Parker H. French
Parker H. French was a nineteenth century adventurer, entrepreneur
An entrepreneur is an owner or manager of a business enterprise who makes money through risk and initiative.The term was originally a loanword from French and was first defined by the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon. Entrepreneur in English is a term applied to a person who is willing to...

, and swindler. He left no personal records such as letters or diaries, and about whom very few formal records have been found. He was, however, a central figure in several gold rush memoirs, participated in William Walker's conquest of Nicaragua, and was often in the news in the 1850s because of his exploits, criminal and otherwise. While not a figure of great consequence in American history, what we can learn of his colorful life brightens a darker side of antebellum America.


The term "confidence man
Confidence trick
A confidence trick is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. A confidence artist is an individual working alone or in concert with others who exploits characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty and honesty, vanity, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility,...

" first appeared in print in newspapers in the summer of 1849. It described a New York man arrested for stealing watches or small sums by gaining trust only to betray it. Within months, another confidence man was working in New York, this one far more ambitious, bold, and imaginative. Parker French ran a "big con." The handsome little man duped would-be Forty-Niners
California Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. The first to hear confirmed information of the gold rush were the people in Oregon, the Sandwich Islands , and Latin America, who were the first to start flocking to...

 out of tens of thousands of dollars and the merchants who supplied them out of tens of thousands more. The US Army wined, dined, and supplied him on credit. His demonstrable connections in New York and New Orleans to the financial backers of an irregular invasion, a filibuster
A filibuster is a type of parliamentary procedure. Specifically, it is the right of an individual to extend debate, allowing a lone member to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal...

, of Cuba, led by Narciso López
Narciso López
Narciso López was a Venezuelan adventurer and soldier, best known for an expedition aimed at liberating Cuba from Spain in the 1850s..- Life in Venezuela, Cuba, and Spain:...

 benefited no one but him.

He was persuasive, confident, and tough. As the years passed he played many parts, all of them built on quick wits, charm, a remarkably convincing manner, and chutzpa: all the skills of a con man – including, of course, deceit. He was a county DA, a state legislator, a lawyer, a newspaper publisher, and, nearly, an ambassador – if his credentials had been accepted. Federal agents accused him of being a spy and sent him to a Boston prison. For a very little while, he was a gringo bandito, one might say, in the mountains above Mazatlan; this got him eighteen months in a Durango jail. Once known to all, he died in utter obscurity.

Youth, marriage, and his first scam

No one has found any record of French's birth or early years, up to 1849. Ned McGowan
Ned McGowan (lawyer)
right|300px|thumb|Ned McGowan Edward McGowan was an American lawyer, Pennsylvania assemblyman, Judge of the California Court of Quarter Sessions, poet, Fraser Canyon gold seeker, adventurer, assistant sergeant-at-arms in the United States Congress, newspaper publisher and bon vivant instigator of...

, who knew him in 1854 and 1855 in California, recapped his life in two newspapers articles in 1879. Kenneth Johnson republished them with a commentary in 1958. McGowan cited no evidence for his remarks as his source, 25 years earlier, was French himself. Given that French was a man for whom the truth was employed chiefly when it served him, we can say that he was born in 1826 in Kentucky, orphaned very young, and taken in by the neighboring family of a Judge Edwards. He left home as a teenager and eventually made his way to New Orleans where he signed on with the British Navy and sailed on a man-of-war as a "powder monkey
Powder monkey
Powder monkeys were a part of warships' crews during the Age of Sail that carried bags of gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship's hold to the gun crews. Powder monkeys were usually boys or young teens selected for the job for their speed and height — they were short and would be...

" during the Opium Wars
Opium Wars
The Opium Wars, also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars, divided into the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842 and the Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860, were the climax of disputes over trade and diplomatic relations between China under the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire...

. He returned full of tales of his adventures and financial coups.

In April 1849, he married his foster sister, Lucretia Edwards, in Madison, IL, not far from St. Louis. It was in St. Louis that year that he put together his first scam. Doing business as "Messrs. French & Co." French launched an unfinished ship, promising to transport gold seekers to California. The 700-ton bark christened the Matilda was still unfinished when "she was sold by the Sheriff, to pay for her material and labor." McGowan wrote that French soon moved on, leaving "behind him a number of debts for borrowed money and for shipbuilding ..."

