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Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

Like Zelig,
Ashbel Smith was everywhere

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

We could call Dr. Ashbel Smith the "Zelig of 19th century history."

Remindful of the chameleon character called Zelig in a Woody Allen movie, the renowned resident of present-day Baytown seemed to be everywhere that history happened, and celebrities gathered.

Imagine going to the Great Exhibition in 1851 London where Queen Victoria is seated on a platform with Prince Albert and other luminaries.

Wait a minute: Who's that little guy sitting on the platform with all those Very Important People? Seems like we've seen him before.

Evergreen: That's it. He looks just like the medical doctor/statesman who owns a plantation at Evergreen.

No, it couldn't be.

Yessir, that's Ashbel, Sam Houston's best buddy hobknobbing in London Town.

Queen Victoria knows him from the years he spent as the charge d'affaires (fancy name for diplomat) for the Republic of Texas, a position that opened doors for him at Buckingham Palace.

The queen even invited Ashbel to her 24th birthday party in 1843. We heard they danced a whirl on ballroom floor in the palace. Despite her poundage and being nearly as wide as she is tall (4-feet-11), Victoria was light on her feet. If there's any doubt, ask Ashbel.

After making a favorable first impression, Ashbel began receiving invitations to parties, galas and dinners at Buckingham Palace.

Lest we forget, he also was the Texas charge d'affaires in France, and the French loved him, admiring his intellect and appreciating the fact he spoke French fluently. He moved back and forth from London to Paris when working to spread the word about that great new nation Texas.

Ashbel had plenty of practice speaking French before he came to Texas. In 1831-36, he lived in Paris and studied with the best surgeons in the world to improve his medical skills and knowledge.

During that interval, he became a friend of Marquis de Lafayette, novelist James Fennimore Cooper and painter Samuel F.B. Morse, who invented the Morse Code.

When he returned to England a decade later for the Great Exhibition, he visited old friends in France and struck up a new friendship with King Louis Philippe.

Contracted to write newspaper articles for U.S. newspapers about the Great Exhibition, Ashbel (being Ashbel) was everywhere, into everything, across the pond.

A tourist from Texas did a double take at the sight of his familiar face in a group of judges for the Exhibition. Was that Dr. Ashbel Smith consulting with Horace Greeley, the famous New York newspaper editor?

None other.

By then Texas was a state so Ashbel no longer had to lobby for the Republic of Texas. He could speak more freely about his own opinions.

His general opinion of the royals in England? "Artificial stupid."

Queen Victoria? "Short, dumpy, large, pinched nose "

Prince of Wales? "Not handsome like his father Prince Albert Looks more like the queen's family."

All said, Ashbel likely wasn't invited back to Buckingham Place.

Oh well. He would always have Paris.


© Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist
"Wandering" April 3, 2018 column


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