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The Wrecking of La Salle's Ship <cite>Aimable</cite> and the Trial of Claude Aigron

[ Regional/Texas ]

The Wrecking of La Salle's Ship Aimable and the Trial of Claude Aigron

By Robert S. Weddle

Translations by François Lagarde

A detailed account of the wrecking—and legal aftermath—of La Salle's ship Aimable in 1685.

2009

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 148 pp. | 9 b&w photos, 1 illustration, 2 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-72358-0

When Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, landed on the Texas coast in 1685, bent on founding a French colony, his enterprise was doomed to failure. Not only was he hundreds of miles from his intended landfall—the mouth of the Mississippi—but his supply ship, Aimable, was wrecked at the mouth of Matagorda Bay, leaving the colonists with scant provisions and little protection against local Indian tribes. In anger and disgust, he struck out at the ship's captain, Claude Aigron, accusing him of wrecking the vessel purposely and maliciously.

Captain Aigron and his crew escaped the doomed colony by returning to France on the warship that had escorted the expedition on its ocean crossing. Soon after reaching France, Aigron found himself defendant in a civil suit filed by two of his officers seeking recompense for lost salary and personal effects, and then imprisoned on order of King Louis XIV while La Salle's more serious accusations were being investigated.

In this book, Robert Weddle meticulously recounts, through court documents, the known history of Aigron and the Aimable, and finds that despite La Salle's fervent accusations, the facts of the case offer no clear indictment. The court documents, deftly translated by François Lagarde, reveal Captain Aigron's successful defense and illuminate the circumstances of the wreck with Aigron's testimony. Much is also revealed about the French legal system and how the sea laws of the period were applied through the French government's L'Ordonnance de la Marine.

  • Preface
  • Part I: Aimable's Story
    • 1. Voyage of Destiny
    • 2. Makings of Disaster
    • 3. The Parting
    • 4. The Lost Cause
  • Part II: The Evidence
    • 5. La Salle's Reports
      • A. The Official Account of the Shipwreck: Procès verbal
      • B. La Salle's Letter to the Marquis de Seignelay
    • 6. Charge and Rebuttal
    • 7. The Hearing
    • 8. The Summation
  • Part III: Postscript
    • 9. The Search for Aimable
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

When the cargo ship Aimable ran aground while trying to negotiate Pass Cavallo into Matagorda Bay in 1685, the noted explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle quickly accused her captain of purposely wrecking the vessel, possibly with malice. History's judgment, not always accurate or just, has generally sided with La Salle, while condemning Captain Claude Aigron. Francis Parkman, for example, had this to say in La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West:

Not only La Salle but [Henri] Joutel and others of his [La Salle's] party believed that the wreck . . . was intentional. Aigron . . . had disobeyed orders and disregarded signals. Though he had been directed to tow the vessel through the channel, he went in under sail; and though little else was saved from the wreck, his personal property, including even some preserved fruits, was all landed safely. He had long been on ill terms with La Salle. . . . Aigron returned to France in the Joly, and was thrown into prison.

Nothing is said here about Captain Aigron's early release from prison; in fact, hardly anyone has sided with Aigron. His own story has gone untold—until now. In the following pages I offer the translated court transcript, not of Aigron's trial by Louis XIV's royal tribunal on the grave charges made by La Salle, but of a civil suit brought against the captain in the Admiralty Court of La Rochelle. These proceedings brought forth the captain's own version of the wreck, which apparently convinced the king that no further action was warranted.

Plaintiffs in the civil action were two officers, late of the Aimable crew, seeking redress for their loss of wages and personal effects that had perished with the ship. The outcome of the trial was influenced not so much by the fairness of their pleadings—or by Aigron's eloquent defense—as by specific articles of the French Sea Law promulgated in 1681. In the captain's depositions given in response to the plaintiffs' accusations, however, his story is brought to light for the first time. True, Aigron was "thrown into prison," incarcerated for a time in Saint-Nicolas Tower of La Rochelle on the king's order. But the record, as it can now be pieced together from extant documents, leaves many questions unanswered.

