First Texas Colony at Lavaca


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The History of Texas: The First Texas Colony at Lavaca and Fort St. Louis

(Previous Section: French and Spanish Territorial Claims to Texas)

Also See: La Salle Establishes First Texas Colony

La Salle Map

Map of La Salle's Exploration of Texas

AFTER La Salle had taken the steps necessary to secure his colony from the Indians, Joutel was left in command of the fort, and La Salle, with a company of twenty men, set out, about the last of October, 1685, on an expedition to explore the country. The Belle was ordered to the upper end of Matagorda bay, where she was stationed, and directed to remain till further orders. La Salle, dividing his company, some of them went down the Lavaca in canoes, and he with the others crossed over and descended to the head of the bay on the cast side. Here he sent out five men in canoes to sound the bay, and ascertain how far the Belle could be brought up. Night coming on without their return, he went in search of them, and found on the shore, where they had encamped, their mangled bodies—the Indians having murdered them, perhaps while asleep. Giving his orders to the Belle, La Salle caused the canoes to be sunk in a small creek; and each of the company having supplied his knapsack with provisions, they set out on their journey. They traveled east as far as the Colorado. During this expedition, which lasted till nearly spring, La Salle doubtless explored the valley of the Colorado, and perhaps much of the surrounding country. At any rate, he must have satisfied himself that he was far from the Mississippi.

La Salle Returns to Lavaca

On his return, La Salle sent some of his men down to the bay to search for the Belle, while with the others he returned to the fort, where they were joyfully received. The next day, the party who had gone in search of the Belle, returned without having found any trace of the vessel; nor had she been heard from by any of those at the fort.

In this condition of his affairs, destitute of means for sustaining the colony, cut off from all communication with the civilized world, having under his command a number of persons that were sowing the seeds of rebellion against his authority and perhaps his life, and surrounded by a treacherous and savage foe, La Salle determined upon the bold expedient of opening a communication with De Tonti in Illinois. This required a tedious and perilous journey of some two thousand miles over an unexplored waste, peopled by those who had never seen the face of a white man.

La Salle Departs for Illinois

Having resolved upon the journey, La Salle left the fort under the charge of his faithful Joutel, and selected a company of twenty men to go with him. Among these were Father Anastase, Moragnet, his brother Cavalier, Bihorel, Le Clerk, Hurier, Nika the Canadian Indian, and Heins, a surgeon, and formerly a buccaneer. *

*From boucaner, to roast or broil flesh. This remarkable class of men, many of whom figured in the early history of Texas, first began to associate on the western coast of St. Domingo, in 1630, and lived upon wild cattle. They roasted their meat like the Indians: hence the name given them. From simple robberies, they extended their operations to piracies on the seas. For a hundred and fifty years they swept the West India waters of the Spanish galleons, and greatly annoyed the commerce of England and France. From these men originated the French settlements on the western half of St. Domingo. — Raynal: History of the Indies.

Having made the necessary preparations, they performed their devotions in the chapel of the fort, and set out on their journey on the 22d of April, 1686. They traveled in a northeastern direction, and at the end of ten days reached the Colorado. Previous to this, however, they  met with a party of Comanche Indians having horses and saddles. Those that were mounted wore boots and spurs. This was proof that these Texan Bedouins had held intercourse with the Spaniards of Mexico. In fact, at this early period the horse had been extensively introduced into Texas; and, as the Comanches often rode them down, they abandoned them to graze on the prairies, or to die. Hence, in a few years, the prairies abounded in mustangs.

