La Salle’s Doomed 17th Century French Colony on the Texas Gulf Coast

Spanish Cross, Buffalo, Nicholas de La Mathe

In 1684, the famed explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle embarked from France to establish a military settlement on the lower reaches of the Mississippi River.[1] Roughly two hundred and eighty souls on four vessels accompanied La Salle. Only a handful would survive longer than five years.

From a present-day perspective, the voyage began poorly. Illness struck fifty men with two dying. Spanish corsairs captured the colonizers’ supply ketch, limiting the expedition’s supplies. And La Salle and the fleet captain continually clashed, sowing discord among the sailors and the colonizers. Despite these hardships, officers on the ship exclaimed that “it had been a long time since they had such a fortuitous crossing,” a testament to the usual hazards of a trans-Atlantic voyage in the seventeenth-century.[2]

After two months of overseas travel, the colonists temporarily landed at the port town of Petit Goâve in Saint Domingue (Haiti) to resupply. While at Petit Goâve, locals persuaded six of La Salle’s colonists to desert the expedition by listing dangers awaiting them on the voyage to the mystical Mississippi: keel-crushing reefs, relentless Spanish fleets, blinding winds, mountains of fog, and most fearfully, “miserable savages who live on roots.”[3]

The rest of the settlers pushed onward prepared to face these dangers. After fifteen-hundred miles of voyaging across the Gulf of Mexico, the colonists had yet to meet any of the perils posed by the inhabitants of Saint Domingue. They rejoiced when they first sighted land near Atchafalaya Bay, only a hundred miles away from the Mississippi.[4] But in a mistake that haunted La Salle and his colonists for years, instead of turning east toward the Mississippi, La Salle confusedly sailed in the opposite direction—toward Texas.[5] Growing farther away from his true destination every passing day, the French cavalier supposed Matagorda Bay to be an outlet of the great river and landed on Texas’s shores.

La Salle established a temporary fort on Matagorda Island and then erected a permanent fort, Fort Saint-Louis, on the mainland near a sizable waterway today called Garcitas Creek. La Salle was five hundred miles away from the Mississippi, and he was one thousand miles away from the nearest other French settlement. La Salle soon realized his mistake—that Matagorda Bay was not “the mouth of one of the branches of the Mississippi.” He spent the rest of his life searching in vain for this river.

***

The six settlers who deserted the expedition in Saint Domingue ultimately were executed for piracy by the Spanish. The rest of the settlers who now resided in a beautiful country filled with “fields of wildflowers,” an “infinite number of bison,” and “lakes and rivers full of fish,” fared only a little better.[6]

Matagorda Island, the location of La Salle’s temporary fort.
Matagorda Pass, the location in which La Salle’s Ship La Belle sank.
Ship Sinking Sandbars
Ship Sinking Sandbars
Environment surrounding Fort Saint-Louis.
Environment surrounding Fort Saint-Louis.
Environment surrounding Fort Saint-Louis.
More environment around Fort Saint-Louis.

 

Encountering Karankawa Indians: The Smell of Gunpowder

Sieur de La Salle understood the importance of forging cordial relationships with Native Americans from his experience voyaging down the length of the Mississippi River in 1682. He initially made good progress with the Clamcoehs, a tribe of the Karankawa Indians, when landing on the shores of Matagorda Island. Trouble began when La Salle’s ship Aimable became grounded and split-up in the Bay. Cargo intended to construct Fort Saint-Louis and maintain its inhabitants—clothing, foodstuffs, and tools—dispersed out into the waves.

Some days after Aimable grounded, La Salle’s men saw the Clamcoehs with “bolts of Normandy blankets” and other goods from the shipwreck.[1] A small number of hotheaded Frenchmen (unwisely chosen by La Salle) went to the Karankawas’ camp with their weapons on display. The natives promptly fled. In the empty village, the detachment of Europeans reclaimed what the Clamcoehs had salvaged and some additional items more.

