1687 Three Hundred Years Ago

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The explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, fell dead on March 19 in what is today east Texas, murdered in the wilderness by his own men. They had cause to hate him. Three years before, La Salle had led several hundred French men, women, and children to colonize the lower Mississippi, but he mistook Matagorda Bay far to the west for the river’s mouth, and they settled there instead. Disease, hunger, and Indians cut their number to thirty-seven; the colony was doomed. Men cursed La Salle and vowed to take vengeance for their dead and their lost fortunes. Had La Salle been remotely politic, he might have maintained his followers’ loyalty, but even the devoted Henri Joutel called him “too haughty.” He displayed a “rigidness towards those under his command,” Joutel wrote later, “which at last drew on him implacable hatred and was the occasion of his death.”

Born to a wealthy family in Rouen in 1643, La Salle traveled to Montreal at age twenty-two and soon after began exploring the Great Lakes region. Excited by the promise of the fertile lands to the west, he dreamed of claiming vast tracts of them for France. Trips to the court of Louis XIV gained La Salle trade privileges and the right to explore the wilds and build forts there. He led his traders on hazardous journeys through unmapped country, displaying a physical stamina to match his unbending will. After numerous reversals—ships lost, forts deserted, privileges revoked—La Salle traveled by canoe down the Mississippi, the first European to do so. When he landed at its mouth on April 9,1682, his men planted a cross and hoisted the Bourbon banner, and, in the name of the king, La Salle took possession of the Mississippi River, all its tributaries, and the land through which they coursed, calling it Louisiana. For this the king looked favorably upon him and in 1684 approved La Salle’s plan to establish a fort on the lower Mississippi. The ill-fated Matagorda Bay colony was the result.

At the time of his death, La Salle was leading sixteen ragged men from the colony to seek help in Canada for the twenty who remained behind. After two and a half months on the trail, a petty disagreement broke out between La Salle’s surly nephew and a few men from the group, who had killed several buffalo and were drying the meat in a camp distant from La Salle’s own. The nephew and two others loyal to La Salle were murdered that night in the hunters’ camp, and two days later La Salle came looking for the victims. Waiting for him behind a screen of reeds lay one of the murderers, who raised his musket, aimed, and put a bullet through La Salle’s head. The explorer died instantly, and his body was left, stripped and reviled, in the bushes.