Sunday, November 22, 2015

La Salle's Lost Chapter

Mysteries at the Museum covers a broad range of subjects from a plaster cast of a foot apparently belonging to the Honey Island Swamp Monster to a small water barrel used to help find the La Belle shipwreck,  La Salle's ill-fated voyage to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River.  There was even a segment on a silver cigar box (located in the Washington DC Spy Museum), which Sidney Reilly had given to Bruce Lockhart after WWI to commemorate their escapades in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution.  The cigar box gained poignancy when Reilly returned to Russia only to get shot in the head.  Thanks to Lockhart's memoirs, Reilly served as one of the inspirations for Ian Fleming's James Bond, presumably To Russia with Love.

Don Wildman leads viewers on some pretty wild rides.  He has become one of the constant faces on Travel Channel, having started out with a far more interesting program called Off Limits, where he took viewers into places you wouldn't normally be able to see, like an abandoned sanatorium in upstate New York and Pittsburgh's sewer system.  However, with Mysteries he can blend the macabre with the surreal with some of history's lost chapters like that of Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was determined to find the outlet of the Mississippi and establish a port in the name of France.



La Salle doesn't get much attention, even if he had a car named after him.  Surprisingly very little has been written on him, so it probably would have been more interesting to explore the automotive connection, but Don uses a water barrel as his object to tell us the tale of the flamboyant explorer.  La Salle previously had better luck in the Great Lakes region, carving up land grants and opening up the area for fur trade with the Mohawks.  This helps explain why Cadillac chose to name a car after him.

The water barrel was found on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and helped lead underwater archaeologists to the remains of the La Belle in Matagorda Bay.  It is now part of the Bullock Museum.  Wildman gives these historic vignettes in five minutes or less, so if a viewer does display some curiosity he can always hunt up the website.



It was an ignominious end for the French explorer, who had wandered around for two months looking for the mouth of the Mississippi only to return to find the ship gone.  Not surprising since he had said he would only be gone 10 days.  The crew had made an effort to stay longer, but when provisions ran out they set sail, only to be struck by Hurricane-force winds and the ship to lie hidden for centuries.  You never know where these wrecks will turn up, and since manifests showed little of value on board, there really wasn't much interest beyond historical curiosity.

Probably the best book available on La Salle was that written by Francis Parkman, which takes in his time in the Great Lakes region.  There are others noting his singular obsession with the Mississippi River, which formed the backbone of the Louisiana Purchase.  However, the Spanish controlled the Gulf of Mexico at the time, and the failure to establish this final link is what cost the French to control this valuable piece of frontier.  Had he been able to do so, he probably would have been more greatly memorialized than in a water barrel or 1927 luxury touring car.

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