“These [Frenchmen] had more passion than sense,” recalled Henri Joutel, a lieutenant of the expedition, “the Indians returning to their camp and seeing that someone had taken their canoes, skins, and blankets, believed that war had been declared and resolved to take revenge.”[2] Karankawas frequently collected flotsam on the beaches and although the Clamcoehs knew more likely than-naught that the goods in question were from the wreck of the Aimable, a diplomatic approach, one sensitive to cultural mores was needed. Not one that started a war.

Struggling to use their stolen paddleless canoes on the trip back to camp, the Frenchmen stopped for the night and started a fire. Tired from a day of plundering, the cavaliers fell fast asleep—as did the sentry they posted. A hail of arrows awoke the party. Shadows in the dark became illuminated as snaps of gunfire thundered. When the arrows ceased, the panicked French unit fled back to La Salle’s main party. Two dead Frenchmen remained sprawled amid coastal scrub brush.

Relations between the French-Europeans and their Native American counterparts grew steadily worse. The Karankawas proved adept at ambushing and killing stray Frenchmen. The French proved far less adept at ambushing and killing the Clamcoehs. In late 1685, La Salle resolved to make a sweeping attack on the coastal Indians to end their hostility once and for all. He achieved little more than the temporary capture of two women, a young child, and the greater infuriation of the coastal Indians.

Reinforcements

French colonizers maintained a miserable life on the Texas coast. A sickly environment, Indian attacks, and La Salle’s incessant search for the Mississippi racked up an alarming death toll. Two years after Fort Saint Louis’s foundation, in 1687, La Salle decided to acquire aid by trekking a thousand miles overland to New France (present-day Canada). Before doing so, the explorer concluded “it was best to make peace with [the Clamcoehs] so they would have no cause to harass those at the settlement.”[3] A member of the expedition angrily recollected that “if these precautions had been taken from the moment we arrived in the country, the natives would not then have killed so many of us.”[4] When La Salle departed on January 12, 1687, forty-six of the original two-hundred and eighty colonists remained.[5]

For two years settlers at Fort Saint Louis waited. Anxiety broke out—as did a wave of smallpox. La Salle never returned. Unbeknownst to the colonists, his men had murdered him in the woods of northern Texas.

Word of La Salle’s assassination trickled down to the Gulf Coast reaching the Karankawas’ ears. Around Christmas time in 1688, the Clamcoehs, blaming the settlers for the outbreak of disease and knowing their leader had perished, raided Fort Saint-Louis and annihilated the colonists—save six children who they abducted and adopted.[6]

The Karankawas regarded these six children fondly.[7] The Clamcoehs tattooed the young adoptees, taught them to hunt, and even exposed them to the sun so they would “become tanned like themselves.”[8] Of the six abducted and adopted youths, most is known about the Talon children: Marie-Magdeleine, Jean-Baptiste, Lucien Jr., and Robert.

In early 1684, the Talon family of eight traveled three thousand miles from Canada to France to join Sieur de La Salle’s colonization scheme.[9] The family then traveled an additional six thousand miles from France to the New World, and upon landing on the shores of Texas, their patriarch “became lost in the woods” never to reappear.[10] The children’s eldest sister succumbed to an unknown disease in the winter of 1686.[11] Their eldest brother was taken by La Salle to live among the Hasinai Indians. And Isabelle Talon, their mother, was killed before their eyes during the attack on Fort-Saint Louis.

As the children settled into their life among the Clamcoehs, France’s imperial rival Spain learned of La Salle’s presence on the Texas Gulf Coast. Eighty-five soldiers followed by a train of Native Americans, missionaries, and a throng of stock animals, marched toward Garcitas Creek in order to destroy Fort Saint-Louis, negligent to the fact that it had already been destroyed.[12]

