Although Champ d'Asile, a colony of Bonapartist refugees founded on the Trinity River in 1818, endured barely six months, its impact on the future of Texas was strong. The concern aroused among United States and Spanish diplomats over this intrusion into disputed territory caused two immediate results. United States pressure forced pirate Jean Laffite and his men, who had assisted the French colonists, to leave Galveston. And French presence at Champ d'Asile precipitated the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, which eliminated the Neutral Ground agreement and established the Sabine River as the Louisiana-Texas boundary and the border between the United States and New Spain. The body of thought, art, and literature evoked in Paris around Champ d'Asile also had important long-term effects on Texas. Bourbon Spain still ruled Mexico in 1818, and the Spanish army marched against the colony. In Restoration France, therefore, artists and the liberal press could represent the failure of Champ d'Asile as a Bourbon attack against the remains of France's imperial glory. A mythic Champ d'Asile stirred French attachment to Texas, intermittently rekindled by journalists, which two decades later resulted in France's becoming the first European power to recognize the Republic of Texas. Champ d'Asile, the Bonapartist refugees, and Laffite the pirate persist as themes in French literature.
The idea of an armed expedition of Frenchmen into Texas apparently took form during Baron Henri Dominique Lallemand's stay in New Orleans early in 1817 but was soon appropriated by his elder brother, Baron Charles François Antoine Lallemand, on his arrival in the United States later in the year. In Philadelphia Charles Lallemand obtained the presidency of a company that had received from Congress a grant of four townships of land in Alabama for the purpose of colonizing French emigrants who would cultivate grapes and olives. Lallemand succeeded in imposing more than sixty refugee officers on the society for the purpose of selling colonial allotments for the benefit of the expedition. The sale of most of the allotments in the early days of December enabled the first contingent, led by Baron Antoine Rigaud, to sail from Philadelphia aboard the schooner Huntress on December 17. Shortly afterward the Lallemand brothers, with more officers and munitions, left New York for New Orleans aboard the brig Actress. Charles Lallemand and his group went on to Galveston on February 19, 1818, leaving Henri Lallemand behind to coordinate the dispatch of supplies and recruits. At Galveston the Frenchmen were the guests of Pierre and Jean Laffite, special agents of the Spanish government. The Laffites provisioned and transported the filibusters while reporting their activities to the Spanish consul in New Orleans. On March 10, with the aid of their hosts, the French left for the Texas mainland in small boats and ascended the Trinity River to a locale now unknown, near the site of the present town of Liberty. There they built their fortress, Champ d'Asile.
What Lallemand and his officers intended to do in Texas remains an open question. Lallemand had offered his services to Spain, but the viceroy had turned him down. At the same time an emissary of Lallemand's claimed to have made an arrangement with the insurgent congress to train a large number of recruits in a remote part of Texas, a project to have been financed by Mexican mine owners. One deserter from Champ d'Asile reported that the general spoke of the wealth and power the mines would give the filibusters, perhaps to be used to free the captive Napoleon; while other deserters not privy to their leader's private conversations called the expedition mysterious. Lallemand issued a manifesto claiming that the invaders, although organized into military units, were peaceable colonists dedicated to tilling the soil. However, there is no evidence of their having undertaken agriculture in a serious manner, and lack of food was one cause that led finally to the breakup of the encampment. In any case, the officers primarily dedicated themselves to building a fortress and manufacturing munitions. Their pretension to agriculture masked Lallemand's aggressive intent, though the objective of the aggression is not known.
There probably were never many more than 100 officers at the encampment at one time. The roster of all those whose names are known amounts to 149. In addition there were four women and four children, three enlisted orderlies, several servants and laborers, and a few others. The officers were organized into three companies, called cohorts, of infantry, foot cavalry, and artillery. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of them were French, and the rest were former Grande Armée officers of other nationalities. The latter formed the most discontented and unstable element of the expedition, and most of the desertions were from their ranks. The French themselves were divided, some partisans of Lallemand and others of Rigaud, the second in command, who was in charge during Lallemand's frequent absences. Learning while away that Spanish troops had been dispatched from San Antonio to expel the filibusters, Lallemand ordered the camp abandoned. By July 24 the retreating invaders were at Galveston Bay waiting to be returned to the island in the Laffites' boats. In August George Graham, a United States special agent, arrived at Galveston to inform Lallemand that the American government wanted the French to leave Texas. When Graham left, Lallemand and a few others went with him and Rigaud remained in command. In September a hurricane inundated the island, destroying the refugees' shelters and supplies. In October a Spanish officer arrived and commanded the French to leave. With aid of the Laffites, most of the filibusters were in New Orleans by the end of November.
The myth of Champ d'Asile took over after the collapse of the colony and the withdrawal of all the colonists. In Paris, artists and the liberal press opposed to Louis XVIII seized the image of Charles Lallemand and the unfortunate half-pay veterans depicted as soldiers of the plow. Led by Benjamin Constant, the newspaper Minerva raised funds to send veterans to Texas, then to bring them back to France after the colony dispersed. Jean-Pierre Béranger composed a touching song, and Louis Garneray, Charles Aubry, Charles Abraham Chasselat, and other artists prepared highly sentimental engravings and lithographs. Even wallpaper and labels on liqueur bottles represented an imaginary Champ d'Asile. Three books were published in 1819: Hartmann and Millard, Le Texas, ou Notice historique sur le Champ d'Asile;L. F. L'Heritier, Le Champ d 'Asile; and L'Héroine du Texas, a fictionalized version of the love story of two real colonists. Although it was probably written in Paris, L'Héroine may be the first novel set in Texas. Philippe Brideau, the archvillain of Honoré de Balzac's novel La Rabouilleuse (1842; translated as A Bachelor's Establishment), was a colonist at Champ d'Asile. The most popular book featuring Champ d'Asile was first published in French in 1878: Adventures of a French Captain, at Present a Planter in Texas, Formerly a Refugee of Camp Asylum, whose author uses the pseudonym Girard Roy Just. In 1985, after extensive research in Texas, French novelist Jean Soublin published Le Champ d'Asile in which the Comanches play an expanded role. In this novel some of the survivors form a utopian colony, an imaginative conclusion that telescopes the Franco-Texan experience of the entire nineteenth century. See also FRENCH.