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La Salle
and French Exploration
in Early Texas

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

As a young man in France, Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was ordained as a priest by the Society of Jesus. However, after confessing that he was unsuited to the life of a cleric, the Jesuits released him from his vows. In the spring of 1666, nearly destitute from the vow of poverty he had taken when he joined the Society, La Salle embarked on a voyage to Canada where he joined his brother who had moved to the colony of Montreal the year before. From the beginning of his adventure in the New World, the young man was enthralled with the vast unmapped lands of the North American continent.

After spending nearly three years exploring the territory surrounding his own land grant on the western end of the Island of Montreal, and studying the languages of the local native peoples, La Salle learned of a great river some distance to the south the Indians called the Ohio. The Frenchman’s first serious exploration was a 1669 expedition to the Ohio. His plan was to follow the downstream course of the river, hoping that it would flow into the Mississippi and eventually on into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the falls at the present day site of Louisville, Kentucky, proved impassable for his boats and prevented the expedition from continuing any further.

Cavelier de la Salle
Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle
Wikimedia Commons

For the next several years, in addition to his many business ventures, La Salle explored the entire southern region of the Great Lakes. These efforts culminated in a major expedition to determine once and for all whether the Mississippi River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico as he had always surmised. Departing from present day Fort Wayne, Indiana, his expedition canoed down the entire length of the Mississippi and reached the Gulf in April, 1682. La Salle buried an engraved plaque and a cross at the mouth of the river, claiming the entire Mississippi Basin for France and naming it La Louisiane in honor of his sovereign, King Louis XIV.

Excited by his discovery, La Salle returned to France, determined to convince the king that a French colony must be established on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi. From such a colony France would be in position to control the shipment of goods from the interior of the continent, harass Spanish shipping in the Gulf, or even launch an invasion of New Spain if it became necessary. King Louis agreed and on July 24, 1684, La Salle set sail from the French port of La Rochelle with high hopes and a fleet of four ships and 280 men. Unfortunately, the expedition would suffer many misfortunes along the way.

La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684
1844 painting by Jean Antoine Théodore de Gudin.
Left - La Belle. Middle - Le Joly. Right - L'Aimable
Wikimedia Commons

Bad luck began early before La Salle’s small fleet reached the Gulf of Mexico, when Spanish buccaneers attacked and captured the Saint Francois off the island of Hispaniola. Then after entering the Gulf and diligently searching the coast for hundreds of miles, the Frenchman was unable to locate the mouth of the Mississippi River. Using the navigation instruments of the day, a ship’s captain could be relatively certain of his latitude, that is how far north or south of the equator his ship was, but until the invention of an accurate clock that could be used at sea, his position east or west was at best an educated guess. For La Salle, this problem was compounded by the lack of a proper map and the expansive delta system at the mouth of the Mississippi River that seemed to offer a thousand dead ends to the entrance of the mighty river.

Faced with these problems, it was no wonder that instead of the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle’s three remaining ships made landfall in January 1685, on the desolate coast of Texas, some 400 miles further to the west than their intended target. Misfortune continued when L’Aimable, the expedition’s supply vessel, ran aground while trying to enter Matagorda Bay. Most of the expedition’s supplies were lost when the ship broke apart and sank. Le Joly, the warship scheduled to return to France once the expedition reached the mouth of the Mississippi, then sailed for home with the majority of crewmen from L’Aimable and a few settlers who decided at the last minute not to remain in the New World.

After the departure of Le Joly, La Salle sailed La Belle, his remaining ship, into Matagorda Bay and a few miles up present day Garcitas Creek in Victoria County where he established the little settlement that has come to be known as Fort St. Louis. Although referred to as a “fort”, there were none of the usual trappings usually associated with such structures. Instead of a sturdy palisade or defensible wall, there were only a few crude wooden huts with thatch roofs scattered around a clearing. One of the primitive huts served as the settlement’s chapel, the first house of worship built in present day Texas that was not situated on the Rio Grande.

