Parker Hardin French (1826–1878): adventurer, conman, and filibuster

True Historical Characters in Adventures of a Victorian Soldier

A true life bandit and scoundrel

As a youngster, Parker French fought in the Royal Navy as a cabin boy and a powder monkey in the First Opium War. His first big swindle at age 21 was building an unfinished ship and promising to transport gold seekers to California. Then he operated a wagon train scam.

“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…”

At 23, French financed his wagon train with money collected from the settlers, forged bank drafts, and a fake unlimited line of credit drawn on a major New York shipping firm. When news of his fraud caught up with him, French fled into Mexico where he lost his arm in a gunfight with men he wronged. French then traveled to Durango and tried to swindle the governor out of $600,000. Discovered, he led a gang into the mountains and preyed on ranchers and travelers until Mexican troops captured him after a gunfight and jailed him in Durango for 18 months.

Following an arduous sea voyage up the Pacific Coast, he reached San Luis Bay in California and smooth-talked his way into the job of District Attorney. That fall, in 1853, he was elected to represent the county in California’s State Legislature. In 1855, he joined William Walker’s assault on Nicaragua. When Walker took control of the country, French served as “Minister of Hacienda,” the equivalent of the US Treasury Department. Walker appointed him ambassador to the US, but President Pierce, warned of French’s dubious past, refused his credentials.

Federal authorities in Connecticut later arrested and imprisoned in Fort Warren in Boston on charges of spying for the Confederacy but weaseled out of the charges. He was also refuted to be a Knight of the Golden Circle, the pro-slavery faction we hear of in Book 3 of my Adventures of a Victorian Soldier series.

In 1863, French registered for the Civil War draft and returned to fraud as he operated as both a lawyer and a purveyor for Union troops during the Civil War. Later, there are records of him working as a peddler in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1865. True to his nature, French again defrauded partners in a steamboat venture moving supplies to Fort Benton Montana. In later life, French spiraled downhill on cocktails of whiskey and chloroform. He died in 1878, having lived a life more fascinating than many a fiction.

Reference: Dando-Collins, Stephen. Tycoon’s War. Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.

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