Community Memories, Your Story!
Help us with the stories we collect. All of us are history-makers, heritage-keepers, and storytellers. Share your memories, photographs, anecdotes, and research of the French Legation and its East Austin neighborhood by emailing them to Storytelling@FrenchLegationSHS.com. We will review and post to our Community Storytelling pages.
Please let us know how to credit you or if you wish to remain anonymous. By sending in your stories and images, you are agreeing to allow unrestricted use of this material by the French Legation SHS and the Texas Historical Commission.
Dubois de Saligny
In 1839, France was one of the first countries to recognize the Republic of Texas as an independent nation. Alphonse Dubois de Saligny (1809-1888) was a secretary to the French legation to the United States who saw financial opportunities in the new Republic. He was promoted to chargé d'affairs representing King Louis Philippe and sent to Texas to build a friendship between the two countries.
Dubois arrived in the young capital city of Austin in February 1840. He stayed in rented rooms in the city while developing relationships with lawmakers and influential Texans. Dubois entertained them with good food and wine as they worked toward common goals. He soon bought 21.5 acres of hilltop land east of the city to build a suitable Legation building that was completed in 1841. In poor health and having suffered personal and political difficulties in Austin, Dubois left the city the same year.
A "Legation" is the official home and office of a diplomatic representative in a foreign country. It can also refer to a group of diplomatic representatives sent on a mission. The Republic of Texas had Legations in England, France, and the United States
We would like to thank Dr. Hafertepe for his research and contribution for the text regarding Duobis de Saligny.
In 1840, Dubois sold the Legation property to his friend Father Jean-Marie Odin, a French Roman Catholic missionary. Father Odin used the property as a base during his work to reestablish the Catholic church in Texas. Dubois helped Odin secure the church's title to land in San Antonio, and Odin continued to lobby the Texas Congress to reclaim church property. He later became Bishop of the Diocese of Galveston in 1847 and is known as the father of the modern Catholic Church in Texas.
We would like to Ted Eubanks for his research and contribution regarding Father Odin and the Catholic Mission.
Dr. Joseph W. Robertson purchased the former French Legation property for his family home in 1848. The 21.5-acre site had a house, a detached kitchen, housing for enslaved workers, a stable, and a view of downtown Austin. Seven of the family's eleven children were born here and it was the family home for nearly a century. While growing their family, the Robertsons played important roles in the growth of Texas and its capital city.
Just after the Civil War, Dr. Robertson became very ill with tuberculosis and began selling his land to provide an income for his family. After his death in 1870, his widow and children continued to sell land nearby, forming the Robertson Hill neighborhood.
As the children grew and left home, some lived with their families in the neighborhood on East Avenue (present-day I-35) and East 8th Street. The couple's oldest son George owned a dry goods store on the corner of 7th Street and East Avenue. The only child never to leave home was Lydia Matilda "Lillie" Robertson. By 1920, Lillie and her widowed sister Sarah were living together in "The Old French Embassy." Lillie died in 1939, and Sarah followed her six months later. In 1948, the family sold the property to the State of Texas.
Dr. Robertson also bought many "outlots" of undeveloped land nearby. The family lived here for nearly a century, during which time their sale of land contributed to the growth of Central East Austin's ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
After Dr. Robertson's death in 1870, the family sold outlots as well as 19 of the original 21.5 acres of the French Legation property. The coming of the Houston & Texas railroad in 1871 fueled the rapid growth of Central East Austin into thriving neighborhoods complete with businesses, schools, and churches.
The Robertsons initially sold affordable land to business associates, African Americans, and recent immigrants from Germany, and Sweden. Later, immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Mexico and Lebanon purchased Robertson land as East Austin continued to grow in size and diversity.
We would like to thank Dr. Hafertepe for his research and contribution.
The Pleasant Hill neighborhood began on the original French Legation property just after the Civil War. This is likely where the people enslaved by the Robertson family lived before Emancipation. When this land was sold after the war, some of its African American buyers may have formerly been enslaved by the family. Houses are seen on the 1873 map, and by 1890 more homes and churches, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church by the corner of 11th and San Marcos Streets.
The small building seen at the corner of East Avenue and 7th Street may be the grocery store established by George Robertson. Between 1873 and 1890, the Robertsons subdivide and sold their land along East Avenue as the city's development pushed closer.
The area north of 11th Street grew significantly at this time. It was a largely African American neighborhood. 11th Street became a thriving business district. Most business owners in the 1890s were European immigrants.
The Robertson Hill neighborhood was comprised of land owned by the Robertson family who lived on the French Legation property from 1848 to 1949. It originally referred to land the Robertsons sold north of 11th Street but the neighborhood grew to include all of the original 21.5 acres of the French Legation property. Robertson Hill was at the center of several freedmen's communities that defined Central East Austin for more than a century and continues to shape the rich and diverse culture of the area.
East Austin Freedmen Communities
After the Civil War, formerly enslaved African Americans settled together in neighborhoods in outlying areas to insulate themselves from racial violence and the discrimination of Jim Crow laws. In Freedmen Communities, African Americans found greater safety as well as cultural, education, and economic opportunities. Land ownership was an important means of self-sufficiency and enabled each generation to build on the prosperity created by their parents.
