French Writer Unites Senator’s Descendants

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This is a true story about how my parents' visit to the birthplace of an ancestor, U.S. Senator and Minister to Spain Pierre Soule, led to a French writer publishing a book about Soule and how her
research led to the first meeting of Soule's descendants in France and the USA in Soule's birthplace, Castillion-en-Couserans, France.


French Writer Unites Senator’s Descendants

 By Michael Redbendad with Jim Williams

Retired CEO Jim Williams departed DFW airport and flew to Paris, France to pick up his daughter Michelle and her boyfriend Viktor. Together they flew to Toulouse, France, rented a car, and drove to the village of Castillon-en-Courserans in the Midi-Pyrenees Mountains of southern France – the birthplace of Jim’s third-great grandfather’s brother: U.S. Senator and diplomat Pierre Soulé, 1801 - 1870.

Soulé, son of a judge, became an attorney and French revolutionary who escaped France in 1825, arrived in New Orleans in 1828, learned English, in part, from Andrew Jackson, and served as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana from 1849 to 1853. He was one of three prominent men in Washington D.C. who assisted in the 1853 release of Solomon Northup, the man who was "Twelve Years a Slave"[i]. President Franklin Pierce appointed Soulé US Minister to Spain in 1853. He was the primary author of the Ostend Manifesto in 1854, which was intended to force Spain to sell Cuba to the U.S.A.

Jim’s trip to Castillon was primarily the result of ambitious research by French attorney and author Catherine Chancerel, who wrote a tome about Pierre Soulé entitled L'Homme du Grand Fleuve[ii], (Man of the Great River). Catherine discovered branches of the Soulé family in Paris and Toulouse, France and in the U.S.A. who were unaware of each other’s existence. She scheduled a presentation in Castillon about Pierre Soulé and invited his French and North American descendants and the townspeople to attend.

How the Story Started

The unusual story about how all of this came together is a mixture of Catherine’s and Jim’s father, J.W. Williams Jr.’s determined, independent research mixed with several synchronistic events.  Jim’s father spent 40 years researching his and his wife Mable’s family history. In the spring of 1987, Jim’s parents traveled to a small village named Castillon-en-Couserans in the Ariege region of southern France. Neither parent spoke French. They carried a note written in French to inform others of the purpose of their visit, which was to discover more about Jim’s mother’s Soule ancestors, who had immigrated from Castillon to New Orleans.

Jim’s mother’s second great grandfather was Pierre’s brother, Auguste Jean Baptiste Soulé.  Their father was Jean Baptist-Auguste Soulé, a local magistrate and former Lt. General in the French Army of the Republic, a position he resigned upon the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

After arriving in Castillon, Jim’s parents knocked on the door of a random home and showed the note asking for directions to the city hall.  The man who opened the door, Christian Laffont, showed them to the mayor's office where they scoured the books for more information on the Soulé family history. Laffont's wife later researched Pierre Soulé, thinking that he must have been famous for this American to have come asking questions.

Pierre Soule had twice been discovered by French authorities to be a revolutionary. “By the early 1830’s, Pierre Soule had escaped France, travelled to New Orleans, and married the beautiful Creole Armantine Mercier, who bore him a son, Nelvil, and had joined Armantine’s father Louis Moreau-Lislet’s prestigious law firm. Moreau-Lislet, a leader in the Gallic community and a prominent member of French freemasonry, recruited Soule into masonry[iii].

“Soulé’s work as a politically influential defense lawyer proved immensely profitable. In 1837, he founded the New Orleans Improvement and Banking Company and built the palatial Saint Louis Exchange Hotel, an imposing edifice where French and Creole élite could conduct their business.[iv]

The author becomes intrigued with Soulé’s story

Nearly two decades later, an attorney and author in Paris, France, Catherine Chancerel and her husband Francis Haloua purchased a home in Castillon. In getting to know the people of the village, she heard the intriguing story of Pierre Soulé from the wife of the man who had taken Jim’s parents to the mayor’s office. Fascinated, Catherine began her seven-year research that led to her extensive book, L'Homme du Grand Fleuve, published in April 2014.

