Oftentimes, some of the most remarkable historic figures remain little known. What single person could you name who was born of noble lineage, witnessed the American Revolution, founded a Louisiana town, owned large tracts of Spanish Texas, participated in the first Texas Revolution, saw the birth of the Mexican Republic, was a client of Texas’s most successful empresario, and a friend of  the first Texas president?

Let me introduce you to Joseph de la Baume. My knowledge of this singular gentleman goes back to 1973, when I was compiling the story of our family property, which we call Rancho Richey Refuge. Tracing ownership as far back as records existed, I discovered that this Frenchman came to Texas in 1806 to seek his fortune. He had arrived with the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American Revolution. Later he joined the army of Spain. For his service, he received six sitios [leagues] of land, title to which was reaffirmed in 1824 by the new Mexican government. This 26,570 acres was located on the south bank of the Guadalupe River 50 miles east of San Antonio in the dense Post Oak Savanna near what would become Green De Witt’s colonial capital of Gonzales. Springs and hills on the de la Baume land still bear the name he gave them, Capote, which means cape. De la Baume died in 1834.

stradling Gonzales County

El Capote Ranch, 1880

That one paragraph’s worth of data stayed untouched in the property’s narrative until early this year. Needless to say, the closer one looks at history, the more there is to see. In February, I got wind that some of de la Baume’s descendants were meeting in Texas to dedicate a marker to his legacy. I was soon in correspondence with Sylvia Villarreal Bisnar, a San Antonio native now living in Arizona, who is writing a book on her ancestor’s life. Several excited e-mails later, I marked my calendar for a trip to Bellville, Texas, and began to amass more details on this man’s life and times.

Joseph de la Baume (JB) was born the son of a count in Avignon, France, in 1731. Present in one of Lafayette’s French soldier units, he would have been age 50 at the decisive Battle of Yorktown, where the United States gained independence from Great Britain. Although JB’s participation with Lafayette lasted less than six months, it was enough to garner recognition later, as we’ll see. Not long after his service to the US, JB journeyed to Louisiana, which had been ruled by Spain since 1762.

Aligning himself with Spanish authorities, JB was named a military officer, got married, and bought land along the Ouachita River. In 1790, JB supervised the building of a fort, around which grew the town of Monroe, Louisiana. There, he befriended Felipe Enrique Neri, better known to the world as the Baron de Bastrop, for whom cities and a county are named in Louisiana and Texas. With the sale of  Louisiana to the US, JB followed Bastrop to still-Spanish San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio).

two-storey stone

The de la Baume Home on the Alameda

By 1812, JB owned El Capote Ranch, other tracts in Texas, and a two-storey stone house along the Alameda (a cottonwood-lined avenue, now Commerce Street) in Béxar where the Chamber of Commerce stands today. This was a time of worldwide revolution, much of which spilled over into Mexico and Texas. An army of Mexicans and Anglos invaded Texas, capturing Goliad and Béxar and setting up a rudimentary government. Spain was not about to let this action stand, so it sent a large, well-trained force against the rebels. The revolt was put down at the disastrous Battle of Medina, in which nearly a thousand republicans were killed. The Spaniards also overran Béxar, executing hundreds of suspected revolutionary sympathizers. JB, then 82 years of age, was imprisoned and his lands and moneys confiscated.

When Mexico achieved independence, JB’s land titles and some of his fortune were restored. Time marched on, but our hero lived to the ripe age of 103, listing Stephen F. Austin as his attorney and being in contact with the likes of Don Erasmo Seguin, José Antonio Navarro, and Sam Houston. Thus he comported with personalities who would figure in the “third” Texas Revolution, but dying in 1834 just before those momentous events.

De la Baume belongs to an extremely small fraternity of Texans who took part in the US struggle for independence. For that reason, the Texas Society of the Sons of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque to JB in Bellville (his purported grave site) on March 20, 2010. On that cold first day of spring, my wife, Lina, and I traveled east to the town in Austin County, close to where Stephen F’s political headquarters had been. We got to meet Sylvia Biznar and other descendants and participated in the ceremony. The county judge introduced local dignitaries, the French Consul-General expounded on the long relationship between France and Texas, Sylvia recounted highlight of JB’s life and legend, and I spoke with fascination at being part-owner of the original property. Betsy Ross was there sewing her flag, and men in US colonial-era army garb fired a many-gun salute.

Salute to Joseph

Texas SAR Riflemen Volley

JB’s name graces medallions in the State Capitol, on Capote Road, and in the State Cemetery.  Alas, no one knows why he was so far from home on his death.

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