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If we could have stood upon the shores of Matagorda Bay with the Indians on a certain day over two hundred years ago we might have been witness to a strange sight. Before us would have been spread out the waters of a broad and sheltered harbor opening towards the sea through a narrow passage which was obstructed by sandbars and an island. One's eyes could not reach to the end of the bay, which is fifty miles long; nor could they see land beyond the sea-passage, for that opens into the broad Gulf of Mexico. Let us take our stand on the shore and see what we can see.
There appear to us, as if by magic, the forms of two French gentlemen accompanied by a small party of soldiers, who come from the mouth of the bay, and carefully thread their way along the shore. It is a strange company of men. The leader is a native of Rouen, and he says that few of his companions are fit for anything but eating. He thought that his band comprised creatures of all sorts, like Noah's ark, but unlike the collection of the great patriarch, they seemed to be few of them worth saving.
As we look, the men begin to gather together the pieces of drift-wood that the peaceful waves throw up on to the shore. They are evidently planning to make a raft; but as one of them casts his lazy eyes in the direction in which ours were at first thrown, he exclaims with evident joy, in his native French "Voila les vaisseaux!" or words to that effect, for he has descried two ships entering the bay from the Gulf. The ships slowly keep their way towards the inland coast, and from one of them there lands a man evidently higher in authority than any we have seen. His air is calm, dignified, forceful, persistent. He announces to those about him that they are at one of the mouths of the great Mississippi, or, as he well calls it "La riviere funeste," the fatal river. "Here shall we land all our men," he adds, "and here shall our vessels be placed in safe harbor."
In vain does the commander of one of the little ships protest that the water of the bay is too shallow and that the currents are too powerful; the strong man has given his order, and it must be obeyed. The channel was duly marked out, and on the twentieth of February, one of the ships, the Aimable, weighed anchor and began to enter the bay. The commander was on the shore, anxiously watching to see the result, when, suddenly, some of his men who had been cutting down a tree to make a canoe, rushed up and exclaimed, with terror in their faces, "The Indians have attacked us and one of our number is even now a captive in their hands." There was nothing to be done but go in pursuit of the savages.
It did not take long to arm a few men, and off they started with their leader in the direction that the Indians had taken. The savages were overtaken and a parley ensued. The leader's thoughts were now in two places at once, and he was not far enough from the shore not to be able to cast a glance towards the Aimable, and to say to his lieutenants, as he saw the vessel drifting near shoal water, "If she keeps on in that course, she will soon be aground." Still, no time was to be lost. The parley with the Indians did not hinder them long, and soon they were on the way towards the village whither the captive had been taken. Just as they entered its precincts and looked upon its inhabitants, clustered in groups among the dome-shaped huts, the loud boom of a cannon burst upon their ears. The savages were smitten with terror, and the commander felt his heart beat quickly as he looked again towards the water and saw the Aimable furling its sails, a sure token to him that she had indeed struck the rock and would be lost, with all the stores intended for use when her passengers should be landed.
Undaunted by the prospect, or even by the dark picture that his imagination conjured up, he pressed onward among the miserable savages, until his man had been recovered. Then he returned, and found his vessel on her side, a forlorn spectacle. Now the wind rose, and the sea beat upon the helpless hulk. It rocked backwards and forwards on its uneasy bed; its treasures of boxes and bales and casks were strewn over the waters; the greedy Indians made haste to seize what they could; and as night approached the hurriedly organized patrol of soldiers had all that they could do to face the deepening storm and protect their goods from the treacherous natives, as the less treacherous waves cast them upon the sands of the shore.
Who were these men, thus unceremoniously thrust upon the shores of the New World? How did it happen that they were found at a point that no European had before seen? Perhaps it is not necessary to ask how they happened to mistake the entrance to Matagorda Bay for one of the broad mouths of the Mississippi. They were Frenchmen. So much their speech has told us. The leader was Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, a man whom the historian Bancroft says that he had no superior among his countrymen for force of will and vast conceptions; for various knowledge, and quick adaptation of his genius to untried circumstances; for sublime magnanimity that resigned itself to the will of Heaven and yet triumphed over affliction by energy of purpose and unfaltering hope.
