Henri Castro’s Société de Colonisation Europée-Américain au Texas
“Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America,” wrote historian Oscar Handlin in the introduction of his Pulitzer Prize winning work The Uprooted. “Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” Indeed, the DRT Library’s collections contain many books, vertical files, archival collections, and other materials documenting the history and experiences of immigrant groups in San Antonio and Texas.
One of these items, pictured above, can be found in the DRT 9 Documents Collection. It a contract between colonist Maria Derungs and Henri Castro’s Société de Colonisation Europée-Américain au Texas, signed on June 27, 1847. Through the Société, writes Bobby D. Weaver, Castro “hired agents to recruit colonists and devised the means to insure the orderly movement” of European colonists – specifically individuals and families from France and the German states – to Texas beginning in 1842 (26). While the original office for the Société was located at 6 rue de la Beaume in Paris, a new organization with the same name was later created with headquarters in Antwerp.
As an empresario, Henri Castro was granted the right to settle on 1.25 million acres of land west-southwest of San Antonio in exchange for recruiting and taking responsibility for new settlers. The empresario system originated when Texas was ruled by the Mexican government. However, because the practice had the potential to sell vast public lands to new settlers, Texans continued it after independence as a means of remedying the economic instability facing the Republic of Texas. In theory, writes Wayne M. Ahr, the system also benefited empresarios like Castro and each new colonist:
The grant…stipulated that each married man would be allotted 640 acres, and each bachelor would be allotted 360 acres. To gain proper title to the land, colonists were required to construct a permanent dwelling on their plots and put at least fifteen acres under cultivation within a year. Castro would receive ten sections of land for every one hundred colonists he introduced” (130).
Each colonist to Castro’s colony signed a contract similar to the one signed by Maria Derungs. Weaver describes that the document “paraphrased the law that granted Castro his concession and outlined the stipulations of his contract.” In addition, each colonist signed a supplementary statement in which he agreed to “relinquish to Castro one-half the land due to [him] in return for expenses incurred by the empresario in recruiting and transporting the colonist to the property.” After signing both documents, the colonist paid a deposit of 100 francs ($20), “which he could redeem upon arrival on concession land.” The fee protected Castro’s financial investment in the colonization program by “insur[ing] that the person would indeed go to the colony or forfeit his deposit.” Finally, “each emigrant received detailed written instructions on what to do, whom to see, and where to go” at all points on the journey from Europe to Texas (26-27).
In “Adventures of a Castrovillian,” Auguste Frétellière, friend and brother-in-law of artist Theodore Gentilz, describes his experience in becoming one of Castro’s colonists. The reader firsts meets Frétellière “strolling along the Champs Elysées” on a June morning in 1843, anxious about his future in France. He is intrigued when his friend Page asks “Would you like to earn a million in five years?” and offers to introduce him to a “great capitalist who wished to establish a colony in Texas.” Frétellière’s account illustrates Wayne M. Ahr’s argument that Castro impressed potential recruits with “his manners, sumptuous headquarters, and promises of fortune” (131). However, unlike Frétellière, many people were not impressed enough to agree to go to Texas.
I was punctual for the engagement, and [Page and I] went together to Mr. Henry Castro’s house in the rue Lafitte. We were kept waiting in the antechamber rather a long time. (The custom is fairly general in France, since it gives importance to the personage on whom one is calling.) Finally a butler, conventionally dressed, came to show us into the drawing-room. The apartment was magnificent, Brussels carpet, a tête-à- tête and arm-chairs upholstered in crimson satin; a Saint Gobain mirror with an ornate frame; and a series of paintings which depicted scenes in America and Indian life. It was marvelous. My friend presented me to Mr. H. Castro. He was a middle-aged man, dressed in the latest fashion. He had the manner of a person of consequence, and of a diplomat as well – characteristics which impressed me at once. The conversation began, and he had no difficulty in convincing me that I should join his colony; for with that enterprise I would realize a fortune in a few years. He gave me a brochure, begging me to notice that in the little book I would learn of all the advantages which would accrue to people casting their lot with him. We took leave of the gentleman, promising to give him an answer shortly (80).
While at this time nothing else is known about Maria Derungs, Frétellière’s account helps us imagine and surmise the circumstances in which she signed her contract with Henri Castro’s Société de Colonisation Europée-Américain au Texas.
Wayne M. Ahr, “Henri Castro and Castroville: Alsatian History and Heritage,” in The French in Texas: History, Migration, Culture edited by François Lagarde
Auguste Frétellière, “Adventures of a Castrovillian,” in Castro-ville and Henry Castro, Empresario by Julia Nott Waugh
Bobby D. Weaver, Castro’s Colony: Empresario Development in Texas, 1842-1865