At this season of the year the Texan streams are always swollen, so that La Salle and his party were greatly retarded in their journey. They were compelled to build rafts over branches which in other parts of the year are dry. They were hindered also by the necessity of killing and drying buffalo-meat for their sustenance. From the direction they traveled, they perhaps crossed the Colorado about Elliot's ferry. Here they changed their course more to the east, and, reaching the Brazos probably not far from Columbia, they found it full and running rapidly. La Salle, with part of his company, on a raft, were hurried down the stream until they were considered as lost. They were two days crossing this stream; and Father Anastase informs us that he carried his breviary in his cowl, to keep it dry. Having all crossed over safely, they found themselves in a swamp, covered with canes and vines. They were engaged two days in cutting their way out. After reaching the fine prairies and open woods, they found their condition more agreeable. They soon fell in with the Cenis Indians, who treated them with great hospitality; indeed, the white race were, at first, everywhere so treated by the Indians in Texas. This, the most numerous and civilized tribe of Texan Indians, owned a large extent of country; they occupied all the territory between the great prairie on the northwest and the gulf coast, and from toward the Brazos to the Neches. Their center of empire was not far from Cold Spring, in Polk county. What has become of this tribe, once the proud ally of the Comanche, and the hospitable retainer of the gallant La Salle? Tradition says that, after the settlement of Louisiana by the French, the powerful tribes on the banks of the Mississippi, driven west by these intruders, took refuge in Texas. They first encountered the Nassonites; these retreated to the north, and gave them a place to dwell. But, as other tribes were driven out, they crowded on the latter. The fall of the Natchez, and the expulsion of the Alabamas and Choctaws, brought a further accession. Before this formidable host of newcomers the peaceful Cenis retired to the banks of the Trinity. Here they met, and on the left bank of this stream, a great battle was fought, in which the nation of the Cenis was utterly destroyed.

But, to return to La Salle. One of the Cenis gave him a horse to ride. He and his company were received and feasted by this tribe; and, after some trading, in which, among other things, we are informed that one horse was purchased for a hatchet, and Father Anastase was offered another for his cowl, the travelers pursued their journey.

La Salle Forced to Return to Lavaca

They soon reached the country of the Nassonites. Here La Salle and his nephew were attacked with fever, by which they were detained two months. On his recovery, he found the stock of ammunition reduced so low, that he would proceed no farther. As the game they killed was their only means of support, it was necessary to return to the fort on the Lavaca for powder. They reached the fort on the 17th of October, much wearied, and with but eight men.

La Salle soon learned the history of what had transpired in his absence. The Indians had been troublesome, but had made no attack on the place. Duhaut had endeavored to stir up a mutiny, but the firmness of Joutel and the mild persuasions of Father Zenobe had prevented it. The survivors of the Belle had come in, and reported that the vessel had been stranded on the southern shore of the bay; that six of the men had been lost in a canoe while returning from the land in the night—some had died on board of disease, and others had perished on a raft—so that the remaining force was not sufficient to manage the ship, and thus she was lost. The survivors, saving themselves, with a few articles and provisions, and the clothes and papers of La Salle, landed from a raft on the strand, where they remained for three months. At length a canoe floated ashore, by means of which they were enabled to reach the fort. However, amid all this gloom, and the wasting away of the colonists, the Sieur Barbier and one of the maidens of the fort afforded them some pleasure by a wedding. This was the first European marriage on the soil of Texas.

From this time to the 12th of January, 1687, La Salle was preparing to start again on his journey to the Illinois. He caused to be constructed a new storehouse, and made other provisions for the colony, which at this time consisted of about forty persons.

La Salle's Second Try to Reach Illinois

He selected for his companions in this, his last journey, twenty persons, among them Father Anastase, his two nephews Moragnet and Cavalier, his brother Cavalier the priest, Joutel, Duhaut, L'Archeveque de Marne, Heins, Lietot, Tessier, Saget his footman, and Nika the Indian hunter. These are all mentioned because of the part they took in the tragic scenes which shortly after occurred.

In the fort were left some twenty persons, under the command of the Sieur Barbier. On January 12th, having called them all together, and made known to them in an affectionate address the necessity of the journey, he set out. He took with him about five thousand dollars in coin and plate, and six thousand dollars' worth of goods. They found less difficulty in this their second journey on the same route, from the fact of their past experience. Besides, they carried with them a portable boat of buffalo-skins, and were assisted in crossing the streams by the kind-hearted Indians. They also furnished them with more horses.

