La Réunion: “Les Serpents et les Insectes”

La Reunion Cemetery

Not one stone is left of La Réunion, a co-operative socialist venture formed by French, Swiss, and Belgian immigrants in the mid-1850’s, just west of the new settlement of Dallas. The central, living quarters of the colony’s tract of roughly two thousand acres overlooked the Trinity River facing Dallas, on land that proved difficult to farm. La Réunion is supposed to have enjoyed a beautiful view on “the worst agricultural land in Dallas County” (Hill). For whiteness, boniness, flakiness and infertility, Founder Victor Considerant’s limestone bluffs likely resembled human skulls, if they were anything like other Trinity bluffs. Yet it may not have been the land that defeated the colonists. They created some excellent kitchen gardens. Maybe it was the weather that got them: the unexpected extremes of heat, and the killing cold snaps coming after deceiving mildness. Hunting was more satisfactory: “Prairie chickens were so plentiful they often darkened the sun as they flew by in such great numbers” (Santerre). Grasshoppers flew by, too, but decided to stop. In 1856, La Réunion was visited by a plague of locusts that ate the corn and stripped even the ancient hardwood forest. It is perhaps characteristic of these well-educated settlers that they might be eaten out of their homes and yet find the experience scientifically interesting. In the La Réunion collection of the Dallas Public Library is a paper called “Observation of the migratory grasshopper or western locust” by J. Reverchon for Prof. G. Boll, Naturalist. [1877]”

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Screen Shot of Page 136 of Un naufrage au Texas; observations et impressions recueillies pendant deux ans et demi au Texas et à travers les États-Unis d’Amérique ( A wreck in Texas ; observations and impressions gathered during two and a half years in Texas and across the United States of America). Un naufrage au Texas was written by Augustin Savardan and published in Paris in 1858. Even though it is the only first-hand account of La Réunion life ever published, it has never been translated into English. This digital copy may be freely accessed through The Library of Congress at https://lccn.loc.gov/01021458.

The colony’s doctor, Dr. Augustin Savardan, was one of the earliest of La Réunion settlers, and one of the earliest to leave. Once back in France he published Un naufrage au Texas; observations et impressions recueillies pendant deux ans et demi au Texas et à travers les États-Unis d’Amérique. The English title, A Wreck in Texas, has a nice little rhyme to it. Judging from what little I can translate, the book is a scathing rebuttal of Texas as a green and fertile land, where, as Victor Prosper Considerant reckoned in Au Texas, “the annual prairie fires are largely responsible for the scarcity of snakes, and the breezes account for the scarcity of insect pests.” Savardan found snakes and insect pests in such style and abundance that he devoted an entire chapter to them. It wasn’t even possible to bivouac without getting chiggers, although at first Savardan didn’t quite know what he was getting. The following, tentative translation of a little bit of Chapter Eight, “Les Serpents et les Insectes” suggests that the insects were a more serious plague than the snakes. In fact, Savardan has some nice, and even quite metaphorical things to say about Texas snakes, although he nevertheless killed as many of them as he could catch:

Snakes and Insects

    “In Texas, despite what Mr. Considerant says, there are many snakes, as well as a great variety of them.

    In our yard, under our shed, in our workshop, under our floor – the “crotale” or rattlesnake and the copperheads were very common the first year, and even now are not infrequently found there.

    In addition to these two venomous and dangerous beasts, one also finds (though more rarely), a snake I have not seen, but which I am told is called the cottonmouth because of the whiteness of the interior of its mouth, which contrasts with the somber color of its skin. 

    The few examples we have of the bites of these snakes lead us to believe that their venom is not very strong in northern Texas.

    Before my arrival in Réunion, a woman was bitten by one of the cottonmouth vipers. Mr. Roger recounts that after thoroughly cleaning the bite, he made the woman drunk with whiskey, and the next day she was cured.