Catherine and Francis traveled to Louisiana to research Soulé. She left a note on his grave site at St. Louis Cemetery Number 2 in New Orleans Parish, which asked anyone who knew about the Pierre Soulé family to contact her.

A U.S descendant finds the postcard on the tombstone

A few years after Catherine left the note at the grave site, Kent Soulé, a 4th great-grandnephew of Pierre Soulé’s brother Auguste visited Pierre Soulé’s grave site and noticed the note. He contacted Catherine and arranged to meet her, as he regularly travelled to Paris. Catherine had found and met some members of the French Soulé descendants in Paris and introduced Kent to them, including Parisian Rosemarie Bouissou, eldest living descendant of Pierre Soulé’s brother Etienne. Catherine had found Rosemarie to be quite familiar with Pierre Soulé; her grandmother told her as a child that Pierre had paid to educate many family members and that he was a great man.

The families are beginning to come together.

Pierre Soulé served as the President of the Order of the Lone Star (OLS), which was formed in September 1851 with the goal of freeing Cuba from Spanish rule and annexing it to the United States[v].”

 “The OLS…had more than fifteen thousand members and at least fifty chapters spread across ten southern states with large concentrations in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama. It also had chapters in northern port cities including Baltimore and New York, where it operated out of Tammany Hall and the Empire Club[vi].”

Jim Connects with Kent Soule and Catherine Chancerel

In February 2014, Jim was doing some more research on the intriguing Soulé family. He found a letter with a few pages missing written in 1979 by Edward Soulé - Jim’s mother's cousin, who lived in Oklahoma City until his death. Jim contacted Edward’s son Kent to see if he had the original documents. Kent and Jim had never met and Kent might have known nothing about Jim, but still he called.

During this conversation, Kent mentioned finding Catherine’s note on Pierre Soulé’s grave site and the book about Pierre Soule that she had written. Kent put Jim in touch with Catherine and they corresponded via email. It became obvious that she was equally fascinated by Soulé and his story. His father’s research provided considerable information about the family and they traded information and pictures. Jim was excited to know someone who knew more about the Soule family than he did.

After serving as a United States Senator from 1849 to 1853, Soule resigned to accept an appointment by President Franklin Pierce, a pro-Southern Democrat, as U.S. Minister to Spain, a post he held until 1855. He is likely best known for his role in writing the 1854 Ostend Manifesto, with support by ambassadors James Buchanan and John Y. Mason, The manifesto, suggested by Secretary of State William L. Marcy, was part of an attempt by Southern slaveholders to gain support for the US to annex Cuba to the United States. Some Southern planters wanted to expand their territory to the Caribbean and into Central America. The Manifesto was roundly denounced, especially by Spain and anti-slavery elements, and Soulé was personally criticized[vii].

Pierre Soule and his son Nelvil in 1853. Photographer unknown. Public domain. Wikipedia.org.

The story began with a tall American

Catherine told Jim the story of how she became interested in Pierre Soulé - a story about a tall American who had visited Castillon with his wife years before to learn more about the Soulé family. This American had knocked on the door of a man whose wife looked into the story of Pierre Soulé and ten years later relayed it to Catherine. And then a light came on in Jim’s head; the man who knocked on the door was his own father! His father’s visit to France had indirectly lead to Catherine writing the fascinating story of Pierre Soulé.

The story had come full circle.

“It is [as] an expansionist, imperialist, and promoter of Southern interests that [Pierre Soulé] made his chief imprint on national life in the years 1853 to 1858”. In those years, Soulé supported and raised money for William Walker’s attempt to take over Nicaragua for use as a U.S. extension, as well as a project to build a railroad and highway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico[viii].

