John Quincy Adams’ Swimming Adventures

From the age of 50 until two years before his death at age 80, sixth US President John Quincy Adams went swimming almost every summer in the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Sometimes he swam with one of his sons, or with his valet Antoine Giusta (a former Napoleonic soldier from Piedmont), or with whatever acquaintance he could rope into the activity. Often he would swim on his own. John Quincy Adams swam for exercise and for enjoyment. Despite the protests of his wife and friends, he refused to give up swimming, even after he nearly drowned.

The Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, 1885

The Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, 1885

In black cap and green goggles

Though John Quincy Adams learned how to swim as a child, he was not an obvious athlete. He was bookish, and spent most of his time reading, writing and in meetings. Adams was, however, concerned about his health. In 1817, after years as an American diplomat in Europe, Adams returned to the United States to become Secretary of State in President James Monroe’s administration (the position he holds in Napoleon in America). European dining had left him rather portly, so he began an exercise regimen. This involved walking and jogging in cool weather, and swimming when it was hot.

In the summer of 1818, John Quincy Adams habitually rose between 4 and 5 in the morning, walked two miles to the Potomac, bathed in the river, and then walked back. The whole ritual took about two hours, with about half an hour of that in the river. He continued the habit the following summer, finding it “conducive to health, cleanliness and comfort.” (1)

Like other river bathers, Adams swam in the nude, though he was not entirely uncovered. Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador to Washington (and cousin of British Foreign Secretary George Canning), noted in 1821:

The Secretary of State was seen one morning at an early hour floating down the Potomac, with a black cap on his head and a pair of green goggles on his eyes. (2)

In August 1822, at the age of 55, Adams began the experiment of seeing how long he could swim without touching the ground.

For safety I avoid going beyond my depth and swim in about five feet of water up and down the river, near the borders of the shore. (3)

In a matter of a month, he increased his stamina from 20 minutes to 50 minutes. Pleased with himself, he remarked in his diary, “I should have begun this habit earlier in life.” (4) That winter, Congressman Charles Jared Ingersoll wrote:

Mr. Adams ascribes his uninterrupted health during the several sickly seasons he has lived in Washington to swimming. He walks a mile to the Potomac for 8 successive mornings from 4 to 7 o clock according as the tide serves, and swims from 15 to 40 minutes then walks home again. For the 6 mornings of low tide he abstains, swimming 8 days out of 14. I have no doubt that it is an excellent system. (He is extremely thin.) (5)

A risky pursuit

With confidence in his endurance, the following summer Adams swam for even longer and ventured beyond his usual area. He soon recognized the risks.

July 8, 1823 – Swam with Antoine in the Potomac to the bridge – one hour in the water. While we were swimming there sprang up a fresh breeze, which made a surf, and much increased the difficulty of swimming, especially against it and the current. This is one of the varieties of instruction for the school. It sometimes occurs to me that this exercise and amusement, as I am now indulging myself in it, is with the constant risk of life. Perhaps that is the reason why so few persons ever learn to swim; and perhaps it should now teach me discretion. (6)

July 10, 1823 – Swam with Antoine to and from the bridge, but, as the tide was strongly rising, we were full three-quarters of an hour in going to it, and not more than twenty minutes in returning. This was one of my swimming lessons, and a serious admonition to caution. (7)

July 11, 1823 [John Quincy Adams’ 56th birthday] – Swam with Antoine an hour in the Potomac. We started for the bridge, but, after swimming about half an hour, I perceived by reference to a house upon the shore, beyond which we were to pass, that we had ascended very little above where we had left our clothes, and that the current of the tide was insensibly carrying us into the middle of the river. We continued struggling against the tide about twenty minutes longer, without apparently gaining a foot upon the tide. I then turned back, and in fifteen minutes landed at the rock where I had left my clothes, upon which, in the interval, the tide had so much encroached that it began to wet them, and in another half-hour would have soaked them through or floated them away. We had been an hour and five minutes in the water, without touching ground, and before turning back I began to find myself weary. (8)

July 19, 1823 – Swam in the Potomac with Antoine about three quarters of an hour: we went with great ease to the bridge; but the tide was going out, and ran so rapidly there that I found great difficulty in stemming it, and came into shallow water as soon as possible. The struggle against the tide was so fatiguing that I soon gave it up, and touched the ground. I have now the take on both ways, and know experimentally the danger of attempting to swim against a current. (9)

On August 9, Adams spent almost two hours in the water: an hour and a half swimming to the bridge against the tide, and 20 minutes returning. As a precaution, Antoine accompanied him in a canoe. Two days later, Adams tried to go beyond the bridge, but found it too hard against the tide and a brisk southwest wind.

Adams was not the only one alert to the dangers of his morning ritual. His wife Louisa, his doctor and others were advising him to cut back. In the summer of 1824, Adams speculated that “the remonstrances of my friends against the continuance of this practice will induce me to abandon it, perhaps altogether.” (10)

But John Quincy Adams did not abandon swimming. In fact, he set himself the new challenge of swimming across the river, something he accomplished on August 25, 1824.

Swam across the Potomac with John [Adams’ son]; Antoine crossing at the same time in a boat close at hand, to take us in had we met any insuperable difficulty. I was exactly an hour and a half from shore to shore. John was ten minutes less. We passed through thick grass in several places, but the tide was a spring tide at its full, and the water so high that we got through. We returned in the boat. Antoine swam about half the way back, but got so entangled in the weeds that he was obliged to get into the boat; but the water was not over his head. I landed, returning at the point at the mouth of the Tiber. We had been from home nearly four hours. The distance across the Potomac is upwards of a mile. (11)

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

The President nearly drowned

On June 13, 1825, John Quincy Adams – who had been sworn in as president in March – had his most dangerous swimming escapade.

I attempted to cross the river with Antoine in a small canoe, with a view to swim across it to come back. He took a boat in which we had crossed it last summer without accident. The boat was at the shore near Van Ness’s poplars; but in crossing the Tiber to the point, my son John, who was with us, thought the boat dangerous, and, instead of going with us, went and undressed at the rock, to swim and meet us in mid-way of the river as we should be returning. I thought the boat safe enough, or rather persisted carelessly in going without paying due attention to its condition; gave my watch to my son; made a bundle of my coat and waistcoat to take in the boat with me; put off my shoes, and was paddled by Antoine, who had stripped himself entirely naked.

Before we had got half across the river, the boat had leaked itself half full, and then we found there was nothing on board to scoop up the water and throw it over. Just at that critical moment a fresh breeze from the northwest blew down the river as from the nose of a bellows. In five minutes’ time it made a little tempest, and set the boat to dancing till the river came in at the sides. I jumped overboard, and Antoine did the same, and lost hold of the boat, which filled with water and drifted away. We were as near as possible to the middle of the river, and swam to the opposite shore. Antoine, who was naked, reached it with little difficulty. I had much more, and while struggling for life and gasping for breath, had ample leisure to reflect upon my own discretion. My principal difficulty was in the loose sleeves of my shirt, which filled with water and hung like two fifty-six pound weights upon my arms. I had also my hat, which I soon gave, however, to Antoine. After reaching the shore, I took off my shirt and pantaloons, wrung them out, and gave them to Antoine to go and look out for our clothes, or for a person to send to the house for others, and for the carriage to come and fetch me. Soon after he had gone, my son John joined me, having swum wholly across the river, expecting to meet us returning with the boat. Antoine crossed the bridge, sent a man to my house for the carriage, made some search for the drifted boat and bundles, and found his own hat with his shirt and braces in it, and one of my shoes. He also brought over the bridge my son’s clothes, with my watch and umbrella, which I had left with him.