The party continued their journey till the 15th of March, when they came near to the spot where, on the previous tour, La Salle had buried some corn and beans. Previous to this, however, they had learned from the Cenis Indians of a Frenchman named Rutel, among that tribe, who had wandered from La Salle on the Mississippi in 1682, and had been living with these Indians ever since. Joutel went for him and brought him to the camp. He was delighted with the idea of again returning to Europe. From the route pursued, and the time they had been traveling, they must have been, at this time, on the Neches river.*

* Dr. Sparks thinks they were on the waters of the Brazos. —Life of La Salle, p. 158, note. Others suppose they were on the Trinity. But all the circumstances—the time, the direction, the fact of finding Rutel, and the burying of the corn and beans (done, perhaps, when La Salle had turned back on his previous journey)—go to show that the last days of this great discoverer were spent on the Neches. There is yet another reason for this belief. At that season of the year (March), the buffaloes were down in the timber, and the Indians also in pursuit of them. Hence, La Salle met more Indians on this second tour, and Nika had no difficulty in finding buffalo. This was not the case on the Brazos prairies. From time immemorial there was a great Indian trail about in the course traveled by La Salle, crossing the Trinity at the present town of Swartwout. From the boggy nature of the soil in the spring, it is not unlikely that the travelers pursued this trail. It passed through the centre of the Cenis nation, and by the Indian village, occupied by the Alabamas after the extinction of the Cenis. La Salle's camp was on the opposite side of the river from the place where the meat was killed. Had it been the Trinity or the Brazos, horses could not, at that season, have been sent over for the meat.

Murder of La Salle

La Salle ordered Duhaut, Heins, Lietot, L'Archeveque, Tessier, Saget, and Nika, to go and bring away the corn and beans. They went to the place, but the provisions were spoiled. In the meantime, Nika had killed a supply of buffalo meat, and Saget was sent to get horses to carry it into the camp. La Salle directed his nephew Moragnet and De Marne to return with horses in company with Saget for the meat—to send back one load for immediate use, and to remain with the balance till it was dried. It appears that for some time there had been no good feeling between Moragnet and Duhaut; at any rate, the former reproached the latter for having laid aside some pieces of the meat for himself and his company, and took them from him. Duhaut, having determined on revenge, brought Lietot, Heins, Tessier, and L'Archeveque, into the conspiracy. The next night, when Moragnet, Saget, and Nika, were asleep, Lietot with a hatchet knocked them on the head. The Indian and Saget died immediately. As Moragnet was not yet quite dead, the conspirators compelled De Marne to finish him. Having gone thus far, the murderers were uneasy. They feared the just vengeance of La Salle, and immediately deliberated on the necessity of taking his life. Chance gave them an opportunity. Two or three days had elapsed, and La Salle became anxious on account of the absence of the party. Perhaps they had been cut off by the savages, or had got lost, or had quarreled. He inquired if there had been any ill feeling between his nephew and any of the party. Such, at length, were his forebodings of evil, that he went himself, with Father Anastase, and two of the natives for guides, in search of them, leaving the camp under the command of Joutel. At a distance of some six miles he found the bloody corpse of Saget, and saw buzzards flying about the locality. Concluding the party were near, he fired his gun. The conspirators, on the opposite side of the river, hearing the report, and supposing it was La Salle, crossed over. Duhaut and L'Archeveque, seeing La Salle advancing, stopped. Duhaut hid himself in the high grass, and cocked his gun. L'Archeveque advanced a little farther, when La Salle saw and recognized him. "Where is Moragnet ?" asked La Salle. "He is lower down," replied L'Archeveque. At that instant, Duhaut fired and shot La Salle in the head. He fell. Anastase took him by the hand; he did not speak, but, pressing the hand of the holy father, expired.

Thus fell, on the 20th of March, 1687, the Sieur de la Salle, a man of genius, fortitude, and courage. "The most unhappy thing for the memory of this famous man," says Bossu, " is, that he has not been pitied by anybody, and that the bad success that has attended his undertakings has given him the appearance of an adventurer among those who only judge from appearances. He has further been reproached with never taking advice from anybody, and with having ruined his private affairs by his obstinacy." *

* "It is little to the credit of France or of Louisiana," says Bunner, "that neither of them have shown the smallest mark of respect to his memory. A bust, placed by order of Congress in the rotunda of the capitol, is the only memorial of a man whose enterprising genius and persevering resolution merit the highest honors."—History of Louisiana, p. 55. The same may be said of Texas. He made the first improvement on her soil, met first the rude shock of the Indian, built the first fort, brought to the country the first domestic cattle, wore himself out, and was buried within her borders.

