charles Francis Adams, 6 October 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016,

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams by Charles Robert Leslie

John Quincy Adams by Charles Robert Leslie

America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was inaugurated on March 4, 1825 at the age of 57 years and 7 months. Adams, who was Secretary of State in the outgoing administration of President James Monroe, finished behind Andrew Jackson in the number of popular votes and electoral votes received in the 1824 presidential election. However, since no candidate reached the 131 electoral vote majority necessary to win, the election was decided by the House of Representatives, which voted in favour of John Quincy Adams.

Adams was aware of his relative lack of popularity. Comments like this were appearing in the press.

We did not think it possible that the representatives of the people would undertake to act in direct opposition to the expressed will of their constituents, but it turns out we were mistaken. The friends of Mr. Adams have claimed for him the character of one of the greatest diplomatists of the age, and the result of this election shows that he is fully entitled to it. Let him enjoy all the honor and comfort that an elevation so attained can confer.

Had the number of electoral votes given to General Jackson and Mr. Adams put the former fifteen votes lower than the latter named candidate, we should have been truly sorry to see Gen. Jackson elected by Congress; and had he been so elected, his past life demonstrates that he would have declined the situation. Should he not have declined it, he would have forfeited, in the eyes of the American people, the reputation he has earned. How Mr. Adams is to be affected in this respect, time will show; but if he has not a boisterous administration of it, we know nothing about public opinion and feeling. (1)

Sleepless nights

Adams spent two sleepless nights before his inauguration, “occasioned by the unceasing excitement of many past days; the pressure of business in the Department of State, always heavy at the close of a session of Congress, now redoubled at the close of my own service of eight years in the office of Secretary; the bustle of preparation for the new condition upon which I was to enter; the multitudes of visitors, upon great varieties of business, or for curiosity; the anxieties of an approaching crisis, and, above all the failing and threatening state of my wife’s health.” (2)

Louisa Adams – the first foreign-born First Lady of the United States – was “very ill.” The evening of March 3, she “was seized with a violent fever,” for which she was bled in an attempt to provide relief. Before daybreak, Louisa’s fever was joined by “a long and alarming fainting fit.” (3)

A lively and animated scene

Friday, March 4th dawned cloudy in Washington. A tired John Quincy Adams “entered upon this day with a supplication to Heaven, first, for my country; secondly, for myself and for those connected with my good name and fortunes, that the last results of its events may be auspicious and blessed.” (4)

A Washington newspaper described the activity around the Capitol.

At an early hour…the avenues to the Capitol presented a lively and animated scene. Groups of citizens hastening to the great theatre of expectation were to be seen in all directions; carriages were rolling to and fro, and ever and anon the sound of the drum and trumpet, at a distance, gave notice that the military were in motion and repairing to their different parade grounds. The crowd at the doors of the Capitol began to accumulate about nine o’clock, and, although ladies were allowed the privilege of their sex in being admitted to seats reserved for them in the lobbies of the House of Representatives, they had to attain the envied station at no small sacrifice, and the gentlemen who led and guarded them were obliged in some instances almost literally to fight their way to the doors.

Towards 12 o’clock, the military, consisting of General and Staff Officers and the Volunteer Companies of the 1st and 2d Legion, received the President at his residence, with his predecessor, and several officers of the Government. The cavalry led the way, and the procession moved in very handsome array, with the music of several corps, to the Capitol, attended by thousands of citizens. The President was attended on horseback by the Marshal, with his assistants for the day, distinguished by blue badges, &c. On arriving at the Capitol, the President, with his escort, was received by the Marine corps…whose excellent band of music saluted the Presidents on their entrance into the Capitol.

Within the Hall, the sofas between the columns, the entire space of the circular lobby without, the bar, the spacious promenade in the rear of the Speaker’s chair, and the three outer rows of the member’s seats, were all occupied with a splendid array of beauty and fashion. On the left, the Diplomatic Corps, in the costume of their respective courts, occupied the places assigned them…. The officers of our own Army and Navy were seen dispersed among the groups of ladies, exhibiting that most appropriate and interesting of associations, valor guarding beauty. Chairs were placed in front of the Clerk’s table, on the semicircle within the member’s seats, for the Judges of the Supreme Court. The hour of twelve arrived and expectation was on tiptoe – the march of the troops, announced by the band of the marine corps, was heard without, and many a waving plume and graceful head within beat time to the martial sounds. The galleries, though filled to overflowing, were remarkable for the stillness and decorum which (with a very few exceptions) prevailed.

At 20 minutes past twelve, the Marshals made their appearances in blue scarves, succeeded by the officers of both Houses of Congress, who introduced the President Elect. He was followed by the venerable Ex-President and family, by the Judges of the Supreme Court, in their robes of office, and the Members of the Senate, preceded by the Vice President, with a number of Members of the House of Representatives. Mr. Adams, in a plain suit of black, ascended the steps to the Speaker’s chair and took his seat. (5)

John Quincy Adams was the first president to wear full-length trousers (rather than knee breeches) to his inauguration.

A mass of intellectual strength

Although there was no suggestion of a security threat, one journalist observed:

Within that little space was concentrated a mass of intellectual strength, calculated, when called into energetic action, to shake this continent from one end to the other, and to cause its motion to be felt throughout the civilized world. There, within a few feet of each other, stood Adams, and Monroe, and Clay, and Marshall, and Jackson, and Cheves, and Calhoun, and Webster, and Story, and Emmet, and Tazewell, and Wirt. The explosion of a single shell would have created a chasm such as this country would have felt for a century. (6)

The inaugural address

Once seated in the Speaker’s chair, John Quincy Adams read his inaugural address, which took about half an hour and was rather dull, but received a long applause. In it, he tried to heal electoral divisions.

Of the two great political parties which have divided the opinions and feeling of our country, the candid and the just will now admit that both have contributed splendid talents, spotless integrity, ardent patriotism and disinterested sacrifices to the formation and administration of this government; and that both have required a liberal indulgence for a portion of human infirmity and error.…

There still remains one effort of magnanimity, one sacrifice of prejudice and passion, to be made by the individuals throughout the nation, who have heretofore followed the standards of political party. It is that of discarding every remnant of rancor against each other; of embracing, as countrymen and friends; and of yielding to talents and virtue alone, that confidence which, in times of contention for principle, was bestowed only upon those who bore the badge of party communion.…

Fellow-citizens, you are acquainted with the peculiar circumstances of the recent election, which have resulted in affording me the opportunity of addressing you at this time. You have heard the exposition of the principles which will direct me in the fulfilment of the high and solemn trust imposed upon me in this station. Less possessed of your confidence, in advance, than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence. Intentions, upright and pure; a heart devoted to the welfare of our country, and the unceasing application of all the faculties allotted to me, to her service, are all the pledges that I can give for the faithful performance of the arduous duties I am to undertake.

To the guidance of the legislative councils; to the assistance of the executive and subordinate departments; to the friendly co-operation of the respective state governments; to the candid and liberal support of the people, so far as it may be deserved by honest industry and zeal, I shall look for whatever success may attend my public service: and knowing that, except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain, with fervent supplications for his favor, to his overruling Providence, I commit, with humble but fearless confidence, my own fate, and the future destinies of my country. (7)

The oath of office

Then, placing his hand on a volume of the laws of the United States, held up to him by Chief Justice John Marshall, John Quincy Adams read the oath of office of President of the United States.