While Antoine was gone, John and I were wading and swimming up and down on the other shore, or sitting naked basking on the bank at the margin of the river. John walked over the bridge home. The carriage came, and took me and Antoine home half dressed. I lost an old summer coat, white waistcoat, two napkins, two white handkerchiefs, and one shoe. Antoine lost his watch, jacket, waistcoat, pantaloons, and shoes. The boat was also lost. By the mercy of God our lives were spared, and no injury befell our persons. We reached home about a quarter before nine, having been out nearly five hours. I had been about three hours in the water, but suffered no inconvenience from it. This incident gave me a humiliating lesson and solemn warning not to trifle with danger. The reasons upon which I justify to myself my daily swimming in the river did not apply to this adventure. It is neither necessary for my health, nor even for pleasure, that I should swim across the river, and, having once swum across it, I could not even want it as an experiment of practicability. Among my motives for swimming, that of showing what I can do must be discarded as spurious, and I must strictly confine myself to the purposes of health, exercise, and salutary labor. (12)

As observers spread the news that the President had perished, Louisa wrote to their son George to reassure him.

As it is possible my dear George that you may hear a rumour that your father was drowned I hasten to write you a few lines to assure you that he is safe although he did run some risk this morning in one of his swimming expeditions. … The affair is altogether ridiculous as it turned out but might have been fatal to your Mothers future peace. (13)

The dead body

A little over a month later, on July 22, 1825, John Quincy Adams had another surprise in the river.

I walked as usual to my ordinary bathing-place, and came to the rock where I leave my clothes a few minutes before sunrise. I found several persons there, besides three or four who were bathing; and at the shore under the tree a boat with four men in it, and a drag-net. … I enquired if any one had been drowned, and the man told me it was old Mr. Shoemaker, a clerk in the post-office, a man upwards of sixty years of age, who last evening, between five and six o’clock, went in to bathe with four other persons; that he was drowned in full sight of them, and without a suspicion by them that he was even in danger. They had observed him struggling in the water, but, as he was an excellent swimmer, had supposed he was merely diving, until after coming out they found he was missing. They then commenced an ineffectual search for him, which was continued late into the night. The man said to me that he had never seen a more distressed person than Mrs. Shoemaker last evening. … I stripped and went into the river. I had not been more than ten minutes swimming, when the drag-boat started, and they were not five minutes from the shore when the body floated immediately opposite the rock, less than one hundred yards from the shore, at the very edge of the channel, and where there could not be seven feet deep of water. I returned immediately to the shore and dressed. …

The only part of the body which had the appearance of stiffness was the arms, both of which were raised at the shoulder-joints and crooked towards each other at the elbows, as if they had been fixed by a spasm at the very moment when they were to expand to keep the head above water. There was a dark flush of settled blood over the face, like one excessively heated, and a few drops of thin blood and water issued from one ear. There was nothing terrible or offensive in the sight, but I returned home musing in sympathy with the distressed lady, and enquiring uncertainly whether I ought to renounce altogether my practice of swimming in the river. My conclusion was that I ought not – deeming it in this climate indispensable to my health; so that whatever danger there may be in the exercise – and that there is much danger, this incident offers melancholy and cumulative proof – there would be yet greater danger in abstaining from it, or in substituting any other effective exercise in its place. We are, and always must be, in the hands of God, and to Him are indebted for every breath we draw. (14)

Poor Louisa Adams wrote to George:

The greatest cause of uneasiness which I at present suffer, is your Fathers passion for Swimming; which keeps me in hourly terror of some horrible calamity—The day before yesterday poor old Mr Shoemaker was drowned. He is said to have been one of the best Swimmers in the Country. God preserve us all my Dear Son from this distress prays your most affectionate Mother. (15)

Even John Quincy Adams had second thoughts about continuing to swim. On July 28 he wrote:

I have had for several days a soreness and pain on the right side, the cause of which was dubious; and withal a debility, nervous irritability, and dejection of spirits far beyond anything I had ever experienced, and uncontrollable by reason. I have wished to impute it altogether to the unexampled intensity and continuance of the heat. More than one of my friends ascribe it to my morning baths and swimming. All my experience heretofore has been otherwise; but in the uncertainty of tracing effects to their cause, and the undoubted effect now, my perfect confidence in the salubrity of my practice is somewhat shaken. I swam this morning nearly an hour, but the pain in my side became so severe and so aggravated by the movement of my arms and shoulder that I determined at least to intermit both the swimming and the bath for some days. (16)

For a few days he substituted walking for his morning swim, but ultimately he could not resist the lure of the water.

An irresistible impulse

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams in 1843, at age 76. Adams continued swimming even past this age.

Daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams in 1843, at age 76. Adams continued swimming even past this age.

John Quincy Adams continued to swim during the following summers, but for shorter periods. Beyond the fear of drowning, his stamina was not what it had been.

July 27, 1828 – With my son John, my nephew, and Antoine, I crossed the river in our canoe, and swam a quarter of an hour on the other side; but the shore is so deceptive that after diving from the boat, as I supposed, within a ten minutes’ swim of the shore, before reaching half the distance I found myself so fatigued that I called the boat to me, and clung to her till she was rowed to the shore. We had crossed nearly opposite the Tiber point, and were annoyed with leeches and ticks at the landing. The decline of my health is in nothing so closely brought to my conviction as in my inability to swim more than fifteen or twenty minutes without tiring. (17)

In 1837, when Congressman John Quincy Adams visited newly-installed President Martin Van Buren at the White House for the first time, they did not discuss politics or matters of national interest, but rather “the inconvenience of a summer residence in the city, and [Adams’] custom, heretofore, when under that necessity, of bathing and swimming every morning in the Potomac.” (18)

On July 10, 1838 (the day before his 71st birthday), Adams wrote:

About sunrise I rode to the Potomac, to my old bathing-place beneath the bluff, between the mouth of the Tiber and the bridge, where I bathed and swam about a quarter of an hour. It was the first river-bath that I have been able to take this season, and seemed to give me new life. There were, as used formerly to be, a number of other bathers there, and some with horses; all young men except myself. (19)

Although they happened much less frequently, Adams continued to relish his river swims well into his old age.

June 27, 1844 – This day, set in the extreme heat of the summer, the trial of the climate to my constitution. A burning sun; the thermometers in my chamber at ninety, and a light breeze from the southwest – a fan delicious to the face, but parching instead of cooling the skin. I have been a full month longing for a river bath without daring to take it. This morning, at five, I went in the barouche to my old favorite spot, found the tide unusually high; all my station rocks occupied by young men, except one, and that surrounded by the tide, already upon the ebb. I had some difficulty to undress and dress, but got my bath, swam about five minutes, and came out washed and refreshed. It was my exercise for the day. After returning home I did not again pass the sill of the street door. (20)

June 29, 1844 – The summer heat and its enervating spell continue. I walked this morning to my old bathing station upon the strand of the Potomac River, and bathed and swam for about ten minutes, and then walked home. From the practice of personal ablution and the exercise of swimming I cannot totally abstain, for I believe they have promoted my health and prolonged my life many years. And yet the experience of late years has compelled me gradually to disuse them. But my great anxiety now is having much to do, and to be doing nothing. (21)

September 17, 1845 – My habitual practice of summer sea and river bathing and swimming began much later, and I have of late years been obliged to abandon them altogether. The shower-bath was my last resource; and I must now give up that. The jar is too racking, and I cannot recover the composure of the hand through the day. (22)

But John Quincy Adams was not finished with swimming. On July 13, 1846, two days after his 79th birthday, he wrote:

I rose this morning with the dawn and drawn by an irresistible impulse walked over the lower Tiber bridge to my old bathing-spot on the margin of the Potomac and where, under the shelter of the high bluff yet remaining, I bathed and swam from five to ten minutes, came out, dressed myself and walked home. As I went down the hill to the edge of the water, I found three young men, neither of whom I knew, already in the river, and heard one of them say, ‘There is John Quincy Adams.’ They had their clothes at one of my old standard rocks; but, without noticing or disturbing them, I found another rock a few rods higher, towards the Potomac bridge, where I left my clothes. The tide was low and the time not convenient for entering the river but I succeeded in obtaining the bath for which I panted. The time consumed was as in former days about one hour and a half, half an hour going to the river, half an hour to bathe, swim and dress, and half an hour to return. The thermometer was at eighty-four, the water warm, the atmosphere calm, and the sun clear. (23)

John Quincy Adams died of a stroke on February 23, 1848 at the age of 80. To read about his death, see Last Words of Famous People.