Lancing a French Abscess

When the six men deserted La Salle’s expedition on Saint Domingue in 1684, they turned to piratry. After a year of plundering, Spaniards captured them.[13] One of their number, Denis Thomas, attempted to spare himself from the gallows and informed his captors of La Salle’s designs to establish a military settlement along the Mississippi—land Spaniards tenuously claimed as their own.[14] Although La Salle had kept his colonization mission shrouded in secrecy, Thomas had eavesdropped during the trip across the Atlantic.[15] After Spaniards acquired this information for themselves, and after hanging Thomas, they frantically searched for La Salle’s colony for three years. Their searches were unsuccessful and the French threat was written off as the ramblings of a doomed pirate.[16]

But in 1687, a shrewd priest Damián Massanet began his own investigation. Wanting to expand his missionary efforts into Texas, Friar Massanet believed that if he located La Salle’s colony he could accompany the expedition that would inevitably be sent to destroy the fort. In the process, he would gain access to the “heathens” in the interior. Massanet began asking Native Americans who passed through his mission of Caldera (which was located nearly three hundred miles away from Fort Saint-Louis) “whether they knew where there dwelt men white like the Spaniards.”[17] Massanet soon had a hit. Quem Indians had seen the French fort in person. Pirate Denis Thomas had not lied—the French had invaded.

Don Alonso de León was chosen to lead the attack on the French fort. A son of the northern New Spain, de León was experienced, tenacious, and an apt leader. Serendipitously, before beginning his expedition, he captured a French deserter named Jean Henri who lived among Coahuiltecan-speaking Natives as their chief. La Salle either left the middle-aged Henri with these Indians to build a lasting relationship, or as some historians speculate, Henri simply deserted the doomed colony.[18]

With the guidance of Quem Indians and with the translating ability of an imprisoned Jean Henri, Spaniards arrived at Fort Saint-Louis after a month of travel.[19] As Fray Massanet writes, they saw “many dead pigs….unburied bodies….and a great lot of shattered weapons.”[20] Mission accomplished, De León prepared for his return to New Spain. But before his homecoming, De León learned of ten French nationals, including the Talon children, living among the Indians of the region. De León, could only acquire two of the intruders who voluntarily turned themselves in to the Spanish Don. But a year later, Alonso de León returned to the Fort Saint Louis area to forcibly collect the remaining French living among Native groups. The first two Frenchmen living among the Caddos, came easily. The children living among the Karankawas, less so. Only able to force the Karankawas to bring three of the six children (Marie-Madelaine, Robert, and Lucien Jr. Talon), the well-armed Spanish party offered horses and clothing in exchange for the kids. The Karankawas begrudgingly agreed. Yet after the initial transfer, hostilities broke out.

There are multiple versions as to what ignited these hostilities. De León, summarizing the experience in his daily log, explained that the Karankawas persistently “demanded exorbitant things” and upon denial, Clamcoehs began to shooting arrows.[21] But other members of the expedition related that the Spanish soldiers had “peered with too much curiosity” into the belongings of the Indians. In other words, that the soldiers stole from the Coastal Indians.[22] Despite the different versions of why and how violence erupted, the outcome remained the same: four Karankawas lay dead. “[The Karankawas] felt so much regret on having to part with the brothers and sister,” recalled Jean-Baptiste Talon, who at this time still remained with the Karankawas, “that they all wept bitterly.”[23] De León, expecting reprisal, hurried to Christian lands.

Firm Yet Kind Insistence

Despite De León razing of Fort Saint Louis to dust, the Spanish state felt as if French demons still lingered near. Therefore in 1691, the Viceroy of New Spain tasked the bilingual and veteran Captain Francisco Martínez with capturing the French children remaining among the Karankawas (Jean-Baptiste Talon, Eustache Bréman, and an unnamed girl). On July 3, 1691, with twenty men, Martinez advanced toward the Karankawas’ lands.[24] Instead of bushwhacking in search of the children, Martinez sent up smoke signals announcing his presence. After half a day of floating smoke, the party captured an Indian in a prairie. Induced by “firm yet kind insistence,” in other words, a threat, this Native informed the Karankawas of the Spaniards’ arrival.[25] The Clamcoehs reluctantly brought and exchanged both French boys for horses. They “urged [Jean-Baptiste Talon] to desert the Spaniards and return to them as soon as possible, with a number of horses.” Regarding the girl, they said that they had traded her with other Indians.[26] Martinez gave up collecting her and she disappears from the historical record entirely.