In early life he had renounced his inheritance and devoted himself to the service of the Church, but he soon left the order of Jesuits which he had entered, because, as Mr. Parkman surmises, he did not relish being all his life the moved and not the mover; because he could not give up his individuality and remain one of the great body, all of whom were compelled to march in a track pointed out to them by a superior. It is pleasant to know that he left the order with good feelings on both sides.
In 1667, we find the young man already entered upon the career of adventure in which the rest of his life was to be spent. He had sailed to Canada, the place of attraction for ambitious French youth, and there he remained several years, making the familiar acquaintance of the Indians and learning their language, while he was dreaming, like many others, of the passage to China through the rivers that came down from the westward. He had looked, too, in his vivid imagination over the vast plains of the great West, and had become filled with brilliant visions of an empire that he hoped some day to see established there for France. We have already learned how France took possession of the region, at this very period.
In such state of mind, La Salle sailed back to France in the autumn of 1674. He was well received and the next year returned, ennobled, and more than ever determined to push his grand scheme for the acquisition of the great West. His was no plan to indulge in theatrical spectacles, but to take actual possession. Year after year we see him steadily pursuing his single plan. He thinks nothing of crossing the Atlantic, of pushing his course through the trackless woods, or of paddling his frail canoe over the wild waters of the broad lakes. Indians did not daunt him by their cruelty, nor wild beasts affright him by their numbers and ferocity. Onward, ever onward, He pressed.
In the year 1680, we find him taking possession by actual occupation, of the region now comprising the State of Illinois. It was the first time that civilization had asserted itself there. La Salle built a fort, and, in memory of the trials of the way, called it Crevecoeur, which signified Broken-heart; but it did not testify to any broken courage on his part;--rather it was a monument to the obstacles that his persistence had surmounted.
Two years later, we find his canoe, which seems to our eyes now the emblem of an aggressive civilization, flitting along the Illinois River, entering the muddy Mississippi, and floating down its thousand miles to the Gulf. This is not the whole picture, however. We see the party start from the Chicago River, in the cold weather of December. The rivers are frozen. Canoes must be dragged over their snowy and icy surfaces, and baggage can be transported in no way but upon rough sledges. Can you not see the slow procession of fifty persons dragging themselves along day after day through the region inhabited but by savages and wild beasts, suffering from cold and hunger, and all held to their duty by the persevering leader who had brought them there?
There are twenty-three Frenchmen, eighteen Indian braves, belonging to those terrible Abenakis and Mohegans whose "midnight yells had," as Mr. Parkman says, "startled the border hamlets of New England; who had danced around Puritan scalps, and whom Puritan imaginations painted as incarnate fiends." There were besides, ten squaws and three children. A motley collection and one not calculated to inspire confidence nor hope for the success of any undertaking. It was not until they had passed the point where the river broadens into Lake Peoria that they found water in which they could float their canoes. Then they continued on, until early in February they found themselves on the banks of the Mississippi. It was filled with ice, and no canoe could navigate it.
After a delay of a few days, they found the river free, and again took up their course southwards. A day more brought them to the confluence of the muddy Missouri, which some of my readers have probably seen, where a mighty stream coming down from distant mountains, enters another not so mighty as itself, and plowing its way across its current, burrows under the soil on the opposite shore. This did not detain the voyagers, though they encamped there over night, and then pursued their course towards the unknown. A few days showed them the mouth of the Ohio, but still they pressed onward. It was near the end of February, the temperature was growing perceptibly warmer as they approached the South.