The oft-repeated tale that journalist Anne Royall scored an interview with Adams by confiscating his clothes while he was swimming has been successfully debunked by Howard Dorre on Plodding through the Presidents.

You might also enjoy:

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

The John Quincy Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart & Thomas Sully

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

Louisa Adams, social charmer

When Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte

A Skeleton City: Washington DC in the 1820s

  1. John Quincy Adams diary 31, 1 January 1819 – 20 March 1821, 10 November 1824 – 6 December 1824, page 136 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004.
  2. Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of the Right Honourable Stratford Canning, Vol. I (London, 1888), p. 321.
  3. John Quincy Adams diary 32, 21 March 1821 – 30 November 1822 (with gaps), page 357 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005.
  4. Ibid., p. 373.
  5. William M. Meigs, The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll (Philadelphia, 1900), p. 122.
  6. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 161.
  7. Ibid., p. 162.
  8. Ibid., p. 162.
  9. John Quincy Adams diary 34, 1 January 1823 – 14 June 1824, page 103 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005.
  10. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI, p. 406.
  11. Ibid., p. 412.
  12. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII (Philadelphia, 1875), pp. 28-29.
  13. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to George Washington Adams, 13 June 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017,
  14. Ibid., pp. 35-36.
  15. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to George Washington Adams, 23 July 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017,
  16. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII, p. 37.
  17. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VIII (Philadelphia, 1876), pp. 64-65.
  18. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IX (Philadelphia, 1876), p. 356.
  19. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. X (Philadelphia, 1876), p. 31.
  20. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. XII (Philadelphia, 1877), p. 64.
  21. Ibid., pp. 64-65.
  22. Ibid., p. 213.
  23. Ibid., pp. 268-269.

When the Great Plains Indians met President Monroe

In 1821, a delegation of Great Plains Indians travelled to Washington, DC, where they met President James Monroe. The trip was organized by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Indian agent Benjamin O’Fallon. The aim was to impress the tribal leaders with the strength and wealth of the United States, and to persuade them to keep the peace.

Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees by Charles Bird King, 1821

Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees by Charles Bird King, 1821

A cheap mode of conquest

The hosting of Indian delegations had been an important part of white men’s relations with Native Americans ever since Europeans first settled in North America. The Spaniards, French and English escorted Indian leaders to their main settlements to awe them and gain their friendship. The Americans continued this practice. It was a relatively inexpensive way of convincing tribal leaders of the futility of resisting the authority of the United States. As Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas L. McKenney wrote in 1828:

This mode of conquering these people is merciful, and it is cheap, in comparison to what a war with them would cost, to say nothing of the loss of human life. (1)

When John C. Calhoun became Secretary of War in 1817 (the position he holds in Napoleon in America), he also assumed responsibility for the management of Indian affairs. Calhoun wanted to reform relations with Native Americans. He thought that contact with white civilization was changing Indian culture for the worse. In his view, Indians needed to be protected and civilized. In December 1818, he reported to Congress:

They neither are, in fact, nor ought to be, considered as independent nations. Our views of their interest, and not their own, ought to govern them. By a proper combination of force and persuasion, of punishments and rewards, they ought to be brought within the pales of law and civilization. Left to themselves, they will never reach that desirable condition. Before the slow operation of reason and experience can convince them of its superior advantages, they must be overwhelmed by the mighty torrent of our population. … Our laws and manners ought to supersede their present savage manners and customs. Beginning with those most advanced in civilization, and surrounded by our people, they ought to be made to contract their settlements within reasonable bounds, with a distinct understanding that the United States intend to make no further acquisition of land from them, and that the settlements reserved are intended for their permanent home. The land ought to be divided among families; and the idea of individual property in the soil carefully inculcated. Their annuities would constitute an ample school fund; and education…ought not to be left discretionary with the parents. Those who might not choose to submit ought to be permitted and aided in forming new settlements at a distance from ours. … It is only by causing our opinion of their interest to prevail that they can be civilized and saved from extinction. (2)

In 1821, skirmishes with and among Indians in the Upper Missouri region was taking a toll in lives and money, and hindering the westward expansion of the United States. The area was occupied by some 14 Native American tribes. The small US military presence at Fort Atkinson was inadequate to protect American traders and trappers who were encroaching on Indian territory. As Benjamin O’Fallon, the Indian agent at Council Bluffs, explained to Calhoun in April 1821, the Indians were “disposed to underrate our strength, to believe that the detachment of troops on the Missouri is not a part, but the whole of our Army.” (3) After a Pawnee war party attacked nine fur traders near the Arkansas River, killing several of them and escaping with trade goods, guns and ammunition, Calhoun agreed to O’Fallon’s request to bring the tribal leaders to Washington, where they could be given a warning about their behaviour.

Exciting much interest

Petalesharo (Generous Chief), a Pawnee Brave, by Charles Bird King, 1822

Petalesharo (Generous Chief), a Pawnee Brave, by Charles Bird King, 1822

O’Fallon, accompanied by two interpreters, 16 chiefs and warriors of the Kansas, Missouri, Omaha, Otoe and Pawnee tribes, and one Otoe chief’s wife, left Council Bluffs in early October 1821. The government paid for the group’s travel, room and board. After passing through St. Louis, Louisville, Wheeling and Hagerstown, the delegation arrived at Washington, DC on November 29 and 30, in two contingents. They immediately called on President James Monroe.

Their object is to visit their Great Father, and learn something of that civilization of which they have hitherto remained in total ignorance. They are from the most remote tribes with which we have intercourse, and they are believed to be the first of those tribes that have ever been in the midst of our settlements. The Pawnees are said to be the most warlike tribe we have any knowledge of – not so numerous as some others, but more formidable, because united and accustomed to war. These red men of the forest who now visit us are completely in a state of nature. (4)

Leaving two chiefs and one interpreter in Washington, O’Fallon took the rest of the delegation to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, where they arrived on December 11. They were back in Washington by December 27. The government commissioned artist Charles Bird King to paint portraits of each of the chiefs.

A friend of British traveller William Faux, residing at Washington, described the delegation as follows:

All of them are men of large stature, very muscular, having fine open countenances, with the real noble Roman nose, dignified in their manners, and peaceful and quiet in their habits. There was no instance of drunkenness among them during their stay here. … These Indians excited so much interest from their dignified personal appearance, and from their peaceful manner, that they received a great number of rich presents, sufficient to fill six large boxes in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington…. There was a notice in the papers that the Indians would dance and display their feats in front of the President’s house on a certain day, which they did to at least 6,000 persons. They showed their manner of sitting in council, their dances, their war whoop, with the noises, gesticulations, &c. of the sentinels on the sight of an approaching enemy. They were in a state of perfect nudity, except a piece of red flannel round the waist and passing between the legs. They afterwards performed at the house of his Excellency M. Hyde de Neuville. They were painted horribly, and exhibited the operation of scalping and tomahawking in fine style.

The Ottaw half-chief and his squaw have taken tea with us and frequently visited us. She was a very good natured, mild woman, and he showed great readiness in acquiring our language, being inquisitive, retaining anything that he was once informed, and imitating admirably the tones of every word. … Our children were full of play with them, and the squaw nursed the younger ones. … The calumet of peace (the tomahawk pipe and their own sumach tobacco) frequently went round, and they expressed a wish to see us again. …

They count by tens as we do…. They hold polygamy as honourable; one wife, no good; three, good; four, very good. In their talks with the residents they show no wish to adopt our habits. (5)

One of the Pawnees, Petalesharo, became a celebrity when a story of how he had once saved a Comanche girl from being burned at the stake appeared in the local newspapers. Students at Miss White’s Select Female Seminary in Washington raised funds to have a medal created for Petalesharo to commemorate his act. The writer James Fenimore Cooper, who encountered the delegation, used Petalesharo as the model for the main Indian character in his novel The Prairie.

Meeting with the President

Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief) by Charles Bird King, 1822

Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief) by Charles Bird King, 1822

On February 4, 1822, the delegation met with President Monroe at the White House.

