Hundreds of thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana without power as Hurricane Laura makes landfall overnight. Despite warnings of an unsurvivable storm surge and record setting sustained winds, many along the northern gulf coast of Texas breathing a sign of relief, despite power outages and reports of property damage. Our conversations with people managing emergency efforts in Orange and Jefferson counties. Also what’s next in the aftermath of the storm. All of that and more today on the Texas Standard:
This is the story of what was luckiest letter ever mailed in Texas. It took about six months to reach its destination, which was Louisiana. But to say it was mailed is a bit of a stretch. It was handed to some people to be given to others and it bounced around a while, sat idle for months at a time and then miraculously moved on. Texas was, at the time, under Spanish rule, but the letter was written in French. It was a Hail Mary mailing. Truly an act of desperation. The fact that it arrived at all was a miracle within a miracle, and it saved the sender’s life.
François Simars de Bellisle was just 24 when he left France to come to America in 1719. He was headed for Louisiana on a small ship. As was often the case in those days, his captain overshot their destination. He missed Louisiana entirely and ended up near present-day Galveston where the ship ran aground off Bolivar Peninsula. But the captain thought they were relatively close to Ship Island near New Orleans, a little error of 300 miles. What Google Earth could have done for these early travelers!
Bellisle and four other French officers took meager supplies — biscuits, guns, minimal ammunition, swords — and went ashore to determine their location and seek help to guide their ship to port. They slept well that first night and when they got up the next morning their ship was gone. They had been abandoned.
They walked east and made it to what was likely the mouth of the Sabine River where they could go no further because of deep mud. They headed back the way they had come. Though they had some success finding oysters and killing small birds — they even killed a deer — they began, one by one, to succumb to starvation. Within two months, Bellisle had buried all of his friends. He was alone and hungry in this new land and, naturally, desperately depressed.
Bellisle believed he was living his last days. He was on the west side of Galveston Bay, out of bullets and reduced to eating boiled grass and worms out of driftwood. Then, one clear morning he saw the first Native Americans he had seen since being stranded. They were Akokisa and his only hope for survival. The Akokisas greeted him by taking all of his goods and stripping him of his clothes, leaving him naked – a state he would remain in for over a year. The only good thing that happened that day is that they fed him. But he was enslaved, ordered about mercilessly, beaten regularly and used as a beast of burden. How ironic that his name Bellisle meant “beautiful island,” but that is not what he found that day.
They took him west with them toward the Brazos River to hunt buffalo. He had to walk, naked and barefoot, carrying their supplies. But he did record later that, despite his wretched condition, he couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful prairies they passed through for over 150 miles. He wrote, “This is the most beautiful country in the world. The earth is black. Grass grows there to a prodigal height, and in abundance, which is a certain sign that the earth is good.”
Upon returning to the bay, he realized that his situation was dire. He would die if he stayed. So he retrieved one of the few pieces of paper he had in his belongings and wrote a letter. He asked his hosts give it to the white chief they told him was rumored to live to the east.
He had nothing to write with so he carved a crude pen out of wood and made ink out of charcoal and water. He wrote a letter begging for rescue from anyone who would might receive it. A couple of his tribe took the message east but never attempted to find the rumored white chief. They just passed along this strange artifact to other tribes as a curiosity. It went from tribe to tribe, perhaps traded for one thing or another, but all the while moved northeast. Then the miracle occurred. Members of the Hasinai Native Americans, which had close ties to the French, happened to see the letter and knew that it was something the French would like to see. So they took it to the commander of the French garrison at Natchitoches, Louisiana, a week’s journey away. The commander, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, wrote a letter in return, and ordered the Hasinais to bring the castaway back, whether dead or alive.
When Bellisle’s rescuers reached the Akokisa camp, they gave Bellisle the letter that informed him that the Hasinais would escort him to Natchitoches. His captors didn’t want to let him go, but they feared the Hasinais and so they relented. Bellisle said the final night in camp waiting to leave the next morning was the longest of his life. It still took him months to get to Natchitoches, but at least he was free. He had sent what was the land version of a message in a bottle, and it had caught the best currents and washed up on the perfect shore. His literacy, and luck, saved him.
The source of this story comes mostly from Bellisle’s memoirs, published in part by Henri Folmer in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Oct. 1940), pp. 204-231.