The congratulations which then poured in from every side occupied the hands, and could not but reach the heart of the President. The meeting between him and his venerated predecessor had in it something peculiarly affecting. General Jackson, we were pleased to observe, was among the earliest of those who took the hand of the President; and their looks and deportment toward each other were a rebuke to that littleness of party spirit, which can see no merit in a rival, and feel no joy in the honor of a competitor. Shortly after one o’clock, the procession commenced leaving the Hall; but it was nearly an hour before the clustering groups which had crowded every seat and avenue completely retired.

The President was then escorted back as he came, and, on his arrival at his residence, received the compliments and respects of a great number of gentlemen and ladies who called upon him, who also generally paid their respects at the Mansion occupied by the Ex-President. (8)

Adams noted in his diary:

I found at my house a crowd of visitors, which continued about two hours, and received their felicitations. Before the throng had subsided, I went myself to the President’s house, and joined with the multitude of visitors to Mr. Monroe there. I then returned home to dine, and in the evening attended the ball, which was also crowded, at Carusi’s Hall. (9)

The inaugural ball

Throughout the day Louisa Adams continued to feel extremely ill. She received visitors in the drawing room before dinner, but was not well enough to go out in the rain to the inaugural ball.

The ball at the City Assembly Rooms in honor of the inauguration of the President and Vice-President…was more numerously attended, and exhibited, perhaps, a greater display of beauty and respectability, than has ever been witnessed on a similar occasion in this city.

The President of the United States, the Ex-President, and the Vice-President, with their families; most of the representatives of the foreign Courts, and nearly all the members of the Senate and House of Representatives who still remained in the city; many officers of the Army and Navy, and visitors of distinction from different parts of the Union; and a large number of our own citizens, were present, making altogether an assemblage of nearly a thousand persons.

In the ball room, which was most tastefully decorated, the dancing continued without interruption until past the midnight hour. About ten o’clock, the supper tables in the room below were filled by as many of the company as could be seated at once. At the head of the centre table the President took his seat under a canopy, which had been prepared for him and some of the most distinguished guests…neither expense nor exertion appear to have been spared to render the supper superior to any which has ever been given in this city. (10)

Adams did not stay for the whole thing.

Immediately after supper I withdrew, and came home. I closed the day as it had begun, with thanksgiving to God for all His mercies and favors past, and with prayers for the continuance of them to my country, and to myself and mine. (11)

You might also enjoy:

The Presidential Election of 1824

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

Louisa Adams, social charmer

When Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte

James Monroe and Napoleon

Last Words of Famous People

  1. Louisville Public Advertiser (Louisville, Kentucky), March 2, 1825.
  2. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI (Philadelphia, 1875), pp. 516-517.
  3. John Quincy Adams Diary, March 3 & 4, 1825 [electronic edition], The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection, Vol. 33, p. 103, Massachusetts Historical Society, Accessed January 19, 2017.
  4. “The Inauguration,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), March 5, 1825.
  5. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI, p. 518.
  6. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), March 17, 1825.
  7. Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, MD), March 5, 1825.
  8. “The Inauguration,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), March 5, 1825.
  9. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI, p. 519.
  10. Daily National Journal (Washington, DC), March 7, 1825.
  11. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI, p. 519.

The Extinct Karankawa Indians of Texas

Karankawa Indians of the Gulf Coast. Watercolour by Lino Sánchez y Tapia

Karankawa Indians of the Gulf Coast. Watercolour by Lino Sánchez y Tapia

The Karankawa Indians were a group of now-extinct tribes who lived along the Gulf of Mexico in what is today Texas. Archaeologists have traced the Karankawas back at least 2,000 years. The tribes were nomadic, ranging from Galveston Bay to Corpus Christi Bay and as far as 100 miles (160 km) inland. During much of the 18th century, the Karankawas were at war with the Spaniards in Texas. They then fought unsuccessfully to stay on their land after it was opened to Anglo-American settlement in the 1800s. The last known Karankawas were killed or died out by the 1860s.

The Karankawa tribes

The Karankawa Indians were made up of five main tribes, related by language and culture: the Carancaguases (the Karankawa proper), Cocos, Cujanes, Guapites and Copanes. They depended on fishing, hunting and gathering for their food, particularly the fish and shellfish found in the shallow bays and lagoons of the central Texas coast. Their dugout canoes were not designed for travel in the open Gulf of Mexico. The Karankawas lived in wigwams – circular pole frames covered with mats or hides. They did not have a complex political organization. The Karankawas were unusually large for Native Americans. The men grew as tall as six feet and were noted for their strength.

Contact with white men

The first white men to encounter Karankawas were probably survivors of the Spanish Narváez expedition in 1528. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his men received mixed treatment from the Indians along the Texas coast.

When French explorer Sieur de La Salle settled at Matagorda Bay in 1685, the number of Karankawa was estimated at about 400 men. One of the settlers, Henri Joutel, wrote that the Karankawas “came frequently in the night to range about us, howling like wolves and dogs; but two or three musket shots put them to flight.” (1) In 1688, after bad relations and killings on both sides, the Karankawas attacked the 20 or so remaining French colonists, massacring all but five children. They tattooed the children and held them captive until 1690-91, when Spanish authorities succeeded in bargaining for the children’s release. In 1698, two of the survivors, Jean Baptiste and Pierre Talon, were interrogated in France about their experience.

As for trade among [the Karankawas], nothing appeared easier, for they communicate voluntarily with the Europeans, whom they call the Sons of the Sun. They consider this celestial body, as well as the moon, to be some sort of divinity, without, however, their rendering them any worship; they do not think that they ever showed veneration for them. M. de la Salle would never have had war with the Clamcoëhs [Karankawas] if on arriving he had not high-handedly taken their canoes and refused them some little article of use that they asked him in return for them and for other services that they were ready to render to him. Nothing is easier than winning their friendship: a hatchet, a knife, a pair of scissors, a pin, a needle, a necklace or a bracelet or glass, wampum, or some other such trinkets being ordinarily the price, because they love passionately all sorts of knickknacks and baubles that are useful or ornamental. But also, as they give voluntarily of what they have, they do not like to be refused. And, while they are never aggressors, neither do they ever forget the pride of honor in their vengeance. But one need not fear their numbers, no matter how great. They never dare attack from the front Europeans armed with muskets and other firearms. There is nothing to fear from them but surprise attacks…. An unfailing means…that the Europeans still have of winning their friendship… is to take part in the wars that they often wage against others. They believe themselves unconquerable when they unite with Europeans and spread terror and fright everywhere among their enemies by the noise and effects of firearms, which they have never used and which they have always looked upon as inconceivable marvels. (2)

Karankawa relations with the Spaniards

In 1722, the Spanish colonial government established Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo and its attendant Presidio La Bahía near the site of La Salle’s former fort, in an attempt to convert and civilize the Karankawas. The Spaniards were unsuccessful in persuading the Indians to stay at the mission. A fresh attempt to convert the Karankawas by establishing Nuestra Señora del Rosario mission in 1754 also met with minimal success. By the 1780s, fighting between the Karankawas and the Spaniards in Texas had become chronic. The founding of Nuestra Señora del Refugio mission in 1793 was the last effort to convert the Karankawas. By 1824, 224 Indians were living at the mission. But attacks by Comanches and hostile Karankawas, as well as an unstable food supply, led to gradual abandonment of the Refugio Mission. It was closed in 1824.

Karankawa relations with American colonists

By this time Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain and Anglo-Americans were moving into Texas. During his first trip to Texas in 1821, Stephen Austin developed a dim view of the Karankawas, despite a peaceful encounter with the Cocos.

