National Geographic : 1997 May
n July 24, 1684, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed between the 14th century towers flanking the French port of La Rochelle (below) with four ships, 300 men and women, outward bravado, and inner doubt about his quest. He hoped to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River, there to establish a colony and port for the glory and en richment of France. King Louis XIV backed La Salle, who had been the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming the entire drainage area for France and naming it Louisiana. But La Salle's vision far exceeded his ability. He over shot his mark by 400 miles. His ship, the Belle, foundered in a storm (right), and his fledgling settlement perished. This sad history is recorded in the journal of Henri Joutel, faithful witness to La Salle's search for "that fatal river." Wrote Joutel, "Heaven refused him that success." Discovered in Matagorda's murky waters after more than 300 years, the wreck of the Belle reveals much about La Salle's ill-fated mission.