Seventeenth-century French adventurers were central to the exploration of North America, and French names dot the maps of cities, counties, and states throughout the United States.
Even icons of American ingenuity, automobiles, bear the names of French explorers. If you’re driving a Cadillac, besides being extremely fashionable, you’re also driving a car named after Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the man credited with founding Detroit.
And if you’re an automobile collector, you might be lucky enough to own a General Motors La Salle, a stylish luxury car produced from 1927 to 1940 that was named in honor of another French explorer, Rene Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle.
Though the Cadillac car survived and the La Salle didn’t, it’s the explorer La Salle who fascinates us here in Texas. Besides giving our neighboring Louisiana its name, La Salle also left us with a 1687 Matagorda Bay shipwreck, from which state archaeologists have recovered incredible historic treasures. (Visit http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/belle/ for an interactive program on the recovery of La Belle.) He also left us with a mystery . . . one that may involve our own Cherokee County.
In 1685, La Salle was returning to the Mississippi River basin after a visit to France for supplies and colonists. Though he made it back to the Gulf of Mexico, poor navigational calculations landed his party in what is now Texas’s Matagorda Bay, about 500 miles west of his goal. From here La Salle searched overland for the Mississippi. Unfortunately, the great explorer never rediscovered it.
While traveling through East Texas in March 1687, La Salle met his inglorious end, being savagely killed by his own men.
Navasota, Texas, claims to be near the site of La Salle’s murder. In fact, in 1930 the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the citizens of Navasota erected a local statue to the memory of La Salle. Cherokee County, however, has its own claim to the notorious site.
According to the late E. W. Cole, La Salle was killed near his home town of Alto. An article originally published in the Rusk Cherokeean and later printed in Two Hundred and Fifty Years: History of Alto, Texas 1686-1936, details Cole’s contention that La Salle could not have been killed near Navasota but was instead somewhere near the Neches River when he was murdered.
French records, Cole insists, show that La Salle’s expedition crossed the Colorado River on January 27, the Brazos River on February 9, the Trinity River on March 6, and the Neches River on March 14, 1687.
His last camp was supposedly on the old Indian Highway, two to three leagues (a league being about 3 miles) northeast of the point where he crossed the Neches. Both geological and geographical descriptions written down by La Salle’s record keeper seem to locate the murder on the south side of what was once Harrison’s Branch, in the Martin Lacey Survey in Cherokee County near Alto.
Handbook of Texas Online states that La Salle “was slain by Pierre Duhaut, a disenchanted follower, on March 19, 1687, ‘six leagues’ from the westernmost village of the Hasinai (Tejas) Indians.” Historians have determined that the murder probably occurred at “a point east of the Trinity River, some distance from either the Grimes County or the Cherokee County locations most often mentioned.”
History is often mystery. The exact location of La Salle’s death will probably never be known. His name, however, has been immortalized in cities, counties, and states—and even a car.
Perhaps an unmarked grave is the perfect resting place for the explorer Rene Robert Cavelier. Through that mystery, he still belongs to us all.