Started early and continued a SE course along the Lake. At the lower end the Indian war whoop was raised… and I immediately descried an Indian coming towards me, who beckoned me to stop & made signs of friendship. He advanced towards me into the prairie and was followed at a short distance by 14 warriors. I advanced about 20 yards ahead of my company directing them to be prepared for battle if necessary. Chief asked me in Spanish where I was from and where going. I informed him, he said they were Coacos, who I knew lived with the Karankawas. This induced me to watch them closely and refused to go to their camp or to permit them to go up to the men, until one of the chiefs laid down his arms and five squaws and a boy came up to me from their camp. This satisfied me they believed us to be too strong for them and therefore that they would not attack us (of their disposition to do so I had no doubt, if they thought they could have succeeded). Some of the warriors then went up to the men and appeared friendly. I gave the chief some tobacco and a frying pan that we did not want and parted apparently good friends. There was 15 warriors in the group. The chief informed me that they were going to encamp on the road to trade with the Spaniards and Americans. He said we could not reach the mouth of the river with horses owing to the thickets. He also said that there was a large body of Karankawas at the mouth.

These Indians were well formed and apparently very active and athletic men. Their bows were about 5 1/2 to 6 feet long, their arrows 2 to 3 well pointed with iron or steel. Some of the young squaws were handsome and one of them quite pretty. They had panther skins around their waist painted which extended down to the knee and calf of the leg. Above the waist though they were naked. Their breasts were marked or tattooed in circles of black beginning with a small circle at the nipple and enlarging as the breast swelled.

These Indians and the Karankawas may be called universal enemies to man – they killed of all nations that came in their power, and frequently feast on the bodies of their victims. The approach of an American population will be the signal of their extermination for there will be no way of subduing them but extermination. (3)

The colonists’ view of the Karankawas as ferocious savages was not helped by the failure of the latter to distinguish between the settlers’ livestock and the feral cattle they were used to hunting. The Karankawas also helped themselves to provisions that the settlers stockpiled along the shore. In 1823, the Karankawas killed two settlers and injured two others. The settlers retaliated by murdering nearly two dozen Karankawas. More killings followed. Colonist John H. Moore later recalled:

The Carankawaes were a tribe of large, sluggish Indians, who fed mostly on fish and alligators, and occasionally, by way of feast, on human flesh. They went always without moccasins, striding through briars unharmed, making such tracks as would hardly be attributable to a human being. Each man was required to have a bow the length of himself. The fight was an entire surprise. We all felt it was an act of justice and self-preservation. We were too weak to furnish food for Carankawaes, and had to be let alone to get bread for ourselves. Ungainly and repugnant, their cannibalism being beyond question, they were obnoxious to whites, whose patience resisted with difficulty their frequent attacks upon the scanty population of the colonies, and when it passed endurance they went to their chastisement with alacrity. (4)

It is in this context that Napoleon Bonaparte and his men come to the aid of Austin’s colonists against the Karankawas in Napoleon in America.

In late 1824, the Karankawas sued for peace with Austin’s colony. In return for an end to the colonists’ attacks, the Karankawas agreed to abandon their use of the lower Brazos, lower Colorado and lower Lavaca rivers and remain west of the Guadalupe River. This proved difficult, as other Native American tribes were already using that area. In September 1825, Austin accused the Karankawas of breaking the treaty. He gave orders to his militia to pursue and kill any Karankawa Indians found east of the Guadalupe.

The road to extinction

In 1827, the official campaign of extermination ended with a new treaty between Austin’s colony and the Karankawas. But the killings, along with disease, had taken a toll. When French naturalist Jean-Louis Berlandier visited Texas in 1828, there were about 100 Karankawa families left. Berlandier described them as follows.

The Carancahueses have many pirogues, and one can see their little fleets moving from one island to the next in search of food. Fishing is their principal occupation and their main diet is fish, augmented with tortoises and alligators which they hunt in the rivers. These island people, since many of them live on the Bay islands, have a reputation as the most skilled of all savages with the bow and arrow. I have seen them attract fish in the bays and inlets by flailing the water around their pirogues, then use their bows and arrows to shoot the fish that came to the surface. …

The people of all these coast tribes are extremely brave and all are excellent swimmers. They have a musky odor about them, which the Spanish call amizle, which they doubtless acquire from eating alligator. Most of the Carancahueses used to live at the Refugio Mission near the Bahia del Espiritu Santo. Father Muro kept them busy at agriculture there, but when the revolution came they were scattered.

The Carancahueses are a big people, with robust, well formed, athletic bodies. They wear their hair loose to the shoulders but cut in front to the level of the eyebrows, like the Mexicans. They wear cock feathers behind their ears and a wreath of Indian grass or palm leaves on their heads. They paint lines of vermilion around their eyes and often smear their brown bodies with white or black or red paint. They never wear teguas [buckskin footgear], their peregoso [breechclout] is white, and their favorite weapons are the bow and dagger. This does not mean that they underrate the gun, which they highly appreciate. It is just that they are usually too poor to buy one. (5)

During the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, the Karankawas switched sides several times. By then, the Karankawas had been pushed off their traditional lands. They tried to rebuild their lives on the plain between the Lavaca and Nueces rivers, but the disproportionate loss of men made it hard to survive. Some worked as day laborers for ranchers. When British writer William Bollaert looked for surviving Karankawas on the Gulf Coast in 1842-43, he learned of “only some dozen individuals of the Karonks at Corpus Christi and another small remnant at Matagorda.” (6)

In 1858, a rumour circulated that the last of the Karankawas were killed in an attack led by the outlaw Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. Whether or not the rumour was true, by the 1860s the Karankawas were considered extinct. Some may have actually gone to Mexico or joined other tribes. In 1891, the ethnologist Albert Gatschet published a guide to Karankawa culture and language. (7) He found no actual Karankawas, but obtained the Karankawa vocabulary from an elderly white woman named Alice Williams Oliver who claimed to have lived near the last Karankawa band during her childhood.

Were the Karankawas cannibals?

You will note from the above that white people believed the Karankawas were cannibals. Lurid tales circulated, such as this story told to John R. Fenn by his grandfather David Fitzgerald, a settler in Austin’s colony.

During the early settlement of the country a tribe of Coast Indians called Craankaways made a raid on some of the colonists below, killed some of the people, and carried off a little girl captive. After proceeding some distance, they camped, killed the child, and proceeded to eat her, first splitting open the body, then quartering it, and placing the parts on sharp sticks and cooking them. They had just commenced this cannibal feast when a band of settlers dashed upon them, having been on their trail. The Indians were so completely absorbed in their diabolical and hellish orgie as to be oblivious to their surroundings and taken by surprise. In the fight which ensued all were killed except a squaw and two small children. (8)

Reports like this are unsubstantiated and may have been concocted to legitimize the extermination campaign. According to historian David La Vere, there is little direct evidence to support the claim that the Karankawas were cannibalistic.

No reliable eyewitness accounts of such behavior exist; nor has archaeology turned up shattered or scraped bones to support it. Most of what has been said is hearsay or came from the mouths of their enemies. To be sure, many American Indians, including Caddos and Atakapas, practiced a form of ritual cannibalism, in which bits of one’s enemies were eaten to gain spiritual power, but eating humans for sustenance on a regular basis just does not seem to be the case. (9)

The Karankawas expressed shock at the survival cannibalism they witnessed among the starving members of the Cabeza de Vaca expedition in the 16th century. If the Karankawas practiced cannibalism, it is likely to have been the ritual variety.

