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
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
3, 2018 column