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Malchance (CEC)

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René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was at the height of his prestige and power in 1684. The most powerful king in Europe had great confidence in the forty-year-old adventurer and had given his blessing to his most ambitious scheme yet—a colonization effort in the Mississippi Valley in direct challenge to Spanish claims in the region. Two years before he had stood near the mouth of the Mississippi and proclaimed possession of La Louisiane. Now, he returned with four ships and more than three hundred soldiers and colonists to make good on this dare while Europe simmered under threat of war pitting France against Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and other nations.

Bad lucked stalked La Salle and his people nearly as soon as they left the port of Rochefort. The warship Joly, his only escort on this risky mission, had to put in for repairs, delaying the journey. After proceeding, his convoy made it to Haiti, but without the Saint Francois, which was lost to Spanish privateers. Undaunted, La Salle led his expedition onward toward the mouth of the Mississippi River in hopes of creating his outpost on the west bank a little south of present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi. He missed his mark, though, and instead landed in Matagorda Bay on the coast of Spanish Tejas on February 20, 1685. This uncharted territory confused the veteran explorer, who hoped this inlet of the sea was somehow connected to the Mississippi.

He was wrong, a broken compass and astrolabe compounding the error. While attempting to get his bearings, the supply vessel Aimable foundered on a sand bar and broke apart. Joly, with dozens of disenchanted colonists aboard as well as the Louis XIV’s personal representative, left the luckless expedition a few months later and returned to France.

La Salle faced long odds. Illness, desertion, and accidents had thinned his numbers to the point that he abandoned hopes of making his original destination, and instead settled for the ground he held, eventually raising Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek near present-day Victoria, Texas. The remaining 180 souls did their best under the circumstances to create a sustainable settlement while La Salle explored deep into Spanish territory to the west in the fall, winter, and spring of 1685-1686. He returned to discover that his final ship, La Belle, had also wrecked on a sand bar, cutting his outpost off from any hope of escape by sea.

Realizing his predicament, and with his colony down to fewer than fifty people, he searched for a way overland to the Mississippi in hopes of contacting French outposts there. On his second foray into what is now East Texas, several of his men mutinied, one of them sending a musket ball into La Salle’s brain on March 19, 1687. He died within hours, probably near present-day Navasota. After the episode, seven men lay dead. Six survivors pressed on and eventually reached Canada, while six others, including the remaining conspirators and a young man, Pierre Talon, stayed with the Indians.

Meanwhile, back at Fort Saint Louis . . .

A ragged and wretched cluster of women and children remained, abandoned by their nation, only protected by men too weak or wounded to have handled the overland trip with La Salle. After nearly two years of surviving on their own, their fortune turned sour. Karankawa Indians, understanding that the French outpost lay largely at their mercy, overran the settlement around Christmas Day 1688, killing all of the inhabitants save five children whom they adopted into the tribe. Amid the smoking ruins of the razed village was a sign posted near the chapel.

Malchance, it read. Bad luck.