African American Schools During Jim Crow

African American children in the South attended segregated schools that were dilapidated. They used castoff books from white schools. At times they attended classes in churches and lodge halls because the local school board did not provide buildings for black

Booker T. Washington

students. Two men worked to change all that. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist instituted a program that eventually built 527 schools in Texas and almost 5,000 across the South.

Julius Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants, became part owner in Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1895, and from 1908 until 1925 he served as president. As he wealth grew he increased his giving, especially to educational and religious institutions. His

Julius Rosenwald

friendship and work with other philanthropists such as Paul J. Sachs of Goldman Sachs led to Rosenwald meeting Booker T. Washington.

Construction Map, July 1, 1932, 5,357 Buildings,
Fisk Univ., John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collection, Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives.

In 1911, Rosenwald wrote: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which we have suffered and still suffer.” After Rosenwald gave Tuskegee Institute $25,000 for a black teacher-training program in 1912, Booker T. Washington convinced Rosenwald to allow part of the money to be used for a pilot program to build six schools in rural Alabama. Impressed with the results, Rosenwald donated $30,000 for construction of 100 rural schools and then he gave additional money for building another 200 schools. By 1920 the Julius Rosenwald Fund began a rural school building program for African American children that continued for the next twelve years in fifteen states, including Texas.

To qualify for the grants, which ranged from $500 for a one-teacher facility to $2,100 for a school large enough for ten teachers, the local African American community had to raise matching money in the form of cash, in-kind donations of materials, and labor. Many of the schools were built in freedmen communities where the residents were eager to offer education for their children. African American men often cut the lumber, hauled the material, and served as carpenters. The land and building had to be deeded to local authorities, and the school district had to maintain the property. The district was required to furnish new desks and blackboards for all classrooms as well as two hygienic privies for each building. Classes had to be held for more than five months of the year.

Floor plans were specific as well. The design included large windows on the east side of the building to allow for maximum natural lighting and small high windows on the west side to ensure cross ventilation while keeping out the hot afternoon sun. Many white schools adopted the Rosenwald designs because they were found to be so efficient.

During the twelve-year program in Texas over 57,000 African American students were served by almost 1,300 teachers. Black citizens contributed $392,000; white citizens gave $60,000; tax funds totaled $1.6 million; and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $420,000.

Julius Rosenwald, who died in 1932, said it was easier to make a million dollars honestly than to give it away wisely. With that in mind and in light of changing social and economic conditions, he directed that all the Rosenwald Fund be spent within twenty-five years of his death. By 1948 when the program ended, Rosenwald and his fund had given over $70 million to schools, colleges, museums, Jewish charities, and African American institutions.

Ten to fifteen Rosenwald schools survive in Texas, and some are being restored as museums and community centers. In keeping with the original fundraising efforts, citizens are raising the money to bring back these historic buildings. Women in the Pleasant Hill area are selling quilts to restore the Rosenwald School. A Baptist Church near Seguin is using the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School as their fellowship hall and nutritional center. A U-Tube video tells the story of the West Columbia Rosenwald School, which was being used as hay barn before it was restored in 2001 as a museum. The Texas Historical Commission began in the mid-1990s to inventory the Rosenwald School Building Project and to apply for listing as National Register of Historic Places.

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Ladies Fought the Second Battle of the Alamo

The second battle of the Alamo began in the early 20th century as a disagreement between two powerful women over the proper way to preserve the Alamo. The old complex had been allowed, after the famous battle in 1836 and the slaughter of the men who fought there, to fall

Adina De Zavala

Adina De Zavala

into an embarrassing state of neglect and disrepair. Adina Emilia De Zavala, granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, was a schoolteacher, a prolific writer of Texas history, and an early advocate of restoration of the missions in San Antonio and other historic structures. About 1889, she organized the “De Zavala Daughters,” dedicated to preserving Texas history, which soon became a chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT).