However this may be, his discoveries hastened the settlement of New Orleans, and of Texas, as we shall see.

Father Anastase expected to follow his leader; but he was soon quieted by Duhaut, who told him that what was then done, was an act of despair, and that the death of Moragnet was in revenge for former insults. Anastase then dug the grave of his kind benefactor, and buried him with his own hands, and erected a cross over his grave. The party then returned to the camp.

Joutel was not present when they came in. L'Archeveque, his friend, ran to inform him of what had occurred, and to say to him that he would be put to death if he expressed any dissatisfaction. When he returned, Duhaut proposed that each should command by turns. He had, however, already taken possession of the goods, coin, and plate. Those of the party not concerned in the murders took no part in affairs, but remained quiet. In the meantime, the conspirators quarreled among themselves; they could not agree as to the division of the spoils. From quarrelling they proceeded to blows. Heins shot Duhaut in the head, and killed him. Rutel then fired at Lietot, which, being followed by two shots from other parties, they dispatched him. Thus, within a short time, these two assassins met with that punishment so sternly demanded by justice.

The Indians were astonished and scandalized with these murders. They looked upon these people, with some reason, as barbarians, whom the Great Spirit had devoted to self-destruction.

The End of the First Attempt to Colonize Texas

After the death of La Salle, Duhaut had determined to march back to the fort on the Lavaca, build a vessel, and return to the West Indies; and, before his own death, as above related, had actually returned as far as the Cenis Indians. Joutel, Anastase, and Cavalier, had formed a secret design to continue the journey to the Illinois. To lull the suspicions of Duhaut, they proposed to him to permit them to remain among the Cenis Indians. This he agreed to, but his death had changed the position of their affairs.

After the death of the chief murderer, Heins took command, and engaged with the Cenis to go with them to war. This he did, leaving the friends of La Salle in camp till his return. After many bloody battles, he returned, and consented that the party might proceed on their journey to the Illinois. Having furnished them with a supply of ammunition and three horses, the company, consisting of seven persons; Joutel, Anastase, the two Cavaliers, Tessier, De Marne, and Barthelemy—departed, leaving Heins the buccaneer, arrayed in the scarlet uniform of La Salle, in undisputed command of the remnant of the party.

Joutel and his followers, procuring Indian guides, retraced their steps as far as their former journey. Thence, pursuing a northeast course, they crossed the Red river at the Caddo village, and thence to the mouth of the Arkansas, where they found some men, stationed by De Tonti, to greet their coming, and give them such aid as they might require. Resting a few days at this place; they returned to France, by way of the Illinois and Quebec. Of this company, De Marne was drowned in Red river, and Barthelemy remained at the mouth of the Arkansas; so that only five of the colony returned to their native land.

Heins, having the goods, treasure, and uniform of La Salle, and the advantage of firearms, doubtless held sway, for a time, on the banks of the Trinity. From his turbulent and restless spirit, and his love for human blood, we may infer that he involved the Cenis in many wars with their neighbors, destroyed their love of peace and agriculture, and laid the foundation for the ruin in which that great and powerful tribe was ultimately overwhelmed.

When the Indians near the fort heard of the death of La Salle, and the dispersion of his company, they attacked the fort, which they took, and put all the remaining colonists to death, except three sons and a daughter of M. Talon, and young Breman; these they retained as prisoners.* Thus ended the first attempt to colonize Texas.

* The fate of those left in the fort is not very clear. The account of De Barcia is altogether too artificial. It is most probable that, of the prisoners retained by the Indians, a part or all of them were afterward reclaimed by the missionaries, and employed as interpreters. See the extract from the Chronological Essay of De Barcia, in a note to Prof. Shea's translation of Douay's Narrative, p. 208.

Early in the spring of 1689, the chevalier de Tonti went at the head of a considerable force in search of the colony planted by his late friend. He probably penetrated the country as far as the Neches, but the desertion of his men compelled him to return without effecting his object. [Next Section of Texas History: Early Spanish Interest in Texas]




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