They were shown into the antechamber to the right of the drawing room. When I entered, I found the whole thirteen, that is twelve men and one woman, seated round the room, and Major O’Fallon, the officer who has charge of them, with four or five other gentlemen, standing at the fireplace. They were all dressed in blue cloth surtouts, with red cuffs and capes, blue pantaloons and boots – in short, in complete American costume, except that they wore on their heads a sort of coronet bedizened with red and blue foil, and stuck all round with feathers of the gayest colours. Their faces, too, were painted, though in a less fantastic style than usual. The squaw sat on a sofa near her husband, dressed in scarlet pantaloons, and wrapped in a green camblet cloak, without any ornament on her long black hair. They consisted, as I was told, of the Pawnees, Kansas, Ottoes, Mahas, and Missouries. The five chiefs were distinguished by two silver epaulettes, & the two half-chiefs by one. They were evidently not easy in their new habiliments – their coats seemed to pinch them about the shoulders; now and then they would take off their uneasy head dresses, and one sought a temporary relief by pulling off his boots.

Upon Major O’Fallon suggesting that they left the presents they intended for the President, the young men were immediately dispatched by their chiefs, and the squaw by her husband, for their intended tokens of friendship and good will. They returned in a few minutes with buffalo skins, pipes, moccasins, and feather head dresses. The President entered, with the Secretary of War, and taking his seat, delivered to them, through the interpreters, an extempore address, from notes held in his hand – and, as they used two distinct languages, it was necessary that every sentence should be twice interpreted. The President told them he was glad to see them – that, when he had met them before, he was too much engaged in receiving his great council to show them the attention he wished – and that now he had more leisure, and he was as pleased to see them in the dress of their white brethren as he had been before in that of their own country. He adverted to the visit they had made to our large towns – to our arsenals, navy yards, and the like, and told them that as much as they had seen, it could give them but a faint idea of our numbers and strength – as the deer and the buffalo they might chance to meet in passing through their forests bore a small proportion to those they did not see. That they had met with few of our warriors, because they were not wanted at the seat of our government, and because we were at peace with all the world – but if we were in a state of war, all our citizens would take arms into their hands and become brave warriors. He enjoined them to preserve peace with one another, and to listen to no voice which should persuade them to distrust the friendship of the United States. They were told that they should receive some presents, and be conducted safely back to their wives and children by Major O’Fallon, whose advice they were told to consider as the advice of their great father, the President, and were earnestly recommended to pursue. (6)

Each of the chiefs responded in turn, beginning with the principal leader of the Grand Pawnees, Sharitahrish.

My Great Father – Some of your good chiefs, or, as they are called, Missionaries, have proposed to send of their good people among us to change our habits, to make us work, and live like the white people. I will not tell a lie, I am going to tell the truth. You love your country; you love your people; you love the manner in which they live, and you think your people brave. I am like you, my Great Father, I love my country; I love my people; I love the manner in which we live, and think myself and warriors brave; spare me then, my Father, let me enjoy my country, and pursue the buffalo, and the beaver, and the other wild animals of our wilderness, and I will trade the skins with your people. I have grown up and lived thus long without work; I am in hopes you will suffer me to die without it. We have yet plenty of buffalo, beaver, deer, and other wild animals; we have also an abundance of horses. We have every thing we want. We have plenty of land, if you will keep your people off of it.

My Father [O’Fallon] has a piece on which he lives [Council Bluffs] and we wish him to enjoy it. We have enough without it; but we wish him to live near us to give us good counsel; to keep our ears and eyes open, that we may continue to pursue the right road; the road to happiness. He settles all differences between us and the whites, and between the red skins themselves. … We keep our eye constantly upon him, and since we have heard your words, we will listen more attentively to his.

It is too soon, my Great Father, to send those good men among us. We are not starving yet. We wish you to permit us to enjoy the chase, until the game of our country is exhausted; until the wild animals become extinct. Let us exhaust our present resources, before you make us toil, and interrupt our happiness. Let me continue to live as I have done, and after I have passed to the Good or Evil Spirit from the wilderness of my present life, the subsistence of my children may become so precarious as to need and embrace the offered assistance of these good people. (7)

After each had spoken, “they partook of wine, cake, and other refreshments, of which they were no wise sparing; and then lighting their pipes, filled with wild tobacco, they smoked awhile and presented their several pipes to the President, Chief Justice, and others, to take a whiff, in token of peace and amity.” (8)

An American who was present at the meeting commented:

It is impossible to see these people, and believe, as I do, that they are destined, in no very long lapse of time, to disappear from the face of the earth, without feeling for them great interests. With some vices, and much grossness, they possess many fine traits of character; and we never can forget that they were the native lords of that soil which they are gradually yielding to their invaders. Yes, I firmly believe that all our liberal and humane attempts to civilize them will prove hopeless and unavailing. Whether it is that they acquire our bad habits before our good ones, or that their course of life has, by its long continuance, so modified the nature of their race that it cannot thrive under the restraints of civilization, I know not; but it is certain that all the tribes which have remained among us have gradually dwindled to insignificance or become entirely extinct. … Considering the race to be thus transient, I have often wished that more pains were bestowed, and by more competent persons, in recording what is most remarkable and peculiar among them, now that those peculiarities are fresh and unchanged by their connection with us. (9)

The delegation left Washington in late February. Their visit cost the government over $6,000. It was considered worthwhile. The Washington Gazette editorialized:

The object of their interesting mission, we believe, has been fully accomplished: these aborigines are deeply impressed with the power of the long-knives, that for the future the tomahawk will not be raised with their consent, against their white brethren. (10)

The tribes from which the delegates came remained relatively peaceful as white settlers swept across the headwaters of the Missouri.

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When the King & Queen of the Sandwich Islands visited England

  1. Herman J. Viola, Diplomats in Buckskins: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City (Bluffton, SC, 1995), p. 24.
  2. Richard K. Crallé, ed., The Works of John C. Calhoun, Vol. V: Reports and Public Letters (New York, 1855), pp. 18-19.
  3. Diplomats in Buckskins, p. 25.
  4. Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore), December 15, 1821.
  5. William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), pp. 378-382.
  6. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), February 11, 1822.
  7. Jedidiah Morse, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs (New Haven, 1822), pp. 244-245.
  8. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), February 11, 1822.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Diplomats in Buckskins, p. 25.

The American Habit of Spitting Tobacco Juice

Punishment for spitting on the deck: carrying a spittoon for the crew. Drawing from the first half of the 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

Punishment for spitting on the deck: carrying a spittoon for the crew. Drawing from the first half of the 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

When Emily Hopkinson complains to Napoleon Bonaparte about the habits of young American men in Napoleon in America, she says, “If a young lady should happen to accost one of those elegant figures, it is a considerable time ere she can be answered, as the gentleman must first dispose of the mouthful of delicious juice he has been extracting from a deposit secreted in one of his cheeks.” (1) The “deposit” to which Emily refers is chewing tobacco. Disposal of the juice involves spitting – a practice early 19th-century Americans lustily engaged in, often without benefit of a spittoon. British visitors to the United States were appalled.

Some practices…among the Americans are to Englishmen excessively disgusting, and some of their usages shocking to our delicacy. The custom of hawking and spitting, and squirting tobacco-juice on the carpets and walls of their drawing-rooms, is of this number. (2)

The most offensive peculiarity

English merchant Adam Hodgson, who visited America in 1819, observed:

The next American habit on which I will remark, which always offended me extremely, is the almost universal one of spitting, without regard to time, place or circumstances. You must excuse my alluding to such a topic; but I could not in candour omit it, since it is the most offensive peculiarity in American manners. Many, who are really gentlemen in other respects, offend in this; and I regretted to observe the practice even in the diplomatic parties at Washington. Indeed, in the capitol itself, the dignity of the Senate is let down by this annoying habit. I was there the first session after it was rebuilt, and as the magnificent and beautiful halls had been provided with splendid carpets, some of the senators appeared at first a little daunted; but after looking about in distress, and disposing of their diluted tobacco at first with timidity, and by stealth, they gathered by degrees the courage common to corporate bodies; and before I left Washington had relieved themselves pretty well from the dazzling brightness of the brilliant colours under their feet! It was mortifying to me, to observe all this in an assembly, whose proceedings are conducted with so much order and propriety, and in chambers so truly beautiful as the Senate and House of Representatives – the latter the most beautiful hall I ever saw. (3)

Frances Trollope, who spent 1827-1830 in the United States, wrote caustically of “that plague-spot of spitting which rendered male colloquy so difficult to endure.”