Although the state of Texas had purchased the main entrance known as the Alamo chapel from the Catholic Church in 1883, the state did nothing to preserve the structure. At some point, a wholesale grocer bought the building north of the chapel, added a second floor, and altered the façade. De Zavala and her friends believed that old building had served as the convent when the complex was a Spanish mission. They were also convinced that it had been used as the long barracks where most of the fighting occurred during the Battle of the Alamo. The De Zavala group secured an agreement from the grocer to give them first option to purchase the long barracks, which they dreamed of restoring to its former appearance and opening as a museum.

1920s photo. Long barracks in foreground. Alamo chapel in right background.

1920s photo. Long barracks in foreground.

Clara Driscoll

Clara Driscoll

In 1903, when the De Zavala group heard that the long barracks might be sold to a hotel syndicate, Adina De Zavala sought the help of Clara Driscoll a nineteen-year-old heiress who had returned to San Antonio after several years studying in Europe. Driscoll was so appalled at the condition of the Alamo that she wrote an article for the Daily Express calling the Alamo complex an “old ruin…. hemmed in on one side by a hideous barracks-like looking building, and on the other by two saloons.” Clara Driscoll joined the De Zavala chapter of the DRT and went with Adina De Zavala to see the grocer who was asking $75,000 for the structure. Clara Driscoll personally gave the owner $500 for a thirty-day option and the ladies set about raising the purchase price. Despite a nationwide campaign and a legislative appropriation, which Governor S.W.T. Lanham vetoed as “not a justifiable expenditure of the taxpayers’ money,” Clara Driscoll eventually paid $65,000 to complete the purchase. Over the governor’s objection, the state reimbursed Clara Driscoll and gave custody of the property to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Then, cracks began to show in the bulwark of the organization as members divided over what should be done with the grocer’s building. Adina De Zavala and her cohorts believed “a large part” of the original convent/long barracks played a significant role in the Battle of the Alamo and remained hidden under the grocer’s building. Clara Driscoll and her camp believed the walls of the convent/long barracks overshadowed the Alamo chapel and should be replaced with a dignified park.

Members of the statewide DRT and citizens in San Antonio and Texas divided into De Zavalans and Driscollites, each faction determined to have its way. The two groups within the DRT separated from each other and when Clara Driscoll was given custody of the vacant grocery in 1908, Adina De Zavala locked herself in the building for three days as newspaper reporters from around the country gathered to watch the spectacle.

By 1910 the Driscollites seemed to have won the war, but one more battle remained: Governor Oscar Colquitt, became convinced that walls under the modern grocery building pre-dated the Battle at the Alamo. He ordered restoration of the convent/barracks. In January 1912, the governor personally watched as removal of the modern additions revealed arches and Spanish stone work—confirming the De Zavalans’ claim. However, the following year, while the governor was out of state, the lieutenant governor permitted the roof and walls of the upper story to be removed. Fifty-five years later, just in time for the 1968 opening of HemisFair, San Antonio’s world’s fair, the old building finally received a roof and opened as a museum.

Historical footprint of the Alamo complex.

Historical footprint of the Alamo complex.

Adina De Zavala continued for the rest of her life organizing groups that restored, marked and preserved historic sites. When she died in 1955 at the age of ninety-three, her casket draped with the Texas flag was driven past the Alamo one last time. She willed her estate to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for a girl’s vocational school and a boys town.

Clara Driscoll spent the remainder of her life devoted to historic preservation, state and national politics, civic and philanthropic endeavors. When she died in 1945 at the age of sixty-four, her body laid in state at the Alamo chapel. She bequeathed the bulk of her estate to the Driscoll Foundation Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.

Breadline Banker

Part of the fun of writing a weekly Texas history blog is discovering a story that jumps up unexpectedly. While researching Panna Maria, the oldest permanent Polish settlement in the United States, I read an account claiming that an Irishman named John Twohig (love that name) in 1854 sold the original 238 acres for the town site to the Polish colonists “at an inflated price,” only the first of many unfortunate experiences to befall the struggling immigrants. I had to find out who the Irishman was that gouged the Poles.