Although the outcome of the civil suit seems fairly clear, the ultimate fate of Captain Aigron is elusive. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to whether the captain was guilty or innocent of La Salle's accusations and to what degree others deserved a share of the guilt. Readers may find room to disagree with the conclusion offered.

In the consideration of the proceedings, I entertained some doubt as to whether they constituted a trial or merely a preliminary hearing. One phrase in Captain Aigron's final summation, "in case of trial," seemed to affirm the latter. Consultation with others more familiar with court procedure than I ultimately led to the conclusion that the record reflects the initial phase of a trial. It seems apparent, however, that the matter was terminated by a court order before it advanced to the next step. We are left in doubt as to the nature of that order: whether it called for a settlement or an out-of-hand dismissal.

Understanding the legal system of the French monarchy of more than three centuries ago has been a major challenge of this study throughout. Attempts to penetrate its obscurity finally led to the realization that it exhibits similarities to the system employed in civil courts of the United States today. One of these similarities is the use of a preliminary hearing to determine the substance of allegations before proceeding to a trial by jury.

The legal proceedings that are the basis of this study are introduced with Aimable's history, including events from the time she was leased to La Salle by the sieur Massiot until she ran aground and broke up on a sandy shoal at the mouth of an obscure Texas bay. Detailed here are the boarding of passengers and crew, the registering of cargo, and occurrences during the passage to America, including a row between the captain and the pilot that bore directly on the proceedings that followed.

This account of the "store-ship" Aimable and her unfortunate end is but a sidelight to the far more dramatic, and tragic, story of La Salle's failed colony, planted by mistake in the Texas coastal wilderness. Yet the elucidation of a neglected phase of this other, more vibrant historic episode provides a rare glimpse into ancient sea law and how it was applied through the French maritime ordonnances promulgated in August 1681.

Preliminary to the trial documents are La Salle's procès verbal, or "official report," of the wrecking of Aimable, and his letter to the Marquis de Seignelay, Louis XIV's secretary of state for the navy, in which the famed explorer offers his indictment of Aigron. I am indebted to Mark Patrick of the Detroit Public Library for permission to publish translations of these two documents from the library's Burton Historical Collection.

To these documents are added the pleadings of plaintiffs and defendants, translated by Professor François Lagarde of the Department of French and Italian, the University of Texas at Austin. Each item introduced into evidence has been given its own introduction and annotation by the author. These were written with the benefit of the 1681 Sea Law, graciously provided by Joseph McKnight, professor and legal historian at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law. I am indebted to Professor McKnight also for reading and commenting on the translated court documents, as to Gerald R. Powell, Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence, Baylor University Law School, for providing legal commentaries pertinent to historic shipwrecks and their recovery and preservation.

I extend my gratitude also to the many other persons who have facilitated the preparation of this volume. J. Barto Arnold III of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, enabled me to share the experience of searching for the lost Aimable. Pauline Arseneault transcribed the court documents from the Archives Départementales de la Charente-Maritime in La Rochelle, France. James E. Bruseth of the Texas Historical Commission provided material from THC files and facilitated my visits to the La Salle settlement site during excavation. David Dodson of Pensacola, Florida, spent countless hours examining documents in French archives to assist me with many research questions.

Thanks are due also to Donald E. Chipman for transportation to the La Salle settlement site for one final look before the archaeological project closed down and for providing photographs that are reproduced herein; and to John de Bry for pointing the way to acquisition of the documents that form the basis of this study and for the photograph of present-day La Rochelle, France.

To these I add my wife, Peggy Weddle, who provided encouragement while enduring with patience my preoccupation with the task.

On February 20, 1685, one of the most tragically ominous shipwrecks of the colonial era occurred on the Texas coast, bearing consequences that have extended to the present day. At the same time, this shipping disaster brought forth one of the most bitter controversies of an episode that was already awash in rancor. This was the wreck of l'Aimable, a merchant vessel serving the vaunted French explorer La Salle.

She was not a happy ship. Her crew was not a happy crew. Even before the disaster that put her aground on a sandy shoal at the mouth of an obscure Texas bay, aspersion and innuendo rent her ranks. And then, pounded apart by relentless breakers, she sank slowly into the surf, taking with her the weaponry and provisions on which a nascent French colony depended for its existence. There she still lies, buried beneath tons of silt that have thwarted her discovery for more than three centuries.

