This essay was featured in the January 10 issue of Quid Novi?:
Making History: Lost in the Wilderness
Few explorers combine remarkable achievements with wide-ranging foolishness like Rene Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle. In the late 17th century, La Salle journeyed far and wide, starting one ambitious enterprise after another, almost all of which ended in failure. His last venture into Texas ended with the successful fifth attempt on his life by his own men.
Born in Rouen on November 21, 1643, La Salle was the second of three sons. He also had one sister. La Salle’s relationship with his older brother Jean was stormy at best. At its worst, they actively conspired against each other. Jean Cavelier the elder, La Salle’s father, made his fortune as a textile merchant. He supplied Rouen’s numerous churches and convents. Jean the younger and La Salle entered religious orders. Jean was ordained a Sulpician priest, but this seems to have had little impact on his greed and shady business practices. La Salle entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. When his father died in 1666, La Salle left the Jesuits, probably much to the relief of his superiors, for La Salle was far too willful for the order’s strict rule.
Unfortunately for La Salle, he left the Jesuits and found himself completely broke. He had taken a vow of poverty while with the Jesuits. His father rewrote his will, excluding La Salle from any inheritance. La Salle’s father died in January 1666, and La Salle left the Jesuits, but by that time it was impossible to amend the will. La Salle received nothing from his father’s sizeable estate. La Salle needed money, and so he cast his eye on the New World.
La Salle traveled to Canada in the spring of 1667. The Sulpicians, perhaps influenced by La Salle’s brother Jean, gave La Salle a land grant on the St. Lawrence River near the present-day Montreal borough Lachine. His new seigneury (a landed estate held in Canada by feudal tenure) was on its way towards successful. It grew into a small village that provided profitable rent to La Salle. During this time, La Salle had learned enough of Native American languages to understand reports from Seneca Iroquois about a river that La Salle though would offer a link to the Pacific Ocean. La Salle sold his seigneury concession in order to outfit an expedition to search for the fabled Northwest Passage.
La Salle vanished for about a year. His own reports about his accomplishments during this time are so unreliable that they are widely discounted today. For example, reports claim that La Salle discovered the Ohio River. He didn’t. They also claim he discovered the Mississippi River. He didn’t do that either, although he was the first choice to explore that great river. Unfortunately for La Salle, he was gone too long without reporting his whereabouts, and the honor of traveling down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico went to Jolliet and Marquette.
While La Salle did not find his way to the Pacific, he did get involved in the illicit fur trade on the behalf of le Comte de Frontenac. In 1674, La Salle was given a grant to Fort Frontenac, which he had helped rebuild. From this base near present-day Kingston, Ontario, La Salle established a ruthless hold on much of the Canadian fur trade. It was during this time that La Salle survived the first of five assassination attempts. A domestic servant put hemlock and verdigris in La Salle’s salad, but La Salle made his Fortitude save. After this, La Salle turned his attention to getting control over the Mississippi in order to corner the market on the fur trade.
In 1678, La Salle launched this horribly mismanaged venture with the approval of the Royal Court. In the end, about all La Salle had to show for his efforts was a huge debt, wrecked ships, and three more unsuccessful assassination attempts. In spite of these setbacks, La Salle refused to give up his dream of gaining control of the Mississipi River and the fur trade. He would journey to France again in order to convince the Crown that he could establish a French colony in Spanish East Texas that would include a port on the Gulf of Mexico.
But first, he had to prove to himself and others he could navigate from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi. On February 6, 1682, La Salle started down the Mississippi with about two dozen Frenchmen and nearly three dozen Mohegan and Abnaki Indians. A broken compass, an unreliable astrolabe, and cloudy weather combined with the river’s winding course to utterly confuse La Salle. Along the way, he twice laid claim to the entire Mississippi River valley, northern Mexico, and Spanish Texas. Without a reliable method to determine latitude, La Salle ended up greatly misjudging the location of the Mississippi’s mouth on the Gulf. Rather than Louisiana, La Salle was convinced that he entered the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Christi Bay on the Texas coast.
Flushed with what he presumed to be success, La Salle returned to France with his plans to establish a warm-water port on the Gulf of Mexico. Machinations within the Court combined with La Salle’s seemingly limitless ego to turn a trade mission into a military action against Spanish Texas. Spain and France had started a short war with each other by this time. La Salle had visions of leading hundreds of soldiers from Canada down the Mississippi to conquer Mexico. By the spring of 1684, preparations were undertaken in La Rochelle, France, to sail back to the New World. The Crown provided two warships, the Belle and the Joly, the latter to return to France after La Salle reached his destination. La Salle needed more ships, however, and went even further into debt to lease the Aimable and the Saint-Francois.