I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans.

Observing from the visitors’ gallery of the House of Representatives, Mrs. Trollope, like Hodgson, found it

really mortifying to see this splendid hall, fitted up in so stately and sumptuous a manner, filled with men sitting in the most unseemly attitudes, a large majority with their hats on, and nearly all spitting to an excess that decency forbids me to describe. (4)

Even at the White House, “[c]onversation, tea, ice, music, chewing tobacco, and excessive spitting afford[ed] employment for the evening,” according to Henry Bradshaw Fearon, who toured America in 1817-1818. To Fearon’s regret, the practice was not confined to the nation’s capital.

I disapprove most decidedly of the obsequious servility of many London shopkeepers, but I am not prepared to go the length of those in New York, who stand with their hats on, or sit or lie along their counters, smoking segars [cigars], and spitting in every direction, to a degree offensive to any man of decent feelings.

Fearon also complained about the taverns in Louisville, Kentucky, where “there is not a man who appears to have a single earthly object in view, except spitting and smoking segars.” (5) British farmer William Faux was equally “well pleased” to turn his back “on all the spitting, gouging, dirking, duelling, swearing, and staring of old Kentucky.” (6)

In Philadelphia, Scottish politician James Stuart lodged in a very good hotel, to which he would have returned, “but for the smoking and chewing of tobacco, which never ceased in the reading-rooms. The chewing and spitting were carried to such a height, that it was difficult to escape from their effects.” (7)

Well-bred men in well-dressed rooms

An advertisement for chewing tobacco, circa 1870-1900. Source: Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth

An advertisement for chewing tobacco, circa 1870-1900. Source: Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth

As indicated by Emily Hopkinson’s remark, there were Americans who disapproved of the custom. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, co-founder of Harvard Medical School and saviour of John Quincy Adams’ portrait, took the view that a well-bred man “refrained from spitting in company, and in well-dressed rooms.” Dr. Waterhouse warned of the health consequences of spitting.

The first effect of tobacco on those who have…already commenced the offensive custom of chewing or smoking, is either a waste or vitiation of the saliva.

The saliva or spittle is secreted by a complex glandular apparatus from the most refined arterial blood, and constantly distils into the mouth in health; and from the mouth into the stomach at the rate of twelve ounces a day. It very much resembles the gastric juice in the stomach; and its importance in digestion may be imagined after listening to the words of the great Boerhaave. ‘Whenever the saliva is lavishly spit away, we remove one of the strongest causes of hunger and digestion. The chyle prepared without this fluid is depraved, and the blood is vitiated for want of it. I once tried,’ says this great philosopher and consummate physician, ‘an experiment on myself, by spitting out all my saliva; the consequence was that I lost my appetite.’ Hence we see the pernicious effects of chewing and smoking tobacco. (8)

Mason Locke Weems, in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, said bluntly:

O you time-wasting, brain-starving young men, who can never be at ease unless you have a cigar or a plug of tobacco in your mouths, go on with your puffing and champing – go on with your filthy smoking, and your still more filthy spitting, keeping the cleanly house-wives in constant terror for their nicely waxed floors, and their shining carpets – go on, I say; but remember it was not in this way that our little Ben became the great Dr. Franklin. (9)

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  1. This bit of dialogue, which appears on p. 76 in the novel, is taken directly from a humorous letter Emily Hopkinson wrote for The Port Folio, Vol. II (Philadelphia, April 3, 1802), p. 98, under the pseudonym of “Beatrice.”
  2. The Monthly Review, or Literary Journal, Vol. 105, 1824, p. 250.
  3. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. I (London, 1824), pp. 35-36.
  4. Frances Milton Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London, 1832), pp. 108, 34, 183.
  5. Henry Bradshaw Fearon, Sketches of America (London, 1819), pp. 291, 12, 249.
  6. William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), p. 203.
  7. James Stuart, Three Years in North America, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1833), p. 398.
  8. Benjamin Waterhouse, Cautions to Young Persons Concerning Health (Cambridge, 1822), pp. vii, 33-34.
  9. Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1835), p. 23.

The Wreck of the Packet Ship Albion

The packet ship Albion, sailing from New York to Liverpool, was wrecked on the coast of Ireland on April 22, 1822. Of the 54 people on board, only 9 survived. Napoleonic General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, who appears in Napoleon in America, was among the dead. As this was the first loss suffered by a North Atlantic packet line, the disaster horrified people on both sides of the ocean. Survivors left harrowing accounts of the Albion’s final hours.

Loss of the Packet Ship Albion, hand-coloured engraving after a print by Thomas Birch

Loss of the Packet Ship Albion, hand-coloured engraving after a print by Thomas Birch

Packet ships

Packet ships were small 19th-century vessels that carried mail, cargo and passengers. Most importantly, they departed from port according to a regular schedule. This was a novelty at the time. Most ships didn’t sail until they had enough cargo to justify a voyage, leaving passengers waiting for days or weeks until the holds were full.

The Black Ball Line was the first company to offer scheduled packet service across the Atlantic. Its vessels began sailing between New York and Liverpool in 1818. A ship left New York on the first of every month. The Black Ball Line started out with four ships. The Albion, under Captain John Williams, was the line’s fifth ship, added in 1819. It had a capacity of 447 tons. The ships took an average of 23 days to sail to Liverpool and 40 days to make the return journey to New York. (1)

The Albion’s fatal voyage

The packet ship Albion sailed from New York on April 1, 1822, with a crew of 25 and 29 passengers (23 in the cabin and 6 in steerage). The ship carried a cargo of cotton, turpentine, rice and beeswax, as well as a considerable sum of specie (gold and silver). Captain Williams was an experienced seaman and the first 20 days of the voyage passed uneventfully.

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 21, passing the south coast of Ireland, the Albion encountered a tremendous gale. Around 8:30 in the evening, a heavy sea struck the ship. It swept overboard six of the crew and one passenger (Alexander Converse); carried away the masts, boats, bulwarks and everything on deck; and drove in the hatches, so that every wave that passed over the ship ran into the hold. According to one of the survivors, William Everhart of Chester, Pennsylvania:

When the ship was thrown on her beam ends, a prodigious destruction took place below; the doors of the state rooms, the tables bound with iron, the furniture, were all destroyed and thrown into heaps. Many of the passengers were severely injured. Gen. Lefebvre-Desnouettes had one of his arms broken; Col. Prevost was wounded in the face. (2)

The Albion was then about 20 miles from shore. Captain Williams maintained his calm and steadily gave orders.

He cheered the officers and the crew with the hope that the wind would shift, and before morning blow off shore. … All who could do no good on deck retired below; but the water was knee deep in the cabin, and the furniture floating about rendered the situation dangerous and dreadful. (3)

Henry Cammyer, the first mate, who also survived, noted:

The ship being unmanageable, and the sea making a complete breach over her, we were obliged to lash ourselves to the pumps, and being in total darkness, without correct compasses, could not tell how the ship’s head lay. The axes being swept away, [we] had no means of clearing the wreck. (4)

A number of the passengers assisted at the pumps, including Anne Powell, daughter of the chief justice of Upper Canada.

Though things looked dire, Williams concealed the imminent danger from the passengers, thus saving them from much distress in the hours preceding the ship’s destruction. The crew, however, knew what was coming.

The sailors at an early period were in a state of insubordination: many would not obey orders, and got drunk. (5)

All night the wind blew onshore, towards which the Albion was drifting at the rate of three miles an hour. Williams was familiar with the steep and rocky coast, with its sharp reefs.

