Parker H. French was born about 1826 in Kentucky and after the death of his parents was raised by a Judge Edwards. He ran away from home at the age of fifteen and worked five years as a cabin boy on an English man-of-war. He then returned to Kentucky and married Judge Edwards's daughter. After an unsuccessful attempt at shipbuilding in St. Louis, Missouri, French conceived of a scheme for raising money by organizing an express wagon train across Texas to California for gold seekers. He placed a large ad in the New York newspapers and set up an office in Tammany Hall. The ad promised fast and safe travel to the California gold fields, across the easy terrain and mild weather of Texas, under the protection of sixty Texas Rangers. French hinted of a stopover on the Gila River, where gold was to be found. All supplies, including food, wagons, mules, tents, cooks, and a physician, would be provided. The cost was $250 per passenger, with a promised rebate of five dollars for each day exceeding sixty days. Enlisted men who worked for their passage enrolled for $100 each. A total of 120 passengers and sixty enlisted men signed up. The group left New York on a crowded steamboat on May 13, 1850, and after a stopover in Cuba arrived in New Orleans, where members of the group were presented with the opportunity to join the López Revolution in Cuba as mercenaries. Offers of free land were made, but the group declined to go to Cuba. The passengers enjoyed a week of high living in New Orleans at the St. Charles Hotel, paid for by French, then sailed to the Texas coast and began a difficult overland trip from Port Lavaca to San Antonio, Uvalde, and finally to El Paso, where the bogus expedition disintegrated.
The overland trip across Texas was replete with disasters. Wild mules had to be broken to harness, the men fought swarms of mosquitos, and the group ran out of food, all within the first seven days. It took them that long to travel twenty-five miles to Victoria. French replenished supplies in San Antonio by using forged bank drafts and claiming that he was an agent of the United States government, and the military opened its stores to him. The expedition left San Antonio on July 15. Between San Antonio and El Paso the travelers crossed the Devil's River a number of times, watched a Texas Ranger named Black Warrior shoot and scalp a thieving Indian, crossed the muddy Pecos River, where they lost four horses to the swift water, and were frequently robbed by Indians. One of the men was accidently shot and killed. At one point French got into a serious confrontation with a wagon master, Durand, over moving the wagon train in the hot sun. The argument almost resulted in a duel. After 130 days of travel from New York, the expedition finally reached Franklin (El Paso) on September 18, 1850.
The weary men had already suspected that French was a fraud for passing forged bank drafts in New Orleans, San Antonio, and Franklin (James W. Magoffin had sold French fresh mules). They mutinied, secured a key to French's safe, and found it empty. Henry, French's body servant, told them that French had deposited the money in a New Orleans bank. French had avoided mutiny during the overland trip across Texas by claiming to be an agent of the government, by reminding the men of mysterious gold deposits on the Gila River, and by promising to refund some of their money since sixty days had long since passed. The men finally realized that they had been victimized. French avoided arrest in Franklin by crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. The expedition was then divided into four groups, with two going to California and two into Mexico and to California by ship. French attempted a raid on one group near Corralitos, Chihuahua, Mexico, but he was shot and had to have his right arm amputated. After an adventurous sojourn in Mexico, he traveled to California, where he proclaimed himself a lawyer and replaced his law partner (who had suddenly died) in the 1854 California legislature. He later traveled to Nicaragua, sent by William Walker as "Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary," but United States authorities refused to recognize him. He was kicked out of the office of the United States secretary of state. During the Civil War French was arrested in Connecticut, probably for outfitting a privateer for the Confederacy, and was held in Boston from November 8, 1861, to February 21, 1862. He had used the aliases Carlisle Murray and Charles Maxey. He worked for the Knights of the Golden Circle (Confederacy) and the Knights of the Golden Square (Union). French was last seen in the winter of 1876–77 in Washington, D.C. He filed a claim with the Commission for the Adjustment of American and Mexican Claims on March 23, 1870. No record exists of his death. In an 1893 list of California legislators the one-word notation "dead" is entered after the name Parker H. French.
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Michael Baldridge, A Reminiscence of the Parker H. French Expedition Through Texas and Mexico to California in the Spring of 1850 (Los Angeles, 1959; first pub. in the San Jose Pioneer, August-December 1895). Kenneth M. Johnson, "A Little Bit More on Parker H. French," Southern California Quarterly 49 (September 1967). Edward McGowan, The Strange Eventful History of Parker H. French (Los Angeles: Glen Dawson Book Shop, 1958). William Miles, Journal of the Sufferings and Hardships of Capt. Parker H. French's Overland Expedition to California (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Valley Spirit Office, 1851; rpt., New York: Cadmus Book Shop, 1916).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Albert Briggs Tucker,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 14, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
September 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
October 16, 2019