The Great Texas Pig War of 1841

(Another in my historical trivia posts – this is a cross-post from my book-blog. The Pig War features in my latest book, Deep in the Heart … along with a lot of other relatively unknown mid-19th century trivia.)
The Pig War was not actually an honest-to-pete real shooting war. But it did involve a pair of international powers; the Republic of Texas, and the constitutional monarchy of France. And thereby hangs the story of a neighborhood squabble between a frontier innkeeper and a gentleman-dandy named Jean Pierre Isidore Dubois de Saligny who called himself the Comte de Saligny. He was the charge d’affaires, the representative of France to the Republic of Texas, arriving from a previous assignment the French Legation in Washington D.C. He had been instrumental in recommending that France extend diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Texas, but one might be forgiven for thinking that some kind of 19th Century Peter Principle was at play . . . for Dubois turned out to be terribly undiplomatic.

Perhaps it was just the shock of arriving in the new capitol city of Austin, a ramble of hastily built frame shacks and log cabins scattered along a series of muddy streets along the scenic and wooded shores of the upper Colorado River; a city planned with great hopes and nothing but insane optimism to base them on. Dubois arrived with two French servants, including a chef, a very fine collection of wines, elegant furniture and household goods. Here was a man of culture and refinement, perhaps acclimated to America, but ill-unprepared for the raw crudities of the Texas frontier.

Initially, Dubois took rooms at the only hotel in town, a crude inn of roughly-finished logs owned by Richard Bullock, located at the present intersection of 6th and Capitol. In the days before cattle was king, pork was much more favored; Richard Bullock kept a herd of pigs – pigs which were allowed to roam freely, and eat what they could scavenge, along the muddy streets and in back of the frame buildings and log cabins set up to do the business of the Republic. Undaunted, Dubois, rented a small building nearby to use as an office and residence while a fine new legation was being built. He entertained in fine style – but was most especially plagued by Bullock’s pigs, which constantly broke through the fence around his garden, and helped themselves to the corn intended for his horses. The pigs even broke into the house, and consumed a quantity of bedclothes and papers.

That was the last straw: Dubois instructed one of his servants to kill any pigs found on the property that he had rented, which was done. Richard Bullock, outraged, demanded payment for his loss, which was indignantly refused on the grounds of diplomatic immunity. The matter escalated when Bullock encountered Dubois’ swine-killing servant one day in the street and thrashed him. An official protest was filed, and a hearing ordered by the Texas Secretary of State – but citing international law, Dubois refused to attend or allow his servant to testify. Richard Bullock was freed on bail – and when Dubois complained bitterly to Republic authorities he was told that he could collect his passport and depart at any time.

He left in a huff, and stayed away for a year – never having had the chance to actually live in the elegant residence which he had commissioned to become the official legation; a white frame house on a hill which is presently the only remaining structure from those early days. Richard Bullock became the toast of the town, and his pigs were celebrities, for of course the story got around. The fracas also put an end to a generous loan from France, and plans to bring 8,000 French settlers to settle on Texas lands – as well as a military alliance that would allow stationing of French garrisons in Texas to protect them.

What would Texas have been like, one wonders – if Richard Bullock hadn’t let his pigs roam and the French Legate had thought to hire someone to build a better fence?

19 thoughts on “The Great Texas Pig War of 1841”

  1. What a wonderful post!

    And re Sgt Mom’s question, “What would Texas have been like, one wonders – if Richard Bullock hadn’t let his pigs roam …?”

    This is a very interesting question indeed, because Texas borders Louisiana, which was French … I think at the same time. Could that huge swathe of the south/southwest have become a region, or department, of France?

    I’d also love to know how the Austro-Serbia prune war ended, though.

  2. It seems much or the world’s problems revolve around hogs. My mother’s family is from West Virginia, and she is from the Huntington (Tri-state) area bordering KY, OH and WV.

    Seems the Hatfields and McCoy’s started feuding in that area with pig problems as one of the origins.

    In 1873 these two brothers-in-law had a law suit over a sow and some pigs

    I do love historical trivia because many times it has such profound consequences.

    Indeed, how would Texas have evolved were it not for the “pig problem”?

  3. Wonderful post!

    Bullock had the right of the law. Until the 1880’s, American fencing laws generally followed the ancient English rights to the commons – you fenced in your garden or your crop, not your livestock, which were your property regardless where they were grazing. Killing them was poaching. Period. This allowed poor men to accumulate wealth in the form of livestock to eat, breed or sell.

    Of course, the French had a different legal system…. :)

  4. The original function of the sheriff, or shire-reeve, was to collect stray livestock and return them to their owner. The Anglo-Saxons pragmatically realized that having a neutral party to do that function would help keep the peace. At least in rural Michigan, you can still call the sheriff’s deputies to perform that function if your land is invaded by the neighbor’s livestock.

    The expansion of the role of the sheriff is surely a classic lesson in mission creep.

  5. If the French had only got there sooner, they could have saved the brave souls at the Alamo. The are, after all, experts at surrendering.