He must have seen, in despair and horror, throughout the night, the certainty of their fate. At length, the ocean dashing and roaring upon the precipice of rock near the lee of the ship, told them that their hour was come. (6)

About 10 minutes before 3 o’clock in the morning on April 22, Williams summoned everyone on deck and told them the ship would soon strike the rocks. He ordered everyone to move forward. Everhart, who had suffered from seasickness through most of the voyage and was very weak, was the last to leave the cabin, crawling. One passenger, Professor Alexander Fisher, who had been injured in the fall of the masts, remained in his berth. He had taken a broken compass and was trying to repair it. (7) When Everhart asked Fisher if he would come on deck, he said no. (8)

Some, particularly the females, expressed their horror in wild shrieks. Major Gough, of the British army, remarked that ‘Death, come as he would, was an unwelcome messenger; but they must meet him as they could.’ Very little was said by others, the men awaiting the expected shock in silence. General Lefebvre Desnouettes, during the voyage, had evidently wished to remain without particular observation; and to prevent his being known, besides taking passage under a feigned name, had suffered his beard to grow during the whole voyage; he had the misfortune before the ship struck to be much bruised, and one of his arms was broken, which disabled him from exertion, if it could have been availing.

It is barely possible to conceive the horror of their situation. The deadly and relentless blast impelling them to destruction – the ship a wreck – the raging of the billows against the precipice on which they were driving, sending back from the rocks the hoarse and melancholy warnings of death – dark, cold, and wet: in such a situation the stoutest heart must have quaked with utter despair. (9)

The final hour

About 3 o’clock, the Albion struck on some rocks jutting out of the water and then came to a reef where she lost her bottom. About half an hour later, the ship broke apart in the middle. The quarter deck drifted onto a ledge of rock, immediately under the cliffs, where huge waves swept over the passengers. Cammyer reported:

Up to the period of her parting, nearly twenty persons were clinging to the wreck, among whom were two females, Mrs. Pye and Miss Powell. Captain Williams had, with several others, been swept away soon after she struck; a circumstance which may be attributed to the very extraordinary exertions which he used, to the last moment, for the preservation of the lives of the unfortunate passengers and crew. (10)

Here is Everhart’s account.

In this situation every wave making a breach over her, many were drowned on deck. A woman, Mr. Everhart could not distinguish who, fell near him and cried for help; he left his hold and raised her up, another wave came and she was too far exhausted to sustain herself, and sunk on the deck; 15 or 16 corpses at one time, Mr. Everhart thought, lay near the bows of the ship.

Perceiving now that the stern was higher out of water, and the sea had less power in its sweep over it, Mr. Everhart went aft; he then perceived that the bottom had been broken out of the ship; the heavy articles must have sunk, and the cotton and lighter articles were floating around, dashed by every wave against the rocks; presently the ship broke in two, and all those who remained near the bow were lost. Several from the stern of the ship had got on the side of the precipice and were hanging by the crags as they could.

Though weakened by previous sickness and present suffering, he made an effort and got upon the rock and stood on one foot, the only one he could obtain; he saw several around him, and among them were Col. Prevost, who observed on seeing him take his station, ‘Here is another poor fellow;’ but the waves rolled heavily against them, and often dashed its spray 50 feet over their heads, gradually got those who had taken refuge one by one away, and one poor fellow, losing his hold, as he fell caught the leg of Mr. Everhart and nearly pulled him from his place. Weak and sick as he was, Mr. Everhart stood several hours on one foot on a little crag, the waves dashing over him, and he benumbed with cold. (11)

Among the last people Everhart saw alive on the ship were George Hyde Clarke and his wife, in her husband’s arms.

[A]t this period the swells entirely covered the forecastle, and drowned all who were there. Colonel Prevost by great exertions reached the rock which Mr. Everhart had gained, but was washed off. (12)

The view from shore

The Albion struck Ireland off Garretstown, near the Old Head of Kinsale.  John Purcell, a local eyewitness, provided the following account.

At some time before four o’clock this morning, I was informed that a ship was cast on the rocks…to which place I immediately repaired; and…found a vessel on the rocks, under a very high cliff. At this time, as it blew a dreadful gale, with spring-tide and approaching high water, the sea ran mountains high; however, I descended with some men as far down the cliff as the dashing of the sea would permit us to go with safety, and there had the horrid spectacle of viewing five dead bodies stretched on the deck, and four other fellow-creatures distractedly calling for assistance, which we were unable to afford them, as certain death would have attended the attempt. Of those in this perilous situation, one was a female, whom, though it was impossible from the wind and the roaring of the sea to hear her, yet from her gestures and the stretching out of her hands, we judged to be calling for and imploring our assistance. At this time the greater part of the vessel lay on a rock, and part of the stern, where this poor woman lay, projected over a narrow creek, that divides this rock from another. Here the sea ran over her with the greatest fury, yet she kept a firm hold, which it much astonished me that she could do; but we soon perceived that the vessel was broke across, where she projected over the rock, and after many waves dashing against her, this part of the vessel rolled in the waves, and we had the heart-rending scene of seeing the woman perish. The three men lay towards the stern of the vessel, one of whom stuck to a mast, which projected towards the cliff, to whom, after many attempts, we succeeded in throwing a rope, and brought him safe ashore. Another we also saved; but the constant dashing of the waves put an end to the sufferings of the others. (13)

The living

As soon as it was light enough and the tide ebbed, some of the locals descended the rocks as far as they could and dropped William Everhart a rope, which he fastened around his body so he could be drawn to safety. Everhart was the only cabin passenger to escape the wreck. Stephen Chase, a steerage passenger from Canada, was also saved. Henry Cammyer, the first mate, described how he survived.

after gaining a rock in a very exhausted state, I was washed off, but by the assistance of Providence, was enabled, before the return of the sea, to regain it; and before I could attempt to climb the cliff, which was nearly perpendicular, I was obliged to lie down, to regain a little strength, after the severe bruises and contusions I had received on the body and feet. (14)

The other survivors were crew members William Hynt (or Hyate) (boatswain), John Simson, John Richards, Francis Bloom, Ebenezer Warner and Hierom Raymond.

The dead

(An asterix * denotes those whose bodies were found, identified and interred. Four bodies that could not be recognized were also interred.)

Napoleonic General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes (sailing under the name of Gravez), age 48, was returning to France after six years of exile in the United States. He was looking forward to joining his wife Stéphanie and the daughter he had never seen. See my article about Lefebvre-Desnouettes.

Professor Alexander Metcalf Fisher, age 28, was head of the Mathematics Department at Yale College (now University) in New Haven, Connecticut. His fiancée, Catharine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), took the money Fisher bequeathed her and founded the Hartford Female Seminary. It is thanks to Fisher’s death that Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, one of the 19th century’s most successful cookbooks, was written, as explained by Fred Glynn on Cookbooks-a-la-Carte.

*Anne Powell, age 35, the daughter of William Dummer Powell, the chief justice of Upper Canada, came from one of the most prestigious families in York (Toronto). She had been sailing to England in dogged pursuit of the man she loved. See the Dictionary of Canadian Biography for the sordid details.

Major William Gough, age 44, a member of Britain’s 68th light infantry regiment, had fought under the Duke of Wellington at the Battles of Salamanca and Vitoria in Spain, where he was severely wounded by grapeshot in the leg.

*Lieutenant-Colonel John Augustine Prevost, age 52, of Cooperstown, NY, was the son of Augustine Prevost Jr. and the grandson of Augustine Prevost Sr., both of whom fought on the Loyalist side in the America Revolution.

*George Hyde Clarke, of Albany, NY, was the eldest son of George Clarke (1768-1835). The latter was the descendant of a prominent colonial New York family and the owner of Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, NY. George Hyde Clark’s brother, who lived in England, was married to Colonel Prevost’s sister. Assuming that George Hyde Clarke was born after his parents’ marriage, he was no older than 29 years.

*Mrs. George Hyde Clarke, wife of the above, described by Everhart as “young,” also perished in the wreck.

The other cabin passengers who died were: Alexander B. Converse, age 24, of Troy, New York, the son of Hon. John Converse; *Nelson D. Ross, age 20, of Troy, New York, Converse’s brother-in-law (Converse’s wife Julia had died in November 1821 at the age of 22); *Rev. G.R.G. Hill, lately of Jamaica (he was returning home to England); *William H. Dwight, Boston; Mr. G.W. Beynon, London; Mr. William Proctor, New York; *Mrs. Mary Pye, New York; *Mrs. Gardiner (or Garnier), Paris; Mrs. Gardiner’s son, about 8 years old; *Victor Millicent, Paris; Mr. Chabut, said to be the nephew of Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Paris; Mr. Lemercier, New Orleans; Philotime Depla, Bordeaux; John Gore, North Carolina; Mr. Bending.

