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Les costes aux environs de la Riviere de Misisipi decouvertes par M. de la Salle en 1683 et reconnues par M. le Chevallier d’Iberville en 1698 et 1699, 1701

[Coasts in the vicinity of the Mississippi River discovered by M. de la Salle in 1683 and recognized by the Chevallier d’Iberville in 1698 and 1699]

Taken from the 1700 Atlas Curieux by French court cartographer Nicolas de Fer, this lithograph map features one of the earliest detailed depictions of the Texas coastline. Its purpose, however, was as much historical and political as it was cartographic.

De Fer served as royal geographer to both Philip V of Spain and Louis XIV of France (the “Sun King”), [1] during the Age of Exploration.[2] It was in Louis XIV’s service that this map was created. De Fer was in a unique position to receive and interpret information from returning expeditions as both powers competed for territory in the New World.

In 1695, De Fer, along with several other notable French mapmakers, became founding contributors to the French Bureau of Maps and Plans. This bureau, created to deal with the technical and strategic problems of overseas commerce and exploration, was part of the Royal Academy of Sciences’ Ministry of the Navy and Colonies. Along with distinguished cartographers, the bureau employed engineers and military strategists “who planned France’s ventures into the Louisiana Territory.”[3] They were tasked with exploring and fortifying the Mississippi and its tributaries before the English could establish a foothold and cut the link between France’s Canadian and Caribbean possessions. The result of their efforts is a map that clearly shows a “New World” full of both native inhabitants and imperial activity.

The border between the French and Spanish imperial claims is identified by an orange line. France, represented by a yellow outline, claimed almost the entire southeastern portion of the continent. Spain’s dominion, noted in red, began at what is possibly the Sabine River and continued south past the Tropic of Cancer.

Sieur de La Salle’s famous expedition to find the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1685 is illustrated, as are his travels within the eastern Texas interior. La Salle’s travels are described in French with the notation that “Sieur de La Salle came from the Bay of St. Louis until this village.” Also included is the route of the 1689 Spanish expedition from Monclova to intercept the French intruders after La Salle’s ship was wrecked on Matagorda Bay.

The map pinpointed various American Indian villages and settlements within the Mississippi River Valley and is a direct counter to the idea that the land was uninhabited and free for the taking. While some parts of the coastline are fairly accurate, others — the northeastern reach of the continent, Florida’s misshapen peninsula, and the exaggerated appearance of Texas’ coastline, for example — are the product of the best intelligence available to the French at that time.

The map’s most notable ornamentation is its graphic depiction of La Salle’s demise. After the loss of all four of his ships, three failed expeditions on foot to locate the mouth of the Mississippi, and increasing conflict between the French settlers and American Indians, some of La Salle’s men carried out a successful mutiny against their leader.[4] Led by disgruntled crewman Pierre Duhaut, the men ambushed and murdered La Salle. This event is featured to the left of the title and is believed to have occurred in what is present-day Navasota, Texas. Duhaut was killed by La Salle loyalists, seen to the title’s right.

This intrusion by the French roused Spain to increase its own exploration of the Texas coast and advanced the timetable for its own occupation in order to stave off French claims.[5] Several Spanish expeditions embarked to locate the French settlement of Fort Saint Louis, founded by La Salle but subsequently destroyed by the Karankawa Indians around 1688 or 1689.[6]

While geographically inaccurate in several areas, this map nevertheless represents one of the first considerable efforts to establish imperial claims in Texas, and it inspired exploration of the new continent from both France and Spain. The Atlas Curieux was edited and revised by Nicolas De Fer’s children over the next twenty years and remained popular as a source of North American geographical information in Europe.

[1] Philippe Erlanger, “Louis XIV,” Encyclopædia Britannica, September 13, 2016, accessed November 06, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-XIV-king-of-France. While the origin of the title “Sun King” is unclear, it was often used to refer to the brilliance of Louis XIV’s court.

[2] http://library.missouri.edu/exhibits/russian/defer.htm

[3] E. Stewart Saunders, Louis XIV: Patron of Science and Technology (1984), Libraries Research Publications, Paper 46. http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/lib_research/46. (Accessed November 6, 2017.)

[4] James C. Martin and Robert S. Martin, Maps of Texas and the Southwest, 1513–1900 (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 21.

[5] Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Areas of Interest, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. https://www.tsl.texas.gov/treasures/giants/lasalle/lasalle-01.html (Accessed November 6, 2017.)

[6] Handbook of Texas Online, Robert S. Weddle, “La Salle’s Texas Settlement,” accessed November 06, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/uel07.

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