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  1. F. French, Historical Collections of Louisiana, Part 1 (New York, 1846), p. 111.
  2. Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Talon, “La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents,” in Alan Gallay, ed., Voices of the Old South: Eyewitness Accounts, 1628-1861 (Athens, GA, 1994), pp. 32-33.
  3. “Journal of Stephen F. Austin on His First Trip to Texas, 1821,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. 7, No. 4 (April 1904), pp. 304-305.
  4. “Reminiscences of Capt. Jesse Burnam,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. V, No. 1 (July 1901), pp. 15-16.
  5. Jean Louis Berlandier, The Indians of Texas in 1830, edited by John C. Ewers, translated by Patricia Reading Leclercq (Washington, 1969), pp. 147-149.
  6. Eugene Holon and Ruth Lapham Butler, eds., William Bollaert’s Texas (Chicago, 1956), p. 174.
  7. Albert S. Gatschet, The Karankawa Indians, The Coast People of Texas (Cambridge, MA, 1891).
  8. Andrew Jackson Sowell, History of Fort Bend County (Houston, 1904), p. 91.
  9. David La Vere, The Texas Indians (College Station, TX, 2004), p. 62.

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams by George Peter Alexander Healy

John Quincy Adams by George Peter Alexander Healy

Of all the characters who appear in Napoleon in America, John Quincy Adams wins the prize for most diligent diarist. Besides giving readers a first-hand look at 19th-century American politics and diplomacy, Adams’ diaries reveal the habits and mindset of America’s sixth president. Every New Year’s Day, John Quincy Adams was prone to offering his reflections on the year that had just passed and his wishes for the future. To help ring in the New Year, here is a sample of his New Year’s Day musings.

Little different from the last month, and no better (1810)

In 1809, John Quincy Adams became the first United States Minister to Russia. He wrote this on New Year’s Day in 1810.

Day. Little different from the last month, and no better.

I close the year with sentiments of gratitude to Heaven, for the blessings and preservations which my family and myself have experienced in its course. It has witnessed another great change in my condition – brought me to face new trials, dangers, and temptations, relieving me from many of those in which I was before involved. It has changed also the nature of my obligations and duties, and required the exertion of other virtues and the suppression of other passions. From this new conflict may the favor of Heaven continue its assistance, to issue pure and victorious, as from the past. May it enable me better to discharge all my social duties, and to serve my country, and my fellow-men, with zeal, fidelity, and effect. Imploring the blessing of God upon my family present and absent, upon my wife and children, my parents, my kindred, friends, and country, I look with trembling hope at the mingled light and shade of futurity, and pass to a new year with the fervent prayer for firmness to perform as well as prudence to discern my duty, and for temper and fortitude to meet every possible variety of events. (1)

The most memorable year of my life (1815)

In 1814, John Quincy Adams was appointed head of the American delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain in Ghent, Belgium. He left for Ghent in April, while his wife Louisa and their youngest son remained in St. Petersburg. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, thus ending the War of 1812, although word of it reached North America too late to prevent the Battle of New Orleans. On January 1, 1815, Adams wrote:

I have risen during the month almost always before six, and without exception before daylight. Make my fire, read five chapters in the Bible, and write until between nine and ten. Breakfast in my chamber alone. Write, read papers, receive visits, and attend mission meetings until three, afternoon. Walk from one to two hours, dine at half-past four, and sit at table until six. Go to the theatre, concert, or party at a friend’s house, or write in my chamber until eight in the evening. Spend one or two hours at Mr. Smith’s lodgings, and about ten at night return home and retire to bed. This mode of life will henceforth be varied by a new change in my situation. The last ten days have been overburdened by business. Thus ends the most memorable year of my life. I close the record of it with a fervent tribute of gratitude to Divine Providence for the signal favor granted to my country by the conclusion of a treaty of peace; also for the blessings it has continued to me of a domestic nature, to my parents, wife, and children, for the increased proportion of health I have enjoyed, and for the comforts of a quiet conscience. And I implore a continuance of the favor of Heaven upon my country, family, friends, and myself; and, above all, the strength and the will to discharge all my duties to my fellow-creatures and my God.  (2)

Elevation to the summit of worldly ambition (1826)

In 1825, John Quincy Adams became president of the United States, after the contentious election of 1824, in which no candidate secured a majority of the electoral vote. Adams reflected on his first year as president in his New Year’s Day entry for 1826.

The life that I lead is more regular than it has perhaps been at any other period. It is established by custom that the President of the United States goes not abroad into any private companies; and to this usage I conform. I am, therefore, compelled to take my exercise, if at all, in the morning before breakfast. I rise usually between five and six – that is, at this time of the year, from an hour and a half to two hours before the sun. I walk by the light of moon or stars, or none, about four miles, usually returning home in time to see the sun rise from the eastern chamber of the House. I then make my fire, and read three chapters of the Bible, with Scott’s and Hewlett’s Commentaries. Read papers till nine. Breakfast, and from ten till five P.M. receive a succession of visitors, sometimes without intermission – very seldom with an interval of half an hour – never such as to enable me to undertake any business requiring attention. From five to half-past six we dine; after which I pass about four hours in my chamber alone, writing in this diary, or reading papers upon some public business – excepting when occasionally interrupted by a visitor. Between eleven and twelve I retire to bed, to rise again at five or six the next morning.

The year has been the most momentous of those that have passed over my head, inasmuch as it has witnessed my elevation at the age of fifty-eight, to the Chief Magistry of my country; to the summit of laudable, or at least blameless, worldly ambition; not, however, in a manner satisfactory to pride or to just desire; not by the unequivocal suffrages of a majority of the people; with perhaps two-thirds of the whole people adverse to the actual result. Nearly one year of this service has already passed, with little change of the public opinions or feelings; without disaster to the country; with an unusual degree of prosperity, public and private. (3)

Am I too old to learn? (1838)

The presidency of John Quincy Adams ended in 1829, after Adams lost the 1828 election to Andrew Jackson. In 1830, Adams won a seat in the US House of Representatives. He wrote this on January 1, 1838. Martin Van Buren was president.

The new year began with one of the most beautiful days that the course of the seasons ever brought round – a clear sky, a bright sun, a calm atmosphere, and all physical nature moving in harmony and peace. The President’s House was open, as usual, from eleven in the morning to eight in the afternoon, and was crowded with visitors innumerable. I was not among them. I have found it necessary to assume a position in public towards him and his Administration which forbids me from any public exhibition of personal courtesy which would import a friendly feeling. Mr. Clay, whose public position, not precisely the same as mine, differs little from it, went and escorted Mrs. Bell, of Tennessee, wife of the late Speaker of the House, who was also there. They afterwards came here, as did about three hundred ladies and gentlemen of those who had been at the President’s house….

I snatched a quarter of an hour before noon to call on Mrs. Madison, who also received many visitors. Just before reaching her house, I met Lewis Williams, and Mr. Graham, and Joseph L. Williams, of Tennessee, and thought they were going to my house; but, from a feeling of awkwardness at asking them the question and the fear of losing my chance to visit Mrs. Madison, I passed by them with a slight salutation. Upon what slight shades of difference depends propriety of conduct in social intercourse! These three men intended me a civility. There are no three men more entitled to a kind and courteous return. Yet they must have felt themselves slighted, and I might have returned their kindness in a manner which would have gratified them. Am I too old to learn? (4)

Tomorrow recommences the struggle (1844)

Still in Congress at the age of 76, John Quincy Adams wrote this on New Year’s Day in 1844.