Captain Parker H. French's California Expedition

French and Lucretia arrived in New York City around the beginning of 1850. They may have already had a baby; one came along at some point. Before long, French – having granted himself the rank of "Captain" – had taken an office in the Tammany Building, had placed ads in the newspapers, and had flyers printed describing his plan to lead an expedition to the gold fields of California for a fee of $250. One flyer began, "From NEW YORK to Port LAVACA, in Texas, by Steamship, thence by comfortable and easy wagon coaches ... over the gently swelling uplands of Western Texas," up to the Gila, down to the Colorado, and, finally, across "the magnificent plains of California" (the Colorado Desert) to San Diego. Moreover, as John Holmes, who signed on with his son for $500, pointed out, "French obligated himself to the company that he would take us through to California in sixty days, and to pay us five dollars each per day for every day we were more than sixty, if any, on the journey."

Initially, about 100 men signed on, some for a reduced fee in exchange for the promise of work on the trail. They sailed in late April for Port Lavaca via Havana, New Orleans, and Galveston. French himself was not aboard. An associate, North West, took charge of this group while French stayed behind signing up more men. He was also still completing arrangements for the journey. The first sailing of 100 men got to Port Lavaca on or about May 9. There they discovered that there were neither the mules French had promised would be waiting, nor any wagons for the absent mules to pull. They made camp and waited in growing fear and anger.

In New York French was signing up many more paying customers from a new office on Wall Street. He acquired some wagons (from Dan Rice’s circus
Dan Rice
Dan Rice , was an American entertainer of many talents, most famously as a clown, who was pre-eminent before the American Civil War. During the height of his career, Rice was a household name...

), cases of rifles, and other gear. It was all loaded along with "as much gold ... as two men could carry ..." aboard the steamer Georgia which finally sailed on May 13. The government had delayed the departure for a week to search the ship seeking evidence of connections to a suspected forthcoming attack on Cuba led by Lopez, which, in fact, occurred the same day French and his group arrived at Havana harbor.

A delay at Havana, including a change of ships and a threatened search consequent of suspicions of French’s connection to the Lopez filibuster, resulted in missing their ship connection in New Orleans. This meant a further delay of nearly a week. French put the men up in the best hotels available and all lived well in New Orleans – on French – as the month of May ended. On June 4, French and the additional recruits arrived at Port Lavaca. Those stranded there for nearly a month greeted him with a mixture of relief and fury. When the new arrivals discovered the absence of mules, they, too, became much concerned. French, often described as remarkably persuasive, convinced the crowd that all would be well. He purchased young and unbroken mules somewhere, and, after much more delay, they finally made it to San Antonio via Victoria on July 6. There, as he had in Victoria, French produced such papers as military orders, bank drafts, and an unlimited line of credit drawn on a major New York shipping firm. All of it was bogus. He refurbished, re-supplied, bought horses, cattle, and many, better, mules. New recruits signed up. The train of 33 colorful, individually named wagons left San Antonio with much fanfare in mid-July. The sixty days promised for the entire trip had expired and San Diego was still 1,500 miles away.

End of the expedition

A month later in the Trans-Pecos they caught up with a wagon train carrying military supplies. French bought a number of the wagons and mules from the owner, Ben Franklin Coons, for a promised payment of nearly $18,000. French arrived in El Paso a couple of days ahead of his wagon train, which finally got there on September 18. The men of the expedition found him making more big purchases and living it up. But a man named Henry Skillman, riding hard out of San Antonio, got to El Paso near midnight the next day: time had run out for all of them. Skillman had a letter from the shipping firm disavowing any claims against it, letters from merchants French had defrauded, and a warrant for French's arrest.

French and a few other men, including North West, who had been in charge of the first sailing, fled into Mexico. The men of the expedition divided what they could salvage, raised what cash they could, broke up into groups, and headed either west or back home. Some followed the planned route to San Diego; others made their way to Mazatlan and other Gulf of California ports. Mostly they were on foot and all suffered considerable hardship. The earliest to arrive in San Francisco made it there in mid-December.

