Authors: The Sea Hunters II
Tags: #General, #Social Science, #Shipwrecks, #Transportation, #Ships & Shipbuilding, #Underwater Archaeology, #History, #Archaeology, #Military, #Naval
The Father of Waters
“THE FOOL!” RENÉ-ROBERT CAVELIER DE LA SALLE shouted as he stood helpless on the desolate shore and watched his flagship,
veer out of the buoyed channel toward what he knew was certain destruction.
Earlier, over the protests of
captain, René Aigron, La Salle had ordered the 300-ton French ship loaded with stores for a new colony to sail across the bar of Cavallo Pass into Matagorda Bay—a body of water that would become part of the state of Texas 157 years later.
Aigron stared menacingly, demanded La Salle draw up a document absolving him of any responsibility, and insisted the explorer sign it. La Salle, still recovering from an illness, was too weary to argue the point and reluctantly agreed to the terms. Fearing the worst, Aigron then transferred his personal possessions to a smaller ship,
which had already crossed the bar and was safely anchored inside.
Now, with the sails unfurled and billowing from a following breeze,
to the horror of La Salle, was sailing into oblivion.
THE MAN WHO would claim the new world for France was born in Rouen, France, on November 22, 1643. After an unsuccessful attempt to become a Jesuit priest, he left France seeking a new life in New France, now known as Canada, then a French colony. After a few false starts, La Salle established a thriving fur-trading business, an endeavor that allowed him to develop his budding passion for exploration.
When Louis de Buade Comte de Frontenac became the new governor of Canada, La Salle nurtured a friendship with him. In time, the Canadian governor introduced La Salle to King Louis XIV, who granted the explorer a patent, or royal license, to explore the western regions of New France. In effect, La Salle now became France’s approved explorer in the New World. La Salle, in debt, wasted little time before exploiting the honor.
Expanding his fur trade to the west and into Lake Michigan, La Salle set out to change the way the business was conducted. Most fur trappers headed into the wilds until they had secured sufficient pelts to load a birch-bark canoe, then they set off on a long journey to a major town where they could sell their bounty. La Salle saw that the Great Lakes needed larger vessels, so he built one. In August 1679, he launched
a rigged vessel of sixty tons mounting seven guns, into Lake Erie.
amazed the Indians in the area, who had never seen a large ship. Unfortunately, the vessel was not long for this world.
In defiance of Louis XIV’s order not to trade with the Indian tribes in the western regions, La Salle set out to do just that. After transporting people to Fort Michilimackinac, near where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet,
was sent across Lake Michigan to Green Bay. There the ship was loaded with furs and goods for the trip back to Fort Niagara at the eastern end of Lake Erie.
With no explanation,
disappeared into the mists of history.
The loss of
and another ship loaded with supplies in the Saint Lawrence River, brought La Salle to the edge of financial ruin. To complicate matters, in 1680, just after the loss of the ships, the men assigned to La Salle’s Fort Crèvecœur at the mouth of the Illinois River mutinied and destroyed the outpost. Never lucky, La Salle saw his world collapsing.
Rather than admit defeat, he pressed on with his plans to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River. In February 1682, La Salle started down the upper waters of the Mississippi in an expedition consisting of twenty elm-bark canoes. By March, the expedition had reached present-day Arkansas and established contact with the Indians, who welcomed the French explorers. With the weather improving, the expedition pressed south, and on April 6 they finally reached the mouth of the great river.
La Salle was a pompous man given to ego, and the ceremony on April 9 reflected this. Standing next to a towering live oak and dressed in scarlet robes, La Salle had the men sing hymns while standing in front of a cross that had been carved from a large pine tree. Then he claimed all the land lining the Mississippi River for France.
In honor of the king he served, he called the land Louisiana.
Without a war and with hardly a single shot fired, La Salle made a claim to an area that doubled the size of New France. From the Appalachian Mountains to the east, south to the territories claimed by Spain, the land comprised some 909,000 square miles.
