While much attention has been given to the exploits of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s traversing the length of the Mississippi River and his ill-fated attempt at colonizing Matagorda Bay in Texas, relatively little has been written on Spanish reaction to his expedition and its survivors. In this latest book Robert Weddle has carefully covered Spanish land and sea expeditions to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the presence of La Salle and the rumors attendant to his attempt at colonization.
Sailing from France in 1684, La Salle, unable to find the mouth of the Mississippi, reached Matagorda Bay in February, 1685, with disgruntled and poorly provisioned remnants of what was to be France’s outpost for control of the Mississippi Valley. As the result of desertions in Santo Domingo, and the subsequent capture off Campeche of the deserter Denis Thomas, Spain became aware of La Salle’s plans.
This chance discovery set in motion a series of expeditions to the Gulf of Mexico to dislodge the French and resulted in Spanish expansion from Florida and Coahuila, charting of the Gulf coast, and attempts at settlement north of the Río Grande in Texas. The initial task at hand was the locating of the French colony, a difficult task because of the inadequate charting of the Gulf and vagueness surrounding the precise landing place of La Salle. In January, 1686, Juan Enríquez Barroto and Antonio Romero sailed from Havana to chart the Gulf; in May, Marcos Delgado searched westward by land from Apalache; and in February, 1687, Alonso de León explored the lower Texas coast by land. These expeditions failed to locate La Salle, and French activity in the Gulf continued.
An all-out effort was again made, and in December, 1687, Martín de Rivas and Pedro de Iriarte sailed from Veracruz northward along the Gulf coast, discovered La Salle’s L’Aimable wrecked at Matagorda, and thus assumed that his colony had failed. Nevertheless, Spain sought prevention of further incursions, and successful charting by Francisco de Gamarra and Andrés de Pez followed in June, 1687. This expedition failed to sight the wreck, but claims of Ralph Wilkinson, captured off Havana, rekindled fears of France in the Gulf. In March, 1688, Pez and Enríquez Barroto made a second expedition as far as Mobile, but still La Salle’s Fort St. Louis, then in ruins, remained undiscovered.
The matter would have been closed but a survivor found among the Coahuilteca testified in 1688 that the French colony was a success. This report resulted in a sea expedition by Rivas in August and a land expedition by Juan de Retana in November, but both failed to discover St. Louis. León and Fray Damián Massanet finally made the discovery in April, 1689, and La Salle’s fate was confirmed through the captured survivors Jean L’Archivêque and Jacques Grollet.
To prevent further French encroachments, Massanet planned Franciscan missions for Texas, and León suggested a chain of presidios there. In 1690 San Francisco de los Tejas was founded. As a second plan to halt France, Pez and the great Mexican intellectual Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora planned settlement of Pensacola, mapping the area in 1693, but it was not until 1698 that Francisco de Arriola settled there. The following year Sieur d’Iberville founded Biloxi.
The history of this intense activity and the later roles of the survivors of St. Louis in the service of France and Spain is well presented. The bibliography of published works is virtually complete; unfortunately the manuscripts and maps consulted are limited to copies in the University of Texas Library, which are, in the main, not identified as to their original location. A quick consultation of Pedro Torres Lanzas Mapas y planos would locate the original maps, and the use of A.G.I. “old numbers” should have been avoided by simple citing of México 151 and Guadalajara 616 and 617. Notwithstanding, this work is a fine contribution to Texana and the early history of the Mississippi Borderlands.