René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed from Rochefort, France, on August 1, 1684, to seek the mouth of the Mississippi River by sea. This new voyage of four ships and more than 300 people at the start was a follow-up to La Salle's 1682 exploration of the Mississippi from the mouth of the Illinois River to the Gulf of Mexico. Having first departed from La Rochelle on July 24, the fleet was forced to make port at Rochefort for repairs to the Royal Navy escort vessel Joly. With Spain and France at war, La Salle planned to establish a colony sixty leagues up the river as a base for striking Mexico, afflicting Spanish shipping, and blocking English expansion, while providing a warmwater port for the Mississippi valley fur trade. He planned to settle near the Taensa Indians, whose villages lined Lake St. Joseph in Tensas Parish, Louisiana. The war with Spain ended two weeks after La Salle sailed. The word did not overtake him during his pause at Petit Goâve (Haiti), and he proceeded into the Gulf—historically an exclusively Spanish sea—believing that the war was still on.
From the start the expedition was plagued by misfortune, including dissension among the leaders, loss of the ketch Saint François to Spanish privateers, defections, and, finally, La Salle's failure to find the Mississippi. After putting soldiers ashore to reconnoiter the Texas coast at Cedar Bayou, he landed the colonists at Matagorda Bay, which he deemed the "western mouth of the Colbert River," on February 20, 1685. After the storeship Aimable was lost in Pass Cavallo at the mouth of the bay, her crew and several disenchanted colonists, including the engineer Minet, returned to France with the naval vessel Joly. By the time a temporary fort was built on the eastern end of Matagorda Island, a series of other misfortunes had reduced the number of colonists to 180. As the work of building a more permanent settlement progressed, many succumbed to overwork, malnutrition, and Indians, or became lost in the wilderness. In late winter 1686 the bark Belle, the only remaining ship, was wrecked on Matagorda Peninsula during a squall.
As La Salle's Texas settlement rose on Garcitas Creek in what is now Victoria County, La Salle set out to explore the surrounding country. He was absent from the settlement from October 1685 to March 1686, and there is evidence that he traveled far to the west, reaching the Rio Grande and ascending it as far as the site of present-day Langtry. At last realizing that the bay he was on lay west of the Mississippi, he made two easterly marches, to the Hasinai, or Tejas, Indians, hoping to find the river and proceed to his Fort St. Louis of the Illinois. On the second of these he was slain in an ambush by a disenchanted follower, Pierre Duhaut, six leagues from one of the Hasinai villages, on March 19, 1687. The bloodletting, already begun in a hunting camp, claimed the lives of seven others.
Six of the seventeen who had left the settlement site with La Salle continued to Canada and, eventually, France. Among them were La Salle's brother, Abbé Jean Cavelier, Anastase Douay, and Henri Joutel, each of whom later wrote of the expedition. Six other Frenchmen, including two deserters who had reappeared, remained among the East Texas Indians.
At his settlement site La Salle had left hardly more than twenty persons, with the crippled Gabriel Minime, Sieur de Barbier, in charge. They consisted of women and children, the physically handicapped, and those who for one reason or another had incurred La Salle's disfavor. Jean Baptiste Talon, who provides the only eyewitness account, relates that after La Salle's departure peace was made with the Karankawas, whose enmity the leader had incurred at the outset; the Indians, learning of La Salle's death and the disunity among the French, attacked the settlement by surprise around Christmas 1688, sparing only the children. Madame Barbier and her babe at breast—the first white child of record born in Texas—were saved temporarily by the Indian women, only to be slain when the men returned from the massacre. The women succeeded in saving four Talon children and Eustace Bréman, the paymaster's son, who were adopted into the tribe.
The Spaniards, having learned of the French intrusion from captured pirates who turned out to be defectors from La Salle, sought the French colony with five sea voyages and six land marches. On April 4, 1687, pilots of the voyage of Martín de Rivas and Pedro de Iriarte came upon the wreckage of the bark Belle on Matagorda Peninsula. Fragments of the storeship Aimable were found in Cavallo Pass, where she had grounded, and along the coast. The ruined settlement site was discovered on April 22, 1689, by Alonso De León, who had led a march from San Francisco de Coahuila, now Monclova. Two Frenchmen living among the Hasinais, Jean l'Archevêque and Jacques Grollet, gave themselves up. The following year, when De León returned with Franciscans to establish the mission San Francisco de los Tejas, he captured Pierre Meunier and Pierre Talon, also from among the Hasinais, and Talon informed him that among the Karankawas were his three younger brothers and one sister, whom De León went to rescue. Jean Baptiste and Bréman remained to be rescued by the 1691 expedition of Terán de los Ríos. The children were taken to Mexico to live as servants in the house of the viceroy Conde de Galve. Also taken from the Karankawas to be imprisoned in San Juan de Ulúa's dungeon, according to the Talons, was an Italian who, strangely, is not mentioned in any of the Spanish accounts.
