The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 75, July 1971 - April, 1972

La Salle's Survivors

ROBERT S. WEDDLE*
W HEN RENf ROBERT CAVELIER, SIEUR DE LA SALLE, SAILED FROM
*V France on July 24, 1684, to seek the mouth of the Mississippi
River and establish a colony, he took with him 28o persons, includ-
ing the crews of his four ships. Through errors resulting from the
limited navigational capabilities of the time, he sailed past the
Mississippi and landed with his colonists at Matagorda Bay. One
of the ships was captured by Spanish corsairs on the way to the New
World, the large supply ship ran aground attempting to enter the
bay, and a third vessel soon returned to France. By the time a tem-
porary fort was built in the spring of 1685, a series of other misfor-
tunes had reduced the number in the colony to 18o.1
As the French colonists struggled to expand their toehold on the
hostile shore, they fought the Indians, the wilderness, and each
other. They lost to all three adversaries. By the time La Salle set out
in January, 1687, on his final journey, hardly more than forty per-
sons remained. By 1690 all but fifteen had perished." Who were the
fifteen, and what was their ultimate destiny? Only a partial answer
can be offered, but perhaps one which goes a step beyond previous
attempts.
The significance of La Salle's invasion of Spanish-claimed terri-
tory is well established. It caused Spain to expend her dwindling
*Mr. Weddle is the author of two books on Spain's mission settlements in Texas and
Coahuila: The San Sabd Mission and San Juan Bautista. His study, Wilderness Manhunt:
The Spanish Search for La Salle, will be published shortly.
'Henri Joutel, Joutel's Journal of La Salle's Last Voyage, x684-7, edited and annotated
by Henry Reed Stiles (Albany, N.Y., 19o6), 54, 9go. Not least among the misfortunes of
the colony was the loss of their fourth ship, a small frigate which was wrecked in the
bay during a storm. Ibid., 90o. Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America:
The Northern Voyages, A.D. 5oo-r6oo (New York, 1971), 136-137, observes that navi-
gators had no accurate method of obtaining longitude until "lunar distances" and the
chronometer were invented in the eighteenth century. La Salle's navigational error, there-
fore, is understandable; in fact, it would have been little short of a miracle in that
age had he been able to navigate accurately to the exact point he sought.
'The figure is based on the present writer's compilation from various sources, prin-
cipally Joutel, Journal, and Pierre and Jean Baptiste 'Talon, "Interrogations faites a
Pierre et Jean Talon," in Pierre Margry (ed.), Ddcouvertes et dtablissements des Frangais
dans l'ouest et dans le sud de L'Amdrique septentrionale (6 vols.; Paris, 1871-188o), III,
61o-621.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 75, July 1971 - April, 1972. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101201/. Accessed November 23, 2014.