In addition to an article on the Texas State Historical Association site, I found a story published by the University of Incarnate Word, and a piece printed in 1913 in the Invincible, A Magazine of History that disclosed a very different character from the fellow who gouged a bunch of impoverished Polish immigrants. John Twohig ran away from his Cork County Ireland home at fifteen and apprenticed on a British merchant ship sailing between New Orleans and Boston. Lured by the financial prospects of Texas, Twohig carried a stock of goods to San Antonio in 1830 and opened a mercantile business. He took part in the Siege of Bexar, the two-month-long fight in the fall of 1835 that resulted in Texans driving the Mexicans out of San Antonio. There is no record of him joining the forces in the Alamo before it fell in March 1836. However, in September 1842 when Twohig heard that the Mexican army was on its way to occupy the city for a second time that year, he invited the poor to take what they wanted from his store. Then he blew up the building to keep the Mexicans from getting the gunpowder and other supplies. Apparently in retaliation for the act, Twohig was captured with about fifty other San Antonians and marched to Perote Castle, the dreaded prison near Vera Cruz. In July 1843, Twohig and about a dozen prisoners dug a tunnel and escaped. One account says he walked through Vera Cruz to the docks disguised as a peddler and boarded a ship for New Orleans.

When Twohig returned to San Antonio in 1844, he reopened his mercantile business and began operating an extensive trade with Mexico. He purchased land on a crossing of the Rio Grande, which lay only142 miles from San Antonio. In 1850 he surveyed the land, laid out a new town, and named it Eagle Pass. Twohig was forty-seven in 1853 when he married Bettie

1841 Twohig House

1841 Twohig House

Calvert of Seguin and began enlarging his home on the San Antonio River. The couple built several guesthouses along the river and held lavish dinners for such notables as Sam Houston, Ulysses S. Grant, and their good friend Robert E. Lee. On February 18, 1861, as Texas prepared to secede from the Union, Lee had dinner with the Twohigs and wrote the following day thanking them for their hospitality and expressing regret that he had to leave under such sad circumstances.

A devout Catholic, Twohig was known for giving money to anyone in need, especially the Brothers of the Society of Mary who came from France to start a school. In addition to financial help, Twohig advised the Brothers to build their St. Mary’s Institute on the San Antonio River. The school developed into St. Mary’s University. He served as godfather for two or three generations of children, several of whom recalled receiving a gold piece every time they saw him. Pensioners knew that they could go to his bank at closing time every Saturday afternoon, and Twohig would always draw from his own pocket a gift of money. The Sisters of Charity built an orphanage in San Antonio and relied on Twohig for support. An eccentric jokester, he often “fined” his wealthy friends who would later receive a note from the orphanage thanking them for their gift. He became known as the “Breadline Banker” because on Saturdays the poor women of San Antonio gathered at his house to receive loaves of bread, which arrived by the barrel. Twohig’s sister Miss Kate had moved from a convent in New York to live with the couple. Bettie Twohig and Miss Kate passed out the loaves of bread, keeping track of how much bread they distributed by dropping beans or matches into a tumbler. After Bettie Twohig died, Miss Kate stayed with her brother, maintained his house, and continued distributing the bread.

By 1870 when Twohig had moved exclusively into banking, with connections all over the United States and London, he was ranked as one of the 100 wealthiest men in Texas. His real property was estimated at $90,000 and personal property estimated at an additional $50,000. At the time of his death in 1891, his estate was valued at half a million. He left his house to his sister Kate until her death and the remainder to the Catholic Church. Miss Kate continued after her brother’s death to give away the bread.

The Twohig house, which sat across the San Antonio River from his bank, deteriorated over the years. In 1941, the Witte Museum moved each stone of the Twohig house to its campus and carefully reconstructed it for use as staff offices and for special events.

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Chasing down the story of John Twohig has proved to be an interesting rabbit trail. It’s time to get back to checking on those Polish immigrants.