Map of Lasalle Expeditions
Map of La Salle's Expeditions
Courtesy The Robinson Library - www.robinsonlibrary.com

Soon the French made contact with the Karankawa who were friendly at first, inviting the strangers to their village. However, when the French discovered the Indians had salvaged some of the provisions that washed ashore from the wrecked supply ship, they demanded that the Karankawa return them. Of course, the Indians refused and fighting broke out. Several Frenchmen were either killed or wounded before they made it back to their settlement, and from then on a state of hostilities existed between the French and the Karankawa.

Facing increased pressure from the savage Indians and a shortage of supplies, La Salle made La Belle ready for sea and moved the ship to an anchorage he assumed was safe. He was planning to make a search by sea for the elusive mouth of the Mississippi. However, before embarking on this vitally important voyage he made a mysterious trek to the west, leaving the ship in the hands of some unreliable seaman. While La Salle was gone the seaman ran short of water and decided to weigh anchor and move the ship to a more favorable location. During what should have been a simple maneuver, a fierce northerly wind arose and the inept crewmen were unable to work the rigging. In desperation they dropped the bow anchor, but the wind was such that it failed to hold. The ship was driven southward across the bay, the anchor dragging the bottom until the wounded vessel slammed into a barrier of sand known today as Matagorda Peninsula and slowly sank.

With their last ship at the bottom of the bay and no help from the Native Texans, conditions became extremely difficult for La Salle’s colony. Drought ruined their crops and many colonists became ill or simply wandered away, never to be heard from again. By October of 1685, the colony was in desperate need of supplies, and La Salle decided to take a small party and attempt to seek a land route to the mouth of the Mississippi. Setting out with his brother and fifty men, he traveled down the Lavaca River and then eastward on foot, but he was unsuccessful and returned to Fort St. Louis in late March of 1686, having lost most of his men. In April, La Salle tried again, but after reaching the Sabine River with twenty men, he once again returned to the fort, this time with only eight survivors.

By late 1686, only forty-five French colonists were still alive. The others had either died from disease or been killed by the Karankawa. On January 12, 1687, La Salle decided to take twenty of the survivors and make one last desperate attempt to reach the Mississippi. Many of the men argued against this decision, and a few of the dissenters hatched a plot to kill La Salle. He was shot by one of his own men on March 19, 1687, near present day Navasota. A statue was dedicated there in his memory.

La Salle' Statue by Coppini in Navasota, Texas
TE Photo
Led by Henri Joutel, seven survivors, including La Salle’s brother, eventually made their way back to Canada. In 1688, Joutel journeyed to France to ask King Louis to send a rescue mission to Texas, but the king decided that France had already spent too much money exploring the Gulf of Mexico. Left stranded and alone, most of the remaining settlers either died of sickness or were massacred by the Karankawa. Six French children were the exception, five of them from the Talon family. The Karankawa adopted and raised the children, and ten years later they were discovered by the Spanish and taken to Mexico City.

Although La Salle’s expedition to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River was unsuccessful, his explorations were of great importance to Texas. The French presence in Texas finally stirred the Spanish to action. Fearing they would lose the race to claim the Americas, the Spaniards renewed their exploration of the Gulf Coast and began working diligently to settle east Texas.

Over the years, the location of Fort St. Louis and the site of the sinking of La Belle have been the subjects of intense historical interest. In fact, much speculation still centered on the location of the fort even though a preliminary archeological study identified numerous French artifacts on the site. It took the discovery of La Salle’s eight cannons buried on a private ranch in Victoria County to capture the interest of the archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission and finally set them to work uncovering the historical treasures of the site.
 Indianola Texas La Salle monument
La Salle Monument in Indianola, Texas
Photo courtesy
Barclay Gibson , December 2006
Likewise, in 1995, after years of diligent but unsuccessful searching, a crew of archeologists from the Commission discovered the wreck of La Belle all but swallowed up for 310 years in the mud of Matagorda Bay. The archeological crew confirmed the age and identity of the wreck by examining one of the ship’s elaborately inscribed cannons. Excavating the shipwreck required a remarkable and expensive effort, but to date more than a million artifacts have been conserved and catalogued. Eventually the reconstructed Belle will be placed on exhibit in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. An exhibit in Texas Beyond History, La Belle Shipwreck, and a companion exhibit, Fort St. Louis, offer much more detailed information on these delightful historical subjects.

© Jeffery Robenalt
"A Glimpse of Texas Past"
July 1, 2011 Column

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