After the exchange, the two boys sailed seven hundred miles from Matagorda Bay to Veracruz, Mexico. Upon landing in Veracruz, the boys were taken on a two-hundred mile trek to Mexico City to meet the most powerful official in New Spain—Gaspar de la Cerda Silva Sandoval y Mendoza, Count de Galve, the Spanish viceroy.

Cerda Sandoval struck gold. Jean-Baptiste Talon and Eustache Bréman were invaluable informants. They held a treasure trove of knowledge on the maze-like Texas coast, the First Peoples of the region, and the ultimate designs of the French. But because of these children’s young age, instead of mining them for information, he reunited them with the other Talons who had been captured in previous years. Cerda Sandoval then adopted the lot as household servants and naturalized citizens.[27] For the second time, the Talons had been abducted and adopted.

Spanish Cross, Buffalo, Nicholas de La Mathe
The Téran-Massanet expedition weaved through tremendous herds of buffalo and left crudely built crosses in their wake so that any Native American apostates “might resume their conversion and reduction into the bosom of the church.”

Memories of Murder

For half a decade, the Talons lived in Mexico City until Cerda Sandoval officially retired from his position as Viceroy in 1696. Before sailing for Spain, he sent Jean-Baptiste, Lucien Jr., and Pierre Talon to the Veracruz Marine Academy, where the trio served on the Santo Cristo de Maracaibo, a vessel in the Armada de Barlovento that prowled the Gulf Coast protecting Spanish settlements and shipping lines. This same fleet had captured the deserter and pirate Denis Thomas years earlier. Robert, the youngest Talon, and Marie-Magdelaine, the last surviving Talon daughter, joined the Viceroy and his wife as attendants on their return journey to Spain.[1]

On January 7, 1697, a French ship of war, captured the Santo Cristo de Maracaibo on which Jean-Baptiste, Lucien Jr., and Pierre Talon served. Rather than feeling relieved to be back in the clutches of their countrymen, the brothers were irate. Their abduction by Spain’s imperial rival made a reunion with their siblings, Robert and Marie-Magdelaine, problematic. They were not to leave French control for anything as trivial as a family reunion. This marked the Talons’ third abduction.

Upon capture, the French took the Talon brothers to Saint-Domingue—the same island that they had resupplied with La Salle—and heavily questioned them. When examined, the brothers’ remarkable memory of events was a welcomed surprise. They recalled Spanish fortifications, population sizes, agriculture dependencies, military routines, and even mundane details such as coach requirements in New Spain’s capital.[2] Jean-Baptiste and Pierre Talon were sent to Brest, France for a formal interrogation to eek out all the information they held.

When Jean-Baptiste and his brothers landed in Brest, France, they had traveled more than seventeen thousand miles over a span of thirteen years between three vastly conflicting worlds: one French, one Indian, and one Spanish. Their subsequent interrogation totaled 56-pages and is one of the most valuable sources for historians of colonial Texas. In this interview, the Talons took an unexpected stance. Although they had seen the Karankawas murder their mother, their description of the Karanakawas is surprisingly sympathetic. Their stance on La Salle, contrarily, is harsh. “M. de La Salle would never have had war with the Clamcoehs if on arriving he had not high-handedly taken their canoes….nothing is easier than winning their friendship.”[3]

***

On a dead-end road, surrounded by swamp and seashore, is a magnificent twenty-foot statue overlooking Matagorda Bay. Not of the Karankawas, who defended their land from intruders. Not of the Talon children, who navigated three contentious worlds. But of Sieur de La Salle, a commemoration to the man who Jean-Baptiste held responsible for Fort Saint Louis’s demise.

La Salle Monument at Indianola
La Salle Monument at Indianola

La Salle Monument at Indianola

Footnotes

[1] Eustache Bréman remained in Mexico City. Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 247.

[2] Ibid, 240-244.