Rosenwald Schools

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Black children in the South attended segregated schools that were dilapidated. They used books castoff  from white schools. At times they attended

Julius Rosenwald, Sears Archives,  c. 1920s

Julius Rosenwald, Sears Archives, c. 1920s

classes in churches and lodge halls because the local school board did not provide buildings for black students. Two men worked to change all that. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist, instituted a program that eventually built 464 schools in Texas and almost 5,000 across the South.

Julius Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants, became part owner in Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1895, and from 1908 until 1925 he served as the Sears president. As his wealth grew he increased his contributions, especially to educational and religious institutions. His friendship and work with other philanthropists such as Paul J. Sachs of Goldman Sachs, led to Rosenwald meeting Booker T. Washington.

In 1911, Rosenwald wrote: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which we have suffered and still suffer.” After Rosenwald gave Tuskegee Institute $25,000 for a black teacher-training program in 1912, Booker T. Washington, the school’s founder, convinced Rosenwald to allow part of the money for a pilot program to build six schools in rural Alabama. Impressed with the results, two years later Rosenwald donated $30,000 for construction of 100 rural schools and then he gave additional money for building another 200 schools. By 1920 the Julius Rosenwald Fund began a rural school building program for black children that continued for the next twelve years in fifteen states, including Texas.

To qualify for the grants, which ranged from $500 for a one-teacher facility to $2,100 for a school large enough for ten teachers, the local black community had to raise matching money in the form of cash, in-kind donations of materials, and labor. Many of the schools were in freedmen communities where the residents were eager to offer education for their children. Black men often cut the lumber, hauled the material, and served as carpenters. The land and building had to be deeded to local authorities, and the property had to be maintained as part of the school district. The district was required to furnish new desks and blackboards for all classrooms as well as two hygienic privies for each building. Classes had to be held for more than five months of the year.

One-teacher design

One-teacher design

Floor plans were specific as well. The designs, which offered the latest in modern construction for the time, included large windows on the east side of the building to allow for maximum natural lighting and small high windows on the west side to insure cross ventilation while keeping out the hot afternoon sun. Many white schools adopted the Rosenwald designs because they were free and were found to be so efficient.

During the twelve-year program in Texas over 57,000 black students were served by almost 1,300 teachers. Black citizens contributed $392,000; white citizens gave $60,000; tax funds totaled $1.6 million; and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $420,000.

Julius Rosenwald, who died in 1932, said it was easier to make a million dollars honestly than to give it away wisely. With that in mind and in light of changing social and economic conditions, he directed that all the Rosenwald Fund be spent within twenty-five years of his death. By 1948 when the fund ended, Rosenwald and his fund had given over $70 million to schools, colleges, museums, Jewish charities, and black institutions.

Ten to fifteen Rosenwald schools survive in Texas, and some are being restored as museums and

Pleasant Hill School

Pleasant Hill School

community centers. In keeping with the original funding efforts, citizens are raising the money to bring back the historic buildings. Women in the Pleasant Hill area are selling quilts to restore their Rosenwald School; a Baptist Church near Seguin is using the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School as their fellowship hall and nutritional center; and this youtube video tells the story of the Columbia Rosenwald School. The Texas Historical Commission began in the mid-1990s to inventory the history of the Rosenwald School building project and to apply for listings on the National Register of

Sweet Home School

Sweet Home School

Historic Places.

Rosenwald School, Columbia

Rosenwald School, Columbia

Niles City: “Richest Little City in Texas”

Three miles north of Fort Worth’s business center, Niles City, a tiny strip of land spreading over a little more than one-half square mile and boasting a population of 508, incorporated in 1911.  Within its bounds sat the Fort Worth Stock Yards, Swift & Company, Armour & Company, two grain elevators, and a cotton-oil company, which placed the city’s property value at $12 million.  Six railroads came through the town with the Belt Railway owning and operating a roundhouse.  Niles City had a town council and enjoyed complete utility service, good roads, and fine schools.

