FRENCH SAILOR (circa 1641 ~ 1686). On February 3, 2004, a French sailor and one of Texas' earliest settlers, who died 319 years earlier, was buried at the Texas State Cemetery. This man, even though his name and much of his personal history are not known, took part in Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's ill-fated expedition that tried to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River during the 17th century.
With La Salle and 279 others, the sailor set out for the new world from La Rochelle, France on July 24, 1684, with four ships, the Saint Francois, the Aimable, the Joly, and the Belle. Almost immediately, the expedition was forced to return to France because one of the ships' masts was damaged. Finally, on August 1, 1684, they struck out again - this time leaving from Rochefort, France.
La Salle originally planned to sail to French Canada and make his way down the Mississippi River, a route that he had taken before, but King Louis XIV, his benefactor, insisted that he take, in La Salle's opinion, a far riskier route through the Caribbean and across the Gulf of Mexico. During this time, France and Spain were at war and King Louis wanted La Salle to break Spain's stronghold of the Gulf and reaffirm France's claim to Louisiana.
Following the king's route, the expedition first landed at Petit Goave, in present-day Haiti, but continued to push forward, even though dissension was growing amongst the crew and colonists. Matters were not helped when the Saint Francois was lost to Spanish privateers in the Caribbean Sea. Still fighting for control, La Salle suffered an additional set back when he sailed too far west and completely missed the Mississippi River. He inadvertently sailed to the heart of Spain's territory in Texas.
Trying to rectify his mistake and figure out where he was, La Salle had the soldiers traveling with him investigate the Texas coast, at present-day Cedar Bayou. On February 20, 1685, the colonists made landfall and La Salle declared that they had landed at the mouth of the Colbert River. La Salle's store ship, the Aimable, ran aground trying to enter Matagorda Bay, the crew and many of the colonists became even more irritated and returned to France on the Joly, leaving La Salle with only 180 colonists and one ship, the Belle.
La Salle immediately had the colonists build a permanent settlement, Fort St. Louis, on Gracitas Creek, in present-day Victoria County, while he explored the area. Much to the sailor's dismay, La Salle ordered his crew to stay anchored in the bay until his return. Though he only planned to be gone for 10 days, he did not return for more than a month.
Following orders, the crew remained onboard, even though they were running out of food and fresh water. Sometime, during La Salle's absence, the sailor, dying of thirst, apparently climbed into the hull of the ship and died.
Finally breaking orders, the captain, began moving the ship towards the colony when a storm pushed the vessel aground. Laying a quarter mile from the shore, some of the crew escaped, but the Belle was lost. Another storm drove the ship deeper into the mud and buried it, the sailor, and the remaining supplies in the mud of Matagorda Bay.
309 years later, in 1995, archeologists with the Texas Historical Commission discovered the Belle at the bottom of the bay and began working to recover it. Building a cofferdam, a watertight enclosure around the ship, they pumped the water out and began the excavation process. Over 40 percent of the hull and much of its cargo was still intact. In fact, the cargo was still neatly stacked just as it was when the voyage began in 1684.
On October 31, 1996, much to the surprise of the archeologists, the sailor's remains were discovered. Lying on a coil of anchor rope, with a water cask, a pewter cup, and a wallet, which contained two combs, was by his side. Etched on the side of the cup was the name, "C. Barange," which, possibly, was his name.
His remains were taken to Texas A&M University, where they were submitted to numerous forensic tests, which revealed he was between 35 and 45 years old, five feet four inches tall, had an arthritic back and suffered a broken nose. A model of his skull was made and, from that, a facial reconstruction model was created. Though his eye and hair color were guesses, it is believed that the model was so accurate that he would be recognized by any of his contemporaries.
Through the efforts of the U. S. State Department and the Republic of France, who own the Belle and all of the artifacts, permission was granted to bury the sailor in the Texas State Cemetery. Many state officials, including Geoffrey S. Connor, Texas' Secretary of State and Jean-David Levitte, the French Ambassador to the United States, were in attendance. Reverend Albert LaForet, with St. Mary's Cathedral in Austin, performed the funeral rites in both English and French.
Information taken from press accounts and Cemetery staff accounts.