By Bartee Halie
Believing he was anchored off the coast of present-day Alabama instead of Spanish Texas, French explorer La Salle went ashore on Jan. 20, 1685.
Louis XIV of France rewarded Rene Robert Cavelier with the title of Sieur de la Salle for his history-making trip down the Mississippi River in 1682. The 39-year-old adventurer was the first white man to trace the continental tributary all the way to its mouth. He stopped just long enough to name the vast expanse for his monarch and to claim Louisiana for his native land.
Two years later in the midst of a long, drawn-out war with Spain, La Salle presented the king with an ambitious proposal. With only two ships and 200 men, he could checkmate their ancient adversary in the New World and replenish the national treasury at the same time.
Louis was all ears. He was so impressed by La Salle’s plan to build a fort at the mouth of the Mississippi and to raid the silver-rich provinces of northern New Mexico that he doubled the modest request to four vessels and 400 men.
But there was a catch. The king balked at giving La Salle complete control of the venture. He could chart the course and call the shots on land, but Captain Sier de Beaujeau would be in charge at sea.
Realizing it was Louis’ way or no way, the explorer reluctantly accepted the condition. The expedition sailed in July 1684 with each co-commander determined to undermine the other’s authority.
The aristocratic La Salle did not win any popularity contests with his haughty personality. He angered the crew by refusing to stop and refill the wine casks. The upset sailors retaliated by throwing an all-night drunk outside his sick room, as he lay near death with a tropical fever.
To the disappointment of the crew, La Salle recovered. The journey resumed minus a ship seized by Spanish pirates.
The remaining trio somehow got separated while crossing the Gulf of Mexico and managed to miss the mighty Mississippi by more than 300 miles. La Salle was still so turned-around in January 1685 that he mistook the Texas coastline for modern-day Alabama.
The three ships eventually regrouped and in their collective confusion continued south. A few days later, La Salle finally dropped anchor near Matagorda Island and with pompous certainty declared Cavallo Pass, the entrance to Matagorda Bay, the western edge of the Mississippi delta.
A second ship was lost, when the incompetent skipper took a wrong turn into the bay and ran aground. Brackish water and tainted food caused severe nausea and dysentery that resulted in five deaths daily.
Taking La Salle at his word that their destination had been reached, Beaujeau declared his own mission complete. Accompanied by his crew and that of the wrecked vessel, he sailed home in disgrace narrowly avoiding imprisonment for his criminal misconduct.
Those that stayed behind were driven mercilessly all summer by La Salle in the construction of Fort St. Louis. Ten died from food poisoning, six were picked off by the Karankawa Indians and a half dozen deserters disappeared never to be seen again.
When the fort was finished at last in October, La Salle sheepishly confessed that he had overshot the Mississippi. Cutting short an initial hunt for the river, the search party returned to the discouraging news that a sudden squall had sunk the fourth and final ship.
A second attempt in 1686 to locate the Mississippi was canceled on the banks of the Sabine due to a dangerous shortage of gunpowder and supplies. By year’s end, pathetic Fort St. Louis was home to 50 demoralized survivors.
La Salle rallied 16 sturdy souls for one last try at tracking down the missing Mississippi. Those who chose the safety of the flimsy fort over the hazards of the trackless wilderness were subsequently slaughtered by the Karankawas.
La Salle also perished in Texas though not at the hands of the fierce inhabitants. Near modern Navasota in March 1687, a petty argument over food erupted into violence that took three lives, one of them the explorer’s cousin.
The next morning La Salle went looking for his absent relative and was waylaid on the trail. An anonymous assassin’s bullet struck the legendary Frenchman in the temple killing him instantly.
From the French point of view, the La Salle Expedition was a waste of men, money and materiel. For slumbering Spain, however, the intrusion into their northernmost New World domain served as a much-needed wake-up call. The time had come to settle Texas or risk losing it.
Read all about the early years of the oil frenzy in “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.