Friday, March 21, 2014

Royal Friends of Texas: Belgium

The Kingdom of Belgium has had an impact on the world far out of proportion to its size and it has a long history of association with Texas. The Kingdom of Belgium was among the first powers to recognize the independence of the Republic of Texas but Belgians had been involved in Texas history even back in the colonial period. Much of the exploration of the New World was driven by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also King Carlos I of Spain and a Belgian by birth. For a time both Texas and Belgium were part of the same Spanish Hapsburg Empire. The first Belgians to visit Texas were three priests who came with the expedition under Robert de LaSalle in 1685 that claimed Texas for the Kingdom of France and attempted to establish a colony. Born in Hainaut, they were Zenobius Membre, Maximus le Clerq, and Anastasius Douay. When Ft St Louis was attacked by Indians, Membre and le Clerq were killed, but Douay lived to tell Europe about the death of the intrepid French explorer.

Juan Banul
Probably no Belgian Texan is as well remembered as Juan Banul, a master blacksmith from Brussels who for some time was the only blacksmith in all of Texas. Banul made the journey to New Spain and traveled north to Texas in 1719, settling in San Antonio. The French incursion had prompted Spain to settle and fortify Texas and the Marques de Aguayo recruited Banul to accompany him on an expedition to East Texas to build six missions and two presidios (Spanish forts) and Banul stayed until 1723. In San Antonio, Banul did most of the ironwork and much of the woodwork at Mission San Jose, the largest of them all and known as the "Queen of the Missions" as well as Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known to history as the Alamo. In 1730 Banul and Maria Adriana Garcia, a Flemish widow, were married. They lived in the Alamo where Banul worked as a blacksmith and operated the sawmill.  Another Belgian Texan involved with the Alamo arrived in the 1850's. He was a stonemason named Theodore Vander Straten. By this time Texas had joined the United States and Straten helped repair the Alamo walls so the building could be put to use by the U.S. Army. However, the army designers were not interested in an exact restoration and so they added the now-famous curve to the church facade to hide the new roof.

In the 1830's there was almost an effort to establish a Belgian colony in Texas. The Belgians were anxious to establish formal relations with the young Republic of Texas, but since Mexico still refused to recognize Texan independence they feared offending the Mexican government. King Leopold I of the Belgians sent an official to Texas to observe and report back as to the viability of establishing a Belgian colony. Strapped for cash, the Texas government asked Belgium for a large loan as a prerequisite to a diplomatic treaty. The Belgian government refused to grant the loan and so the dream of a colony ended then and there. However, there were many Belgians who accompanied French colonists in La Reunion and they eventually tried to establish their own Belgian colony at Louvain but frequent flooding meant that most of these people moved on to Dallas and Ft Worth.

Dutchover Family
Like all Texans, the Belgian Texans included some very colorful characters. One of these was Anton Diedrick. His story starts in Antwerp where he was walking sometime in the 1840's and came across a murder in progress. Hoping to eliminate the witness, the murderers took Diedrick and sold him as an impressed seaman. When the ship he was on put in at Galveston, Texas Diedrick escaped  just in time for the war that was breaking out over the U.S. annexation of Texas. Poor Diedrick could only speak Flemish, but this did not deter two eager recruiters for the U.S. Army. When asked for his name, Diedrick tried to explain his situation, in Flemish, but was stopped by one of the soldiers who said, "Ah, he's Dutch all over," which is what they decided to call him.

With his new name, Anton Dutchallover fought in the Mexican-American War, surviving unscathed except for the loss of the "all" from his new name and he was known thereafter as Anton Dutchover. He adapted quite well to his new life in Texas and became a frontier scout. He even joined the legendary Texas Ranger Big Foot Wallace as shotgun rider on his runs between San Antonio and El Paso. In spite of the hostile climate of West Texas, along with even more hostile Indians and violent Mexican bandits, Anton Dutchover decided this was the place for him. He settled down and started a sheep ranch at Limpia Canyon and supplied soldiers at nearby Fort Davis with food. Dutchover remained at the fort during the Civil War, carrying on as usual whether under Union or Confederate rule. Dutchover started a family and they, along with four others, hid during a violent attack on the fort by Apache Indians. They stayed on where they were until 1867, when Federal troops reoccupied Fort Davis and stopped all further Indian attacks. The descendants of the Belgian soldier, scout, rancher and Indian fighter still live in West Texas today.