The town was named for Louville Veranus Niles, a successful Boston businessman who reorganized the Fort Worth Packing Company in 1899 and was instrumental in convincing Armour and Swift to locate in Niles City in 1902.

There were no fine homes in the town, just the houses belonging to the plant workers and about seventy rental houses erected by the Fort Worth Stock Yards for its employees.  Niles City claimed other important venues including the Live Stock Exchange Building,

Live Stock Exchange Building, 1902

Live Stock Exchange Building, 1902

the horse and mule barns, and the Cowtown Coliseum, where the Fat Stock Show offered the first indoor rodeo in the United States.

Cowtown Coliseum, first indoor rodeo in the US

Cowtown Coliseum, first indoor rodeo in the US

Many big name entertainers performed at the Coliseum including Enrico Caruso who drew a crowd of about 8,000 in 1920.  The Swift and Armour packing plants added significantly to the economy, employing about 4,000 workers from Fort Worth and the surrounding area.

All of the wealth packed into such a small piece of real estate proved too tempting for Niles City’s neighbors.  In 1921 the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing a city of more than 50,000 to incorporate adjacent territory that did not have a population greater than 2,000.  To protect itself from annexation, Niles City quickly took in another square mile of extraterritorial industries including the Gulf Oil Company refinery and its pipeline plant, and two school districts attended by the children of Niles City. The move increased the town’s population to about 2,500 and its taxable property to $30 million.  The legislature passed a second bill raising the population needed to halt annexation to 5,000.  In July 1922 Fort Worth held a special election in which voters passed amendments to the city charter allowing Fort Worth to incorporate Niles City, which occurred on August 1, 1923.

Today the Stockyards, the Cowtown Coliseum, and Billy Bob’s the world famous honky tonk are located on the grounds of the town once known as “the richest little city in the state of Texas.”

Billy Bob's "World's Largest Honky Tonk" at 127,000 sq. ft.

Billy Bob’s “World’s Largest Honky Tonk” at 127,000 sq. ft.

A CENTURY OF CHAUTAUQUA

An octagonal-shaped wooden building in Waxahachie began hosting hundreds and then thousands of enthusiastic farmer families and small-town residents from all over North Texas when it opened in 1902.  They came in wagons and on horseback to camp out for a week to ten days; they slept in tents and under their wagons; and for the first time in their lives they enjoyed a chance to hear humorists, watch jugglers, listen to statesmen talk of patriotism and actors read Shakespeare.

Before the turn of the last century, a few Waxahachie residents reported with great excitement their travels to the famous summer adult education center on Chautauqua Lake in western New York State where they heard speakers, musicians, preachers, and scientists.

Organized in 1874 by a Methodist preacher and a businessman, Chautauqua started as a training program for Sunday school teachers in an outdoor summer camp setting.  It grew in popularity and soon “daughter” Chautauquas began springing up all over the United States.  In the early days, the most popular lectures were inspirational and reform speeches.  Over the years, the fare lightened with the addition of current events, story-telling, and travelogues—often in a humorous vein.

The first Waxahachie Chautauqua Summer Assembly met in 1900 in a pavilion constructed along a creek in West End Park.  More than 75 tents dotted the landscape that first year.  With the completion in 1902 of the 2500-seat Chautauqua auditorium, the pavilion became a dining hall.  The new all-wood building, constructed at a cost of $2750, boasted large wooden windows that slid upward into the wall to create an open-air facility, which boasted electric lights.  Drinking water came from a large, nearby water tank.  At times crowds from 5,000 to 7,000 milled in and around the building.  Buggies often pulled up beside the windows to offer extra seating and at least once, tents stretched out from the windows to protect the audience standing outside from the summer sun.

The list of programs and the response of the audiences paints a clear picture of how eagerly rural and small-town residents grasped for an opportunity to know about the world and to be challenged with new information in those days before widespread communication.  A professor from Trinity University captivated the audience with experiments showing the many uses of liquid air.  A group of local men shared their world travels with a packed auditorium and people standing in the windows.  In 1906 a standing-room-only crowd arrived for a demonstration of wireless telegraphy. A packed house paid fifty cents a ticket to hear William Jennings Bryant, the famous populist orate on “The Price of a Soul.”

