A History of the French Legation in Texas by Kenneth Hafertepe

Driving south on I-35 through Austin, Texas, I often wonder two things:

  • why didn’t I take the tollway so I wouldn’t be stuck in traffic?
  • what is The French Legation, pointed towards by sign tempting one in the direction opposite 6th Street?

A History of the French Legation in Texas by Kenneth Hafertepe answers at least the second question, describing “the oldest remaining structure in Austin”, starting with the building of the Legation in 1840 and 1841, when Austin was a year old. This is the 4th book in TSHA’s (Texas State Historical Association) Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series (list of the series here). Early in the book, he explains what a Legation is:

Today all nations send ambassadors to each other and set up embassies, but in the nineteenth century, only the great powers sent and received ambassadors. In dealing with lesser states a great power like France would send and receive a minister, who operate a legation. Fledgling states – like Texas – were entitled to a legation, but without a minister. Instead, an officer of lower rank was left in charge – a charge d’affaires.

The first chapter describes this first “charge d’affaires”, a Frenchman with the mouthful of a name: Jean Pierre Isadore Alphonse Dubois de Saligny. Dubois de Saligny appears to spend as much time in New Orleans and Houston as he does in Austin, complaining about the accommodations, getting involved in the so-called “pig wars”, holding lavish dinners and ultimately starting construction of the building know as the French Legation.

The second chapter reviews the construction of the house, as it changes hands from Dubois de Saligny (who buys the property for the house from Anson Jones in September 1840) to Father Jean Marie Odin in December of that same year, to Mosley Baker (a hero of the Texas Revolution) in October 1847 to Dr. Joseph Robertson in May 1848.

The third chapter describes the years that the Robertsons (described as Austin pioneers) owned the home. The Robertsons and their descendants live in this home for nearly a century, until the death of Sarah Robertson in May 1940.

Chapter four reviews the restoration of the house. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) acquired the house in the 1940s, and spent several decades restoring the house. The last chapter reviews some of the original and restored contents which are in the house today.

Like all of the Fred Rider books, this book is extensively footnoted with over 75 footnotes (a lot for a 48 page paperback) and excellent historical images.

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