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La Salle and the Belle
Early in his life La Salle wanted to be a Jesuit but when he visited the French Colony in Canada he had a falling out with the Jesuits and decided that he wanted a more exciting life. He was always good at business and nurtured a dream of starting a fur trading empire. He planned to build a chain of forts along the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. For ten years, from 1671 through 1681 he explored the Great Lakes and Midwest regions of Canada and the Northern United States. In January 1682, La Salle led an expedition southward to explore the Mississippi and locate the mouth of the Mississippi River. On the 9th of April 1682 La Salle discovered the mouth of the Mississippi and half of the North American country was formally claimed for France and King Louis XIV.
La Salle made it back to Illinois in September. On November 1, 1682, La Salle set sail for France to gather support for his plan to sail to the mouth the Mississippi and establish a permanent settlement. On April 14, 1684 Louis XIV agreed to give La Salle the ships and supplies to carry out his plan.
On August 1, 1684 La Salle departed with his fleet, the Belle, L Aimiable, Saint-Francois, and the Le Joly with about 300 people and all the supplies needed to start the colony. Disaster struck with the capture of the Saint -Francois by Spanish pirates a few days from the Port of Santo Domingo. Shortly after they lost the Saint-Francois, on September 27 the fleet arrived at Santo Domingo. They set sail again on November 25, 1684 toward the presumed mouth of the Mississippi River.
On January 1, La Salle's party made land fall on the Texas coast due to poor navigation, over a hundred miles from the mouth of the Mississippi. The Belle safely entered Matagorda Bay on February 18 but the LAimable ran aground trying to enter the narrow channel and many supplies needed for starting the colony perished. The Le Joly departed for France and about 180 people stayed behind to establish the colony. On March 24, 1685, La Salle set out with only 52 men in five canoes to survey " Baye St. Louis" and find a good spot for a permanent settlement. After finding a favorable spot, they started to construct Fort St. Louis.
On June 12, 1685 a group of 70 additional settlers to complete construction and settle down depart The remaining colonists left the island camp on the Belle and arrived in July. In October, La Salle departed with 50 men to search for the mouth of the Mississippi and additional 37 men followed in the Belle There was no contact between them for a month. .
When La Salle's group finally made contact with the Belle they found that the settlers had been savagely murdered in their sleep.
In January 1686, La Salle left the Belle again to explore by land, leaving a few men on the ship. Within a month of his departure, a storm came up and the Belle ran aground. When La Salle returned from his expedition, he found that the Belle was not there, so he returned to Fort St. Louis. On May 1, the six survivors from the Belle returned to the Fort. They told La Salle that they the Belle had run aground shortly after his departure. They had stayed on the Matagorda Peninsula near the wreck for three months. On January 12, 1687, La Salle left with 17 men to seek assistance from Illinois, only 20 people stayed at the Fort, the rest of the settlers had died from disease or hostile Indian attacks.
La Salle possessed a strong demanding personality , often pushing his crew to their limits. He was not a well liked man. On the 20th of March one of the men in La Salle's group decided that he had had enough and assassinated La Salle. La Salle was just 43 .
On April 4, a Spanish expedition lead by Rivas and Iriarte found the remains of La Salle's ship the Belle. Later in January of 1688 with the few remaining colonists sick with smallpox, Fort St. Louis was captured by hostile natives. A few of the healthiest children were taken captive but were later rescued by the Spanish. In 1689 on April 22 the Spanish General Alonso de Leon found the remains of Fort St. Louis.
Photographs courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission and Texas A&M University