Following the Louisiana Purchase, Charles de Hault Delassus, Upper Louisiana’s last Spanish lieutenant governor, had the unenviable task of dismantling the Spanish regime and transferring authority to the incoming US officials. However, disappointment and embarrassment were nothing new to this well-born son of French nobility, who more than once found himself forced to take a path not of his choosing. His journey began in Bouchain in the province of Flanders, where he was born on November 17, 1767, the eldest son of Pierre-Charles Delassus de Luzières and Domitilde-Josephe Dumont. When he was fifteen the young Frenchman joined the Spanish army as a second lieutenant, a not uncommon occurrence since members of the Bourbon dynasty ruled both France and Spain. The military life suited Delassus, who by 1794 had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and a much-coveted assignment with the king’s personal battalion, the Royal Walloon Guards.
But while Delassus’s military career flourished in Spain, events in Revolutionary France forced members of his family to leave their native land and flee to North America in 1791. Unfortunately, they did not fare well in their new surroundings, notwithstanding the assistance they received from the governor of Spanish Louisiana, the Baron de Carondelet. By 1794 Delassus’s parents, who had settled in Upper Louisiana at a place they named New Bourbon, found themselves nearly destitute. Unaccustomed to a life of poverty, they appealed to their eldest son for assistance. With regret, Delassus relinquished his promising new post with the Royal Walloon Guards and asked for a transfer to Louisiana so that he could be near his family. His superiors granted his request and reassigned him to the Louisiana Regiment. In 1796 Carondelet appointed him commandant at New Madrid, Spain’s commercial point of entry for river traffic on the upper Mississippi. Three years later Delassus replaced Zenon Trudeau as lieutenant governor in Upper Louisiana, a post he retained until Spain relinquished its control of the province in 1804.
During his tenure in Upper Louisiana, Delassus labored to maintain Spanish authority against all challengers in the sprawling, sparsely populated region. Native American affairs frequently required his attention, as in 1802 when he personally took command of the militia expedition that he dispatched to New Madrid to demand satisfaction from a party of Mascoutens responsible for killing a trader. Meanwhile, the lieutenant governor’s personal debts mounted as he struggled to look after parents who found it difficult to forsake their profligate ways. Delassus used the prerogatives of his office and his ability to grant favors to forestall the consequences of his burgeoning obligations. He took special advantage of his authority to convey land grants, and by the end of the Spanish era Delassus had become one of Upper Louisiana’s largest land claimants.
When rumors of the pending transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the United States reached St. Louis in the summer of 1803, Delassus found it increasingly difficult to shield himself from his creditors and to uphold the authority of his office. Once his superiors confirmed that Spain had retroceded Louisiana to France and that the French in turn had sold the territory to the United States, it fell to him to oversee the formal transfer of authority in Upper Louisiana. Delassus dutifully completed the necessary arrangements and presided over the final lowering of the Spanish flag during ceremonies held in St. Louis on March 9 and 10, 1804. Spain’s loyal servant handled his difficult role with dignity and aplomb even though the experience left him increasingly embittered as onetime friends and allies turned away during his final days in office. Delassus revealed his mounting frustration when he scrawled “the Devil take all” as his final entry in one official ledger.
Following his departure from St. Louis in 1804, Delassus remained in Spanish service. He rejoined the Louisiana Regiment in Pensacola and stayed there until he resigned from the army in 1811. Delassus had continued to look after his parents until their deaths in 1806, but their passing merely compounded his already precarious financial situation as he inherited responsibility for their hefty debts. After retiring from military service, Delassus divided his time between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently pressing for confirmation of the vast landholdings that he claimed under Spanish title. The litigation in those cases dragged on for years, and most of his claims were rejected. Those that were confirmed proved insufficient to satisfy the demands against him. Delassus died in New Orleans on May 1, 1843, largely forgotten and with little to show for his years of loyal service.
Archibald, Robert R. “Honor and Family: The Career of Lt. Gov. Carlos de Hault de Lassus.” Gateway Heritage 12 (Spring 1992): 32–41.
Cleary, Patricia. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: A History of Colonial St. Louis. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.
Delassus-St. Vrain Papers. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Ekberg, Carl J. A French Aristocrat in the American West: The Shattered Dreams of De Lassus de Luzières. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010.
Houck, Louis. The Spanish Regime in Missouri: A Collection of Papers and Documents Relating to Upper Louisiana. 2 vols. Chicago: R. R. Donnelley and Sons, 1909.
Published July 11, 2023
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