I begin the new year, as I closed the old one, with praise and prayer to God – with grateful thanksgiving for the past, with humble supplication for the future. Physical nature never was more kindly adapted to the enjoyment of man in commencing the year, than it was this day at this place. The close of the last year was serene, mild, and beautiful. The entrance of the new annual portion of everlasting ages was yet more auspicious and cheering. The morning, noon, and night of it was delightful. I rose an hour and a half later than my time, but closed before breakfast the diary of the departed year.

From ten till three o’clock, an uninterrupted stream of visitors absorbed the time and exhausted my patience. It is generally meant in kindness – always in civility – and for a succession of fifteen years, since I left the President’s house, has greeted me in still increasing numbers. Among the visitors of this day were some of the bitterest political enemies, North and South, that I have in the world. Holmes and Campbell, of South Carolina, Burke and Hale, of New Hampshire, were of the number, and Charles Jared Ingersoll, the cunningest and most treacherous cat of them all. …

Immediately after I got disengaged from the throng, about three, I walked to Mrs. Madison’s house and paid her a visit…. I have piles of letters unanswered, and which I never shall find time to answer. Tomorrow recommences the struggle, which, for me, can terminate only with my life. May the Spirit from above in life and death sustain me! (5)

A stout heart and a clear conscience and never despair (1848)

On January 1, 1848, John Quincy Adams wrote a New Year’s letter to his only surviving child, Charles Francis Adams. This was his last New Year’s Day reflection. He died seven weeks later, on February 23, 1848, at the age of 80 (click here to read his last words).

“My Dear Son – On this commencement of a new year my thought intensely turn to you, to the partner of your life, to your children, and to the Giver of all good, in thanksgiving for all the blessings which you have been and still are to me, and in fervent supplication for the favors of Divine Providence upon you one and all; especially that you may be sustained in your incorruptible integrity through all the trials that may be reserved for you upon earth, and that whatever may be their ultimate issue here, of which I abate not a jot of heart and hope, you will at least be sure of the approbation of your Maker.

A stout heart and a clear conscience, and never despair.

Your ever affectionate father,
John Quincy Adams (6)

Happy New Year!

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  1. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1874), p. 92.
  2. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. III (Philadelphia, 1874), p. 136.
  3. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII (Philadelphia, 1875), pp. 97-98.
  4. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IX (Philadelphia, 1876), p. 462.
  5. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. XI (Philadelphia, 1876), pp. 466-467.
  6. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. XII (Philadelphia, 1877), p. 281.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in the 1800s

Thanksgiving humour from The Emporia Daily Gazette (Kansas), November 25, 1897

Thanksgiving humour from The Emporia Daily Gazette (Kansas), November 25, 1897

Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday in the United States until 1863. In the early 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated on a state by state basis, with each state scheduling its own holiday on dates that could range from October to January. What began as a New England tradition gradually spread to other states, although not without resistance.

A Yankee custom

A Philadelphia newspaper noted in 1841:

Thanksgiving was held in New York and New Jersey yesterday. It has been celebrated all over New England. Even Savannah, this year, held this public festival. We do not understand why Pennsylvania should decline this religious and social holiday. Surely the people have the same causes for gratitude, and the motives for its exercise exist with the same force here as elsewhere. In fact, there is such an infusion of eastern population into every profession and employment and order of society here, that it is matter of surprise the custom should not have secured a foothold long since in Pennsylvania.

The Journal of Commerce, in alluding to the anniversary, remarks: ‘This time-honoured festival is now observed by nearly half the population of the United States. If it were possible to overcome the repugnance of Pennsylvania to every thing of Yankee origin, we might soon hope to see the whole nation, after the ingathering of the harvest, bringing their annual tribute of Thanksgiving to the Giver, by a public and solemn act.’ (1)

You will not find Napoleon celebrating Thanksgiving when he lands in New Orleans in Napoleon in America, as Louisiana did not observe Thanksgiving until 1846.

Church-going and gluttony

Regardless of where and when Thanksgiving was celebrated, the primary holiday traditions in the 1800s were going to church and eating a big meal.

This is the day on which the saints and sinners of this great division of the Union are called on by the Governor to rest from their labors, feed on roast turkey, and doze away an hour in the house of God. We believe this is the only case in which the civil authorities intermeddle with that which belongs only to the priesthood – the religious observances of the people. We regard this – but after all what’s the use of discussing the point? So to your knees, ye saints – it will go hard with many of you, to offer as acceptable incense, as they who only stand afar off from the temple, and hardly venture to raise their eyes to heaven. That brief exclamation of the publican – ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ availed, when the long prayers, amid all the pomp and circumstance of the altar, brought down only reproof and indignation.

Faith – charity – the love of truth – and love of man – let these animate you, and every day will be one of thanksgiving and joy, as much as is permitted us in this uncelestial world. (2)

A long line of turkeys

In 1858, a clever statistician “after filling himself with turkey on Thanksgiving day, amused himself by estimating the devastation of the day in the twenty-three States that celebrated it, as follows”:

One million turkeys, 12,000,000 chickens, 30,000,000 pounds of pork, 30,000,000 pounds of beef, 6,000,000 pounds of raisins, 30,000,000 pounds of flour, 30,000,000 pounds of sugar, &c. The turkeys placed three feet apart in a straight line would reach from Massachusetts to Indiana. The chickens, one foot apart, would reach from New York to California. The pies, side by side, would reach across the Atlantic Ocean. It would require 25,000 cattle and 50,000 swine to furnish the beef and pork. The raisins would cost nearly a million of dollars, and the flour quite that sum. The sugar would cost about three millions, and the whole value of the items we have named would exceed $18,000,000! Our estimate gives one turkey to three families, four chickens to each family, also ten pies, ten pounds each of pork and beef, two pounds of raisins, ten pounds of flour and ten of sugar. The eggs, spices, lard, butter and ‘fixins’ generally, of which we have made no account, would raise the sum total to nearly twenty-five millions of dollars. (3)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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  1. The North American and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), December 10, 1841.
  2. The New York Herald, December 14, 1843.
  3. Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, MA), December 4, 1858.

The Presidential Election of 1824

There were five candidates in the United States presidential election of 1824, which was held to determine the successor to President James Monroe. Three of the candidates – Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representatives – appear in Napoleon in America. The other two candidates were General Andrew Jackson and Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford. Since the Federalist Party had ceased to exist, all of them were members of the Republican Party, which split into factions behind the candidates.

A Foot-Race. Caricature of the Presidential election of 1824 by David Claypoole Johnston. Cheering citizens watch as John Quincy Adams, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson stride toward the finish. Henry Clay stands on the far right, hand on head, saying, “D--n it I cant save my distance – so I may as well ‘draw up.’”

A Foot-Race. Caricature of the Presidential election of 1824 by David Claypoole Johnston. Cheering citizens watch as John Quincy Adams, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson stride toward the finish. Henry Clay stands on the far right, hand on head, saying, “D–n it I cant save my distance – so I may as well ‘draw up.’”

The campaign

Campaigning played a greater role than it had in previous elections.

Electioneering, unknown in the earlier days, grew rapidly in vogue during the period following 1819. Stump speaking came to be an art, and cajolery a profession, while whiskey flowed freely at the hustings. The politicians could most easily attain their objectives by appealing to the prejudices of the masses…the ignorant were asked to elect the ignorant because enlightenment and intelligence were not democratic. (1)

Although there were differences among the candidates on issues such as the tariff, internal improvements and slavery, the election was also a personality contest.