    One of our dogs, in the presence of a hunter, was bitten on the lower lip by a rattlesnake. Its head and neck remained very swollen for a few days, but the swelling dissipated gradually, without cauterization of the bite (which we never could find) and with no treatment beyond a few drops of ammonia in water.

    During our voyage from Houston to Réunion, in 1855, one of our hunters was bitten on the hand by a large water snake, and the bite, just thoroughly sucked out and carefully washed, did not cause any further malady.

    None of these snakes exceeded two meters in length, and the biggest were no longer than the average arm.

    None attacked humans without provocation. They all fled at our approach; but this is the marked difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes: the former retreat slowly, majestically, as if they knew the power of their means of defense, while the latter, especially in hot weather, flee with a rapidity that makes chasing them very difficult. 

    The non-venomous snakes are numerous and varied.

    The most common is the “chicken snake,” literally couleuvre à poulets.

    This snake was, in Réunion, the familiar guest of our habitations, and above all of our chicken coops, where it distressed the superintendent of our farmyard. 

    I have killed two, which, climbing up an oak in the pursuit of bird and squirrel nests, entwined in such a way as to form a beautiful braid nearly two meters long and perfectly representative of the caduceus of Mercury.

    Finally, we could always find pretty little snakes, generally twisted among tree branches, where, as they were always completely green, a beautiful soft green, they were often confused with the foliage; and it was often noticed, when we put our hands on them, that they startled up no less fearful than feared.

    Two others also merit a mention: one marked longitudinally with green, red, and yellow stripes, and another with red, blue, and yellow stripes, side by side in alternating rings along its entire length.

All of these little snakes, so perfectly inoffensive, would have been as contented as our pretty Blue-Collar snakes in France to dwell in intimacy with man; but their fatal resemblance to venomous snakes caused us to kill them all without distinction. Thus it is, in this world, we hunt down honest ideas—truly worthy ones, perhaps—without examining them; but, under the pretext that they resemble villainous ideas concealing poisonous perfidies, we act with the zealotry of that cardinal legate who, at the siege of Béziers, ordained that everyone in the city should be put to death, ensuring that no heretics escaped, and leaving, to the grace of God, the good and the bad to be sorted out Hereafter, and divine justice dealt out accordingly.

    As for insects, none of us could understand to what M. Considerant owed the honor of finding them so rarely in Texas.

    We first became preoccupied with this during our voyage from Houston to Réunion. Scarcely had we begun to bivouac in the prairie before each of us, without exception, had his legs engulfed by irresistible itching caused by a considerable number of pustules. Some claimed that it was the price to pay for acclimatization, but when people with younger and sharper eyes looked more closely, they recognized that the pustules were caused by an infinitesimally tiny species of tick, similar to the ones called “rougets” (red mullets) in France, which penetrates the epidermis, probably in order to shelter its young family, and produces numerous pustules.

    I have never seen this insect; but during the three summers we spent in Texas I and everyone else have provided them with ample pasture, proving that this is not at all an effect of acclimatization, since the Americans are no more exempt than foreigners, and all legs that rub against the prairie grass are rapidly covered and soon after literally flayed by irresistible and persistent itching caused by these insects. This invasion did not take long to extend to the rest of the body and cause the same disorder. 

    In some of the settlers, the itching brought about a rash of boils that constituted a serious and very painful malady in which the ulcers, which were impossible not to scratch, were very difficult to cure. Every year, almost nobody managed to escape this scourge, and our friend M. Daly was, for three months, gravely ill enough to be forced to stay in bed almost the entire time. It is a sad fact that during this time, to his chagrin, he was not visited by his old friend, M. Victor Considerant, who, only when he was about to leave the colony and comments on this issue had been forwarded to him by M Cantagrel, did our executive officer recollect that he had at least some duty to fulfill in this circumstance and came to apologize for the long forgetfulness of him and his family.”

Dallas: The Making of a Modern City, by Patricia Evridge Hill

White Cliffs of Dallas: The story of La Reunion, The Old French Colony, by George Henry Santerre (1955)

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