This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The new Texans took time out from their toil on Sep. 12, 1844 to name the settlement springing to life on the banks of the Medina River “Castroville” in honor of their selfless benefactor.
Count Henri Castro certainly deserved the small token of the immigrants’ gratitude. A faithful friend of the Lone Star Republic, the French nobleman put his heart, soul and savings into bringing model citizens to the Texas frontier.
Castro served as a high ranking officer under Napoleon and escaped to America after his hero hit the skids at Waterloo. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen, yet counted the days until it was safe to return to his native country. He finally went back to France in 1838 and picked up the pieces of his shattered career.
As a partner in a major banking house, Castro sought an emergency loan to tide over the destitute Texans. President Sam Houston did not blame the financier for the deal falling through and instead appointed him consul general to Paris.
Count Castro toured Texas in 1842 and liked what he saw, an unspoiled land brimming with boundless opportunity. The wealthy visitor impressed Lone Star leaders, who risked the wrath of a suspicious public by signing a colonization contract with the aristocrat.
Castro’s two land grants hardly qualified as prime real estate. The Medina River tract 25 miles west of San Antonio was located in the middle of Comanche country, and the second parcel along the Rio Grande lay within shooting distance of the hostile Mexicans.
The terms of the agreement gave Castro three years to import 600 households. For his part the empressario was entitled to an acre for every ten awarded the colonists and half the 640 acres allotted each family.
In Europe Castro found an abundance of volunteers ready to risk their lives and precious few possessions for a fresh start half a world away. The vast majority of those that signed up for the transatlantic adventure came from the troubled border region of Alsace-Lorraine.
Since the fourth century, the long suffering Alsatians had been helpless pawns in an ancient tug-of-war between Germany and France. Anxious to take control of their own destiny, they eagerly accepted Castro’s invitation.
The Lone Star boat-lift conflicted with official French efforts to populate Algeria, the nation’s newest colonial prize. Given the choice of Texas or North Africa, most emigrants cast their lots with Castro, who effectively waded through the sea of bureaucratic red tape to launch his ambitious project.
Seven hundred colonists spent the summer of 1844 in San Antonio patiently waiting for Castro, who was running way behind schedule. As the weeks dragged by, local residents filled with their heads with terrifying tales of Indian atrocities, and only 30 were willing to follow the count’s lead when he finally showed.
Under the watchful eyes of a company of Texas Rangers, the courageous vanguard broke ground at Castroville in September 1844. Many of their cold-feet comrades later joined the budding community, and at the end of the first year 2,000 sturdy souls called the colony home.
Life on the raw edge of Texas was harsh and demanding, but the Alsatians and a scattering of other Europeans persevered in the face of drought, disease and Indian depredations. The villages of D’Hanis, Quihi and Vandenberg were soon founded, and in 1848 Castroville was designated the seat of Medina County.
Generous to a fault, compassionate Castro exhausted his personal fortune to help his charges get on their feet. For hundreds he paid the ocean passage out of his own pocket and often covered their initial living expenses. In a few costly years, he spent himself into poverty.
Under the conditions of his contract with the Republic, Castro should have been able to recoup his staggering losses. On paper he had a right to half of every grant, but the law did not compel compliance. As a result, the colonizer received very little land and lost most of that in a complicated lawsuit.
Broke spiritually as well as financially, 79 year old Henri Castro wanted only to spend his last days in France. But the northern blockade of Texas ports during the Civil War forced a detour through Mexico, and at Monterrey he took sick and died.
Castroville flourished until by-passed in 1880 by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Many inhabitants moved to Hondo, which took over as the county seat in 1892, and the census nearly a century later showed a net loss in population.
But Castroville did not dry up and blow away. A picturesque place steeped in Old World charm and custom, a highway sign beckons the present-day traveler: “Welcome to Castroville, the Little Alsace of Texas.”
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