The bitterest charges and counter-charges were made by the partisans of all the candidates. Adams was accused of a whole category of sins, ranging from slavery-hating to slovenliness. The Crawfordites attacked Calhoun’s record as Secretary of War and sought to drive him in disgrace from public life, while the latter’s followers retorted in kind upon the Secretary of the Treasury. Jackson was branded a tyrant, a sinister figure, full of unbridled passions. Clay was denounced in the most violent manner. (2)

The candidates

More charitably, a newspaper article summed up the candidates’ qualities as follows.

Andrew Jackson. An early and even precocious pupil of the school of 76 – at the age of 15, a soldier of liberty by inclination – at a mature age a civilian by habit. It is a remarkable fact, not sufficiently known, that he was from youth to maturity the most industrious student of practical knowledge that our age has produced. The distinguished traits of his character are quickness of perception, (perhaps quickness of temper also) rapid ratiocination; decision of purpose; indefatigable perseverance; and generosity, even to the point of chivalry; courage and integrity we need not infer; they grow spontaneously in such a soil.

John Quincy Adams. A politician by education, who grasped the diplomatic quill as private secretary to a foreign embassy, at about the same age that Jackson shouldered his musket – a man of inherent talent for business, of great acquirements, of undoubted patriotism, but of cynical irascibility, which the court discipline of forty years has not quite subdued. He is a good theorist on the subject of ‘Etiquette,’ but the most indifferent man in the world as to the practice. He is neither so good as friends, nor so bad as his enemies, would make him appear. His faults will be remembered and exaggerated of course; but it is our duty not to forget his merits.

Henry Clay. One of our choice spirits – an integer, and no trifling one, in our sum of talent. He is one of the striking instances of the versatility of character peculiar to our nation, and one of the strongest securities of the moral force which binds our confederacy. Ardent, eloquent, and sagacious; assiduous or convivial, according to circumstances – with great practical knowledge of social life, and the most glowing affection to the cause of universal freedom. No man can gather up the robe of dignity with more readiness, or relax it with more grade.

John C. Calhoun. Modestly, but conspicuously in the background of the group. He could not, if he would, be otherwise than conspicuous. In the darkest corner his intrinsic light, like that of the diamond, would lead the eye towards him. At the age of 22, he could shine equally in the drawing room, in the library, or in a consultation among the veterans of science. He, if his life is spared, will be one of our Presidents. He combines in his character the fire and zeal of Patrick Henry, with the calm and innate virtues of Jefferson.

William H. Crawford. A man raised from the ground by the warmth of the most laudable ambition, actuating great industry; but consumed at his medium height by excess of the very same heat that caused his buoyancy. We have nothing to do with the gnawing of conscience which are supposed by some to predict future debility, further than to admit the probability of such an effect, in such a case, upon a nervous system with such a temperament. If he should ever be President of the United States, his ability will be competent to the office in times of tranquility; and his temper, we hope, chastened by the severe animadversions which his mistaken friends have wrung from those who were willing to love and respect him. (3)

Unable to gain enough support, Calhoun withdrew from the presidential race before the election. He stood for vice president instead. Though Crawford suffered a paralytic stroke in 1823, he remained a presidential candidate (his backers tried to prevent knowledge of his condition from becoming widespread). In general, Adams was supported by the Northeast section of the country; Jackson by the South, West and mid-Atlantic; Clay by parts of the West; and Crawford by parts of the East.

The results

Voting was held from October 26 to December 2, 1824. Voter turnout was low. Jackson received 99 electoral votes. He benefited from the three-fifths rule, which enhanced a state’s voting power if it held slaves, even though slaves could not vote. Adams received 84 electoral votes, Crawford received 41 and Clay got 37. As no candidate reached the 131 vote majority necessary to win the election, the names of the top three candidates were submitted to the House of Representatives, in accordance with the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. Clay – the Speaker – threw his support behind Adams. Thus, on February 9, 1825, the House elected John Quincy Adams as president with the support of 13 states. Seven states supported Jackson and 4 supported Crawford. Adams made Clay Secretary of State in the new administration. Clay was accused of making a “corrupt bargain” with Adams. Both men denied the charge. Adams was inaugurated on March 4, 1825 (see my post on the inauguration).

Summing up

After the Congressional election in Maryland, which was held on October 4, just before the presidential election of 1824, Hezekiah Niles editorialized:

On Monday…all was dissension and confusion, for parties, in respect to most of the candidates, were very nearly balanced, and our people are not of those who electioneer ‘by halves;’ and when so many points of collision were offered, it is perhaps to the credit of our people that so few acts of personal violence were committed, though there were enough of them in several of the wards. But the returns from the ballot boxes have settled us down and we are all at peace; the inns very much pleased and the outs more or less mortified at the results; which, in some cases, were not to have been at all expected. However, so it is – and we all feel that it is better to decide our differences of opinion by an appeal to the ballot than an appeal to the sword.

But the ‘fruit of liberty’ is this – we that were so ardently contending one against the other only four days ago, and doing all that we could to defeat and confound one another are now all agreed! La Fayette has come [on his tour of the United States], and every heart is delighted; and as if one man possessed every heart in Baltimore, it is tendered to him, warm and unalloyed by recollections of late differences – manifesting the glorious truth, that opposing opinions may not rest on opposing principles, and that persons may equally love their country and its benefactors, no matter what individuals they support at the polls; a state of things that cannot exist in any other than a free and enlightened nation, in which each man jealous of his own rights, is willing to yield an exercise of the same rights to his fellow. This is the purity of the republican system, the safety of the state, the pride of its citizens – and should be cherished as the life’s blood of all liberal institutions. (4)

You might also enjoy:

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

John C. Calhoun: War Hawk

Henry Clay, a perfect original

James Monroe and Napoleon

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette

  1. Thomas Abernethy, “Andrew Jackson and the Rise of South-Western Democracy, The American Historical Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (October, 1927), p. 70.
  2. Glyndon Van Deuson, The Life of Henry Clay (Boston, 1937), pp. 171-172.
  3. “Crayon Sketches of Presidential Candidates. From the Baltimore Morning Chronicle,” Aurora General Advertiser, Philadelphia, October 7, 1824.
  4. Niles’ Weekly Register, Baltimore, October 9, 1824.

Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death

Death’s Dispensary, cartoon by George Pinwell in FUN Magazine, August 18, 1866, warning against cholera and other water-borne causes of death.

Death’s Dispensary, cartoon by George Pinwell in FUN Magazine, August 18, 1866

Given the rudimentary nature of medical care in the early 19th century, Napoleon is probably right when he complains to Dr. Formento in Napoleon in America that “you kill more men than you save.” Disease was thought to be caused by imbalances within the body. There was little understanding of how infections began and spread, or of the importance of hygiene. Treatments included bloodletting and mercury. Many people died young, and some causes of death were unusual.

Causes of death in American cities in 1820

In 1820, there were a total of 9,617 deaths reported in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. (1) These were the four largest cities in the United States, with a combined population of 293,544. (2) Approximately half of those who died (4,762) were under 20 years old. Of these, fully half (2,436) were children under the age of one.

The largest single causes of death were:

  • Consumption (tuberculosis) – 1,619 deaths (17%)
  • Stillbirth – 561 (6%)
  • Cholera – 480 (5%)
  • Dysentery – 439 (5%)
  • Typhus fever – 368 (4%).