An armed cargo vessel, 180 tons burden, Aimable was leased by the famed explorer (birth name Robert Cavelier, but more widely known as sieur de La Salle) to assist his founding of a colony above the mouth of the Mississippi River. But plans went awry. Confused maps and limited geographical understanding caused a landing hundreds of miles farther west, at an unpromising site offering only suffering and death.

Aimable's troubles are most often laid at the feet of her captain, Claude Aigron; he has been accused of pilfering ship's stores intended to feed his crew and of stealing goods salvaged from the dying ship and selling them for personal gain. La Salle himself, in a letter to Louis XIV's minister, accused the captain of purposely running the ship aground. Such charges became the substance of a civil action filed against Aigron by his pilot and gunner after they and the rest of Aimable's crew—fortunate souls that they were—returned to France aboard the warship Joly. Such allegations were also the reason for the captain's imprisonment on orders from his king.

La Salle's charge notwithstanding, questions now arise, concerning not only the justice of the leader's accusation but also that of the civil action. Was it based in a vendetta born of a dispute of doubtful nature between Captain Aigron and his pilot, who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit? The legal record, on its face, offers only a hint. Perhaps some legal scholar can find an answer in the prolix verbiage of the court documents translated herein.

Aimable's story begins in 1671, when she was built in England and given the name Virginia, suggesting that she was destined for trade with the British colonies in North America. Neither the date she was acquired by her French owner nor the circumstances of the transfer are known. She became the property of Jean Massiot the younger, a prominent French shipowner and merchant of La Rochelle, an Atlantic port town adjacent to the Île de Ré. At least by 1681, Massiot employed Aigron, also of La Rochelle, as Aimable's captain. In keeping with Massiot's accustomed trade with both Africa and America, Captain Aigron presumably sailed the ship to those places. He is known to have voyaged in 1681 to French Guiana, off the north coast of South America, and presumably called at the French Caribbean islands as well.

Little is known of Claude Aigron himself; there appears nothing to tie him to the numerous, and prominent, Aigron family of lesser nobility that spread out from Montignac (Charente), where it held the Fief of Combizan. The Aigron family blason, consisting of three silver pigeons with wings spread on a green or aqua field, may be seen today in a stained-glass window of the Church of Saint-Pierre de Mérignac. The name is said to originate from the word aigreta, a provincial form of aigrette, a dialectal form of "heron." The patriarch of this line appears to have been Abraham Aigron, sieur de La Motte et de Combizan, a town councilor of Angoulême from 1626 until his death in 1642. Thence, members of the Aigron family migrated down the Rivière Charente to arrive at La Rochelle by 1629. The first was Abraham's second son, Jacques, a leader in the siege of that village in 1629. While the older brother, François, was heir to the title of sieur de Combizan, Jacques was entitled as sieur de La Motte. He became a councilor of the présidial of La Rochelle under the name Motte-Aigron. Pierre Aigron, born at La Rochelle in 1630, migrated to Canada in 1660. The surname Aigron also occurs in records of a seagoing family from Rochefort, but nothing has been found either there or in La Rochelle to link it to our Captain Claude Aigron. The only occurrence of the given name to surface so far is of one born in La Rochelle in 1668; he would have been seventeen years old in 1684, not thirty-five as was the captain.

If Captain Aigron was from a noble line, there so far appears no indication of it. He was, in fact, a Protestant, as he admitted in a sworn statement before the king's prosecutor, a matter that might have invited prosecution in Louis XIV's France. His religious preference explains depositions presented on his behalf during the trial. These statements, evidently intended to emphasize the captain's religious tolerance, made a point of the fact that he carried priests on his ship during the voyage to America and had them celebrate mass each day.

Aimable and her captain advanced toward a lasting place in French maritime annals when Massiot leased the ship to La Salle for his voyage to the Gulf of Mexico. Thenceforth, the ship's history is told in the contrasting journals of Henri Joutel and Jean-Baptiste Minet (La Salle's chief lieutenant and engineer, respectively), and in La Salle's official report of the shipwreck and letter to the minister Marquis de Seignelay. All of these allege the intentional wrecking of the vessel. Add to these accounts proceedings of the lawsuit brought by the ship's pilot, Zacharie Mengaud, and gunner, Pierre Georget.

