Imagine strolling around the city of Saint Antoine in Texas and hearing French spoken at every turn. Stopping by the city's most famous site – Le Alameaux. Or exploring La Jacinthe Battlefield, where Texans won their independence from France. Think about what the Lone Star State would be like today if the prevailing cultural influences were French rather than Spanish.
It just might have happened that way.
In 1684, famed French explorer Robert Cavalier brought a proposal to King Louis the Fourteenth of France. The arrogant and ambitious Sieur de La Salle had visited North America on several occasions, eventually paddling down the Mississippi and becoming the first European to discover that it empties into the Gulf. And now, he wanted to build a colony at the mouth of the great river and expand French power in the New World.
Hungry for control of North America, King Louis agreed, giving La Salle four ships, a small army of soldiers, and 200 settlers. La Salle set sail in 1684, full of hope and enthusiasm, ready to conquer the New World for the glory of France. And himself.
Instead, disaster met his every turn. He fought with his navigator, lost a ship to privateers, and sailed past the Mississippi. Thinking he was still east of the river, La Salle kept pushing westward, eventually anchoring in Matagorda Bay in what is now Texas. The ship carrying most of the supplies for the colony, L'Aimable, ran aground upon entering the bay and later sank. La Salle’s remaining ship, La Belle, likewise, went to the bottom in a storm. Hostilities broke out with the native Karankawa. And La Salle himself was murdered by his own men.
Even in defeat, however, La Salle made his mark. When the Spanish heard about a French colony, they sent eleven expeditions in search of it, ready to wipe it out. This was their New World. The Spaniards responded to the French incursion by expanding their presence in Texas, shaping it into the land we know today.
And for more than a century historians searched for La Belle. It had to be in the shallow bay somewhere, but no one had ever been able to locate it. In 1995, archeologists from the Texas Historical Commission discovered a French cannon lying beneath Matagorda Bay, and they knew they had found it at last.
What they didn't know, was just how important that discovery would turn out to be for the state of Texas.
A massive excavation ensued – one of the most complex in North American history. Nearly two million artifacts were brought to the surface. These spurred the birth of a beautiful new museum of Texas history in Austin and were shared among seven other museums across the state.
Today's explorers can visit each collection in turn. You can step aboard a replica of La Belle, view the skeleton of a French colonist, check out a swivel gun, and see how the wonders of modern archeology bring the past to life.
And discover for yourself just how close Texas came to being a French colony.