The cousins met in Castillion

A few months later, Catherine emailed Jim that she was trying to organize a Soulé reunion of French and American cousins and that she was giving a seminar on Pierre Soulé in the village of his birth: Castillon-en-Couserans. Jim and brother Mike decided this was too good an opportunity to pass up -- a visit to this historic area -- and an opportunity to meet 4th, 5th, and 6th cousins living in France. And so on May 23, 2015, Jim, his daughter Michelle, her boyfriend Viktor, Mike, and Mike’s wife Dora met Catherine, her husband Francis, his daughter Mariette, and Mariette’s boyfriend Guillaume in Castillion-en-Couserans, France, where Catherine and Francis regaled them in their home with food, drink, and fascinating stories about the many coincidences that led to the book and this meeting. The Americans found them to be wonderful people, fascinating students of history, and enthusiastic storytellers.

Left-to-right: Catherine's daughter Mariette, her boyfriend Guillaume, Jim, Catherine, Mike, Dora, Viktor, and Michelle in Catherine and Francis’ bungalow in Castillion, France. Image by Francis Haloua

“Pierre Soulé was selected to head the Louisiana delegation to the Democratic national convention in Cincinnati in 1856. He was appointed to the Platform committee, which released three resolutions regarding foreign affairs”[ix]; two were related to expansion into Central America and expressed sympathy for Nicaragua’s freedom under William Walker’s leadership.

Prior to the Civil War, Soulé] strove with all the strength at his command to keep Louisiana within the framework of the Union. His popularity suffered accordingly. However, although he felt compelled to hold out as long as only two or three states had announced their succession, he became convinced that he could not withstand the general current when nine states formed a new confederacy[x].

A beekeeping cousin who spoke Spanish

During lunch the day of Catherine’s presentation, Catherine and Francis introduced the Americans to a beekeeper wearing a beret, named Christian Laffont. He told them in Spanish, because Jim’s brother didn’t speak French, that he was the man on whose door their father had knocked in 1987 when trying to find the mayor! Christian’s wife Dannie had read about Soulé’s story and intrigued Catherine, who researched Soule and wrote the book.

One more surprise:  Christian explained that he was a descendant of the family of Marie Jacquette Laffont who had married their 3rd great-grandfather Jean Baptiste-August Bernard Soulé. She was their 3rd great-grandmother and he was their cousin! When in Castillon, Jim’s parents had unknowingly knocked on the door of one of his mother’s French cousins! They never knew that Christian was her cousin.

“Soulé played a key role in the peaceful surrender of New Orleans[xi]. “Soulé was arrested in May, 1862, by General Benjamin Butler…He accused Soulé, the city’s Provost Martial, of being the main supporter of rebellion in the city and recommended shooting him. He was imprisoned without trial and then paroled in November. He escaped to the Bahamas and passed the Union blockade in Charleston. He became an aide to General Beauregard and was made a Brigadier General. He moved to Havana and then was pardoned in November, 1865 by the President, and returned to his legal practice in New Orleans[xii]”. He was “declared interdict” in 1869 and died in 1870.

Catherine’s presentation to the people of Castillon

That evening, Catherine presented the story of Pierre Soule to a fascinated packed room in city hall. The presentation was attended by the U.S. family members, the mayor, the Ariege media – who interviewed them for a newspaper story, many citizens of Castillon, and the French family members, including Rosemarie Bouissou, the eldest living descendant of Pierre Soulé’s brother Etienne; three of her children: Antoine, Anne Cecile, Muriel, and their spouses; and some of their children.

Left to right: Mayor of Castillion, Jim Williams, Michelle Williams, Rosemarie Bouissou, Mike Williams, and Catherine Chancerel. Image by La Dépêche/DDM.

The cousins meet over crustaceans and jazz

After the presentation, the townspeople provided dinner and music to about 100 ticketholders. The French Soulé-descendants designed seating arrangements so that each American would have an opportunity to get to know one or more French family member. The food was crustacean and the music was provided by a talented and enthusiastic New Orleans’ jazz quartet from the area. The Americans found the French family members to be inquisitive, intelligent, and delightful. The townspeople were perfect – as if they were provided by a casting director who sought variety and depth of character.