La Salle, with the two royal vessels provided him for the voyage already overburdened, had acted out of desperation to lease Aimable after the king refused to provide a third ship. Having crowded supplies onto the warship Joly until her captain complained that her battle-readiness was being jeopardized, he was able to effect the lease from Massiot at his own expense. Thus, the ship passed into La Salle's hands on June 5, 1684, when there appeared in person before the royal notaries at La Rochelle

the honorable Jean Massiot le jeune, merchant of this city, sole owner of the good and suitably watertight ship named l'Aimable of one hundred eighty tonneaux burthen . . . captain [Claude] Aigron; provisioned, fully rigged, and seaworthy, with enough food, bread, wine, lard, and other needs for the nourishment of the captain and the 22-man crew for the entire voyage . . . , armed with ten cannons and small arms.

Massiot, it was further stated, was leasing his ship voluntarily to "Monsieur Cavelier de La Salle, governor for His Majesty of the territory of Louisiana." La Salle was to load the ship with "merchandise" for the voyage to America and return it to the island of Martinique to be discharged. If La Salle should need the ship to send to France goods obtained in the Indian trade, the ship might return instead to La Rochelle. (Such stipulations, as it turned out, were merely academic.) Massiot was guaranteed a monthly lease payment of 1,550 livres from the time the ship set sail from her home port. La Salle paid the first two months' installments, due in advance, on the date of the contract. In the event of damage or breakdown, and, presumably, if the ship were to be lost during the voyage, the two parties to the agreement would share the loss.

Aimable's crew list of twenty-two men, signed on for "the voyage to Canada," was drawn on July 2. The list was headed by the thirty-five-year-old Captain Aigron. Jacques Zacharie Mengaud [Mingaud, or Maingaud] from Oléron, the captain's senior by fifteen years, was the pilot. Also among the officers was the cannoneer, or gunner, Pierre Georget of Saint-Gilles, who, upon return to France aboard Joly would join Mengaud in the civil suit against Captain Aigron and Massiot. The other officers and petty officers, with one exception, were from La Rochelle: boatswain Pierre Augustin, carpenters Dubois and Jean Segefardois, cooper Pierre Moreau, and coxswain (maître de chaloupe) Bastien La Pierre. Moïse Paugron from Tremblade is listed as chief steward (maître valet).

Three of the six seamen also were from La Rochelle: André Prévost, Jacques Bigras, and Louis Crugeón. Others were Pierre Martin of Bordeaux, Isaac Simon of La Tremblade, and Jean Baudry of Meschers-sur-Gironde; ship's boys (garçons) were Jean Mançeau, age fifteen, of Marennes, and Jacques Boutin of Oléron and Elie d'Alon of La Rochelle, both age twelve.

The day after the crew list was drawn, July 3, Massiot signed Aimable's cargo register. La Salle had placed on board eight cannons and their cannonballs; eight thousand pounds of powder; thirty casks of wine; one hundred fifty quintals of bread; fifty barrels of beef and lard; various kinds of cloth and clothing; axes and other tools; and four hundred rifled muskets.

With Aimable and the two royal vessels fully burdened, La Salle made arrangements for a fifty-ton ketch, Saint François, to carry goods as far as Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti).

Aimable boarded, besides the arms and provisions and her twenty-two-man crew, a considerable number of passengers. There were close to forty hired men, a number of volunteers, and six women or girls who came with expectations of finding husbands in the colony. There was also the family of Lucien Talon, who had come from Canada to enlist as a soldier after hearing glowing reports of the country from one who had journeyed down the Mississippi River with La Salle. Besides the father, there were Madam Talon (Isabelle Planteau); two young daughters, Marie-Elisabeth, who was fated to die in the colony, and Marie-Madeleine, who was to share the Mexican adventure of her brothers after rescue by the Spaniards; and three sons of tender age, Pierre, Jean-Baptiste, and Lucien fils. Madam Talon carried in her womb a sixth child to be born during the voyage. Two other young lads were also to have adventurous lives among the Spaniards following the tragic demise of the colony: Eustache Bréman, who may have been accompanied by his parents and orphaned in the colony, and Pierre Meunier, destined to be a settler in Spanish New Mexico.

