(unless otherwise noted, references from TSHA)
It is of common knowledge that Henri Castro was the empresario (businessman) and founder of Castro’s colony of Medina County. But perhaps some may find “the rest of the story” of some interest. How did Castro become involved in the settling of Texas? What was his motivation? What kind of man was he?
Born in July of 1786 in Landes, France, Castro was descended from Portuguese Jews. His family, who had fled to France after the Spanish Inquisition, then became one of status and wealth in southwestern France. At the young age of just nineteen, Henri Castro was appointed by the governor of Landes to a committee to welcome Napoleon during a visit to the province, and, in 1806, he served as a member of Napoleon’s Guard of Honor when the Emperor installed his brother, Joseph, as King of Spain.
In 1813, Castro married a wealthy widow, Amelia Mathias, and, after the fall of Napoleon, immigrated to the United States in 1827 and became a naturalized citizen. He later returned to France and became a partner in the banking house of Lafitte and Company. It was while he was with that firm that he became interested in the young Republic of Texas and actively negotiated a loan for the Republic. Out of gratitude for his influence and kindness to Texas, President Sam Houston appointed him Consul General for Texas.
Then, in February of 1842, Castro entered into a contract with the Texas government to settle a colony in Southwest Texas on the Medina River. This area consisted of a vast amount of unsettled land. History records that in 1689, the first Spaniard to pass through the region that became Medina County was Alonso De Leon, governor of Coahuila, en route to East Texas. It was he who named the Medina River, Hondo, and Seco creeks. In the 1700s, the area was frequented by bands of Apache and Comanche Indians who, while passing through seasonally, raided and attacked San Antonio with ease. As time passed and the Republic of Texas was formed, the authorities governing the state determined that if this area were settled, it would form a protective zone against such invasions from the south and west.
To accomplish that end, the above-mentioned contract stated that Castro was to introduce a colony of 600 families or single men – excluding anyone who had been guilty of any atrocious crimes or of bad moral character – and that within three years of the date of the contract, they should be settled on specified grants of land. Each family was to be granted 640 acres (nearly as square as possible), and single men would be granted 320 acres. Colonists would receive full title only when they had built a habitable cabin and had cultivated at least fifteen acres. Among various other stipulations, an additional section of 640 acres per 100 families would be granted for the erection of churches.
In order to properly create his new settlements, Castro was specific in selecting his colonists. He chose mostly farmers, but he also sought artisans, butchers, bakers, cobblers, merchants, masons, carpenters, mechanics, and coopers. And, in addition to the terms demanded of Castro by the Republic of Texas, Castro made his own requirements for the benefit of his settlers: “…the necessary clothing, farming and other implements of labor, the means of paying their passage, and the means of subsistence during the first year.” (History of Medina County, Vol II, page 4.) Otherwise, it would have been even more difficult to convince families to break up their households and undertake this challenge.
Most of the immigrant families had to sell much of their possessions and add to that their entire life savings. (And, after experiencing the hardships, many were said to have wanted to return but could not, as they had invested all they owned into this venture.) Really poor people could not get financing to make the trip; wealthier farmers were not easily induced to leave their comforts to go to a dangerous wilderness and start over. But, the promise of owning what to them was a vast amount of land – whose experience as farmers was only on a few hard-worked acres – was a great inducement.
One of Castro’s land grants began four miles west of the Medina River, and he purchased the sixteen leagues between his granted concessions and the river from John McMullen of San Antonio. This land had been part of the pasture land of Mission San Jose, the original title of which was from the government of Spain. It had been conveyed to the Indians of San Jose Mission, who later conveyed it to McMullen. It thus had become known as the McMullen Grant.
Convincing prospective settlers, chartering ships to carry the immigrants to Texas, expending great amounts of money, and dealing with delays due to rumors of invasions of the county of Bexar caused no small amount of frustration for Castro’s efforts. What is more, Texas ports were unsafe. According to his diary, Castro wrote: “I found great difficulty, as the coast of that portion of the gulf was hardly known. I could get ten vessels to go to New Orleans, but I could not find one to go to Galveston. I had maps of the coast of Texas, made according to the best data I could procure, which was from Captain Simpson, of Galveston, and circulated it in many parts of Europe.” (History of Medina County, Vol II, page 4.) Eventually, between the years of 1843 and 1847, Castro succeeded in chartering 27 ships in which he brought to Texas 485 families and 457 single men.
Castro’s first shipload of families finally arrived on the Texas coast. He took them overland to San Antonio, and, on September 2, 1844, with the accompaniment of Texas Ranger John Coffee (Jack) Hays and five of his Texas Rangers, the party traveled west to decide upon a site for the settlement. Castroville was thus founded on September 3, 1844, becoming the westernmost settlement in Texas. Castro subsequently established the settlements of Quihi (1845), Vandenburg (1846), New Fountain (1846), and Old D’Hanis (1848).
The settlements were laid out in town lots and were surrounded by 20-40 acre farming plots. Settlers lived in the towns and farmed their nearby fields. Understandably, these German and French-speaking immigrants from the Alsace region of northeastern France brought with them their distinctive architecture, with houses designed with rectangular shapes – short in the front and long at the rear roofline – a common style in their homelands, and their unique cultures.
The first church in the county, the Catholic Church of St. Louis Parish in Castroville, was completed in November of 1846. Protestant churches were organized in Castroville and Quihi in 1852 and 1854. The first post office was established on January 12, 1847, and the county of Medina was established in 1848. Henri Castro did, indeed, succeed in his venture to settle a colony in Southwest Texas.
Reportedly, Castro was a learned, wise, modest, hard-working, humane man, and in the management of his colony, he “expended much of his own money for the welfare of his colonists, furnishing them cows, farm implements, seeds for planting, medicines, and whatever they really needed that he was able to procure for them…. He had an unbounded faith in the capacity of intelligent men for self-government.” (THSA) In addition to caring for his colonists, Castro made many maps of his colonial grant and the areas bordering it, and he circulated these through the Rhine and districts of France to induce other colonists to join his settlements. These maps were instrumental in advertising Texas in Europe.
At the age of 79, en route to France, Castro became seriously ill at Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, and he died there on November 31, 1865. His business interests were then carried on by his son, Lorenzo.