Now he needed to establish a base far to the south so he could exploit his discovery for profit: a base far away from his growing list of enemies in New France and far from his creditors. La Salle’s friend Frontenac had been replaced as governor of New France by Antoine Levebre Sieur de La Barre, who, like most, cared little for the arrogant La Salle. His last chance was to return to France and convince King Louis XIV to support his efforts to colonize the southern end of the Mississippi River Valley. In this, he was successful.
On July 24, 1684, La Salle left France with four ships and four hundred colonists.
RENÉ-ROBERT CAVELIER DE La Salle never would have won a popularity contest.
On the lee side of Hispaniola Island in the country of Santa Domingo at the port of Petit Goave, the commander of the French thirty-six-gun warship
Captain Andre Beaujeu, was airing his grievances about La Salle to Captain René Aigron of the supply ship
Aigron, whose ship was anchored off Port-de-Paix, was separated from the other ships of the fleet by a mix-up in orders. He had traveled by donkey to the other side of the island for the conference.
“La Salle is touched,” Beaujeu said. “First he refuses permission for us to stop in Madeira, then he bans the sailors from baptizing the passengers as we cross the line into the tropics. Those two rituals are time-honored nautical traditions.”
Aigron was a short man, just over five feet in height and weighing 120 pounds. Pursing his lips, he puffed on a long thin pipe. The bowl of the mahogany pipe had been carved into the shape of a jellyfish. Waving away the smoke, he pointed to a crude chart on the table in
’s captain’s quarters.
“I’m more than a little concerned,” Aigron noted. “Nowhere on this crude chart do I see where La Salle has marked the great river running into the Gulf of Mexico.”
“I asked him before we left La Rochelle,” Beaujeu said as he sipped from a silver flute of wine, “what exactly was our intended course. Then as now, he refused to disclose the route.”
Aigron nodded and waited for Beaujeu to continue.
“Honestly, I don’t believe La Salle knows where we are going,” Beaujeu concluded.
Aigron stared at Beaujeu. His fellow captain was not a handsome man. His left cheek sported a dark red birthmark that was roughly the shape of the British Isles. Half his front teeth were missing, and the rest were stained from the wine Beaujeu habitually drank.
“I agree with you, Captain,” Aigron said. “I believe La Salle is bluffing. Even though he claims to have traveled to the mouth of the river by land, I don’t think he has a chance of finding it from sea. Navigating on land is much easier than over water.”
“It will become extremely dangerous once we enter into the gulf,” Beaujeu noted. “From there on, we’ll be sailing under the Spanish death sentence.”
For the last hundred years, the Spanish Crown had made it known that any foreign vessels found in the Gulf of Mexico would be impounded and their crews killed. That was the primary reason no navigational charts were available. The Spanish alone had charts, and they were not about to share them with another country.
“La Salle must be losing his mind” Aigron said.
Beaujeu nodded and took another puff. At this very instant, La Salle was bedridden with the fevers, so it was hard to argue with Aigron on that point.
“Then we need to make plans to ensure the safety of our ships and our sailors,” Beaujeu said.
“Understood,” Aigron agreed.
Then he reached for a flask of brandy to toast their treasonous alliance.
As LA SALLE lay in his sickbed, the fact that his expedition was already fractured was the least of his worries. Surely, the lies he had told his king must have topped the list.
Specifically, to receive the funding necessary to the venture, La Salle had told Louis XIV three lies.
The first lie was that the savages in the new land sought conversion to Christianity. The truth was far from that—other than a few scattered pockets where the Jesuits had made inroads, the Indians had resisted any attempts at salvation. Second, La Salle had boldly claimed he could raise an army of 15,000 savages to stave off any attacks from the Spanish, who currently claimed the area. That was simply not true. The Indian tribes in America were scattered and warring among themselves. The third, and probably the most important, was his representation that the return to the mouth of the great river was a foregone conclusion. The truth was that his knowledge of the river came only from land—finding it from sea was an entirely different matter altogether. He clung to the hope that he could locate the muddy brown stain where the river mixed with the salty water of the gulf. And that would prove as easy as finding a pin in a hayfield the size of Belgium.
The date was December 1684, two months after their arrival in Hispaniola.