The remaining deaths were ascribed to a great variety of causes, hinting at rather discretionary methods of investigation and categorization: e.g., affection of the stomach & head (2 deaths), indigestion (1 death), hydrophobia (1 death), hysteria (1 death). Forty-six deaths were pinned on “teething.” Ninety-seven were simply classified as “sudden.” The 106 deaths attributed to “unknown” causes presumably had less inventive reporters. What really stands out, though, are the 16 deaths blamed on “drinking cold water.”

How drinking cold water could kill you

Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first to write about the phenomenon of people in Philadelphia “being diseased by drinking cold water.”

This mortality falls chiefly upon the labouring part of the community, who seek to allay their thirst by drinking water from the pumps in the streets, and who are too impatient, or too ignorant, to use the necessary precautions for preventing its morbid or deadly effects upon them. These accidents seldom happen except when the mercury rises above 85° in Fahrenheit’s thermometer.

Three circumstances generally concur to produce disease or death from drinking cold water. 1. The patient is extremely warm. 2. The water is extremely cold. And 3. A large quantity of it is suddenly taken into the body. The danger from drinking the cold water is always in proportion to the degrees of combination which occur in the three circumstances that have been mentioned. The following symptoms generally follow….

In a few minutes after the patient has swallowed the water, he is affected by a dimness of sight; he staggers in attempting to walk, and, unless supported, falls to the ground; he breathes with difficulty; a rattling is heard in his throat; his nostrils and cheeks expand and contract in every act of respiration; his face appears suffused with blood, and of a livid colour; his extremities become cold, and his pulse imperceptible; and unless relief be speedily obtained, the disease terminates in death, in four or five minutes. …

More frequently, patients are seized with acute spasms in the breast and stomach. These spasms are so painful as to produce syncope, and even asphyxia. They are sometimes of the tonic, but more frequently of the clonic kind. In the intervals of the spasms, the patient appears to be perfectly well. The intervals between each spasm become longer or shorter, according as the disease tends to life or death.

It may not be improper to take notice that punch, beer and even toddy, when drunken under the same circumstances as cold water, have all been known to produce the same morbid and fatal effects. (3)

Rush’s “one certain remedy” for the disease was liquid laudanum (tincture of opium). He also advised taking the following precautions before drinking a large quantity of cold liquid when one was overheated.

1. Grasp the vessel out of which you are about to drink for a minute or longer, with both your hands. This will abstract a portion of heat from the body, and impart it at the same time to the cold liquor, provided the vessel be made of metal, glass, or earth….

2. If you are not furnished with a cup, and are obliged to drink by bringing your mouth in contact with the stream which issues from a pump, or a spring, always wash your hands and face, previously to your drinking, with a little of the cold water. By receiving the shock of the water first upon those parts of the body, a portion of its heat is conveyed away, and the vital parts are thereby defended from the action of the cold.

By the use of these preventives, inculcated by advertisements pasted upon pumps by the Humane Society, death from drinking cold water has become a rare occurrence for many years past in Philadelphia. (4)

Dr. R. Tolifree later expanded Rush’s prescription.

Some maintain there is but one certain remedy, laudanum. This view is too contracted; for if laudanum be not at hand, we should give alcohol, essence of peppermint, &c. in doses much larger than usual. (5)

The drunkards’ disease?

Some people apparently took to using alcohol as a preventive measure, which “A. Physician” affiliated with the Temperance Union frowned upon.

I have observed, within a few days past, a number of deaths have been reported from ‘drinking cold water,’ accompanied in some of the newspapers by earnest cautions against drinking cold water when heated, as though this alone were the cause of death. These reports and cautions, there is reason to fear, have had a tendency to influence many to use ardent spirits in the water they drink in the present warm weather, more than one instance of which have fallen under my observation. And with the view of preventing such imprudence, it is fit that the facts of the case should be understood.

The instances of sudden death from drinking cold water almost universally occur among intemperate foreigners, or others who indulge habitually in the use of spirituous liquors. Such persons, after creating a thirst by the use of ardent spirits, which rum will not allay, go to a pump or spring of water and drink to satiate this morbid thirst, which is more owing to their intemperance than to labour and heat combined.

The effect of cold water, thus suddenly applied to the stomach, is supposed to be a paralysis, extending from that organ to the heart. That such examples of paralysis from drinking water, however cold, or however much the individual may be heated, ever did occur, except when the stomach had previously been impaired by intemperance or otherwise, remains to be proved. Hence such accidents proverbially occur among drunkards, to an extent which should serve as a warning to the intemperate and a salutary lesson to the sober.

Such persons, however, may avoid the mischief they dread in a much better way than by mixing aspiritous liquors with the water they drink. Let them wash the hands and face with cold water before drinking, or hold their mouths full a few moments before swallowing it, and they may then safely satiate their thirst, even with iced water, without harm. (6)

Perhaps one of the saddest cases of death from drinking cold water was this one, in 1834.

Very many deaths have happened from drinking cold water, but at New York, one of the sextons, becoming heated when digging a grave for a person that had so died, drank plentifully of cold water, and so died himself. (7)

So what was going on?

An article published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology in 1999 notes a case of sudden cardiac death in a 12-year-old boy after rapid ingestion of a frozen slurry drink. After observing that ingestion of cold liquids has been associated with syncope (fainting), the authors conclude that “ingestion of cold liquids should be considered a potential trigger for fatal cardiac arrhythmias in patients with underlying heart disease.” (8)

Maybe this was behind some of the deaths caused by drinking cold water in the 19th century.

You might also enjoy:

Félix Formento and medicine in 19th century New Orleans

Remarkable cases of longevity in the 19th century

What were Napoleon’s last words?

Last words of famous people

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

A guillotine execution in Napoleonic times

  1. Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review, Medical and Philosophical, Vol. XI (Philadelphia, 1821), pp. 133-140.
  2. “Population of the 61 Urban Places: 1820,” United States Census Bureau,, accessed October 14, 2016.
  3. Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations, Vol. 1, Second Edition (Philadelphia, 1805), pp. 183-185.
  4. Ibid., pp. 186-187.
  5. R. Tolifree, “Observations on Death from Drinking Cold Water when the Body is Heated,” Baltimore Medical and Surgical Journal and Review, edited by E. Geddings, Vol. 1 (Baltimore, 1833), p. 295.
  6. A. Physician, “Deaths from Cold Water,” Journal of the American Temperance Union, Vol. 2, No. 8 (Philadelphia, August 1838), p. 116.
  7. Niles’ Weekly Register, Vol. 46 (Baltimore, August 2, 1834), p. 379.
  8. P. Burke, M.N. Afzal, D.S. Barnett, R. Virmani, “Sudden death after a cold drink: case report,” American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (March 1999), pp. 37-39.

José Antonio Díaz de León, the last Franciscan missionary in Texas

Aranama Indians near La Bahía (Goliad), Texas, by Lino Sánchez y Tapia, 1829. Mission Espíritu Santo, which Father José Antonio Diaz de Leon sought to save for the Aranamas, is in the background.

Aranama Indians near La Bahía (Goliad), Texas, by Lino Sánchez y Tapia, 1829. Mission Espíritu Santo, which Father José Antonio Diaz de Leon sought to save for the Aranamas, is in the background.

Father José Antonio Díaz de León, the last Franciscan missionary in Texas, was an ardent defender of the Spanish mission system. In the 1820s, he waged a long campaign against secularization of the Texas missions. Brave and pious, Father Díaz de León came to a bloody end. Was he murdered or did he kill himself?