Central East Austin's freedmen's communities included Pleasant Hill (1865), Masontown (1867), Robertson Hill (1869), and Gregorytown (1894).
Two of the earliest land sales in Robertson Hill were to two formerly enslaved individuals, Malick Wilson and Eliza Bell. Mr. Wilson purchased a lot on 11th Street in 1869 on which to build his home. Ms. Bell bought six acres on Juniper Street in 1870 where she built a home and sold lots to other African American buyers.
We would like to thank Dr. Andrea Roberts for her research and contribution in regards to East Austin Freedmen Communities. We would like to thank Richard Lyons for his research and contribution pertaining to Eliza Bell.
East Austin Schools
In the years following the Civil War, churches and communities created schools for African American children. In Austin, three institutions were founded in the 1870s, Paul Quinn College, Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, and Samuel Huston College.
Although these institutions initially offered elementary through college-level courses, by the 1900s, eight elementary schools existed in four surrounding Freedmen Communities, allowing these institutions to focus on higher education. Of the three historically Black colleges, one remains in Austin. Samuel Huston and Tillotson Colleges merged in 1952 and is today Huston-Tillotson University.
In Robertson Hill, a school existed on the 11th and San Marcos corners since the 1880s. It operated as an elementary school until the 1890s when a high school was added. In 1909, the Robertson Hill School was re-named Anderson High School. It was the only high school for African Americans in Austin until it closed in 1971 as a part of desegregation.
East Austin also held at least two early schools for women, the Stuart Female Seminary and the German American Ladies College. The Stuart Seminary operated between 1876 to 1899. It offered a collegiate department that conveyed a Bachelor of Art and Science degree.
The German American Ladies College started in 1877. The school taught a variety of subjects and offered a training program for teachers. The college closed in 1881, the same year that the Austin public school system began a formal operation of free public education.
We would like to thank Dr. Andrea Roberts for her research and contribution for the content in regards to: Freedmen's communities, Schools in Robertson Hill and Women's Education.
Redevelopment and Community Changes
The one constant throughout the Robertson Hill neighborhood's history is change through settlement, development, and redevelopment. Today, the neighborhood continues to change and reflects a moving kaleidoscope of cultures. In 2016, the Robertson/Stuart & Mair Historic District was established through the efforts of the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood. The designation celebrates the neighborhood's history and continuous evolution, even into the 21st century.
In its center is the French Legation, built in 1841 as a diplomatic outpost to the Republic of Texas and a place where different cultures can find common ground. As the neighborhood continues to change, this place reminds us of the value of finding common ground.
We would like to thank Mark Rogers and Emily Little for their research and contribution in regards to redevelopment and community changes of East Austin.
Daughters of the Republic of Texas
Lydia Matilda "Miss Lillie" Robertson (1855-1939) was the only one of the Robertsons' eleven children who never left her childhood home. She was a keeper of its history and gave public tours of "The Old French Embassy."
Lillie Robertson was an active member of the William B. Travis's chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT). She supported the chapter's collecting Republic Era artifacts in the 1890s, and in 1921 the DRT opened the first Republic of Texas Museum in the second story of the old General Land Office in Austin near the capitol. By this time, Lillie's widowed sister Sarah had moved back to the French Legation to live with her. Lillie passed away in 1939 in the same bedroom of the house where she had been born 84 years earlier. Sarah followed her six months later.
In 1949, the State of Texas purchased the French Legation property from the Robertson family and placed it in the custodianship of the DRT. The organization's goal was to restore the legation house to its Republic Era appearance and open it to the public as a museum.
Prominent preservation architect Raiford Stripling (1910-1990) guided a team of architects in the restoration efforts, which included reversing some changes made to the property after the Republic Era and rebuilding some early structures based loosely on period examples. Stripling rebuilt a kitchen, stables, and privy to evoke what may have stood here in the past.
The DRT teamed up with the Violet Crown Garden Club to beautify the grounds and hired well-known landscape architect Charles Coatsworth Pinkney (1906-1994) to further refine the landscape. Pinkney had developed many parks, municipal spaces and the landscapes of private estates in Austin. At this time, the stone wall surrounding the site was constructed with gates by local ironworker Fortunat Weigl (1884-1973).
Inside of the French Legation house, the Colonial Dames of America donated furnishings to fill the parlor with antiques they felt reflected the Dubois era. These items augmented the many Robertson family items that had remained in house.
In 1956, the DRT opened the French Legation Museum to the public.
We would like to thank Gayla Lawson, Carolyn Raney and the DRT for their research and contribution.
Into the Future
In 2017, the French Legation Museum was transferred to the Texas Historical Commission (THC) by the Texas legislature. After several years of intense restoration work, the site reopened with a renewed dedication to its original purpose in 1841: a place to find common ground, build bridges across differences, and see ourselves in a shared heritage.
The French Legation is more than a surviving structure from the early Republic days, it is a witness to the history of a small frontier town that evolved into a bustling capitol city. It is a place to tell stories of the past as we envision how to forge our future.
We would like to thank Gayla Lawson for her research and contribution.