Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Mysterious King of Texas

In 1821, the Mexican Republic finally won its independence from Spain after a decade of war that had left it and especially its northernmost province of Texas devastated. It was around this time that a mysterious man passed through Northern Mexico into Texas with a stunning quest: to take rightful ownership of Texas as its soverign. But enough of my talk, let's turn over the narration to Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, the 2nd President of the Republic of Texas, who recorded the story:

When Mrs. Long was at Bexar, there was one day a great parade in the Streets; when enquiring the cause, she saw a prisoner just lead from Jail, tied on a mule; his hat covered over with silver immitations of every variety of animas-- He was emaciated and was begone, a mere skeleton, who could not to all appearances live many days-- He was now started to Monterrey, whence he had been brought. His history was brief. He had suddenly appeared in the streets of Monterrey a stranger to every body and without being able to give an account of himself. He spoke no language known to any one in the Interior or in Texas; but by signs, the people at Monterrey learnt or thought that they understood him to lay claims to Texas as his province & that he was supreme Govr. of it. He was apprehended as a spy, brought to Bexar long imprisoned there, speaking fluently in some unknown language, without understanding any one or being understood by any; and after being worn down to an anatomy in prison, they now started with him back to Monterrey, having nothing to urge against him other than that he could speak none of the dead or living languages known to the Mexicans-- He was never heard of more-- his fate as well as his history being a mystery-- *

So ends Lamar's account. Jane Long, whose husband had led a failed attack on Spanish Texas and been captured and killed by royalist authorities, came to San Antonio in September, 1822 and stayed until July of 1823, which allows us to date this viginette.

Ferdinand VII, King of Spain
Who was this strange man with his Munchausenesque ambitions? No one knows for sure, but an intriguing possibility suggests itself from events across the ocean in Europe. In 1820, Spain had successfully defeated rebels in the Americas, but was shortly to see its position utterly reversed when Spanish general Agustín de Iturbide switched sides to the rebels, thus securing Mexican Independence.

The trigger for this defection had been the Riego Revolt in Spain itself, in which King Ferdinand VII was deposed by constitutional rebels and briefly imprisoned. He was rescued by the forces of reaction when various European nations banded together to put and end to the revolt. Among those who came to the king's aid were his allies the Austrians, led by their chief statesman, the foreign minister Klemens von Metternich.

Metternich was a giant in 19th Century diplomacy - probably the most influential Austrian in history until Adolf Hitler, and he dominated the post Napoleonic European landscape until 1848. His most impressive title, of course was Chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but his most interesting and unique title was "Duke of Texas."

You see, Ferdinand VII was very grateful to Metternich for his help in restoring him to his throne. So much so that he gave this special title to the Austrian chancellor. After all, why not? Mexico by that point was assuredly lost anyway. Giving away Texas (even if doing so only in a titular way), was kind of like gifting someone your house after you'd already lost it in the divorce settlement. Anyway, he certainly didn't have any expectation that Metternich would actually DO something about it. And no historian has ever suggested he did.

Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar,  
Prince of Metternich-Winneburg
zu Beilstein
But here's where we return to this curious story. Suppose someone took this title seriously. Metternich certainly never came to Texas, that we know. But suppose a minor cousin, an official or some other person in the Austrian court convinced the Chancellor to gift him Texas in payment for a service or debt? Perhaps he lost it in a game of cards. The scenarios are fun to contemplate.

Say this strange, unknown person then boarded a ship for the New World, sailing boldly in his fantastic hat covered in silver animal figurines. Interestingly enough, the Austrians, as well as Bavarians, have a tradition of the Tyrolean or Alpine hat, which is frequently decorated in various pins. In many cases, these can be animal figurines. The idea of decorating headgear is certainly not unique to the alps, but the similarities to the hat worn by the mysterious man are too hard to ignore.

This could account for the "unknown language" which he spoke. Presumably there may have been some people in Mexico who had heard of German, but very few who spoke it, and certainly not many who understood the Bavarian or Austrian dialects, which are strong enough to sound foreign even to some native speakers of German. If the mystery man was from the Hungarian side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, all the more likely his language would sound like a complete babble to the Mexicans.
Example of a Bavarian Alpine hat
with fox, ram and boar figurines.

We will never know who the mysterious King of Texas was. Given the description of him recorded by Lamar, he had not much longer to live in 1822. If he was indeed some voyager from a distant land, perhaps there is more to his story that we will learn one day. Maybe somewhere in South Texas he left a stash of gold, or documents proving his claim. Perhaps somewhere in Vienna, a distant descendant will one day discover a mouldy document and come to claim all of Texas as his own. History is full of such delectable mysteries and what-ifs, and the King of Texas is certainly one of the more fascinating ones.

* Source: Charles Adams Gulick, Jr. The Papers of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar Vol. 6, (Austin: The Pemberton Press, 1968), 181.

1 comment:

  1. As a fellow Texan, let me point out that "Bexar" referred then to San Antonio, then called San Fernando de Bexar. The namne Bexar is now used only for the country surrounding San Antonio and other neighboring cities, such as Converse and Live Oak, etc. The name of the Empire was then the Austrian Empire, which was one of the reason Hungarian revolted to demand their autonomy, resulting in the creation of the Ausgleich that later created the union of the Austrian Empire and the Hungarian Kingdom under Franz Joseph. Thanks for the information about this strange and still really unknown person.