Sometimes, it’s the accidents of history that have the most far-reaching influence. When the fabled French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, landed 200 colonists at Matagorda Bay in early 1685, he was actually seeking the Mississippi River. Three years earlier, La Salle had become the first European to descend the big river to its mouth, where he claimed all the lands in its drainage for the King of France and named them La Louisiane.
Returning to France, the explorer obtained a commission from Louis XIV to establish a fort in the Mississippi Delta and to gather an army of Native Americans to attack Spanish silver mines south of the Rio Grande.
Inaccurate maps, however, and insufficient knowledge of longitude lured the expedition some 400 miles farther west. Though La Salle’s coastal settlement ended in tragedy in late 1688, historians regard it as the first European colony in Texas and credit its brief life with inspiring New Spain to begin “civilizing” its neglected northern frontier.
Fate betrayed the French colonists as soon as they reached the New World. Of the four ships in the expedition, the unarmed ketch Saint François was captured by pirates near present-day Haiti; Joly, a 34-gun warship, returned to France; and a 10-gun merchant vessel, Aimable, broke up and sank in Pass Cavallo, at the entrance to Matagorda Bay.
Coastal-dwelling Karankawas killed many colonists. Others succumbed to rattlesnake bites or from eating prickly pear tunas without removing the needles. Some died of exhaustion while constructing the crude Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek north of Matagorda Bay. After his lone remaining ship, the six-gun frigate La Belle, sank in 1686, La Salle and 17 others set out in 1687, marching toward French settlements in Canada to summon help. The domineering explorer himself was assassinated by mutineers near present-day Navasota, and only five Frenchmen survived to reach New France.
By the time a Spanish search party found Fort St. Louis in 1689, Karankawas had killed all the French who had remained at the fort, except for a few children saved by Indian women. Spaniards burned the ruined buildings and buried eight iron cannons found at the site. Later, Spanish officials, fearing another French invasion, built a presidio and mission at the site (both of which later moved to Victoria and then to Goliad), and also established missions in San Antonio and East Texas.
In time, evidence of both the French and Spanish presence at the site receded into the earth. People began searching for the “first European colony” ruins again as early as the 1880s, when a local duo, directed to the spot by a fortune-teller, reportedly unearthed a copper kettle. Historian Herbert Bolton correctly identified the location in 1914, as did ranchers’ maps of the 1930s. Interviewed in 1997, Calhoun County Judge George Fred Rhodes, who fished in Garcitas Creek as a boy, recalled, “Everybody always called it ‘that old French fort.’” Still, cautious historians debated the exact whereabouts of the brief-lived French settlement until a metal detector-wielding ranch hand discovered the eight iron cannons buried on a Garcitas Creek bluff in 1996.
La Salle’s tragic Texas trek was already in the headlines at the time, due to the 1996 discovery and stunning recovery of the La Belle shipwreck by the Texas Historical Commission (THC). Archeologists constructed a steel-walled cofferdam around the wreck, pumped the water out, and effectively excavated the ship and its contents on “dry land.” Some 40 percent of the hull was still intact, protected by muddy sand that blocked destructive microorganisms. The 300-year-old ship yielded an amazing bounty of trade goods, domestic articles, tools, armaments, medicines, sailing gear and other materials for a 17th century New World colony. Three ornate bronze cannons recovered from La Belle feature the royal crest of Louis XIV and handles in the shape of dolphins. The crossed anchors and banner on the handsome guns refer to the king’s illegitimate young son, the count of Vermandois, admiral of the French navy.
Dr. James Bruseth, the THC’s La Salle project director, says the 1999–2002 excavation of the Fort St. Louis site was the longest continuous archeological dig ever conducted in Texas. It yielded glass and pottery shards, musket balls and gunflints, religious ornaments, coins, and other evidence of both French and Spanish occupation. Human bones unearthed (and reburied) are believed to have been those of French colonists interred by Spanish soldiers. Little could the colonists have known their pivotal role in Texas history.
As Bruseth puts it, “Much of Texas’ Hispanic heritage can be traced to Spain’s reaction to the French incursion.” It’s an unfathomable notion, but imagine Texas history if the French settlement had succeeded. We might not have an Alamo to remember. Heck, we might even be Canadians!
Victoria Electric Cooperative serves the area where Fort St. Louis once stood.
Gene Fowler is co-author of Border Radio.