In 1666, a seemingly unimportant event at Rouen, France, had a profound impact on Texas--and much of North American--history. A restless young Jesuit novice, Rene Robert Cavelier, decided he was unsuited to follow in the footsteps of his pious older brother; so, he left the college where he had been enrolled. The 22-year old adventurer then sailed for Canada, where his brother, Jean; was a missionary.
He spent two years farming, then entered the fur trade, where he ventured into unexplored lands. After some success in this field, and even more as a politician, the young Cavelier returned to France in 1673 with flattering credentials from the royal governor of Canada. He persuaded King Louis XIV to give his sponsor a monopoly on the fur trade of New France. Soon the king had also granted the personable Cavelier a patent to explore new areas, and conferred on him the title of Sieur de la Salle. This action proved a remarkable good investment for the French monarchy. The newly-dubbed Sieur de la Salle energetically explored the Length of the Mississippi River, and on reaching its mouth, claimed the entire basin for France. He named this great heartland in honor of the king--Louisiana.
Returning to France a hero, La Salle urged the formation of a settlement at the mouth of the river, as a key to holding the vast new territory. On August 1, 1684, he sailed with four ships--the Joli, Belle, Amiable, and St. Francois--carrying a total of 300 colonists. La Salle's plan was to enter the Gulf of Mexico and approach the entrance of the Mississippi by sea. One ship, the St. Francois, was lost to Spanish corsairs en route; the other three failed to locate the Mississippi because of bad weather and worse navigation.
La Salle landed on the Texas coast--first near Sabine Pass on New Year's Day in 1685. Still seeking the mouth of the Mississippi, he skirted the coast, entered Matagorda Bay, and arrived at the Lavaca River. The Amiable, missing the safe channel through Pass Caballo, grounded on the shoals, and was soon destroyed. The Joli was sailed back to France by its commander. The Belle was wrecked on the shore of Palacios Bay after many trips up and down the Lavaca River. The remainder of the expedition was stranded in the Texas wilderness.
La Salle and his men now established Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek about five miles inland from the Bay. The fort was built of timber from the wrecked Amiable, and was armed with eight pieces of artillery. La Salle used the fort as a base for exploration in the area, and as a possible defense against unfriendly Indians. Disease and famine reduced the ranks of the garrison. In January, 1687, La Salle, with 17 men, left the fort for the last time in an attempt to reach Canada. In January, 1689, those remaining at the fort were attacked by Indians. A few survivors were rescued by the Alonso de Leon expedition, which reached the ruins of the fort on April 22, 1689. One or two others joined Indian tribes and lived out their lives as savages.
Near the site of present Navasota, La Salle was murdered by his own men in March, 1687. Magnificent in his personal failures, La Salle, by demonstrating courage against odds, has always been an appealing historical figure. His explorations gave France claim to the great Mississippi valley and Texas, Louisiana, for a time, was a valuable French possession. The Texas claim was never very serious, but it did furnish the United States, after the Louisiana Purchase, with an excuse for challenging the Spanish title to Texas.