November 30, 2020

Little Angel

By Mulebreath 

She had a name, but either it was never recorded, or the records long lost. There are none today who seem to know it. Some think her story to be romanticized legend. Others are convinced that the story is very real. She has been likened by some writers to Sacajawea, and according to the author Russell Roe, writing in the June 2012 Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, she is often called “Pocahontas of the Pineys,” (East Texans call the pine forests of the area the “Piney Woods”.) She’s the only woman for whom a major river, a national forest, and a Texas county are all named.

 The natives of East Texas contributed much to the Texas story. This was Caddo country. The only natural lake in Texas bears the name of the Caddo, and the Hasinai gave us the name of the state. The Caddo were a confederacy of several tribes inhabiting much of what is now East Texas, northern Louisiana, and portions of southern Arkansas and Oklahoma. Writing in the book History of Texas, 1673-1779, historian Juan Agustín Morfi describes the Caddo as “a highly organized and advanced society with their own complex religion, political and religious leaders, villages, agricultural advancements, and diplomatic ties to other Native American peoples.” The organizational structure of the Caddo was well defined. The Hainai were the lead band of the Hasinai tribe, who were in turn the lead tribe of the great Caddo Confederation.

 Her father was thought by some to have been Bernardino, the chief of the Hainai, which would make her the daughter of a respected and powerful man. She befriended the Franciscans of the first Spanish mission built in what is now East Texas. The Spaniards located their mission near the Hainai village, on the banks of the Neches River, part of which is now called the Angelina. Over time she learned to speak Spanish, English, and French, and would serve as a translator for soldiers, trappers and the priests.

The priests at the mission called her Little Angel, or Angelina in Spanish. The French call her Angélique, which has the same meaning.

 “She’s a great historical figure,” said Bob Bowman, the now deceased East Texas historian and author. “It enriches East Texas, the Angelina story.”

 Jonathan Gerland, director of the History Center in the small town of Diboll says, “Instead of first saying we’re near Lufkin, I proudly say we’re in southern Angelina County, the only county in the state named for a woman.”

 The earliest record of Angelina comes from the journals of the expedition of Alonso de León, which arrived at the Hainai village in May 1690 and founded that first Franciscan mission. According to D. E. Chipman, author of the Texas history text, “Spanish Texas,” it was called “San Francisco de los Tejas.”

The main structure was built near the banks of the river now named for Angelina. The mission was constructed in response to several French ventures into the area. Concern that these encroachments would lead to French settlements caused the Spanish to redirect their attention from exploring West Texas to defending their eastern border.

 As the mission had a dual purpose, the strategic location was no accident. Overtly the Spaniards were to spread their religion among the natives. There were soldiers garrisoned to protect the mission from potential unfriendlies, while scouts kept eyes on the French.

 Early in their efforts to convert the natives, the Spaniards, led by Father Damian Massanet, “found a native girl in an Hainai village,” who, according to Roe, “possessed a bright intellect, a striking appearance, and friendly personality.” The date of the encounter is given as 1690, at a time when Angelina would have been very young. Her birthdate is given as 1680, although there are no records to validate that.

 When the young girl expressed a desire to learn the Spanish language, the missionaries obliged her, then they enlisted her as a guide and translator. The priests and soldiers of the mission were enamored by her friendliness and good nature, so they dubbed her Angelina, or Little Angel. In their writings they called the village where she lived “Angelina’s village,” and they called the river “Angelina’s river.”

 In 1693, three years after the Spaniards befriended Angelina, she learned that warriors from a neighboring band were making plans to attack the priests and sack the mission. Conditions that year had been harsh, and these natives were becoming less friendly as conditions worsened. To avoid attack, the Spaniards immediately abandoned their efforts and prepared to flee westward. According to William C. Foster, writing in the text, Spanish Expeditions into Texas 1689–1768, “Father Damián Massanet torched the mission and fled.”

 Angelina guided them to safety and continued with them to Mexico. There she continued her studies at the Mission San Juan Bautista, located on the Rio Grande - the modern border between Mexico and Texas. She remained at the mission for ten years, then returned east to her childhood home.

 The legend of Angelina grew in those ten years and in the years following. Her name can be found in the documents of the Spanish missionaries, the diary entries of French trappers, and the journals of explorers. These writings are the only way we know of Angelina. The Caddo had no written language.

