|SAN ANTONIO, July 10 - Perhaps no two names are better known regarding the battle of wits between Spain and France during their race to settle lands in the Gulf of Mexico area than Escandón (1700-1770) and La Salle (1643-1687).
The matchup is interesting, since the two men were not contemporaries (of the same generation). That is because the European colonization of America (Spanish, French, Portuguese, British, Russian, and Dutch) was a long, slow process.
However, as regards Texas (South) and Louisiana colonization, these two men symbolize their respective country’s major exploration and settlement efforts. Sadly, in today’s Texas social studies and history classrooms, Escandón is virtually unknown, while La Salle is treated as a Texas hero, an honor he clearly doesn’t earn or deserve. To explain, the following summaries of each man’s contributions in Texas history are provided.
Escandón was a brilliant, proven military leader in New Spain. For a job well done, the Spanish King awarded him the title of Conde de Sierra Gorda, an immense fertile territory from the Guadalupe River in modern-day Texas to the Rio Pánuco in Veracruz State. Of many suggestions to populate the Gulf Coast region, Escandón’s idea was adopted. His Villas del Norte began in 1747-49 and continued through 1755. Eventually, over 20 cohesive communities stretched over both sides of the Rio Grande from Laredo to Villa Refugio (now Matamoros/Brownsville) on the Gulf of Mexico.
Escandón’s successful enterprise was all-civilian, free of military (presidio) presence. This key venture on the Lower Rio Grande cut in half the Camino Real travel time between Monclova and other major population centers in San Antonio and La Bahia. The close-knit cluster of self-sufficient settlements proved to be a vital appendage linking it with other thriving communities deep in the heart of Texas. Many citizens (i.e., Eva Longoria) who are descendants of Spanish Mexican Texas founding families trace their lineage to Escandón’s Villas del Norte.
As to La Salle, he was in modern-day Louisiana only once in 1682, when he claimed Louisiana for France; never setting foot on Texas soil. Then, in 1684 France authorized him to lead a four-ship expedition to establish a colony in French Louisiana.
The voyage was ill-omened from the start. Yet, La Salle reached the Mississippi Delta aboard Belle, the only remaining vessel of the original four ships. (One of the ships was hijacked, another sank, and the third ran aground.) Relying on old, inexact maps, La Salle had a poor understanding of the river’s end at the Gulf of Mexico. He thought he had reached Louisiana, but he anchored off Matagorda Bay, Texas instead. This was Spanish territory; claimed by explorer Captain de Lavazares for Spain in 1558 (127 years before La Salle’s landing!)
Still unaware he was trespassing on Spanish soil; the disoriented La Salle left part of his group on the ship, and set off inland with some companions. They set up camp at a place they named Fort St. Louis, still believing they were in Louisiana. Despite its pretentious name, the site consisted of only a few primitive shacks and provided a most dismal existence for its few sickly, irritated inhabitants. The lost and confused La Salle pressed on, searching for the Mississippi River. He never found it. His incompetence only increased his crew’s contempt toward him. On March 19, 1687, La Salle was murdered by one of his own men, ending the French explorer’s life most ingloriously as a trespasser in Spanish territory. The remaining crew at Fort St. Louis met their own sad ending from disease and attacks by unfriendly natives. Alonso de León found only signs of despair when he reached the abandoned site in 1689. Thus, France’s brief, unlawful entry into Spanish Texas quickly ended.
Much has been made of finding Belle’s wreckage off Matagorda Bay a few years ago. The debris is now marketed as a tourist attraction (with state support) to legitimize French presence in Texas. However, the general public needs to know that Belle’s French crew did not steer and anchor the boat where it was found. Rather, once the demoralized crew ran out of food and water, they panicked. Disobeying their captain’s (La Salle) orders to stay put, they sailed into the open sea hoping to reach French colonies in the Caribbean. Shortly after, a storm heavily damaged Belle and the crew was forced to abandon ship. Captive to the whims of the wind currents, Belle’s remnants finally reached the Texas shore as driftwood and sank. Clearly, the wreckage is proof of the Frenchmen’s series of blunders; not a feat of their navigational skills.
Oddly, mainstream U.S. historians continue to use the 1684 La Salle Texas tragedy to grant France a claim to Texas (1684-1689). Equally absurd, in 1811 during a meeting at the White House with Lt. Colonel Gutiérrez de Lara, President Madison used the La Salle faux pas as a bizarre contention that Texas was part of The Louisiana Purchase. (Gutiérrez de Lara was in Washington, D.C. seeking help for the first Texas Revolution.) For the record, Gutiérrez de Lara stood his ground and won the standoff. Consequently, he persuaded the U.S. President to help his worthy cause. For further details regarding Gutiérrez de Lara, you can read his story in my new bi-lingual book, “The First Texas Independence, 1813” (Amazon.com).
As an eighth-generation Texan, spending tax dollars glamorizing the French disaster is wrong. Embellishing the La Salle charade in Texas is the same as what scam artist P.T. Barnum was good at. That is, making something seem what it is not. If state-level history institutions and/or local officials are looking for real heroic figures, they should look no further than their own backyard in the Victoria/Goliad area.
The story of Martín de León and his wife Patricia de la Garza de León is a true early Texas history treasure. They are both ready for state-wide prime time. Other local heroes in the vicinity include Rafael Manchola, the Alderetes, Benavides, Carvajals, and many others. In short, dig slightly below the pre-1836 Texas historical level, and you will quickly find evidence of a robust history base; from San Antonio to Nacogdoches to Goliad, to Las Villas del Norte, and on to San Elizario in West Texas, home of the First Thanksgiving in the U.S. (April 30, 1598).
The bottom line? The story of “Wrong Way” René in Texas doesn’t pass the giggle test. La Salle may be a hero in France and elsewhere; but not in Texas. So, my advice to Governor Perry, the Texas Historical Commission, the Bullock Museum in Austin, et al, is that they stop looking in France for Texas heroes. Much more importantly, stop treating Spanish Colonial and Mexican Republic era people, places, and events as “foreign” history; as the Governor just did by underfunding the teaching of Spanish Mexican Tejano history. Descendants of Escandón and others who lived in those historic periods are still here today in Texas. We never left. ¡Aquí todavía estamos, y no nos vamos! (Here we still are and we aren’t going anywhere.)
José Antonio (Joe) López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of two books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” and “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.