William Shaler, merchant, American consul, and writer, son of Timothy and Sibbel (Warner) Shaler, was born in 1773 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Orphaned at a young age, at thirteen he took a job with the New York trading firm of Ingraham, Phoenix and Nixsen. He rose to be a commercial agent for the firm, then a sea captain in his own right. In 1801, with his partner Richard J. Cleveland, he was interned in France during the Quasi-War with that nation. When they were released, Shaler and Cleveland purchased a ship—the 175-ton Lelia Bird—in Hamburg, Germany.
Shaler believed strongly in republicanism, and he and Cleveland planned to sail to South America to open up trade and spread republican ideology. Along with their cargo, they brought Spanish translations of the Declaration of Independence and the American and various state constitutions. They were briefly interned at Valparaiso, Chile (1802) and also landed at San Blas, Mexico (1803). At San Diego, Spanish authorities refused them landing rights, but the pair landed their cargo at night to sell to Creoles ashore. When Spanish patrols captured Shaler’s men, he rescued them by force, then sailed out to sea, and returned Spanish cannon fire with broadsides from the Lelia Bird. Shaler and Cleveland continued to trade back and forth across the Pacific, including stops in Hawaii and China.
Upon his return, Shaler wrote of his travels in an account which was published as "Journal of a Voyage between China and the Northwestern Coast of America" in American Register (1808). This brought him to the attention of President James Madison. In May 1810 Shaler was appointed as a special agent to revolutionary movements in Cuba and Mexico by Secretary of State Robert Smith (a former secretary of the navy who knew Shaler well).
Shaler’s mission was not to foment or support insurrection. His instructions, minus geographical references, were exactly the same as those given to two other U. S. agents appointed at the time—Robert K. Lowry, who was sent to Venezuela, and Joel Roberts Poinsett, sent to Chile and Argentina. His mission, as outlined by Smith was to 1) to “diffuse the impression” of U. S. good will towards the people of Spanish America, 2) in the event of an independence movement to establish contact and open lines of communication with rebels, 3) learn local sentiment toward the U. S. and report it, and 4) report on the population, intelligence, and wealth of the territories. He was not to attempt any effort to detach Texas from Mexico, and Smith had written to him explicitly on this point. He added that “the many considerations induce me to believe that there is no wish here to insist on the Río Del Norte [Rio Grande] as one of the Boundaries” of Louisiana.
Shaler arrived in Havana with an official commission as agent for merchant seamen alongside his still-secret instructions to contact Cuban rebels. However, he found no serious revolutionary movement active on the island. After a year of little action, Shaler ran afoul of Spanish authorities, who expelled him in late 1811. With Mexico actually in the midst of a serious revolution, Shaler sought to relocate there but found Veracruz closed to foreign visitors by Spanish authorities. He chose instead to go to New Orleans, where he could provide the administration with the latest intelligence on the revolution.
Shaler’s mission was hampered by the replacement of his superior, Smith, with a new secretary of state, James Monroe. Shaler had never met Monroe, and the latter was a very infrequent correspondent. Though Shaler dispatched regular letters to him, Secretary Monroe only responded to him twice between November 1811 and September 1812. Due to the four-month lag in communications, even these messages were universally outdated and insufficient to guide his activities. Consequently, Shaler was forced to interpret his orders amid changing circumstances.
At New Orleans, Shaler determined after discussion with Governor William C. C. Claiborne to go to Natchitoches on the U. S./Spanish frontier in order to get the most up-to-date information. While waiting for a ferry to take him upriver, Shaler learned of the arrival of Mexican revolutionary José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara in March 1812. Claiborne, concerned that Gutiérrez’s presence might become a magnet for political adventurers in the city, asked Shaler to escort the Mexican to Natchitoches, which he did in April 1812.
Still concealing his official mission, Shaler set up residence in Natchitoches. Finding Gutiérrez showered with invitations for support of an armed filibuster into Mexico, the agent urged him to reject such overtures, while writing to Monroe to clarify the official position on any filibuster. Meanwhile, Gutiérrez defied Shaler to meet with Mexican exiles, American Burrites, and pro-French agents to organize the filibuster that eventually became the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition. Monroe’s answer came too late. By the time he told Shaler that the U. S. government would not support such activity, the expedition had already been in Texas for a month.
With the early successes of the Republican Army of the North, as the force was known, Shaler warmed towards the enterprise. He argued to Monroe that since it had begun, it would be a mistake to not profit by it. He praised the American commander, Augustus Magee, but grew increasingly dissatisfied with Gutiérrez, particularly after an incident in October 1812 when the Mexican or his agents attempted to conscript citizens of the town of Bayou Pierre, a formerly Spanish pueblo that was now in American territory. Shaler became openly hostile to Gutiérrez after the republicans took San Antonio and Mexican rebels executed fourteen royalist officers, including governors Manuel Salcedo of Texas and Simón Herrera of Nuevo Leon. When the Cuban revolutionary José Álvarez de Toledo y Dubois arrived in May 1813 with plans to subvert Gutiérrez and assume control of the rebellion, Shaler embraced him and, exceeding his instructions and downplaying his role in his letters to Monroe, began assisting his planned coup. Shaler aided Toledo in publishing the Gaceta de Tejas and El Mejicano, anti-Gutiérrez newspapers.Erasmo Seguin, who was in Natchitoches in July 1813, reported that Shaler, alongside Toledo, had compelled him to write letters in support of the rebellion, despite the fact that Seguin claimed to support the monarchy.
With the defeat of the Republican Army of the North at the battle of Medina, Shaler, having failed to establish relations with rebels in either Cuba or Mexico, returned to Washington. Nonetheless, President Madison appointed him to the American delegation to the Treaty of Ghent on the recommendation of Henry Clay, another of the commissioners. Shaler however, was frozen out of the proceedings by John Quincy Adams who thought Shaler lacked discretion. He had greater success in a subsequent mission to Algiers, where he played an important role in negotiating the end to the Second Barbary War in 1815. In 1818 Shaler began a decade as consul general at Algiers. About his experiences in that country he published "On the Language, Manners, and Customs of the Berbers, or Brebers, of Africa" in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1825) and Sketches of Algiers (1826). He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1828. In 1829 Shaler was appointed U. S. consul in Havana where he died during a cholera epidemic on March 29, 1833. He was buried in Mortimer Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut. Shaler was not married, and his estate was probated in New York and left to his “only next of kin,” his sister Abigail Stilwell of Lancaster, Massachusetts. His nephew, William Shaler Stilwell, served in an artillery company at the battle of San Jacinto.
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Archivo General del Estado de Coahuila, Fondo Colonial. Julia Kathryn Garrett, "The First Newspaper of Texas: Gaceta de Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 40 (January 1937). Hugh Golway, “The Cruise of the Lelia Byrd,” Journal of the West 8 (1969). Alf Andrew Heggoy, ed., with Aurie H. Miller, James J. Cooke, and Paul J. Zingg, Through Foreign Eyes: Western Attitudes Toward North Africa (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America: 1982). Samuel L. Knapp, “Memoir of William Shaler,” in New York Mirror, May 4, 1833. Roy F. Nichols, “William Shaler: New England Apostle of Rational Liberty,” New England Quarterly 9 (March 1936). William Shaler Letterbooks, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York Historical Society. William Shaler Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
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