The steerage passengers who lost their lives were: James Baldwin, cotton spinner, Yorkshire; Dr. Carver, veterinary surgeon; Mr. Harrison, carpenter; *Mrs. Mary Hunt; *Mrs. Mary Brereton (or Brewster).

The deceased crew were: Captain John Williams, age 37 (he left a wife and seven children); Edward Smith, second mate; Alexander Adams, carpenter; Harman Nelson; Harman Richardson; Henry Whittrell; William Trisserly; James Wiley; Robert McLellan; Thomas Goodman; Samuel Wilson, boy; William Snow, boy; *William Dockwood; Lloyd Potter, steward (black); Samuel Penny, steward (black); Francis Isaac, boy (black); *Thomas Hill, cook (black); *Adam Johnson, cook (black). (15)

The aftermath

Everhart and Cammyer both spoke highly of the local population. The residents of Garretstown and Kinsale offered every kindness to the living, prepared coffins for the dead, and salvaged what they could of the vessel and its cargo. Jacob Mark, the US Consul at Kinsale, James Gibbons, the agent for Lloyd’s at Kinsale, Mr. Pratt, surveyor of Kinsale, and John Purcell, the steward of a local landowner, were singled out for praise. The bodies were buried at Templetrine churchyard, about four miles from Kinsale and one mile from the site of the shipwreck. Some were later moved.

Sadly, there was a subsequent tragedy related to the wreck of the packet ship Albion. A few days later, a boat trying to salvage a piece of the Albion capsized, drowning seven of the eight men on board. (16)

It was feared that the Albion’s fate would, for a time, make packet ships “somewhat unpopular.”

There are two lines of them from New York to Liverpool – and they must be content for a short time to come to discard the spirit of competition, and to consult their safety instead of expedition. (17)

The wreck of the packet ship Albion was lamented in poetry and in song.

The morning smiles, the ocean billow sleeps,
But where’s the tall ship that late ploughed its breast,
The gallant ALBION? Pity, shuddering weeps;
No more, – only on the dark wave’s crest
That night, at times, were dimly seen, ’tis said,
Some forms of misery, whose hands in vain
Were lift imploring, – they sank with the dead,
And piteous cries and shrieks were heard, – ’twas still again. (18)

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  1. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. II (London, 1824), p. 345.
  2. “The Albion Packet,” The Times (London), September 7, 1822, p. 3 (a communication from survivor William Everhart).
  3. “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet,” The Times (London), October 12, 1822, p. 3 (an interview with survivor William Everhart).
  4. “Loss of the Albion,” The National Advocate (New York), July 30, 1822 (survivor Henry Cammyer’s account of the wreck).
  5. “The Albion Packet.”
  6. “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet.”
  7. Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston, 1891), p. 24.
  8. Mary Grey Lundie Duncan, Memoirs of the Life and Character of the Rev. Matthias Bruen (New York, 1831) p. 138.
  9. “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet.”
  10. “Loss of the Albion.”
  11. “Ship Wreck of the Albion Packet.”
  12. “The Albion Packet.”
  13. “Melancholy Shipwrecks,” The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser (Lancaster, England), May 4, 1822.
  14. “Loss of the Albion.”
  15. These names are based primarily on Cammyer’s “correct list of the crew and passengers” in “Loss of the Albion.” However, since Cammyer’s cabin passenger list falls short of the 23 he says were on board, and includes four unnamed “French gentlemen,” I have supplemented it with passenger names included in other newspaper accounts. No single account lists all of the 54 people said to be on the Albion. The final determination is complicated by the fact that different spellings of the names are used in different accounts of the wreck.
  16. “Melancholy Shipwrecks.”
  17. Louisville Public Advertiser (Louisville, KY), July 6, 1822.
  18. William B. Tappan, The Poems of William B. Tappan (Philadelphia, 1834), p. 60.

A Skeleton City: Washington DC in the 1820s

During the time in which Napoleon in America is set, Washington DC exhibited “more streets than houses.” (1) Visitors commented on the dirt roads, the distance between buildings, and the generally unimpressive appearance of America’s national capital. They also noted Washington DC’s beautiful setting, its potential for grandeur, and the city’s social life, which revolved around Congressional sittings.

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. View of Washington DC from across the Anacostia River. The United States Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard are to the right. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833. View of Washington DC from across the Anacostia River. The United States Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard are to the right. The White House is to the left, depicted larger than scale to balance the Capitol building. The Potomac River is on the far left.

Constructing a federal city

The United States Congress authorized the creation of a federal capital in 1790. President George Washington selected the location, which was formed from land donated by Maryland and Virginia. The area included two existing settlements: Georgetown and Alexandria. In 1791, French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant drew up a plan for a city east of Georgetown, on the north bank of the Potomac River. The plan was amended by American surveyor Andrew Ellicott. The cornerstone of the President’s house (later known as the White House) was laid in 1792. Construction finished in 1800. That same year the Senate wing of the Capitol building was completed, followed by the House of Representatives wing in 1811. During the War of 1812, British forces raided Washington DC, setting fire to the President’s house, the Capitol and other public buildings on August 24, 1814. By 1820, these had been rebuilt, but the city as a whole still looked unfinished.

Plan of the City of Washington DC, 1792, by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan

Plan of the City of Washington, 1792, by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan

A scattered box of toys

English merchant Adam Hodgson visited Washington DC in 1819. He observed:

Washington may be said to be rather the site of a city that is to be than an actual city. It is laid out on an extensive scale, but the streets are for the most part unbuilt, or chequered with houses of the shabbiest description. Still, however, it has some magnificent features, while the romantic scenery which surrounds it, and which is visible from almost every part of it, redeems much of the deformity of its scattered and uncomfortable aspect.

The principal street, Pennsylvania Avenue, has a noble appearance and is a mile long, with one wide and two narrower avenues of poplars, which conceal from the view the ill assorted houses on each side. On a lofty eminence, at one end, stands the capitol, and at the other, on a commanding, though less elevated position, the President’s house. (2)

The following year, Scottish writer Frances Wright remarked:

Those who, in visiting Washington, expect to find a city, will be somewhat surprised when they first enter its precincts, and look round in vain for the appearance of a house.

The plan marked out for this metropolis of the empire is gigantic, and the public buildings, whether in progress or design, bear all the stamp of grandeur. How many centuries shall pass away ere the clusters of little villages, now scattered over this plain, shall assume the form and magnificence of an imperial city? … Which of her patriots can anticipate, without anxiety, the period when the road to the senate-house shall lead through streets adorned with temples and palaces? And when the rulers of the republic, who now take their way on foot to the council chamber, in the fresh hour of morning, shall roll in chariots at mid-noon or perhaps mid-night, through a sumptuous metropolis, rich in arts and bankrupt in virtue? (3)

Visiting Washington DC in 1825, Prince Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach expressed his disappointment.

I had not formed a great idea of Washington city, but what I saw was inferior to my expectation. The capitol stands upon an elevation, and is to be considered as the centre of the future city. Up to this time it is surrounded but by inconsiderable houses and fields, through which small houses are also scattered. From the capitol, several avenues, planted with trees, extend in different directions. We rode into the Pennsylvania avenue, and eventually came to the houses, which are built so far apart that this part of the city has the appearance of a newly-established watering place. The adjacent country is very fine, and there are several fine views upon the broad Potomac. We passed by the President’s house; it is a plain building, of white marble, situated in a small garden. …

The plan of Washington is colossal, and will hardly ever be executed. According to the plan, it could contain a population of one million of inhabitants, whilst it is said at present to have but thirteen thousand. To be the capital of such a large country, Washington lies much too near the sea. This inconvenience was particularly felt during the last war. (4)

Arriving in December 1827, Captain Basil Hall observed:

[T]his singular capital…is so much scattered that scarcely any of the ordinary appearances of a city strike the eye. Here and there ranges of buildings are starting up, but by far the greater number of the houses are detached from one another. The streets, where streets there are, have been made so unusually wide, that the connexion is quite loose; and the whole affair, to use the quaint simile of a friend at Washington, looks as if some giant had scattered a box of his child’s toys at random on the ground. On paper all this irregularity is reduced to wide formal avenues, a mile in length, running from the Capitol – a large stone building well placed on a high ground – to the President’s house, and the public offices near it. (5)

Washington DC in 1821 by Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville. The White House is in the middle. You can see more of Anne-Marguerite's work in my post about her husband, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, French ambassador to the United States from 1816 to 1822.