A lingering question pertaining to La Salle's Texas expedition concerns the reasons for his misplaced landing. Documents that became available to researchers only in the 1980s, taken with others that have not been well understood, shed new light on the matter. La Salle, facing a largely unexplored continent, formed his own hypothesis during his exploration of the Mississippi in 1683, then acted on it as though it were dead certainty. His observations of the river were at sharp variance with maps of the period. With his compass broken and his astrolabe giving erroneous latitudes, as Minet reveals, he oriented himself by the sun, which was often obscured by clouds or fog. The bay, called Espíritu Santo on virtually every map, was not found at the river mouth, and the river in its lower reaches did not flow south as the maps showed but east or southeast. The latitude La Salle recorded at the river mouth was 28°20', almost a degree in error. He therefore concluded that he had discovered another river, distinct from Hernando De Soto's río grande (see MOSCOSO EXPEDITION), or Chucagoa, and Alonso Álvarez de Pineda's Río del Espíritu Santo. "The course of the Mississippi River during the last 100 leagues," he observed, "is exactly that of the Escondido....we were in another river than the Chucagoa, from which [De Soto's] Spaniards took such a long time to reach Mexico." The Río Escondido first appeared on maps in the mid-sixteenth century as entering the Gulf at its western end. Its latitude corresponded with the one La Salle had taken at the mouth of the Mississippi. "If all the maps are not worthless," he concluded, "the mouth of the River Colbert is near Mexico....this Escondido assuredly is the Mississippi."
Accounts of both Henri de Tonti and Father Zénobe Membré attest La Salle's belief that he was on the Escondido, which the maps located about where the Nueces is. Minet's journal of the subsequent voyage to the Gulf recounts La Salle's remarks to the effect that his intended destination lay in 28°20' latitude, "at the very end of the Gulf"—exactly the point to which he sailed. It seems clear, therefore, that La Salle's misplaced landing was due neither to navigational error nor to a secret design to place himself nearer Mexico, but rather to his lack of geographical understanding.
The La Salle expedition, as the first real European penetration of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf shore since Narváez and De Soto, had far-reaching results. Primarily, it shifted the focus of Spanish interest from western Texas—where Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Fray Nicolás López had urged missions for the Edwards Plateau region—to eastern. Underscoring the Spaniards' own geographical ignorance, it brought a rebirth of Spanish exploration of the northern Gulf shore, which had faltered for almost a century, and advanced the timetable for occupation. Additionally, it established in the minds of the French a claim to Texas that refused to die; thenceforth, until the French were eliminated from colonial rivalry, virtually every Spanish move in Texas and the borderlands came as a reaction to a French threat, real or imagined. La Salle's entry also gave the United States leverage, tenuous though it was, to claim Texas as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and gave rise to a protracted border dispute between the United States and Spain that was settled only with the Adams-Onís treaty of 1819.
Survivors of La Salle's abortive colony, few as they were, played vital roles in later exploration and settlement of the South and Southwest. L'Archevêque, Grollet, and Meunier, whom the Spaniards denied leave to return to France, joined Diego de Vargas in the resettlement of New Mexico in the 1690s. Father Anastase Douay served as chaplain for the Sieur d'Iberville's first voyage to Louisiana in 1699. Henri Joutel, spurning an opportunity to go with Iberville, sent his journal instead. Pierre and Jean Baptiste Talon, repatriated when the Spanish ship on which they were serving was captured by a French vessel in 1697, joined Louis Juchereau de St. Denis's company and sailed with Iberville on his second voyage. In 1714 Pierre and another brother, Robert, served as guides and interpreters for St. Denis on his storied trek across Texas to San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande. Robert later settled in Mobile. As late as 1717 rumors were heard that members of La Salle's colony who had been spared in the Fort St. Louis massacre were still living among the Indians.