Buried here are the remains of a 17th-century sailor who was a member of an ill-fated 1684-87 French expedition to the new world led by Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Texas Historical Commission archaeologists discovered the skeleton on October 31, 1996, during excavations of La Salle's ship, the Belle, which sank during a 1686 storm in Matagorda Bay. Near the skeleton, archaeologists found a pewter cup inscribed C. Barange, as well as a small cask. According to historical accounts, the Belle's crew exhausted its supply of fresh water while awaiting La Salle's return from an overland trek in search of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and archaeologists believe the sailor may have died of thirst. Forensic evidence indicates the sailor was between 35 and 45 years old and about 5 feet 4 inches tall. His back was arthritic, his teeth severely decayed and he had once suffered a broken nose.
Louis XIV of France hoped La Salle's expedition would break Spain's tight hold over the Gulf of Mexico and assert French claim to Louisiana, but it was plagued with misfortune. One of La Salle's four ships was lost to Spanish privateers in the Caribbean, another ran aground in Pass Cavallo at the mouth of Matagorda Bay and a third sailed back to France bearing disillusioned crew and colonists. La Salle failed to find the mouth of the Mississippi, where he planned to establish an outpost for trade with the indigenous peoples, and instead landed at Matagorda Bay along the Texas gulf coast. Several miles inland along Garcitas Creek he constructed a small settlement, Fort St. Louis, for the remaining colonists. The final blow to the colonial experiment came when the fourth ship, the Belle, sank with the expedition's remaining supplies. The following year, La Salle met his death at the hands of his own men in east Texas while trying to reach French settlements in Canada. The ultimate demise of Fort St. Louis and the thwarted French colonization efforts opened the way for Spain's settlement of Texas and subsequent domination of the region.