"Thirteen Rivers: The Last Voyage of La Belle," by Ruth Davis, Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016
If you find history boring, you won’t after reading Ruth Davis’ "Thirteen Rivers: The Last Voyage of La Belle." An exciting adventure historical novel, it reveals the graphic tale of La Salle’s 1685 failed colony in today’s Texas and the ship La Belle. This is a Texas tale for sure.
Davis creates details using all the senses: fear, sight, sound, sensations, situations and smell. “The interior, a pitiful sight, meagerly furnished with buffalo-hide pallets for beds, retained a stench of urine and unwashed bodies.”
The French explorer is almost unknown, even though he was one of the most ambitious, driven to discovery. Francis Parkman writes, “Without question one of the most remarkable explorers whose names live in history… .” Who else paddled down the Mississippi, then back up and returned to France?
This is where the La Belle story begins. Davis sets the context with La Salle convincing King Louis XIV of France that to defeat the Spanish requires a colony on the central section of America’s Gulf coast, containing Texas and Mexico’s silver mines.
La Salle successfully sells the idea to the tune of four ships, including the small La Belle. At 54 feet long and with a beam of 14 feet (remains now in the Bullock Texas History Museum in Austin) it had a shallow draft, perfect for exploring the Mississippi’s tributaries. But that is not where La Salle ended up.
Davis lays bare the leadership and organizational faults which doomed the venture from the first day. While La Salle led the venture as the Governor of La Louisiane, the naval captains were free to ignore his commands, which they did often, including missing the Mississippi by 500 miles landing in Matagorda Bay. The ships were separated, one taken, one aground, and one went back to France with needed supplies, leaving only La Belle.
The crew and colonists; women, children, a dog and cat were a motley group of 280 souls. Disease, accidents, warfare, most gruesome deaths reduced the number quickly. Especially of skilled seamen, which resulted in grounding La Belle causing the death of most of the crew. Again, supplies were lost.
Believing he was just west of the great river La Salle took 15 males marching off to the east, to cross 13 rivers, leaving the remaining at the fort. He did not make it far before he was assassinated. Each river, tribe and tribulations are portrayed in detail by Davis. Only seven men made it to the Mississippi, and back to Canada.
Lt. Henri Joutel kept a log throughout the ordeal, which survived to present listing the dates, travels and the individual’s roles in what the Bryan Museum describes as an ill-fated mission. A few of the colony’s children lived with American Indian tribes, until reunited with returning Frenchmen, told of the brutal massacre of the colonists left behind. Davis masterfully breathes life into the rest of the gory story.