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Mr Bean — pirate, scoundrel, Mexican hero

14 November 2006


Texans always have had a soft spot for pirates of one sort or another. The state that brought us Lyndon Baines Johnson, Halliburton, George Bush (I and II), Anna Nichole Smith and cheerleader mom Wanda Holloway, even under the relative sanity of Spanish and Mexican control attracted its share of ethically-challenged swashbucklers.

Look at the founding fathers. A dead-beat dad skipping out on alimony payments back in Tennesee — Sam Houston — gets a city named for him (and a 50 foot statue up by the Huntsville State Penitentary). Galveston forgets it was named FOR a fearsome Mexican lawman (Juan Galvez) and remembers it was named BY a gay pirate, with a peculiar sense of humor.

Jean Lafitte needed someplace quiet between New Orleans and Veracruz — in both cities he was a “respectable” businessman… well, it was the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era of merchandizing. Naming his hideout for the chief lawman of the era was high camp — and deliciously ironic. Just the thing for a witty jeu d’esprit to liven up those FABULOUS dinner parties Jean and his cher ami, Pierre, threw for the rogues, scoundrels and fellow merchandizers. Galveston, to it’s credit, has never turned respectable… it still celebrates its scoundrels, and — in the spirit of Jean and Pierre — it’s always been a gay-tolerant place.

During the War of 1812, Lafitte and Pierre provided material assistance and contract labor to the United States Navy — in his day it was called a “letter of marque.” It wasn’t much, but it did start a tradition in Texas roguery — the spiritual descendents of Jean and Pierre are today’s unindicted Halliburton and Enron executives.

Not nearly as colorful as Lafitte, as ornery as LBJ or as rapacious as Enron or Halliburton … and only a run-of-the-mill heterosexual bigamist, Peter Ellis Bean is almost bland… and, consequently, forgotten. There’s no Bean County, no Beanville… no 50-foot statue to Mr. Bean.

It’s a shame. He was as throughly disreputable as many a better-known Texas pioneer, and he managed to accidentally become a heroic figure in the Mexican War of Independence.

Bean traveled widely throughout Texas and what’s now northern Chihuahua. The short biography in the Handbook of Texas On-line tells us little. He was born in Tennessee in 1783 (though 1778 seems more likely, as other records suggest) and in 1800 was part of the “ill-fated Philip Nolan expedition”. He was only a teenager at the time, but he knew Nolan from his “horse-trading” (involving stolen horses — or perhaps stealing horses — from the Indians) expeditions.

Philip Nolan’s name may ring a bell if you remember your Junior High School English. Edward Everett Hale mixed up Nolan’s ill-fated attempt to invade Mexico with Aaron Burr’s attempts to grab Texas the next year. Philip Nolan became “The Man Without a Country” in the 1917 short story, who is condemned to never to hear of the United States as long as he lived.

The real Nolan had some hare-brained idea that the Spanish wouldn’t notice if he grabbed a himself a big o’ hunk of Texas. They noticed. They shot Nolan. The filibustros were dragged off to Chihuahua to stand trial, but no one was in any hurry.

Mexican justice was even less efficient then than it is now — it wasn’t until 1807 that the survivors even came to trial. In the meantime, Bean (now often called Pedro Elías Beán) acccording to an online bigoraphy compiled from several 19th century sources:

“… became a shoemaker and at Chihuahua he established a hat manufacturing enterprise. He reputation spread for manufacture of hats of such quality that he soon obtained a monopoly on the local hat trade, had several employees and gained the respect of residents of the region. After four years, discovery of plans for escape, betrayal by fellow prisoners on the Nolan Expedition and attempts to escape temporarily abrogated his success and privileges. He survived execution by a throw of the dice with one point lower than the unlucky member of the group.”

Bean and another “lucky” survivor, David Faro, were eventually given a prison sentence. They were packed off to Acapulco (believe it or not, that was punishment… ok, they were locked in the dungeon, but it was a nice sea-side dungeon) in 1811.

They were just in time for Padre Morelos’ seige of the city. With the Spanish distracted by the Insurgentes, Bean and Faro dug their way out of the prison, ending up with Morelos’ army. Although he was convenionally pious, and was considered a dedicated and honest village cura, Morelos was as tough a customer as any frontier horse-trader. He’d been a muleskinner and cowboy before entering the priesthood, and having served in rough, unsettled back country churches not only gave him the toughness to become the great guerilla leader that he was, he had an uncanny ability to pick subordinates for their qualities, overlooking their spiritiual shortcomings.

Morelos knew he was working with scoundrels, but one of those scoundrels … our anti-hero, Mr. Bean, had somewhere acquired a more usable skill than making hats and shoes … he knew how to make cannon-balls and explosives.

Wilbert H. Timmons, who wrote what I think is the only English-language biography of Morelos (“Morelos of Mexico: Priest, Soldier, Stateman. El Paso, Texas Press Western Press. 1963, rep. 1970) has this to say about the remarkable Mr. Bean:

One Anglo-American, Perter Ellis Bean, should be included among those who joined the Morelos movement during its first year of military operations and who contributed significantly to the cause.

… Bean escaped as Morelos entered the Acapulco area, joined his insurgent army, and aidend the revolutionaries immeasuably through his knowledge of the manufacture of gunpowder. “As there were large quantities of salpeter in the country,” wrote Bean, “and I was the only one who understood the manufacture of powder, I set up a powder mill. We obtained sulpher from a mine near Chilpancingo and while the Indian women ground the material on their metates, I msade the powder.” Bean remained with Morelos until 1814, when he was sent to the United States to obrain aid for the insurgent cause.