Gunfight at Corralitos

About three weeks after escaping the law, French led a dozen mounted men into a camp near Corralitos, Chihuahua, Mexico, where eight former expeditioners had made their way from El Paso. The seven known accounts of what happened there on October 9, 1850 vary substantially. Certainly two men died of gunshot wounds and three more were seriously wounded. One of those was French. Whoever shot him wanted him dead, but, as it happened, cost him only his right arm. A ball or a bullet entered at French’s wrist or palm and passed through his forearm before exiting above the elbow. The shooter might have been John Holmes, who said, "My blood boiled, and snatching my rifle from my son's hands, without taking aim I shot French." It might have been David Cooper, with a muzzle loader. "I let drive at him, aiming to shoot him in the heart," but he claimed he stumbled on a rope tugged by a mule at just the wrong moment. Another, Daniel Wright, had already gone after French with a Bowie knife and the two of them were fighting in the dirt when Cooper or Holmes fired.

At about the same moment French lost his arm, someone shot and killed Wright. There are those who say "Ramrod" Harris, the "wickedest man in the West," walked up to French and Wright, looked down at them struggling in the dust of the camp, and fired his shotgun point blank into Daniel Wright's neck, killing him and destroying French's right arm in the process. But an American mine superintendent who claimed to have amputated most of French's blasted muscle and bone that night, and who packed the wound with charcoal and bandaged it with bed sheets, did not mention plucking buckshot from the gore. It is very likely that Cooper or Holmes shot Parker French, and it was probably French who shot Wright as they fought. Another expedition member, William Nelson, was killed in the fighting, and both Cooper and Holmes were seriously wounded.

Durango, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, 1850–54

The men who stayed with French took him to Chihuahua where a surgeon completed the amputation of French's infected right arm, removing it near the shoulder. French lingered there recovering for several weeks. Once back on his feet, he went to Durango and approached the governor of the state with a proposal to establish an American colony on the Gila, with the benefit of providing protection for the locals from Indian attacks. The governor was interested and planned to raise $600,000 for the project, only to cancel it when Ben Coons came to town from El Paso and told of French's swindles. Coons, bankrupted in part due to French, was on his way to San Francisco to borrow money from his brother. By December, French was in Mazatlan where he encountered several former members of his expedition. There, according to one, he helped a number of men get passage to San Francisco. According to another he managed to con some of the men again. He re-organized his gang, acquired weapons, and took to the mountains intending to rob a government silver train. They didn’t manage that, but did rob some ranchers and travelers. By February he was in a gunfight with Mexican troops, which resulted in the death of North West. He was captured and jailed in Durango where he remained for about 18 months.

In July 1852 he was released and made his way back to Mazatlan. There he boarded a brig called the Hallowell, San Francisco bound. The Hallowell was unable to resupply in Mazatlan and, on the morning of August 18, 47 days of unfavorable wind out of Panama, somewhere off the coast of Baja, with its food stores nearly exhausted, a lookout sighted a clipper ship, the North America. The owner and captain, John Noyes, signaled distress, flying the ensign at half-mast and union-down. Noyes boarded the North America. "Captain" Parker H. French accompanied him. Captain Artell Austin provided Noyes with twelve days provisions but refused French’s offer of $40 to join the passengers aboard his ship.

Things continued badly for the brig. Early in September, after more than two weeks of beating along the coast, Noyes put in at Cave Landing, on San Luis Bay, in San Luis Obispo County, California, again seeking provision. This was not by any means a regular port-of-call. There was no wharf, no dock. No matter, everyone but Noyes abandoned ship. French, a notorious criminal, found himself broke, friendless, and carrying all he owned in a remote, scarcely populated "cow county."

But by January the land-grant dons who ran the county had appointed the smooth talking French as their District Attorney at $500 a year. That fall he was elected overwhelmingly to represent the county in the State Legislature. He sailed to New York and collected Lucretia and his daughter, returning with them to the Bay Area at the end of 1853. He served one term as an Assemblyman, unsurprisingly serving on the Ways and Means Committee.

A Nicaraguan filibuster, many scams and a sad end

He launched a Sacramento newspaper , was shot in a bar (in the leg), and decked a former governor in a fistfight, in spite of being a very short, slight, one-armed man. He practiced law with a fellow member of the 1854 legislature and others. He left the newspaper in other hands the same year, 1855, to join William Walker in Walker’s doomed Nicaraguan filibuster. He sent his wife and child back to New York. In Nicaragua he promoted himself from Captain to Colonel and served, unsurprisingly, as "Minister of Hacienda," which amounted to being Secretary of the Treasury. Walker appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States, but President Pierce refused his credentials. This did not prevent him from living for months in luxury hotel suites and entertaining the press and politicians with cigars and champagne.

