Explorer lost his way in Texas Shipwrecks: The legendary La Salle hit a dead end here, leaving a wealth of artifacts at the bottom of a ship graveyard.

Sun Journal

August 09, 1998|By Patty Reinert | Patty Reinert,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PORT O'CONNOR, Texas -- Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, charted the Great Lakes, discovered the mouth of the Mississippi and claimed half the continent for France.

But he was not well-liked.

His own men -- those who didn't desert him -- sank his ships, poisoned his food and, eventually, shot him in the head.

Three hundred years after La Salle's final voyage, however, archaeologists love him.

And Texans are suddenly enthralled with the story of the explorer's failed attempt to establish an ocean route to the Mississippi and a French colony on its bank. To hear them tell it, the best thing La Salle ever did -- besides surviving attacks by pirates, Indians, alligators and snakes -- was to get lost in Texas and let his last ship sink, hopelessly stranding his party in the wilderness.

The legend has been resurrected by what may be the most significant underwater archaeological discovery in North America: The roily waters of Matagorda Bay are coughing up the remains of La Salle's ships, hundreds of miles from their intended destination.

"This is the story of two world superpowers racing to colonize the Americas," says Jim Bruseth, director of the Texas Historical Commission's archaeology division.

"Most Texans accept and take for granted their Hispanic heritage, but this reminds us of our French history. If La Salle hadn't sailed to Texas by accident, the Spanish would not have taken such an interest in moving north from Mexico. It's not a stretch to say that if it weren't for La Salle, there would be no Alamo."

Three summers ago, just 12 feet down in this turbulent, cloudy bay, a scuba diver was groping around in the mud when he sat down on an encrusted bronze cannon that would pinpoint the location of La Salle's flagship, La Belle, which sank in a storm in 1686. That discovery sparked a $5 million excavation to bring the Belle and more than a million artifacts to the surface.

A giant steel cofferdam was constructed to hold back Matagorda Bay, marking the first time ever that archaeologists conducted a dry-land excavation surrounded by ocean waters. The historical commission estimates that more than 25,000 tourists hired boats to watch the excavation, which lasted more than eight months in 1996-1997.

Since then, archaeologists have located the remains of La Salle's Fort St. Louis in a nearby ranch, and last spring, a private divers group announced it had found what is believed to be the Belle's sister ship just outside Pass Cavallo, the narrow passageway that connects the Gulf of Mexico with Matagorda Bay about 160 miles down the coast from Houston.

For the next few weeks, the historical commission's divers will inspect the site themselves to determine whether the shipwreck is the Aimable, La Salle's supply ship that sank a year before the Belle.

Complicating the search is the miserable visibility in the Gulf of Mexico and Matagorda Bay, known as the graveyard of the Texas Gulf Coast because of the hundred of ships that have sunk here.

If the divers are able to confirm that the ship is the Aimable, the question then will be, how much of it is still there?

The Belle was 51 feet long and 17 feet wide. The Aimable, which carried provisions for the 300 sailors and colonists who followed La Salle, was six times that. And while the Belle was found in shallow waters and was somewhat protected in the bay, the Aimable lies twice as deep, in the open gulf. If a second cofferdam is attempted, Bruseth estimates it could cost $12 million to drag the ship from its tomb.

No one could really blame La Salle for getting lost in Texas. Being the first to sail here, he had no map.

What made his followers so angry was the explorer's disregard for their safety, his refusal to consider the advice of his men, and his annoying tendency to wander off just when he was needed most.

La Salle's four ships were approaching the West Indies when he impatiently charged ahead, leaving one of them, the Saint Francois, unprotected. It was seized by Spanish pirates.

When the rest reached Matagorda Bay, La Salle stubbornly insisted that the Aimable follow the Belle into the shallows. Then he accused the bigger ship's captain of intentionally grounding her.

The Aimable's captain and about half of the would-be colonists turned around and headed for home aboard the escort ship, the Joly, leaving La Salle with about 180 people. He left some on the Belle and put some to work building Fort St. Louis while he and a small party trudged on in hopes of reaching the Mississippi by land.

"La Salle was a very impetuous individual," says Robert Weddle, a Texas historian and La Salle biographer. "He was much more of a dreamer than a planner. He was always leaving people behind, and that's what usually got him into trouble."

By the time La Salle returned several months later, the Belle had sunk in a squall, leaving only six survivors, and many of the colonists at the fort had died of starvation or disease.

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