Giants of Texas History
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Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle
Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, was born in Rouen, France in 1643. As a young man, La Salle planned to enter the priesthood, but found himself unsuited to the life. At the age of 24, he followed his brother to Canada, where he entered the fur trade. La Salle was soon captivated by the opportunities available in the largely unexplored lands of North America. In 1669, he launched his first expedition, discovering the Ohio River. Over the next several years, he combined exploration with his business ventures. In 1682, he descended the Mississippi and claimed for France all of the lands that were drained by the river, a vast territory that he named “Louisiana” after the French King Louis XIV.
One of La Salle’s men, Nicolas de La Salle (no relation), kept a journal of this expedition. He recorded a detailed daily chronology, as well as priceless information about the Indian cultures that the party encountered. He completed this journal in 1685 after returning to France, but the whereabouts of the original manuscript are unknown. Only two copies are known to exist, one at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the other recently discovered at the Texas State Library and Archives.
The provenance of this document is uncertain, but it is believed to have acquired by the Archives sometime in the late nineteenth century. For more information and the English translation of this remarkable document, see William C. Foster's La Salle Expedition on the Mississippi River: A Lost Manuscript of Nicolas de La Salle.
In 1683, Robert La Salle obtained royal support for a venture to travel to the mouth of the Mississippi through the Gulf of Mexico and establish a colony for France. From this base, France would be able to strike at Spanish Mexico, harass Spanish shipping, and block English-American expansion in North America. La Salle’s fleet of four ships and 280 men and colonists was plagued with problems from the start, culminating with the failure to find the mouth of the Mississippi, landing instead at Matagorda Bay in present-day Texas on February 20, 1685. One of his ships had already been seized by Spanish pirates; by the end of 1686, a second ship had been lost, and a third taken back to France with some disenchanted colonists. In late winter 1686, the last remaining ship, the Belle, was wrecked by a squall.
In spite of the severe setbacks, La Salle accomplished a great deal of exploration. It is believed that he explored the Rio Grande as far west as the Pecos River near the present-day town of Langtry. On March 19, 1687, while on a march to try to find the Mississippi and resume the original mission of the expedition, La Salle and seven others were killed in an uprising of his own men. Back at Matagorda Bay, the remaining colonists also fared poorly; except for a few children, they were massacred by the Karankawa Indians in December 1688.
La Salle’s activities had far-reaching consequences for the future of Texas. Spain increased its own exploration of the Texas coast and advanced the timetable for its own occupation in order to stave off French claims. As for France, it continued to claim Texas, a claim that was transferred to the United States after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and remained a sore point until the boundaries were settled by treaty in 1819.
The La Salle Monument, Indianola, Texas. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1/45-3.