Texas Originals

René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

November 22, 1643–March 19, 1687

Born in 1643, French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, abandoned training as a priest for the summons of economic opportunity in North America. 

La Salle settled near Montreal in 1666 and engaged in the fur trade. He soon organized and led expeditions throughout the upper Midwest. Guessing that the Mississippi River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, he envisioned a vast commercial empire for France extending from the Great Lakes to the Gulf.  

In 1682, La Salle descended the lower Mississippi by canoe, claiming all the lands in the river’s watershed for France. He named the region Louisiana for his king.  

La Salle returned to France, and two years later, sailed with four ships and several hundred passengers to establish a colony near the mouth of the Mississippi.  

The ill-fated expedition overshot its target, landing at Matagorda Bay. La Salle established the meager Fort St. Louis in present-day Victoria County. His colony was soon decimated by disease, lack of supplies, and hostile relations with Karankawa tribes living in the area. La Salle was killed by one of his own men in 1687.  

In the end, La Salle failed to realize his vision. But his efforts shaped North American history—opening the Mississippi Basin for European interests, providing France with a claim to Texas, and spurring the Spanish to establish their own claim to the Gulf region.

For More about René-Robert La Salle

In 1995, divers located the wreck of the frigate La Belle, a ship from La Salle’s expedition that sank in Matagorda Bay. Thus began a decades-long process of excavating, recovering, and conserving the ship's hull, along with more than 1.6 million artifacts.  La Belle  is now the central artifact in the first-floor galleries of the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. The display introduces new scholarship on early Texas history through the seventeenth-century ship, select original artifacts, and other media displays and resources. 

An English transcription of the Henri Joutel Journal is held in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin. The journal is considered the preeminent eyewitness account of La Salle’s last expedition in search of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Documents of La Salle’s dating from 1667–1720 are stored in the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Volumes I and II of The Journeys of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, a collection of accounts written by La Salle’s lieutenant, missionary colleague, and others, can be viewed in Volume I and Volume II through The Portal to Texas History.

Selected Bibliography

Bruseth, James E., ed. La Belle: The Ship That Changed History. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014.

Chesnel, Paul. History of Cavelier de La Salle, 1643–1687. Translated by Andrée Chesnel Meany. New York: Putnam, 1932.

Cox, Isaac Joslin, ed. The Journeys of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1905.

Joutel, Henri. Journal of LaSalle’s Last Voyage, 1684–7. Albany: McDonough, 1906.

Weddle, Robert S. "La Salle, Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de." Handbook of Texas Online.

Weddle, Robert S. "La Salle’s Texas Settlement." Handbook of Texas Online.

Weddle, Robert S., Mary Christine Morkovsky, and Patricia Kay Galloway, eds. La Salle, The Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987.

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Spanish Translation

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Portrait of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
La Salle Monument near Indianola, Texas, on Matagorda Bay.