After publication in Europe in 1826 of botanist Jean Louis (Jon-Louie) Berlandier’s scholarly work on gooseberries, Memoire sur la famille des Grossulariees, his expertise in plant morphology and taxonomy came to the attention of a group from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Geneva, Switzerland, in need of a naturalist to collect plant and animal specimens for them in Mexico. Included in the prestigious group was Berlandier’s botany professor, Dr. Augustin Pyramus De Candolle who highly recommended his promising young student for the position and in the effort, if so willing, Berlandier would follow in the steps of naturalists José Mociño, Martin de Sessé, Pablo de la Llave, and the illustrious German naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt who was a favorite of Berlandier’s to read of one’s works.
Each had given already much attention to the flora and fauna of the, then, “New Spain” under Spanish rule, but following the Mexican revolution of 1810-1821 New Spain was known by Berlandier’s time as the “Republic of Mexico.” However, little attention by either Spain or Mexico had been given to the flora and fauna of the northernmost State of Coahuila y Tejas, and much of Berlandier’s work in that region of the new world became devoted also to the ethnology of the indigenous Indians in Texas and of their uses of native plants for foods and pharmaceutical purposes .
It was after a knock on the office door of Professor De Candolle in Geneva that the following story begins, based largely on the voluminous journal of Berlandier’s odyssey [Voyage au Mexique par Louis Berlandier pendant les années 1826 à 1834] but also on the diaries and other writings of Berlandier’s contemporaries, General Manuel de Mier y Terán, Joseph Chambers Clopper, Rafael Chowel (also spelled Chovel), Juan Antonio Padilla, José María Sánchez y Tapia, José Francisco Ruiz, and the scholarly works of De Candolle himself.
Other references for this novel are those of Colonel Richard Irving Dodge of the U.S. Army who fought numerous of the Plains Indian tribes in Texas and elsewhere; of the more than thirty tribes of Indians in Texas specifically studied by Jean Louis Berlandier; of ethnologists William Bollaert, W. W. Newcomb, and John C. Ewers who wrote of them; and of artist George Catlin who painted, so he believed, “some of the wildest tribes in North America” including especially the Comanche (Fig. 4) in Texas known in literature as the “Terrors of the Plains” synonymous with “wildness, fierceness and treachery.”
Other, numerous, references of importance are also listed in the Bibliography at the end of this novel along with Appendix “A” listing some sixty different plant and animal species named after Berlandier in honor of his contributions to natural science. Also included are pictures (Plates 1-5) of a few of the better known plants and animals collected by him.
He is however best known for his treatise of The Indians of Texas in 1830, first written in French then translated into English with an introduction by American historian/ethnologist John C. Ewers who believed that the author was “one of the most enlightened amateur ethnographers of the American West during the frontier period.” But how could Berlandier have known nearly two centuries ago that he would, today, be considered as one of the most accomplished writers of New World aborigines. Or, how could Berlandier have known when leaving his homeland in 1826 that he would spend the rest of his life on the Texas frontier, never to return. And what a change it must have been for him to leave the towering snow-covered French and Swiss Alps to the flatland heat and aridity of southern Texas and northeastern Mexico. Moreover, what a change it must have been for Berlandier to leave the wealth and intellect of Europe to the poverty and illiteracy of the Latin America of his time.
Much of what is known of Berlandier from the time of his birth until his untimely death in 1851at little more than 46 years of age comes primarily from his diaries and journals, and from those of his contemporaries who traveled with him. There are historical accounts of his participation in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 when he was a Captain Aide-de-camp interpreter to Mexican General Mariano Arista, as well as being a cartographer of the Palo Alto Battlefield near Brownsville.
There is an additional wealth of Berlandier’s many letters, manuscripts and drawings in Institutions as the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, United States National Museum and libraries at Harvard and Yale, There are notes and collections of his plants in twenty-seven world herbaria; and notes of geological, celestial, meteorological, and other observations in many libraries including records of his travels in the Center For American History at The University of Texas, Austin, and one of the finest collections of Comanche regalia and artifacts made by Berlandier is on display in the Gilchrest Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Following his participation as a biologist and anthropologist for the 1827-1829 Mexican Boundary Commission surveys, Berlandier lived the remainder of his professional life in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. There, too, Berlandier became a pharmacist, doctor, and a participant in a pharmaceutical business; an administrator for the Matamoros hospitals during the Mexican American War; and always an avid collector of plants and animals in various parts of Texas and Mexico; several were new to science and many others discovered by other botanists through many years were named in his honor (Appendix “A”).
Beyond all of that, however, little is known of Berlandier’s personal life. Little is known of his French family or even with certainty the date of his birth though believed to have been about 1805 in Fort de l’Écluse, France, near its border with Switzerland and close to Geneva where he studied pharmacy, and botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Moreover, little is known of his Mexican wife or even her name, or of a reported several children and, it can be assumed of still living descendents. But who of them to what other names, and where now located, and to what other accomplishments remain unknown except that a son is said to have been a Lieutenant or artillery in the Mexican Army.
Much of the “unknowns” of Berlandier’s life can only be imagined or assumed to have happened but mixed with what is known about him and presented herein in the form of a historical novel; the freedoms and benefits of creative writing. And that privilege in this case is Berlandier; A French Naturalist on the Texas Frontier. All characters are persons true to history but for purposes of the narration some chronological facts are altered. All dialogue is duly fictionalized though befitting to the subjects, topics, and events of the times in Berlandier’s 1820s era on the Texas Frontier.
The following story takes place in the period between the years of 1826 and 1828 when Jean Louis Berlandier first signed on as a biologist member of the Boundary Commission of the Mexican Ministry of the Interior to explore the vast, then, wildernesses of Texas north of Laredo on the Rio Grande River or Rio Bravo del Norte north and east of San Antonio known then as San Antonio de Béxar or, simply, only as Béxar.
The odyssey begins in Geneva, Switzerland, on a day late in 1826 with a knock on a door for an interview.