On July 24, 1684, La Salle set sail with his four ships carrying supplies, gentlemen volunteers, soldiers, traders, priests, and colonists. The trip was fraught with the usual perils. The Joly‘s bowsprit broke three days out. The voyage resumed on August 1. There were conflicts between La Salle, his captains, and the passengers and crew. Gale-force winds separated the ships. Illness broke out on the Joly. Only three of the four ships reached Petit Goave, Haiti. The Saint-Francois was captured by Spanish pirates.
In Haiti, La Salle fell perilously ill. Several of his men defected to either return to France or join the local pirate fleet. Others died of sickness. All told, La Salle lost thirty men. Replacements for these men included less than trustworthy sorts, including a pirate called Hiems. Later, along with the surgeon Etienne Liotot and the Duhaut brothers, to whom La Salle owed money, this riff-raff would prove La Salle’s ultimate undoing. The remaining three ships set sail again, heading not to the actual Mississippi but to the Nueces River in the Texas Coastal Bend.
From Petit Goave, the ships sailed to Cape San Antonio and then into the Gulf of Mexico proper. On January 2, 1685, somewhat west of the Sabine Pass, the ships lost sight of each other in dense fog. They reunited about two weeks later near Texas’s Cedar Bayou. La Salle ordered soldiers ashore on Matagorda Island. Bad weather turned this into an eight day long operation, after which La Salle and the soldiers were marooned without provisions due to heavy seas. La Salle decided he was not near the Mississippi’s mouth, but wrongly concluded that Galveston Bay back to the east was the correct place to be. He sent soldiers marching eastward while the ships were to follow along the coast.
The Belle and the Aimable had lost their anchors in the heavy seas. The soldiers sent to the east discovered that they were on an island, and that their path was blocked by Matagorda Bay. It was decided to establish the Grand Camp on the easternmost part of Matagorda Island while it was determined if the ships could sail through Pass Cavallo into Matagorda Bay and then, perhaps, to someplace more hospitable. The Belle crossed into Matagorda Bay safely. The Aimable, despite being lightened by off-loading cargo, ran aground off the eastern coast of Matagorda Island.
La Salle’s men raced heavy groundswells that were causing the Aimable to sink slowly, steadily into the sand reef. An outbreak of dysentery complicated matters. Up to six men were dying each day. Karankawas from a village north of the Grand Camp showed up to help themselves to the Aimable‘s cargo. The choice of La Salle’s hot-headed nephew, Crevel de Moranget, to get the stolen goods back from the Karankawas proved disastrous. Two of Moranget’s men were killed, and the Karankawas remained enemies of the French. About this time, the Joly left for France.
The Grand Camp’s location was less than ideal. Exposed to the sea with hostile Karankawas nearby, La Salle decided it was time to move the colony inland. He left about 100 soldiers at the Grand Camp. After a fifty-mile march northward, La Salle found an ideal site for the French settlement near today’s Garcitas Creek in Texas’s Victoria County. The closest anchorage was several leagues to the south, requiring supplies be shipped by canoe to the new site. About three dozen men were left at the Grand Camp. Approximately seventy colonists started out on the hike to the new site.
The Garcitas Creek site is often referred to as Fort St. Louis, but no one ever called it that during its short duration. The “fort” did have eight cannons, but no ammunition. It was never fortified. Many, if not most, of the colonists were ill, and the deaths continued. The work was grueling. Timbers for housing had to be dragged for nearly four miles. In less than six months, La Salle lost half his people either to death or desertion. Brackish water, heavy labor, scarce or dangerous food, and disease devastated the colony.
La Salle still believed he was close to the Mississippi. He ordered the Belle loaded with supplies in preparation for moving, but La Salle abandoned that plan. Instead, on October 31, 1685, he set out on foot to find the Mississippi. While he was gone for two months on this wild goose chase, the Belle was wrecked. The fates of La Salle and his colony were sealed.
On January 12, 1687, La Salle and sixteen other men set out on a desperate, hopeless mission to find the Mississippi. La Salle was lured into an ambush and shot. The pirate Hiems was part of the murder plot, as was Pierre Duhaut, one of the brothers to whom La Salle owed money. The surgeon Liotot killed La Salle’s nephew Moranget and two others with an axe. The French expedition to conquer Mexico via Texas ended in total failure.
What DM hasn’t wanted to run a sea voyage? Put your player’s characters aboard an expedition commanded by a man cut from the same cloth as La Salle, who knew just enough to be dangerous and wasn’t above blaming others for his failures. Toss in pirates, ship-board sickness, some violent weather, and a shipwreck in a hostile wilderness. Then throw in a murder plot against the expedition’s commander. What do your players do? Help the conspirators? Save the commander? Take charge and try to save everyone?
Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar. The Account: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion. Translated by Martin A. Favata and Jose B. Fernandez. Arte Publico Press: University of Houston, 1993. (While this has nothing to do with La Salle, it is a fascinating first-person account of life in East Texas before widespread European contact.)
Weddle, Robert S. “Tarnished Hero: A La Salle Overview” in Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Vol. CXIII, No. 2. The Texas State Historical Association, October 2009.