The attendees enjoyed plenty of social life.  A Chautauqua Parlor offered popular piano and vocal solos and tables set up for games of Forty-Two.  The local Young Men’s Chautauqua erected a social tent complete with electric fans and ice water.  Later, they added sofas and rugs.  The group became known as the “matrimonial agency” because of the number of couples that met at the social tent and later married.

Music brought in crowds especially when the U.S. Marine Band performed in 1914.  Scottish music and the Highland Fling became a 1922 hit.  The next year an electrical storm interrupted for twenty-five minutes a lecture and demonstration of electricity and the radio.  John Phillip Sousa changed his schedule at the last minute in 1925 and crossed out Waxahachie on his hand-written itinerary and in its place wrote “Korsikana,” obviously meaning the lucky town of Corsicana a few miles down the road.

World War I themes turned to patriotism and the war effort.  A war tax boosted the new ticket price of $2.50.  A 1918 program highlighted war inventions–two-wheel automobiles or gyrocars, airplanes with gyroscopes, ultra-violet rays, and hearing torpedoes—for a spellbound audience.

By the 1920s at the height of its popularity, twenty-one companies operated ninety-three Chautauqua circuits in the United States and Canada.  Often, one performer finished his presentation and left for the train as another arrived.  When circuits began booking performers, access opened to New York City actors presenting plays such as “The Melting Pot,” “Little Women,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pinafore.”

By 1926 the talent began arriving via automobile, which caused one performance to be cancelled because the actors coming from their show in Ardmore, Oklahoma, ran into bad roads and did not make it in time for the production.  Will Rogers the cowboy humorist, on his third U.S. tour, made a stop in Waxahachie in 1927.  As the audience waited for his show, they listened in delight to a radio program amplified with music.  Although he spoke for 101 minutes, some in attendance left disappointed because he did not do his famous trick roping, for which he named himself the “poet lariat.”

Several cultural, social, and financial events—advent of the automobile, the popularity of the radio, and the Great Depression–began a slow erosion in the attendance at Chautauqua.  Ticket sales declined, forcing local supporters to underwrite more and more of the Chautauqua expenses.  By 1930 the Chautauqua Assembly in Waxahachie came to an end.

The old building slowly declined and its door shuttered in 1971 as the city considered tearing it down.  Members of the community formed the Chautauqua Preservation Society and began fund raising to restore the building.  The Texas Historical Commission awarded the building a state historical marker, and it was placed n the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1975, with the restoration complete, the grand old building reopened with a July 4 celebration.  It serves today as a city auditorium hosting reunions, conferences, civic and educational events, and high school graduations.  The Fort Worth Symphony performs several times a year.  And a new generation has a visual reminder of an era when people came from miles around, eager for a sampling of the latest in culture and entertainment.

LA SALLE LEGACY

Two years after his death in 1687, explorer, fur trader, Frenchman, and visionary René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle deserves credit for the government of New Spain’s decision to construct missions in East Texas.

The story springs from the massive colonization and exploitation of the New World by powerful European countries.  Although Norse explorers reached the Canadian mainland as early as A.D. 1000, Spain, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, undertook the most aggressive campaign of colonization, spreading after 1500 from the Caribbean islands to the interior of North, Central, and South America.  Although Portugal acquired what is present Brazil, the Spanish didn’t have serious competition until the 17th century when the English, French, and the Dutch began their incursions into the New World.

The Spanish discovery of rich silver mines in Northern Mexico in the last half of the 16th century, led to settlements in the region.  When dreams of finding riches in present New Mexico and Texas did not materialize, Spanish interest lagged until England began exploring the New World.  The threat of competing empires prompted the Spanish crown to commission Juan de Oñate in 1595 to colonize present New Mexico.  When Oñate reached El Paso, he claimed for Spain all the land drained by the Rio del Norte (present Rio Grande). For almost 100 years as Franciscans established more than twenty missions in New Mexico and travelers made the journey through El Paso, the Spanish government ignored the interior of Texas.