The names of thirty-seven tradesmen who signed on for La Salle's enterprise between June 7 and July 16, 1684, are preserved in the archives at La Rochelle. With the exception of the surgeon-major, Étienne Liotot, all of them sailed on Aimable. Recruited for La Salle by Jean Massiot, each tradesman entered into a contract, signed by the explorer himself, giving his age, place of origin, trade, and term of contract, either two years or three. Among them were carpenter, cooper, flour millers, baker, mason, toolmaker, blacksmith, shoemaker, gardener, furrier, and ship's pilot. There were eleven sailors, none of whom was assigned to any ship, a German gunner, and an Italian glove-maker. Although most of the men were in their thirties, ages ranged from eighteen to sixty-five. As diverse in origin as in age and occupation, they came from many parts of France, from Dieppe, Upper Normandy, in the northwest to Provence in the southeast. Eventually condemned indiscriminately by La Salle for their uselessness, none of the tradesmen survived the expedition.

The volunteers about to embark on the voyage are little known, but several are said to have previously sailed on Aimable. By and large, they were men of means with a yen for adventure. A number of them came from La Salle's hometown of Rouen, in Normandy. There were also as many as eight merchants, each with quantities of goods to be sold in Saint-Domingue or traded among the Indians. Most of them are believed to have returned to France directly from the island colony, but two who are said to have sailed on Captain Aigron's ship remained, to involve themselves tragically in the affairs of La Salle's colony. These were the Duhaut brothers, Pierre and Dominique, the former destined to be La Salle's murderer.

Of the three Récollet Franciscan friars on the voyage, one—not mentioned by name—embarked on Aimable. Passengers were boarded and sails set; the four ships—Joly, Belle, Aimable, and Saint-François—moved out of the Chef-de-bois roadstead to the open sea.

The voyage was not a happy one. Aboard Joly, disputes raged between La Salle and the captain, Taneguy Le Gallois de Beaujeu, a prideful career naval officer. Dissension of uncertain cause arose also on Aimable. Joutel was sent in mid-September to investigate complaints that "some were making of others." This may have had to do with a dispute that came to a head several days later between the pilot Mengaud and Captain Aigron. On September 23, Mengaud was "dismissed and deprived of the conduct of the ship and . . . suspended by Aigron from all command." At issue, the pilot later claimed, was the course the ship was to follow. The dispute surely figured in the accusations Mengaud and Georget later made against Captain Aigron.

Sometime during this unpleasant interval, Madam Talon gave birth on Aimable to her sixth child, a fourth son, who was given La Salle's name, Robert. The leader himself stood as godfather.

Before reaching Saint-Domingue, the four ships were separated by storm. Three of them made port at Petit-Goâve from September 27 to October 2. Then came news that Saint-François had fallen prey to Spanish privateers near Port-de-Paix, on the north side of the island. The Spaniards of Santo Domingo, like the French of Saint-Domingue, had not yet been informed of the peace made between the two crowns some six weeks previously.

The two months spent at Petit-Goâve were marked by rampant illness, the defection of some thirty men, and the addition of a few troublemakers who were to involve themselves in the building tragedy. It was here that Aimable's captain allegedly committed one of the offenses of which he was accused later: selling provisions from his ship's stores that were meant to feed his crew and putting his men on short rations in consequence.

Before the little fleet sailed again on November 25, La Salle himself decided to proceed aboard Aimable rather than Joly. With him went his surgeon, Étienne Liotot; his brother, the abbot Jean Cavelier; two of the Récollet friars, Anastase Douay and Zénobe Membré; several volunteers; and Joutel.

Thenceforth, Aimable was to take the lead, the other two ships staying within view by day and following her lantern by night. The plan proved to be ill-advised. The heavily laden cargo vessel was not designed for speed. Joly, even while navigating with only her two topsails and tacking most of the time, constantly had to heave to and wait for her. Aimable reached the specified rendezvous at Cuba's Isle of Pines twelve hours after the warship and nine hours after Belle.