Another famous Belgian who came to Texas was Jean-Charles Houzeau, an astronomer and naturalist. He worked at the Belgian Royal Observatory before his radical liberal opinions brought about his removal and he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. From there he came to Texas in 1858 and  worked as a surveyor before moving to Uvalde where he lead scientific expeditions. His politics still caused him trouble though. A firm enemy of slavery, when the Civil War broke out he helped prominent Unionists in San Antonio escape the Confederate authorities. Ultimately he was found out and had to escape to Mexico disguised as a peon. Eventually he returned to New Orleans, which had been taken by Union forces and ran a pro-Union newspaper. He also lived on Jamaica for eight years before returning to Europe, where his liberal opinions were no longer out of fashion, and returned to his old job as director of the Royal Observatory in Brussels. Texas continued to call him though, and in December of 1882 Houzeau returned to lead a scientific expedition to San Antonio to observe a locally visible transit of Venus across the face of the sun - in those days a method of measuring time and gravity.

Another wave of Belgian immigration came following dramatic events in Mexico. In 1864 the Austrian Archduke Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico. His wife, the Empress Carlota, was a Belgian princess, the daughter of King Leopold I, and many Belgians accompanied her to Mexico. Some came to settle, others with the Belgian military corps that gained quite a reputation for their victories over vastly superior revolutionary forces. However, by 1866, the French, who had supported Emperor Maximilian, withdrew their troops and with the United States backing the liberal forces, the Mexican Empire soon collapsed and most of the Belgians in Mexico were forced to flee across the Rio Grande to south Texas. In fact, for a time there was hardly a town in the Rio Grande Valley without a Belgian community.

Empress Carlota
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries many Belgians moved to Galveston and Houston. Some were businessmen, others were farmers, cooks, bakers, candle and soap makers, restaurateurs and musicians. San Antonio though was the center of Belgian settlement in Texas and most there worked as farmers. Their business endeavors were successful as well. The Houston Supply Company, which once provided water for the city of San Antonio sold 90% of its stock to Belgian investors. After taking over the business they expanded it and turned it into a great success. Before 1947 St John Berchmans in San Antonio was the Belgian national parish with all services conducted in Flemish. In 1952 it was remodeled and renamed St Stephen's. Belgian farmers in Texas also made many advances in vegetable cultivation and irrigation techniques. It was the Belgian Texans who first made year-round vegetable production a widespread and successful business. Since the end of the 19th century, Belgian families and their descendants founded the famous vegetable farms in western San Antonio. Year-round growing was pioneered by such Belgian families as Van de Walle, van Daele, Persyn, and Baeten. The Belgian Texans raised common crops and introduced new ones, including cauliflower and kohlrabi. Today, harvests range from flowers to picante sauce.  

King Baudouin in Texas
One of the unique cultural features of the Belgian Texans was the observation of the "Kermess", a national fall harvest festival held in mid-August and in mid-November, if the harvest was good. Belgian Texans also celebrate Belgian independence day on July 21, the day Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians was enthroned. The Belgium Inn, the Belgian Village, and the Flanders Inn, among several other places, provide the settings for many a gathering, traditional or friendly and informal. Until recent years, the Belgian sport of bolling was played and a version of the game is still demonstrated annually at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio. Today, the center of Belgian culture in San Antonio is still the Belgian Inn. Texas has also been proud to play host to Belgian royalty. In 1959 King Baudouin of the Belgians became the first Belgian monarch to visit the Lone Star State, visiting El Paso and Houston. King Baudouin was given a pair of cowboy boots and made an honorary citizen of Texas. King Baudouin may have been a repeat visitor and he may not have been the only Belgian monarch to visit Texas but records are hard to find. A Belgian government website has the King visiting Texas in 1959 and a photo of him with his boots and citizenship certificate (held by a private owner) is dated 1959 but other photos of the King visiting Rice University are dated 1969 or 1970. King Leopold III and Princess Lilian may have visited Texas in 1978 to dedicate a bust at Methodist Hospital in Houston, commissioned by Princess Lilian, of the heart surgeon who had previously operated on the former Belgian monarch. Unfortunately, exact details about that visit have proven hard to find. In any event, Texas and Belgium have had a long history together, will hopefully always remain fast friends and, of course, Texas would be pleased to welcome King Philip and Queen Mathilde anytime they would like to come down for a visit.

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