  6. Dearieme, the Austro-Serbian Prune War sounds fun! Not quite up there with the War of Jenkin’s Ear, though…
    The most interesting thing about the Pig War, though – is that if it haden’t happened, or if Dubois hadn’t been such a prat (or Richard Bullock so hot-tempered) then very likely the French loan and the entrepeneur grant would have gone through. It’s one of those starting points for an alternative history: Texas possibly would have maintained independence, rather than joining the US. And if the Texan entrepeneur grant to the German Mainzer Adelsverein had worked out a few years later – if the Adelsverein had been better managers – then Texas would have had a very substantial German and French minorities along the frontier. Which would have made the late 19th/early 20th century very interesting, if they had aligned with their respective countries of origin in later conflicts…
    Dirk – outside of the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, there are a number of flagpoles, flying the flags of various countries who contributed settlers to Texas – including the French, of course. The French flag is a plain white banner, which is explained as being the royal French naval ensign … any other interpretation of it is purely coincidental, of course.

  7. “The French flag is a plain white banner, which is explained as being the royal French naval ensign …”

    Always nice to learn the origin of a custom.

  8. Verity,

    Most of what is now Louisiana was sold by France to the US in 1803. The cultural influences there were strongly French with residual Spanish but by nearly 4 decades later the economic ties with the US were reasonably strong.

    I think more interesting wrt gt. Mom’s question is what might have become of Texas if they’d established and maintained strong ties with The Republic of Texas and, 20 some-odd years down the road, took over Mexico as they did. Texas may well have become part of a French controlled Mexico. As it was, without outside help the Republic was all but doomed and quickly joined the US.

  9. I’ve had a quick shufti into the Prune War, and find (i) “secret Austro-Serbian Treaty of 1881, signed for ten years, … a tariff agreement admitted Austrian manufactured articles into Serbia at half the tariff rates asked of other countries, and in return special advantages were given to Serbian pigs and prunes imported into Austria-Hungary.” But (ii) “In 1906, when the Austro-Serbian tariff treaty expired, feeling in both countries ran so high that it was not renewed, …As a consequence, a bitter tariff war—the so-called “Pig War”—ensued.” I prefer my pal’s name for it, but , on the other hand, this alternative name is more relevant to Texan history, eh?

  10. JD – yes … IIRC, they’ve changed the names of the streets at least once. I was probably going by an original map, writing this.
    Erisguy, Knucklehead is essentially correct – the Republic of Texas was running on a shoestring: couldn’t afford a standing army, or a navy (did have a small one, but rented it out for a while to another rebellious state), the money was worthless, they were seriously in debt AND they were essentially at war on two fronts (against the Comanche and Mexico) the whole time they existed. All they had was land, and stubbornness. The original expectations upon the 1836 war was that Texas would become a US state almost at once. When that did not happen, because of opposition from abolitionists – an independent republic was the interim fall-back position.

  11. Verity – I did not realize that Sam Houston urged his Texans to stay out of the war – and was run out of office. The popular mythology seems to gloss that over but had he prevailed think how different Texas would have been –

    Sgt – I was struck by how viciously the mainly pro-Union German immigrants were treated during that horrible time.

  12. Strictly speaking – Sam Houston wanted Texas not to withdraw from the Union and join the Confederacy. That Texas had joined the Union in the first place was largely his doing, and I do believe secession must have just about broken his heart. But the popular vote had gone for secession, and the Legislature had made it the law that all public officials had to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy – ahd he just refused to do it. He resigned office rather than take the oath.

    The Hill Country Germans were indeed treated viciously during the war – especially after the draft laws were passed. They had been abolitionist in sympathy generally, had voted not to secceed, and then to be forced to fight in defense of everything they found abhorrent? A lot of them had immigrated from Germany to avoid the military draft there! I went into a lot of this in my second book about the Hill Country settlements – in Adelsverein:The Sowing. I hardly had to make up anything. Gillespie County was put under martial law,pro-Unionists were murdered and their property confiscated or destroyed … there were a lot of German settlers hiding out in the brush, all during the war.

  13. I never realized that about Sam Houston Sgt. Thank you for your contribution! And I will get to your trilogy…promise. You seem to enjoy history, too.

    One has to wonder what would have become of Texas had they stayed independent – would they have been absorbed into Mexico again?

    I read somewhere that one of the reasons they were independent for 9 years was Washington’s fear of antagonizing Mexico.

  14. No – Texas would never have been absorbed by Mexico; although maybe in a pinch they might have given up the Nueces Strip. After San Jacinto/Goliad, and ten years of cold war – to include incidents like Woll’s raid on San Antonio, the Dawson Massacre, Mexican agents suborning the Cherokee – Texians hated Mexico with the passion of a thousand white-hot suns. Mexico would have had to invade and occupy in force against terrific resistance. And kicking off a war with Mexico was one of the reasons for the US to back off – the slavery issue was the other reason.
    One of Sam Houston’s cunning stratagems was to encourage closer relations with Great Britain – it was even suggested (although no could know how serious Sam Houson was, or even if he would have gone through with it) that Texas might become a British Protectorate. In one of his letters, he likened this strategy to a girl flirting with another man, in order to encourge the serious attentions of the one that she really, really wanted.
    This finagling is all in another one of my books – Deep in the Heart, which is set in Austin, during the Republic of Texas years. The Pig War is in that one, also.

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