[3] Ibid, 251.

[1] Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas, 93.

[2] Ibid, 93.

[3] Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas, 157.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Twenty-five men, women, and children were left at Fort Saint-Louis including Jean-Baptiste Talon, his mother, younger brothers, and sister, see Francisco Martinez, Save the Young: the 1691 expedition of Captain Martinez to rescue the last survivors of the massacre at Fort St. Louis, Texas, trans. William C. Foster (Corpus Christi: Museum of the Coastal Bend, 2004), 12-13. Seventeen accompanied La Salle’s search for aid. Additionally, there were four deserters or men purposefully left by La Salle among Native Americans groups in the surrounding region, three among the Caddo, and one, Jean Henri, among the Coahuiltecans, see Weddle, The French Thorn, 36.

[6] Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 216; William C. Foster, Spanish Expeditions Into Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 24-25; R.T. Huntington and Wayne Franklin, “Expedition to the Mississippi River by Way of the Gulf of Mexico,” The Iowa Review, vol. 15, no. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1985), 111.

[7] Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 239.

[8] Ibid, 231.

[9] The Talon family of eight being Lucien, Sr., the patriarch; Isabelle Marchand, the matriarch; Marie-Elizabeth; Marie-Madelaine; Pierre Talon; Jean-Baptiste; Lucien; and Robert Talon, who was born on the voyage to the Gulf Coast, see Weddle, “La Salle’s Survivors,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 75, no. 4 (April 1972), 420.

[10] Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 237.

[11] Ibid, 211.

[12] For expedition size, see Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 357; Weddle, The French Thorn, 72. See also Chapa for a slightly different number, Juan Bautista Chapa, Texas and Northeastern Mexico, 1630-1690, ed. William C. Foster, trans. Ned F. Brierley (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 123-124.

[13] Weddle, Wilderness Manhunt: The Spanish Search for La Salle (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1973), 7.

[14] Ibid, 7-14.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid..

[17] Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 355.

[18] Marie Hatcher and Robert Weddle have labeled Henri a deserter even though Henri claims to have been left there to “secure these peoples [the Coahuiltecans] allegiance to the king of France.” Chapa, Texas and Northeastern Mexico, 120; Marie Hatcher, “The Expedition of the Don Domingo Terán De Los Rios Into Texas,” Texas Catholic Historical Society, v. 2, no. 1 (1932), 12; Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 215; Weddle, The French Thorn, 132-148.

[19]  Orellano-Norris, General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 156, 165.

[20] Damian Manzanet, “Letter of Don Damian Manzanet to Don Carlos de Siguenza Relative to the Discovery of the Bay of Espiritu Santo,” trans. Lilia M. Casis, The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association vol. 2, No. 4 (April 1899): 289; Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 398. De Leon, in looking for more corpses, assumed that “they had been thrown into the creek and eaten by alligators,” see Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 398. Chapa inferred that the Native Americans had thrown most of the bodies into Garcitas Creek, Chapa, Texas and Northeastern Mexico, 129.

[21] Norris, General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 201.

[22] Massanet claims he received this information from one of the soldiers present, Bolton, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 384-385; Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 241.

[23] Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 242.

[24] Martinez, Save the Young, 23.

[25] Martinez, Save the Young, 28.

[26] Ibid, 30-33.

[27] Weddle, The French Thorn, 119; Weddle, “La Salle’s Survivors,” 421; Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf, 218, 247.

[1] Robert Weddle, The Wreck of the Belle, the Ruin of La Salle (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001), 154.

[2] Henri Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas: 1684-1687, ed. William C. Foster, trans. Johanna S. Warren (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1998), 53.

[3] Weddle, La Salle, the Mississippi and the Gulf (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1987), 89; Weddle, The Wreck of the Belle, 143;  Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas, 55.

[4] Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas, 52-57.

[5] See Peter H. Wood, “La Salle: Discovery of a Lost Explorer,” The American Historical Review, 89, no. 2 (April 1984), 301-309.

[6] Joutel, The La Salle Expedition to Texas, 123, 127.

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