Texas’ French Connection

La Belle, sunk in 1686
La Belle, sunk in 1686

In 1686 the last ship of a doomed French colonization effort in Texas ran aground and sank in Matagorda Bay. There it remained under twelve feet of anaerobic muck for 309 years, a time capsule of history, until a clever archaeologist from Texas A&M, working with the Texas Historical Commission, built a coffer dam around it and recovered abundant treasures that fill in the story of the French explorer LaSalle. At the Texas History Museum Marjo and I discovered an exhibit underway and a fascinating book, From a Watery Grave:  The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle’s Shipwreck, La Belle. It was written by the clever archeologist, James E. Bruseth, and his wife, Toni S. Turner (2005, Texas A&M Press).

Texas History Museum
Texas History Museum

The Bullock Texas State History Museum was itself a revelation to us. It is named for the state’s 38th Lieutenant Governor, Bob Bullock, who championed the preservation and exhibition of Texas history and worked to establish the museum that opened in 2001 (forty years after I last studied Texas history). It has a place of honor on Congress Avenue in Austin and teems with school groups. The volunteers at the LaBelle exhibition were particularly helpful. One we met was Toni Turner, co-author of the book. Her husband, Jim Bruseth, was busy at work helping reassemble the hull of the boat, whose parts had been freeze-dried in a specially built facility at A&M.

The LaBelle project is further along than the excavation I visited last summer at the Ness of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, but equally fascinating. Both give me new appreciation for the discipline of archeology. Unearthing and correlating objects conveys authenticity to historical accounts. When I consider the amazing quantity of trash we are now generating, however, I wonder how future archeologists will know what to make of us.

Cavelier de la Salle
Cavelier de la Salle

René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, born in 1643 in Rouen, was a complex figure who was good at languages and getting along with Indians in Canada and the Great Lakes. It was he who claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley, one-third of the current United States, for France and named it Louisiana for his King, Louis XIV. In 1684 he returned to France and persuaded King Louis to finance a large expedition (four ships, 300 people) to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Then his challenges came one upon the other: pirates took one ship, poor navigation (Matagorda Bay is several rivers farther west of the Mississippi), and hostile Indians (his subordinates failed to follow LaSalle’s counsel and stole canoes, rather than trading with the natives in Texas). With his own men, he was a jerk; his arrogance led to ambush. On his third attempt to find the Mississippi, one of his own men murdered him near the present town of Huntsville, Texas. He was only 43. “LaSalle” is a major street in Chicago and a classic model of Buick, but in Texas, his name is carried only by a tiny town and a rural county. LaSalle’s French colony was wiped out by the Karankawas after only a few years.

I knew that one of the Six Flags of Texas was French, but I’d never really considered France’s role in the settlement of Texas. It turns out that the failure of France’s colony prompted Spain to redouble its efforts in Texas. As Bruseth and Turner conclude in their fascinating book:

“For want of an anchor the ship was lost; for want of a ship the colony was lost.” The discovery and excavation of LaBelle begs the addition of another phrase: “For want of a ship, Texas changed forever.” With the failure of France’s effort to colonize an uncharted land, Spain seized the moment to fill the void, sent missionaries and soldiers to build missions and presidios in Texas and indelibly imprinted Hispanic culture on the Lone Star State. LaBelle is a great historical icon: a sunken ship that accidentally charted a grand new direction for the state’s history. Millions of Americans now understand France’s contributions to the Lone Star State’s beginnings. What could be a better legacy for LaSalle’s diminutive, beautiful ship?

 

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