The next day, Madam Bouissou graciously provided a wonderful lunch for the French and American family members in attendance, as well as for Catherine Chancerel and her family. During this time the families got to know each other better and had the opportunity to run outside to watch bicycle racers pass by.

The Soule descendants united with the author in front of a 13th-century church built by the Romans. Image by Francis Haloua.

“Seventy-one years after the honorable senator’s death, the Soulé name would again be in the public eye, this time on the SS Pierre Soulé, a symbol of freedom and one of 2,710 liberty ships that helped turn the tide against Nazism in western Europe[xiii].”

So many synchronistic events:

  • Jim’s father researched his wife’s ancestor, U.S. Senator and diplomat Pierre Soulé.
  • Jim’s parents visited France and somehow knocked on the door of her cousin Christian, with no knowledge of his identify or relationship.
  • Christian’s wife Danni researched Pierre Soulé and told Catherine about him ten years later.
  • Catherine and Francis went to New Orleans to research Soulé and put a note on his tombstone, asking anyone to contact her who knew about Soulé.
  • Kent visited the grave, found the note, contacted Catherine, and met her and his cousins in Paris.
  • Jim contacted Kent to find out about the missing pages of a letter from Kent’s father to Jim’s father. Kent introduced Jim to Catherine.
  • Catherine researched Soulé for many years and wrote his story, entitled L'Homme du Grand Fleuve or Man of the Great River.
  • Catherine created an event to present Soulé’s story to the people of Castillion and to bring the descendants of Soulé together.

And that’s not the end

In 2017, Antoine Bouissou, his wife Annie, and their boys Walter and William met for lunch in New Orleans at the Café Soule with Jim Williams, his wife Agnes who is also from France, his brother Mike, Mike’s wife Dora, and their sister Mary Alice Williams. The Café Soule was the home of Pierre Soule until 1840. The next day, they had lunch across the street at Antoine’s. On both occasions, the conversation was warm and friendly – two families from two continents joining to celebrate their common heritage, centered on the celebrated U.S. Senator and diplomat Pierre Soule from Castillon-en-Courserans, France.

Copyright © 2018 Michael Redbendad. All Rights Reserved.

 

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Northup

[ii] Chancerel, Catherine. L' homme du grand fleuve, CNRS, 2014.  https://www.amazon.com/L-homme-du-grand-fleuve/dp/2271080789/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1507151504&sr=8-1&keywords=L%27Homme+du+Grand+Fleuve

[iii] Bell, Caryn Cosse. Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868, Louisiana State University Press.

[iv] Review of THE HONORABLE SENATOR FROM LOUISIANA Pierre SOULÉ (1801-1870), a translation in progress of the  French book “L’homme du Grand Fleuve” by Catherine Chancerel, edited by CNRS Editions, Paris (April 2014).

[v] Constitution and By-Laws of the Order of the Lone Star, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

[vi] Keehn, David C., Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War, LSU Pres,  2013.

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Soul%C3%A9

[viii] The Journal of Southern History © 1955 Southern Historical Association.

[ix] www.latinamericanstudies.org/filibusters/soule.pdf

[x] Gaillardet, Frederic. Sketches of Early Texas and Louisiana, translated and with notes by James L. Shephard III, University of Texas Press, 1966.

[xi] Review of THE HONORABLE SENATOR FROM LOUISIANA Pierre SOULÉ (1801-1870), a translation in progress of the  French book “L’homme du Grand Fleuve” by Catherine Chancerel,

edited by CNRS Editions, Paris (April 2014), page 3.

[xii] Wright, John D., The Routledge Encyclopedia of Civil War Era Biographies

[xiii] IBID.


Submitted: March 05, 2018

© Copyright 2021 Michael Redbendad. All rights reserved.

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