“I FEEL STRONGER now,” La Salle said to Tonty, who sat in a chair near his bed.
Tonty was the son of a Neapolitan financier who was La Salle’s closest friend and adviser. A French soldier until the loss of his hand to a grenade, he was now fitted with a crude iron device where his hand had been.
La Salle was still far from healthy. He was worried that, if the expedition did not sail soon, it might never make it off the island. Spanish buccaneers had already captured
, the expedition’s thirty-ton ketch assigned to carry fresh meat and vegetables for the colony. In addition, the French sailors had spent most of the last two months in Haiti, drunk and disorderly. To compound the troubles, the settlers, who were tasked with forging a colony in the New World, were at odds with the sailors. Of the more than three hundred that had left La Rochelle, sickness and desertion had taken a third. And then there was the festering revolt by the captains. Word had leaked back to La Salle about the frequent meetings between them, and he feared the worst.
The situation for the expedition was grim—and growing more deplorable by the hour.
“We must sail in the morning,” La Salle murmured weakly. “We cannot wait another day.”
“My friend,” Tonty said, “if that is your desire, I will alert Captain Beaujeu.”
Leaving the house in Port-de-Paix, Tonty descended the hill to the port. A stiff wind was blowing from the north, and the temperature, which usually hovered near ninety degrees, had dropped into the low sixties. Rounding a curve in the cobblestone street, Tonty stared at the three remaining ships anchored in the bay. The thirty-six-gun ship of the expedition,
was farthest to sea. The
a small frigate mounting six guns, was closer to shore. The 300-ton store ship for the expedition, L‘Aimable, lay just off the docks at anchor. As the sun slipped behind the clouds, the water in the bay turned a midnight black. Tonty continued to the dock. Once there, he boarded one of
launches for the short ride out to the vessel.
Captain Aigron had been alerted by the lookout that Tonty was on his way out. Defiantly, instead of leaving his cabin to stand on deck as a show of respect, he remained below until Tonty was led down.
“Monsieur Tonty,” the sailor said, after knocking on the captain’s door.
“You may enter,” Aigron said quietly.
The sailor opened the door, then stepped aside to allow Tonty entrance.
captain’s cabin was high in the rounded stem of the vessel. Though not particularly large, the cabin was fitted out in a splendor not seen in the rest of the ship. Several brass whale-oil lamps were mounted on swivels that rocked with the ship. One lamp was placed near the berth, another near the table where Aigron sat, and another near an angled shelf mounted to the wall where the navigation charts were kept. A finely woven Persian rug, now becoming moth-eaten and worn from foot traffic, lay on the floor. To the right was Aigron’s berth. Little more than a wooden shelf with high sides to prevent a person from rolling out as the ship rocked, it was fitted with linen sheets and a pair of feather pillows.
Atop one of the pillows lay the ship’s cat. The aged feline looked worse for wear. He was a dusty yellow-and-brown color with a missing ear, the result of a rat attack deep in
hold. The cat hissed as Tonty entered the cabin.
“Monsieur Tonty,” Aigron said, still sitting at the table, “what brings you here?”
“La Salle orders you to prepare
to sail in the morning,” Tonty said evenly.
Tonty did not care for Aigron, and the feeling was mutual.
“Captain Beaujeu and I have been talking,” Aigron said haughtily, “and before we will set sail we must see Monsieur La Salle’s charts. We have no idea of the location of the river. More important, we need a solid course to sail.”
“I see,” Tonty said quietly. “So you and Beaujeu have decided this?”
“Yes, we have,” Aigron said forcefully.
“Then you leave me little choice,” Tonty said.
Tonty took two steps closer to Aigron, then grabbed him with his iron hand by the neck and held tightly. Dragging him along the passageway to the ladder, he pulled him topside to the deck. Once on the main deck, he shouted to the closest sailor.
“Who is the second in command?” Tonty asked.
A tall, thin man stepped forth. “I am, Monsieur Tonty.”
“Scrub this ship from stem to stem,” Tonty said. “We sail in the morning with La Salle as your captain. Is that understood?”