All that changed in 1685 when Spanish officials heard that the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed on the Texas coast.

La Salle began his adventures in 1666 at age twenty-two when, with a small allowance from his family, he sailed from his home in Rouen, France to Canada to join his brother Jean, a Sulpician priest.  La Salle worked in the lucrative fur trade, which led to his exploring the river systems connected to the Great Lakes and to his dream of establishing trading posts along the Illinois River and down the Mississippi.

Originally believing the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and offered a western passage to China, he canoed in 1682 to the mouth of the river, named the territory La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV, and claimed all the lands drained by the river for France.

Upon his return to France in 1683, La Salle obtained the king’s blessing for a voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi to establish a colony, secure French Canada’s access to a warm water port for its fur trade, and challenge the Spanish Empire’s claim to all the land from the coast of Florida to Mexico.

La Salle departed France on July 24, 1684, with four ships and 300 colonists. Plagued from the beginning with misfortune–pirates captured one ship in the West Indies, and recent discoveries of early documents indicate La Salle’s “lack of geographical understanding” caused him to miss the mouth of the Mississippi and sail another 400 miles to Matagorda Bay on the mid-Texas coast.

As the expedition entered the mouth of the bay on February 20, 1685, the rough waters of Pass Caballo sank the storeship Aimable. Her crew and several disenchanted colonists returned to France on the naval vessel Joly.  Before La Salle’s colony moved off Matagorda Island, their numbers dwindled to 180.  Malnutrition, Indian attack, and overwork reduced their numbers even more after they moved inland and constructed Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek in present Victoria County.

The following October La Salle left Fort St. Louis to explore the region and determine his exact location.  Upon his return in March 1686 La Salle learned a winter storm wrecked La Belle, the colonists only remaining ship. Finally realizing the bay they entered lay west of the Mississippi, La Salle made two marches back toward East Texas into Hasinai, or Tejas Indian territory hoping to find the Mississippi and reach the fort he had established on the Illinois River.  On March 19, 1687, during his second march on which he took seventeen colonists with him, a dispute in a hunting camp resulted in the death of seven of his followers. Then one of La Salle’s own men asassinated La Salle.  Six of the survivors finally reached Canada and eventually returned to France to tell their story.

About twenty women, children, handicapped, and those out of favor with La Salle remained at Fort St. Louis. One of the children later recounted the story of all the adults being killed in a Karankawa attack around Christmas 1688.  Karankawa women saved the children whom the Spanish eventually rescued and sent as servants to Mexico.

When Spaniards learned of La Salle’s intrusion into Spanish Texas, they began the search–five sea voyages and six land marches–in pursuit of the French intruders.  They found the wrecked Belle and parts of Aimable on April 4, 1687, but it took another two years before Alonso De León discovered the destroyed settlement.

The French arrival in Spanish Texas, coupled with concern over French intrusion into East Texas from Louisiana, prompted Spanish officials to establish six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians, turn them into good Spanish citizens, and establish the region as a buffer against French Louisiana.  The first, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas opened in 1690 and lasted only three years before the padres fled.  The endeavor taught the Spanish about the land, the Indian culture, and convinced them future missions must be accompanied by presidios and civilian settlements.  The East Texas missions by 1772 moved permanently to San Antonio.

Today a statue of La Salle looks out into Matagorda Bay near the ghost town of Indianola and streets, cities, counties, hotels, causeways, and schools bear the explorer’s name from Texas to the Canadian provinces.

In 1995 the Texas Historical Commission led an archeological excavation in the muck of Matagorda Bay to raise La BelleHer artifacts, which the commission holds in trust for France, are displayed in nine Texas museums.  The wreckage of L’Aimable has not been found.