Monday, February 21, 2011

The Elusive André Massé, Pioneer of the Attakapas

Many researchers of the Teche region know the name André Massé: He was an early, if not the earliest, European pioneer of the Attakapas District of Louisiana (that is, south-central Louisiana). Unfortunately, a good deal of misinformation surrounds Massé’s place of residence.

Map of Louisiana showing the Attakapas District (copyright © 2008).
Source: Shane K. Bernard, Cajuns and Their Acadian Ancestors:
A Young Reader's History (2008).

In his voluminous Treatise on the Limits of Louisiana and Texas (1812), the Spanish cleric José Antonio Pichardo placed the French settler along the Sabine River, or, as he put it, "next to a river . . . call[ed] . . . the Adaes [Río de los Adays], or Mexicano — and which is [also called] the Sabinas. . . ."

Confusingly, Pichardo also quotes the Spanish governor of Texas, Navarrete (1759-1767), who wrote that Massé’s dwelling stood "[T]o this [east] side of the Río de los Adaes [Sabine River], and before coming to the little Río de las Flores. . . ." The Spanish cleric Morfi echoed this claim in his Memorias para la Historia de Texas (ca. 1781). 

About the location of this Río de las Flores: Pichardo stated that he did not refer to the larger waterway of the same name found in Texas. Rather, he referred to a smaller Río de las Flores, which he associated with Bayu de Agua Salada and Río de los Lobos, small waterways that emptied in the Gulf of Mexico on either side of Encinal del Tigre (present-day Chênière au Tigre, Louisiana). The encinal (a Spanish term for a clump of oak trees) stood a short distance west of the Río Bermellon (Vermilion River).

Pichardo's 1811 map of the south Louisiana coast
showing Bayu de Agua Salada, Río de Lobos,
and other geographic features.

This would place Massé in or near present-day coastal Vermilion Parish, Louisiana — which, although in the Attakapas District, is farther west than Massé’s actual documented place of residence, near Bayou Teche.

It seems clear to me, however, that Pichardo — writing decades after Massé’s death — did not really know where Massé had resided. Was it along the Sabine on the present-day Louisiana-Texas border? Or was it in or near present-day Vermilion Parish?

Likewise, in more recent times Robert S. Weddle stated in his book The French Thorn that Massé established a Texas rancheria on the Río de Angelina or its parent river, the Río de Neches. Weddle based his conclusion, however, solely on inaccurate claims by Spanish explorer Bernardo de Miranda — who so distorted his map of the Louisiana and Texas coasts that even the Viceroy of New Spain dismissed the illustration at the time (1757) as not "subject to the rules of geography."

In short, the map expressed wishful thinking on Miranda's part. It showed Spanish-held Texas stretching all the way to the Mississippi River. As a result, the Río de Angelina, which in reality runs north of Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas, appears on Miranda’s map as if it ran through south-central Louisiana! 

Miranda's 1757 map of "Texas" with red square
around Massé's house. Map source: Research Laboratories
of Archaeology (RLA),

Indeed, if one uses Miranda's own map scale as a guide, then Massé's house on the Río de Angelina stood 70 leagues (about 185 miles) west of New Orleans — which would put Massé somewhere around Hackberry, Louisiana, near Lake Charles. In other words, one could read Miranda's map either as placing Massé in Texas (if one goes by river names) or in Louisiana (if one goes by the map scale) . . . a contradiction that, when combined with the map's overall distortion, makes Miranda useless for determining Massé's place of residence.

A final piece of evidence: In the mid-1750s Massé petitioned the Spanish to permit him to move to Texas — a request the Spanish denied. However, if Massé had been living in Texas, as some have claimed, why would he have asked the Spanish to permit him to move to Texas? The answer is evident: He was not in Texas.

Ultimately, I think there is no reason to believe that André Massé resided anywhere during the period circa 1747 (when he first appeared in the historical record) to 1775 (by which time he had died) except in the Attakapas District. Indeed, there are several contemporary documents that overtly place Massé there, including church and civil records.

1756 document from the Poste des Attakapas church
containing several references to "Andre Massé," "Mr. [Monsieur]
Massé," and "Sr. [Sieur] Massé." Photo of a facsimile in the
African American Museum, St. Martinville, La.


Weddle identified Massé in the historical record as early as 1728, citing as his source page 26 of Winston De Ville's book Opelousas: The History of a French and Spanish Military Post in America. But a glance at that page reveals that De Ville mentioned not Massé, but a certain "De Massy." Weddle, however, assumed that de Massy was the same as Massé, and he made this assumption without informing readers of the difference in surnames. Moreover, Weddle made this assumption even though De Ville himself noted that "[I]t cannot be determined who de Massy is" (though, De Ville mused, he might have been a Louisiana resident named Jean Massy, originally of Tours, France).

Oddly, Weddle did not cite De Ville's actual reference to André Massé elsewhere in Opelousas: On page 31 De Ville stated that the Frenchman "settled on the lower Trinity River in Texas. . . ." But on checking De Ville's source, one finds that it contains no reference to Massé!

So, again, I believe that there is no credible contemporary, primary-source evidence that Massé lived in Texas. Rather, the evidence shows that he lived in the Attakapas region of Louisiana, and that claims to the contrary are based on poor or non-existent data.

Addendum of 31 October 2012:

I found the below document in the Louisiana State Land Office: dated early 1809, and signed by Joseph Sorrel and Claire Dauterive Dubuclet, it states "that André Massé was the first person who settled in this part of the country. . . ." One can see from the various surnames mentioned in the document — Sorrel, Dubuclet, Fontenot, Flamand (i.e., Grevemberg), Landry, Judice, etc. — that "this part of the country" meant the Bayou Teche region. Source: Declaration of Joseph Sorrel and Clair Dauterive Dubuclet, [19 January (unclear, could read "February")] 1809, in Claim Papers S.W.D. [Southwestern District], T.14S. R.6-8E. & T.14S. R.9E. 58, Louisiana State Land Office, document no. 510.00174, Baton Rouge, La.,, accessed 4 September 2018. 

Here are the signatures and date on recto:

Other sources:

Winston De Ville, Opelousas: The History of a French and Spanish Military Post in America, 1716-1803 (Cottonport, La.: Polyanthos, 1973).

José Antonio Pichardo, Pichardo’s Treatise on the Limits of Louisiana and Texas, Vols. 1-4 (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1931-1946).

Robert S. Weddle, The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea, 1682-1762 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991).