Washington DC in 1821 by Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville. The White House is in the middle. You can see more of Anne-Marguerite’s work in my post about her husband, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, French ambassador to the United States from 1816 to 1822.


Upon closer inspection, Bernhard admitted he was impressed with the Capitol building.

The capitol is a really imposing building. When it is once surrounded by handsome buildings, it will produce a fine effect. It is built of white marble, and has three domes; the largest is over the rotunda, and the two smaller over the wings. The capitol stands on an acclivity, and in front is three stories high, and on the back, which is opposite the president’s mansion, four stories high. In front is the entrance, with a portal of Corinthian columns; on the back part there is a large balcony, decorated with columns. The entrance under the portal is a little too low. (6)

Bernhard visited President John Quincy Adams at the White House.

In the interior there is a large hall with columns. We were received in a handsomely furnished apartment. Beautiful bronzes ornamented the mantels, and a full length portrait of President Washington hung upon the wall. (7)

He also called at the War and Navy Departments.

The four offices are all built alike, very plain, with wooden staircases; their interior resembles a school-house. There are no sentinels nor porters; in the building for the war department a woman kept a fruit shop. Even the president himself has usually no sentries, and only during the night the marines from the navy-yard keep guard before his house. (8)

As for the Washington Navy Yard, established in 1799:

In this navy-yard ships are only built and refitted; after that they descend the Potomac into the Chesapeake Bay, and go to Norfolk, where they are armed. At the time of our visit there were but two frigates in the yard, called forty-four gun ships, but mounting sixty-four pieces: the Congress, an old ship, which was repairing, and the Potomac, an entirely new ship, which has been launched, but subsequently hauled up and placed under a roof. (9)

Bernhard rode to Georgetown.

This small town is amphitheatrically situated on the Potomac, whose right bank, covered with wood and partly cultivated, presents a pleasant view. Georgetown is separated from Washington, or rather from the ground on which it is to stand, by a small river called Rocky Creek, which empties into the Potomac, over which there is a bad wooden bridge. (10)

Here’s more about that bridge.

Over the Potomac there is a long wooden bridge, built upon ordinary cross-beams. I measured it, and found it to be fifteen paces broad, and one thousand nine hundred long. … It required nineteen minutes to walk from one end to the other. Every foot-passenger pays six cents. This bridge astonishes by its length, but not at all in its execution, for it is clumsy and coarse. Many of the planks are rotten, and it is in want of repair; it has two sidewalks, one of them is separated from the road by a rail. It is lighted by night with lanterns. It is provided with two drawbridges, in order to let vessels pass. It grew dark before I returned home, and was surprised at the stillness of the streets, as I scarcely met an individual. (11)

Much dissipation

Washington’s social life was dominated by politicians and diplomats. According to Hodgson:

Scarcely any of the members reside here, except while Congress is sitting, and then they are in lodgings. The ladies, who accompany their fathers and husbands to see a little of the world, are situated very much as they would be at Harrowgate or Cheltenham, and there are usually many strangers in pursuit of entertainment. It is the residence also of the foreign Ministers, and the heads of the departments of government. All this, you will readily believe, gives rise to much dissipation. On some of the evenings, there are routs at the houses of one or other of the ministers of the Corps diplomatique, and the rest are generally anticipated by two or three invitations.

All, however, complain, that this routine becomes very dull before the session closes, as they meet almost the same persons every evening, and the sober ones will seldom go out above two or three times a week. Families who are acquainted with each other often board together at the large taverns, and the members who are bachelors for the time being, form messes at the private boarding-houses, where they are often in very close, and sometimes very shabby quarters. I think quite the majority of the members go to the capitol in hackney coaches; and as the ground has been covered with snow, I have several times seen a sledge and four, with eight or ten Senators from Georgetown, in the neighbourhood. (12)

Frances Wright wrote:

This skeleton city affords few of the amusements of a metropolis. It seems however to possess the advantage of very choice society; the resident families are of course few, but the unceasing influx and reflux of strangers from all parts of the country affords an ample supply of new faces to the evening drawing rooms. To this continual intermixture with strangers and foreigners is perhaps to be ascribed the peculiar courtesy and easy politeness which characterize the manners of the city. (13)

Captain Hall also enjoyed Washington society.

The society is very agreeable, and is interesting, in many respects, from being composed of persons assembled from every part of the Union, and, I may add, from every part of Europe – for the Corps Diplomatique form a considerable party of themselves. The same kindness and hospitality were shown to us here, as elsewhere; and the hours for evening parties being always early, it was possible to go a good deal into company without much fatigue; although the smallness of the rooms made the heat and crowd sometimes not very pleasant. (14)

The breath of an oven

Hall visited Washington DC in the winter. British farmer William Faux’s description of “a common hot day at Washington” in June 1820 provides a less attractive picture of the city.

The wind southerly, like the breath of an oven; the thermometer vacillating between 90 and 100; the sky blue and cloudless; the sun shedding a blazing light; the face of the land, and everything upon it, save trees, withered, dusty, baked, and continually heated, insomuch that water would almost hiss on it; the atmosphere swarming with noxious insects, flies, bugs, mosquitoes, and grasshoppers, and withal so drying, that all animal and vegetable life is exposed to a continual process of exhaustion. The breezes, if any, are perfumed by nuisances of all sorts, emptied into the streets, rotting carcasses, and the exhalations of dismal swamps, made vocal and alive with toads, lizards, and bellowing bull-frogs. Few people are stirring, except negroes; all faces, save those of blacks, pale, languid, and lengthened with lassitude, expressive of anything but ease and happiness. Now and then an emigrant or two fall dead at the cold spring, or fountain; others are lying on the floor, flat on their backs; all, whether idle or employed, are comfortless, being in an everlasting steam-bath, and feeling offensive to themselves and others. At table, pleased with nothing, because both vegetable and animal food is generally withered, toughened, and tainted; the beverage, tea or coffee, contains dead flies; the beds and bedrooms, at night, present a smothering unaltering warmth, the walls being thoroughly heated, and being within side like the outside of an oven in continual use. Hard is the lot of him who bears the heat and burthen of this day, and pitiable the fate of the poor emigrant sighing in vain for comforts, cool breezes, wholesome diet, and the old friends of his native land. At midnight, the lightning-bugs and bull-frogs become luminous and melodious. The flies seem an Egyptian plague, and get mortised into the oily butter, which holds them like bird-lime. (15)

You might also enjoy:

James Monroe and Napoleon

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

Louisa Adams, social charmer

Charles Jared Ingersoll, a dinner-party delight

Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, a 19th century knight-errant

When the Great Plains Indians met President Monroe

Dangers of Walking in Vienna in the 1820s

  1. Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1828), p. 171.
  2. Adam Hodgson, Letters from North America, Vol. I (London, 1824), p. 10.
  3. Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America (London, 1821), p. 504.
  4. Bernhard, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1, p. 170.
  5. Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, Vol. III (Edinburgh, 1830), p. 1.
  6. Bernhard, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. 1, p. 176.
  7. Ibid., p. 171.
  8. Ibid., p. 171.
  9. Ibid., p. 172.
  10. Ibid., p. 170.
  11. Ibid., p. 173.
  12. Hodgson, Letters from North America, I, pp. 8-9.
  13. Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America, pp. 513-514.
  14. Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, III, p. 2.
  15. William Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), pp. 438-439.

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)

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  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.

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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)

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  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)

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  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.