A Texas missionary

José Antonio Díaz de León was born in Mexico in late 1786 or early 1787. In 1811, he joined the Franciscan religious order. The following year, he began his theological studies at the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Zacatecas. Among other things, the College administered the Spanish missions in Texas, which was then part of Mexico.

Ordained as a priest in 1815, Father Díaz de León became a missionary in the province of Nuevo Santander (present-day Tamaulipas). In 1817, he was put in charge of the mission of Nuestra Señora del Refugio, located in what is now Refugio, Texas.

The Spanish missions in Texas were intended to “civilize” Indians by gathering the tribes into settlements, converting them to Christianity, and teaching them crafts and farming. In addition to a church, a mission included housing, mills, shops and storage buildings, all within strong walls. Outside the walls lay mission-owned land, where crops were grown and the mission’s cattle, sheep and horses were pastured.

Missions were typically located near a Spanish presidio (fort) for protection from hostile Indians and other potential attackers. Towns, known as pueblos, grew up around successful missions and presidios. A census conducted by Father Díaz de León in 1818 found 164 people living at the Refugio pueblo.

In 1820, Father Díaz de León moved to Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo near San Antonio de Béxar (present-day San Antonio). Appointed administrator of all the Texas missions, he assumed spiritual care of the Indian and Spanish settlers at the four missions in the San Antonio area. Thus we find him protecting the residents of Mission Espada in Napoleon in America.


Since the missions were a drain on the Spanish purse, the government’s aim was to secularize them once the Indians were civilized. The church was to be turned over to the local bishop and administered by “secular” clergy (priests not belonging to a religious order). The land was to be turned over to the Christianized Indians. Díaz de León and other local friars opposed secularization, arguing that the Indians were not sufficiently educated and would be taken advantage of. Thus the Texas missions were only partly secularized by 1821, when Mexico achieved its independence.

In 1823, the cash-strapped Mexican government ordered the “full and complete secularization” of the remaining missions. Father José Antonio Díaz de León surrendered the San Antonio missions to the Diocese of Monterrey in Nuevo León. However, he petitioned for the continuance of Mission Refugio, which had been abandoned due to attacks by Comanche Indians. He hoped that all of the Karankawa Indians, and those Aranama and Acoma Indians still needing instruction, might congregate at Mission Refugio until they could be civilized.

Díaz de León also petitioned for the distribution of the lands of Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga at La Bahía (present-day Goliad) to the 12 Aranama families still living there. This was opposed by the local council, which included Anglo-American colonists who had come under attack from the Indians displaced from Refugio. They wanted to distribute the valuable mission lands among themselves.

It is the unanimous opinion of the ayuntamiento that we shall soon see both general and particular damage as a result of these lands being in the hands of men who are shiftless and lazy and who give no hope of becoming useful to the nation unless they are subjected rigorously to law and punishment. (1)

While waiting for a decision, Díaz de León moved to Mission Espíritu Santo. He joined the Aranamas working in the fields and breaking wild horses. Though he was able to slow the process of secularization until 1829, Díaz de León failed to get the government to agree to either of his requests. He expressed his disappointment.

If the missions under our charge be given to the ordinary clergy, that of Refugio will be destroyed forever; and if God does not decree otherwise, all of our plans of missionary activity will fall to pieces. (2)

He made one last appeal for the exemption of Refugio. He argued that transferring it to the secular clergy would result in the Indians reverting to a state of savagery. That, too, failed. In February 1830, Father Díaz de León surrendered the last remaining missions. To his regret, the mission lands were made available to colonists, rather than to the Indians.

Murder or suicide?

Father José Antonio Díaz de León was assigned to a parish post at Nacogdoches. He accepted the job despite an anonymous warning to the College in Zacatecas about the danger of sending Catholic missionaries to Anglo settlements beyond the Colorado River. Upon arrival in Nacogdoches, Díaz de León found that the church was being used as military barracks. He rented a small house as a temporary chapel and started raising funds to build a new church and a school. Díaz de León made pastoral visits to Indians, Hispanics and Anglos alike. He spoke poor English, however, and had little success with the Anglo colonists. Although immigrants were required to become Roman Catholics (Father Díaz de León baptized Sam Houston in 1833), many retained their Protestant faith.

In 1834, Mexico passed a law of religious tolerance. This left the Protestant colonists free to practice their religion. The Protestant settlers in Nacogdoches began to campaign against their Franciscan priest. Father Díaz de León received several death threats. In October 1834, he was asked to officiate at a wedding for Samuel C. Hirams at Ace, 90 miles south of Nacogdoches. He went reluctantly, as he had heard that one or more persons had been hired to kill him. After performing the ceremony, Díaz de León asked for an escort to accompany him back to Nacogdoches. Hirams hired Philip Miller, a 34-year-old Kentuckian, to go with the priest.

The two men left Ace around noon on November 2. They spent the night at the home of Henry Bordon Prentiss. While there, Díaz de León wrote a farewell letter.

This Sunday, Nov. 2, 1834, I returned to this house [of Prentiss], and as it seems to me to be the last day of my life (God knows why), I address my weak and anguishing words to my beloved parishioners of Nacogdoches, bidding them from the bottom of my heart an earnest farewell, A Dios, A Dios. Let them commend me to His Majesty in the state that I am in; saluting them as I salute them, with my heart in my eyes and in my tears…. And let it be clear and notorious by this, that I beg, as I do, pardon from each and all the persons whom I have offended, and likewise, prostrate in spirit on the ground, I pardon, with all my heart, all and every person who has offended me, be the offense what it may. I press all, without exception, to my hearts as my beloved children in the charity of our Lord Jesus Christ…. Farewell, farewell, farewell; Amen, Amen, Amen. (3)

The next night Díaz de León and Miller camped near Big Sandy Creek. Miller spread a blanket over a pole to make a tent for the priest and then went to sleep. The next morning – November 4, 1834 – Miller woke about an hour and half before daylight. Feeling chilly, he went to the fire and saw Díaz de León’s body with blood trickling from its mouth. A pistol that Miller had obtained at Díaz de León’s request was lying near the body. According to the doctor who performed the autopsy:

We found a gun…shot in the left breast, between the fourth and fifth ribs, about two inches from the medial line of the breast bone; an inclination upward had been given to the ball or balls so that in entering the chest it fractured the fourth rib…and from its apparent direction we should think opened the largest artery of the body…as it emerges from the heart in a manner sufficient to cause instant death. (4)

Father Diaz de Leon was buried in what is now the Alabama-Coushatta Indian reservation in Polk County. The investigation into his death lasted for months. A court of inquiry manned by Anglo colonists concluded that the missionary had grown so frightened of being killed that he committed suicide. Hispanics, however, believed that José Antonio Díaz de León was assassinated. Catholic historians regard him as a martyred priest.

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Texas Priest Francisco Maynes

Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios

Texas Revolutionary José Francisco Ruiz

Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Anglo-American Texas

The Extinct Karankawa Indians of Texas

  1. Paul H. Walters, “Secularization of the La Bahia Missions,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jan. 1951), p. 293.
  2. Ibid., p. 297.
  3. John Gilmary Shea, A History of the Catholic Church within the Limits of the United States, Vol. II (New York, 1890), pp. 712-713.
  4. Lorraine G. Bonney, The Big Thicket Guidebook: Exploring the Backroads and History of Southeast Texas (Denton, TX, 2011), p. 545.