The official on-line biographer (partially based on Bean’s self-serving 1816 autobiography) write of his activities:

Bean distinguished himself by engineering large scale defections from the Royal Forces to the Republicans and exhibited leadership in action that brought him the rank of Colonel. He was in command of the troops that captured the city of Acapulco including his former captors. In contrast to the Mexican Indian insurgents under his command, Bean insisted on humane treatment of prisoners and was admired for the trait by both sides. Bean met and became acquainted with most of the important chieftains of the Mexican independence movement including Gen. Manuel Mier y Terán and Felíx Fernández (Guadalupe Victoria).

Those 19th century biographers decorously mention that he “met” a “Spanish lady” at this time. They neglect to mention her name, Doña Magdalena Falfan de los Godos, or the possibly important detail that he married her. Why becomes obvious later.

Morelos was no fool, but he had very little knowlege of the wider world. And even less maneuverablity when it came to seeking foreign aid. When the fledgling United States revolted against their British colonial masters, they could appeal to the other two European superpowers… France and Spain.

But, Morelos’ revolt was against the “French atheists” (i.e, Napoleon Bonaparte) who had occupied Spain and put Napoleon’s brother on the throne in Madrid. The army they were fighting answered to the Viceroy, who was loyal to either Carlos IV or his son Ferdinand VII, depending on which Spanish “loyalist” junta he happened to answer to that particular day. It didn’t matter — both the Carlists and the Fernandists were supplied by the British. The superpowers were fighting each other, but both were trying to hang on to the American colonies. Holland, traditionally an English business rival had provided George Washington’s rebel army with money… but Napoleon had put yet another brother on the Dutch throne… which only left Morelos with the upstart United States. The U.S. was no superpower, but at least it had a navy, which Morelos did not. And, there was money and radical revolutionaries to the north. It seemed a natural ally.

Morelos recognized that Bean was less than the ideal diplomat. But, not having a Mexican Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson around (who at least spoke the ally’s language), he had no choice but to send Bean and two other adventurers — one of whom ended up, after sending a letter to President Madison, drifiting down into Columbia, where he attempted to borrow money using a forged letter by somebody named “Joaquin José Morelos”). Bean never got to Washington etiher.

Advanced several thousand pesos in gold, Bean set off on his adventures. Again, our 19th century friends:

…Bean was sent in the fall of 1814 by Morelos as an agent to promote the Mexican Republican cause in the United States, “to bring on a campaign against the province of Texas, and …to make some provision for a supply of arms.” He found at Nautla on the coast north Vera Cruz, one of Lafitte’s vessels {you just knew our gay pirate would show up eventually, didn’t you?}, the Tigre(“Tiger”), under the command of Captain Dominic You, which had just defeated a British brig offshore. The Tigre was beached after a drunken celebration of the crew over the victory. From the crew, Bean first heard of the war between the United States and Great Britain, He rigged his own schooner and sailed to New Orleans with the Napoleonic veteran and pirate, Joseph Amable Humbert on board, as well as part of the crew of the Tigre. At Barrateria, he met Lafitte and necessarily postponed attempts to get support for the Mexican insurgent movement because of pre-occupation of the area with the war against the British. With Lafitte, Bean contacted General Jackson and offered their services at New Orleans. As the British guarded the coast, the two threaded their way through the swamps and bayous to that city. Bean was well known to Jackson, and was at once placed in charge of a battery. Lafitte, also, was given a command; and both did heroic service in the great battle.

Bean’s (or Beán’s) actions back in the U.S. are a little less heroic to later biographers. According to Timmons (page 146), Bean was seeking help from a British ship after Captial You’s drunken mishap. Discovering the British were at war with the United States — and besides, they were hunting for pirates — plans changed. Bean and a few of the soberer sailors stole a boat and hightailed it to New Orleans, where he met up with Lafitte. Joining up with Andy Jackson was apparently Lafitte’s idea… and a good way of legitimizing his own rather dubious business activities… and, incidentally, Bean’s

Bean never made it anywhere near Washington. He never bothered sending a letter to Madison, though he did try recruiting some pirates and ne-er do wells around New Orleans, for a incursion into Texas. Eventually, Bean himself, once there was an independent Mexico, drifted back into Texas, where — trading on his services to the Insurgentes, and his revolutionary connections, he was given a military commission. To his credit, he served with some distinction keeping peace between the local indian tribes and the settlers. He apparently forgot he’d acquired a Mexican wife and married (or didn’t — the record is unclear) a “Texian settler” from Tennesee, and — in violation of Mexican law, bought several slaves to work his plantation outside Nachadoches.

When the Texians (the U.S. settlers in Texas) rebelled against Mexico in 1836, Bean — as a Mexican officer — was locked up (again! — though this time for NOT rebelling) but as a personal friend of fellow rascal, Sam Houston (they knew each other from their dealings with the Kiowa and Comanches) he didn’t stay in jail very long. Out on parole, he sat out the Texas revolt, taking no real part in public affairs, and living quietly with his American wife, Canadice

In 1842, he began liquidating his assets. By this time it was obvious that the United States was going to annex Texas. It also appeared, slightly later, when Beans’s will was probated, that the property was … shall we say… overvalued, and had an unclear title? It wasn’t completely clear that Bean owned the assets that had been liquidated.

Canadice was still alive, but so was Magdalena back in Veracruz State. The old rogue wrote his will, swearing he was a widower and rode out of town. He rejoined Magdalena at her hacienda outside Xalapa. With perhaps better timing than ever before, he managed to escape the law and avoid embarrasing questions about his finances (and returning to the country he’d originally fled as a teenager, worked as a diplomat to make an ally, fought for, then fought to prevent becoming an ally, then was invaded by)…. by dying on October 13, 1846.

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