After some legal problems relating to recruiting volunteers for the Nicaraguan filibuster, he returned there in March 1856 only to be sent away by Walker. Things then started gradually to unravel for Parker French. He lectured on Walker, purporting to raise money for him. He was in Minnesota with his family for a few months in 1856, buying and then selling at least one newspaper and promoting a land development scheme. A wealthy Bostonian reported that French cheated him in a deal involving the selling of two ships to the Navy. There was some unsavory business connected to ginseng. He launched a "Black Republican" (anti-slavery) paper in San Francisco that died after three issues in 1857. He got into some trouble in New Orleans over a fake opium shipment. He was arrested by federal authorities in Connecticut and imprisoned in Fort Warren in Boston on charges of spying for the Confederacy. He was soon released without being tried. The evidence suggests that if he was spying, it was for both sides. It is much more likely this was some sort of attempted con, not spying.

He was living in Washington, DC in 1863, where he registered himself as a lawyer. He (with Lucretia, at least in name) bought some property in St. Louis in 1868 with a promise of payment which did not materialize on the due date. He appears in the 1870 census in New York. Lucretia does not. According to McGowan, who saw him in DC in the 70s, he "... appeared to be a perfect wreck of his former self," drinking himself to death with cocktails of whiskey and chloroform. No record of his death has been found. An 1893 California political history mentioned him, "French, Parker H., Assemblyman, San Luis Obispo, 1854. Dead."

See also

  • Baylor, George Wythe, edited and with an Introduction by Jerry D. Thompson, Into the Far, Wild Country: True Tales of the Old Southwest, Texas Western Press, The University of Texas at El Paso: 1996.
  • Bell, Horace, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 1999. Originally published by Yarnell, Caystile & Mathes printers, Los Angeles: 1881. Bell's recollections, while useful, are not trustworthy.
  • Carr, Albert Z., The World and William Walker, Harper & Row, New York: 1963.
  • Chaffin, Tom, Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the First Clandestine U.S. War Against Cuba, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge: 1996.
  • Dando-Collins, Stephen, Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia: 2008. This readable account contains numerous errors regarding French.
  • Ellis, George, papers in the Kathleen Flanigan Collection of the San Diego Historical Society: MS 272, Bulk Dates: 1982–2003
  • Harris, Sheldon, "The Public Career of John Louis O’Sullivan," unpublished dissertation, Columbia University, 1958.
  • May, Robert E., Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 2002.
  • Quinn, Arthur, The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln: 1994. Recommended.
  • Steele, Andrew, Diary of a Journey to California, unpublished typescript held by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois.
  • Stiles, Samuel, unpublished narrative held by Wayne Tyson of San Diego, California.
  • Tucker, Albert B., "The Parker H. French Expedition Through Southwest Texas in 1850," The Journal of Big Bend Studies, Vol. 6, 1994.
  • Walker, William, The War in Nicaragua, Mobile, AL: 1860.
  • Whitcomb, A. C., William M. Stafford, Freeman S. McKinney, and Parker H. French, plaintiffs and respondents, vs. James Lick and Jean Ducau, defendants and appellants. Brief on behalf of appellants, Town and Bacon, San Francisco, 1857?

Additional newspaper reports were found in:
  • New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 22 and 26, June 6, 1850, July 25, November 8, 1856.
  • New York Times, February 19 & October 12, 1852; December 14, 15, 17, 18, & 26 1855, January 10, 14, 18 & 19, February 7, 8, 9 & 27, April 25, May 17 & 20, June 3, 1856, March 19, 1859, February 22, 1862.
  • Sacramento Daily Democratic State Journal, January 1855 to August 1855.
  • Sacramento Daily Union, January 2, 1854.
  • San Francisco Bulletin, May 12, 1857.
  • San Francisco Daily Alta California, February 28, 1851, December 5 and 17, 1851, July 20, 1854, October 21, 1855, December 5, 1861, and October 16, 1862.
  • The Texian Advocate, Victoria, Texas, May 15, 1851.
  • Washington (DC) Daily Globe, July 6, 1857.
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