 Angelina continued to serve as a guide and as an interpreter for the Europeans. A diary entry by an unnamed member from the party of the trader Louis Juchereau de St. Denis referenced a woman he called Angélique, “who had been baptized by Spanish priests who had been on a mission to their village.” The records from that expedition indicated that she had helped St. Denis hire guides from her tribe. One unnamed Spaniard wrote that his group “had recourse to a learned Indian woman of this Hasinai tribe.”

The Spanish, not prepared to cede East Texas to the French, spent the years planning a return. According to Chipman, “the mission effort in East Texas had familiarized Spaniards with the geography and Indians of Texas and convinced both church and government officials that future missions must be sustained by presidios and civilian settlements.” In 1716 the Spanish returned in larger force, building a chain of missions and settlements along the Neches. As part of their efforts they re-established the old Mission San Francisco de los Tejas.

 It was a short-lived effort, lasting only three years until 1719. The Spaniards had found themselves on the losing side of what became known as the “Chicken War.” As hostilities with the French escalated, the Spaniards abandoned the missions and again returned to Mexico. Angelina, having married a Frenchman and given birth to two children, remained.

 Some time later Angelina is thought to have played some part in the rescue of a French officer, Francois Simars de Bellisle. Bellisle was unfortunate enough to be passenger on a ship which, in 1719 missed its intended Louisiana destination and became grounded on a sandbar near Galveston Bay. Bellisle and four companions asked to be put ashore so they could travel by foot back to the Mississippi. They badly misjudged as that great river was over 300 miles distant, and over treacherous territory.

 Stranded and lost, Bellisle survived winter on a diet of worms, shellfish, and boiled grass. His four companions did not fare as well, dying either of starvation or exposure. In the spring Bellisle was taken captive by coastal natives who were not fond of the French. The natives enslaved him and targeted him with increasingly harsh punishment. He scavenged a scrap of paper, managed to scribble a note using charred wood and give it to a passing group of Hasinai. He pleaded with them to give it to the first European they found. St. Denis was the person they found, and Angelina is thought to have received the note from St. Denis. She sent two warriors from her band to locate and rescue Bellisle. They were successful, bringing him to their village where Angelina nursed him to health.

 Bellisle wrote later of the time he spent with Angelina while in recovery, saying she “served me with all the best she had, and she had as much love for me as if I had been her child.” and, “This Indian woman, called Angélique, had lived with the Spanish since her childhood. That is why we understood each other so well.” Once Bellisle was healthy enough to travel, Angelina sent her two children to guide him to the nearest French settlement.

 At some point the woman, then known more commonly as Angélique, moved to New Orleans with her husband. It was there that she spent the remainder of her life. Although she was called Angélique or Angelica for the remainder of her life, Angelina’s name did not die with the passing decades. She is still remembered and revered in the Piney Woods of East Texas. In the Angelina County seat of Lufkin, a statue stands proudly outside the Civic Center. The 30-foot-tall face of Angelina looks across the city. Driving through the city you can see her image in murals covering entire sides of buildings. The murals were designed and painted by local artist Lance Hunter, who says “I saw her as the starting point to represent the Native American population, and certainly her assistance with the early Anglo settling of the region.” Hunter describes the image in his first work by saying that “The strands of her hair are reaching into the future.” His second work depicts Angelina riding on the front of a train.

 As mentioned earlier, there are questions about this legend. There are things we know about Angelina, yet so much of her life remains hidden from us. Her Caddoan birth name is unknown. She was baptized at a young age and given the Spanish name Angelina. We know she took the French spelling of that name when she married Charles-François Dumont; becoming Angélique Dumont. We have records showing the couple had three children, two girls and a boy. Her father was possibly Bernardino, who was the chief of the Hasinai. Her death is recorded in 1759, and she died near the age of 80 after living a celebrated life. Her obituary called her “Angélique ‘The Indian Princess’ Dumont (Hasinai),” using the name of her tribe as her maiden name. We know nothing of her history prior to her encounter with the Spaniards. Angelina remains a romantic mystery. Some would say a legend.

 When the Caddo Confederacy was first encountered by Spanish explorers, the records indicate that they had met a tribe called Tejas (pronounced ‘Tāy-hăhs’,) which translates from the Hasinai language to mean friend. This is the word from which Texas derived its name and is the way Mexicans still pronounce it. The explorers were mistaken though. The Hasinai were not using the word to identify their tribe, they were telling the Europeans that they were friends, and they proved to be just that.

 There have been many brave and strong women in Texas history, but Angelina may well have been the first in that history of true note. The word Tejas is symbolic of both the tribe, and of the young Hasinai maiden who befriended all whom she met.