At a certain point they encamped and sent out their hunters for game. One did not return at night, and a horror seized the others, as they thought that he had been overtaken and killed by hostile Indians. Day after day the woods were scoured in the hope of finding the missing companion, but it seemed vain. A fort was erected for the protection of the party on a high bluff, and named for the lost hunter, Prudhomme. At last they met some Chickasaw Indians, and messages of amity were exchanged through them with the people of their village, not far distant. Soon afterwards Prudhomme was discovered, half-dead from exposure, for he had lost his way while hunting.
Thus the expedition progressed for many days, until at last the little canoes found themselves thrust out through the turbid channels of the delta, into the clear salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They had stopped on the way after leaving Fort Prudhomme, at several Indian towns, had been well treated by the natives, and they had seen the mouths of the Arkansas and the Red rivers.
The whole valley of the Fatal River had been laid bare to them, and now La Salle thought the time had come to take formal possession for his sovereign.
Near the mouth of the river, the party came together on the ninth of April, 1682, and a ceremony took place that was very similar to the one at the Sault Ste. Marie, a few days less than eleven years before, by which France had taken possession of the Northwest. It did not rival that in the magnificence with which it was conducted, though the ceremonial was, perhaps, a little more elaborated, but it seemed to have a better basis of fact, for La Salle had actually passed through the heart of the region which he now claimed. A column was erected, of course, and a tablet of lead was buried near it, such as those that had been placed in the ground at various other places by Frenchmen, bearing testimony to the fact that Louis the Great claimed to rule the land.
It was nearly the end of November of the following year, when La Salle reached Quebec, after having retraced his route by long and tedious stages up the rivers that he had followed down to the Gulf. Then he returned to France to tell the story of his travels, and began to use his influence to induce the government to send out an expedition to take controlling possession of the Mississippi region. He argued with all his powers, saying that by fortifying the river, the French might control the continent. It was really a grand and brilliant proposition, and the king and his minister gave more than was demanded. Four vessels were prepared, instead of the two that La Salle asked for. The expedition comprised a hundred soldiers, thirty volunteers, many mechanics and laborers, several families and a few girls, who looked forward to certain marriage in the new land.
On the twenty-fourth of July, La Salle set sail from Roehelle, with four hundred men in his four vessels, leaving an affectionate and comforting letter as his last farewell to his mother at Rouen. We have already seen how he was thrown upon the shores of the New World. There, on the sands of Matagorda Bay, with nothing to eat but oysters and a sort of porridge made of the flour that had been saved, the homesick party of downcast men and sorrowing women encamped until their leader could tell them what to do. They did not even know where they were. They were intending to conquer the Spaniards, but they knew nothing of their whereabouts. They were attacked by Indians, and finally, some three weeks after the wreck, the commander of the ships sailed away for France leaving La Salle and his forlorn company behind!
A site was soon chosen on the river now called Lavaca (a corruption of La Vache, the cow, a name given it because buffaloes had been seen there), and a fort was built called St. Louis. La Salle had scarcely finished this establishment, when he determined to search for the Mississippi River, for he had by that time concluded from explorations that he had not found it. On the last day of October, he started, and towards the end of March, the party returned, tattered and worn, almost ready to die; but though the strong body of the leader had given away, his stronger spirit was still unbroken, and he soon determined to set out to find the Illinois region where he left a colony formerly, and where he felt sure he could obtain relief. There was no chance for them to return directly to France since their vessels were all gone, and this seemed their only hope.
A party of twenty was formed to undertake the perilous enterprise, and on the twenty-second of April, 1686, they took their way from the fort, bearing on their persons the contributions that their fellows who were to remain had been able to bring together for their comfort.
The party experienced a variety of hardships, quarrelled among themselves, and finally, on the morning of the eighteenth of March, 1687, one of them shot and killed the brave leader. The remainder kept on, finally reached Canada and were taken to their native land. To the colonists at Fort St. Louis, no ground of hope ever appeared, though they felt that the people of France must have an interest in them, and so they kept a look-out over the water for a ship coming to their relief. It never came, alas, and no one knows to this day what became of the Lost Exiles of Texas!