The oldest wooden frame home in Austin sits alone on a hill with an unobstructed view of the State Capitol.
It dates back to the Republic of Texas, when France seized an opportunity to grab a piece of the new country and its wealth.
But the French sent the wrong man for the job.
The French Legation Museum, owned by the State of Texas, commemorates the time when the French monarchy tried to establish French colonies and profit from trade with the new nation. To view what became a major turning point in the history of Texas, one enters the quiet grounds of the museum by an iron gate set in a limestone wall in East Austin.
Here are 14 interesting facts about Austin’s French Legation Museum to prepare you for your visit:
#1 Why Was France in Austin?
Texas was a new nation. France saw an opportunity. Dubois was ordered to push the Franco-Texian Bill to authorize a large number of French colonists and scientists to settle in West Texas with financing by France.
France had interests in keeping Texas as a sovereign nation, not to become annexed by the United States or reacquired by Mexico. Many in France were still smarting over the land sold by Napoleon to Jefferson via the Louisiana Purchase.
#2 What’s a Legation?
In diplomatic relations between sovereign powers, a legation was an office for a nation in a foreign land, a notch lower than an embassy. The term is no longer used for diplomatic relations.
#3 Who Was Alphonse Dubois de Saligny?
For being what amounted to a de facto ambassador to the sovereign nation of Texas, Alphonse wasn’t diplomatic. From the start, he had troubles with the Texans.
The son of a French tax collector, Alphonse pursued a livelihood in French diplomacy. However, the self-proclaimed count is remembered for his lack of diplomacy and financial dealings. His career was marked by a tactless style of handling relations with the Republic of Texas that culminated in the Pig War.
If he had been successful in pushing French aims, France would have played a major role in the southwestern region of North America.
#4 When Did France Recognize Texas as a Nation?
Dubois was in Washington, D.C. as part of the French delegation to the United States. It was on Dubois’ initial recommendation that King Louis Philippe of France recognize Texas as a sovereign nation in 1839.
After the recognition, Dubois was promoted to chargé d’affaires and sent to Austin.
#5 How Did Dubois Get Along in Austin?
Financial disputes were a constant theme during Dubois’ short, but memorable stay in Austin. He was accused of paying his bills with counterfeit money when he had his properties transferred to Austin from Louisiana.
Later, he refused to pay Richard Bullock who owned the Bullock House, a primitive structure that functioned as a hotel. Bullock’s invectives towards Dubois spurred the diplomat to get a bill passed by the Texas legislature that barred any terms of disrespect toward foreign dignitaries. This did not endear the “count” in the hearts of local Texans.
#6 What Were the Origins of the French Legation and Oldest Frame House in Austin?
Dubois bought slightly more than 20 acres to establish his diplomatic outpost in September 1839. The mansion he built was visible on the bare Austin skyline, which at that time consisted mainly of log structures.
The French Legation claims to have the oldest wooden house in the Austin, finished in 1841. It may be the oldest frame home in Texas.
#7 You Mentioned The Pig War?
Pigs that roamed the area became the reason why France and Texas broke diplomatic relations. The pigs belonged to Richard Bullock, who ran the Bullock Inn in Austin. This was the progression of events:
- Dubois allegedly instructed one of his servants to kill several of Bullock’s pigs, which he claimed were bothering his horses and invading his home.
- In turn, Bullock beat Dubois’ servant and threatened to beat Dubois.
- Dubois invoked the “Law of Nations,” claimed diplomatic immunity from damages and demanded the Texas government punish Bullock.
- The government declined to punish Bullock without the due process of law.
- Dubois relocated to Louisiana in May 1841, broke diplomatic relations without permission from the French monarchy and threatened Texas with the wrath of France.
- When Sam Houston assumed presidency of Texas, he negotiated a compromise with France and requested the return of Dubois.
- Dubois returned to Texas in April 1842.
The Pig War hurt Dubois’ diplomatic career, the Franco-Texian Bill never became a reality and Texas became a part of the United States in 1845, contrary to French desires.
Dubois was recalled to France when Texas ceased to be a sovereign nation. The French Legation house was then briefly occupied by a Catholic priest, then a hero of the Texas Revolution and then became part of the Robertson family who occupied the home for several decades.
The Robertsons sold the house to the State of Texas in 1945, which placed it in the custodianship of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
#8 Are Tours Available?
Yes. The docents are well trained and patient. The tour of the home, rebuilt kitchen and grounds takes 30-40 minutes. Tours are given at 1:15 PM, 2 PM, 3 PM and 4 PM from Tuesday-Sunday.
Armed with these facts, check out the French Legation Museum if you’re in a Francophile mood. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday from 1-5 PM at 802 San Marcos St.
#9 What Are the Grounds Like?
The French Legation Museum has 2.5 acres of open grounds, art work, formal gardens and gravel paths. It’s a great spot to hang out on a nice day.
#10 What Can I See from the Porch?
The porch of the French Legation provides an unobstructed view of the Texas Capitol Building and downtown Austin.
#11 Have Artifacts Been Found?
Archeological digs on the grounds have unearthed relics from Texas in the 1800s. Pottery shards, pieces of porcelain dolls, beads and buttons are among the finds.
#12 What Game Are Visitors Playing on the Museum Lawn?
Petanque is a French lawn game. The game is a bit like pitching pennies, but with 2-pound metal balls (boulles if you want to be particular) and a leather piglet.
You often will see groups of people playing Petanque at the French Legation (it’s a great way to spend a day). Some will leap in exultation; some will frown in despair. And you’ll hear many speaking in French.
Many of the players are members of the Heart of Texas Petanque Club and will gladly show newcomers the game. A movie called Human Play was filmed earlier this year on location at the French Legation Museum by a French director. It involved – of course – a Petanque tournament.
#13 There’s Really an Alliance Francaise d’Austin?
Yes. There are French citizens and people who are interested in all things French in Austin. The French Legation Museum is a favorite spot for the group.
#14 Where Can I Learn About Events?
The French Legation Museum hosts concerts, art exhibits and food festivals. Visit their Events page to stay up to date.
@TexBusiness wants to know:
Have you visited the French Legation Museum? Any recommendations for first time visitors?