Waiting at Cape San Antonio for a favorable wind for entering the Gulf of Mexico, the ships were beset by a sudden squall in the middle of the night on December 17. Dragged anchors sent Belle and Aimable crashing together in a mass of tangled rigging. Belle struck Aimable's bowsprit, breaking the storeship's main yard and her own mizzenmast and topsail yard; Belle also lost an anchor and a hundred fathoms of anchor cable. The mishap notwithstanding, the ships made sail by ten o'clock next morning. The little fleet ventured forth into the traditional "Spanish Sea," which was jealously guarded by Spain against all foreign interlopers.

Crossing the Gulf on a course approximating 330 degrees, the ships came within soundings on the Louisiana coast west of the Mississippi Delta on December 27. Thence, they groped their way westward along the shallow continental shelf, unable to see the shore from five-fathom water. At last, sailors at Aimable's masthead espied land southwest of Grand Isle.

As the ships sailed westward, they sought La Salle's specified destination at "the far end of the Gulf's bend." The place had been chosen on the basis of hypothetical maps that placed the mouth of the Mississippi in the Texas Coastal Bend. Out of sight of land till January 1, a shore party was sent in longboats but was forced to leave the craft three hundred yards out and wade ashore. Next day, the ships became separated in fog; Aimable and Belle continued down the coast, leaving the warship behind. Not until January 19 did the three vessels come together again, gathering in an anchorage adjacent to Cedar Bayou on the middle Texas coast.

With La Salle and Beaujeu blaming each other for the misunderstanding, confusion reigned. La Salle, unable to determine longitude and having fixed the location of his river by confused geography, recognized no familiar landmarks. While the leader groped for understanding, the ships took a pounding from the howling wind and heavy swells, and the people suffered.

During this time the engineer Minet made a curious observation that he was to recall later: "One is unable to make more over the captain and the pilot of the flûte [Aigron and Mengaud] than M. de La Salle does. He has them eat with him and gives them wine. So they are always in a good mood." Was this camaraderie a factor in the approaching disaster? Did La Salle encourage it with the hope of resolving the differences between the two? If so, he surely had cause to regret it later.

After eight days in the anchorage, La Salle was able to put men ashore to explore up the coast. The ships remained at anchor another twelve days, hard-pressed to hold their ground and in constant jeopardy of an onshore wind or a howling norther. Aimable snapped a cable, losing an anchor. Her other anchors held, but her stem was somehow broken. She afterward had a noticeable list, the result of shifting cargo or water leaking into her hold through the crack in her bow—perhaps a factor in her ultimate fate. Belle, having already lost one anchor at Cape San Antonio, lost another, thus hastening her own disaster, the result of inadequate ground tackle and inept seamanship.

During these tempestuous three weeks, passengers and crew aboard the three ships endured the continuous pounding while laboring to confront each emergency as it arose. At last word came from the shore party of a bay some distance up the coast that seemed to offer an adequate harbor. On the evening of February 14, 1685, Aimable, with La Salle still aboard, came to anchor before Pass Cavallo, the natural entrance to Matagorda Bay. There she joined the other ships, which had arrived the day before.

La Salle, at least for the moment, believed he had arrived at one of the western passes of the Mississippi River. With Joly anchored well offshore in forty-foot water, he prepared to have Belle and Aimable enter the bay. Amazingly, the vessels had survived the hazards of three weeks of foul weather while anchored off the hazardous shore near Cedar Bayou. Now, in contemplation of negotiating the treacherous channel of Pass Cavallo, new dangers arose. As if the channel itself did not offer enough dangers, division in the ranks forbade reasonable consideration of the objective.

Robert S. Weddle is an award-winning historian and the author of more than a dozen books on the Spanish and French colonial history of Texas and the Gulf Coast.

François Lagarde is Associate Professor of French at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor of The French in Texas.

"I believe that the translation and publication of these records will force modern chroniclers to re-evaluate and surely revise traditional accounts of the sinking of the Aimable, the relative degree of responsibility shared by those involved, and, indeed, of the entire La Salle expedition. Aigron's story has been untold until now and deserves to be heard."

—Steven G. Reinhardt, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas at Arlington

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