La Salle (1643-1687) ~ Raoul Josset
Larger than life, envied in success and plagued by failure, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle may have landed on Texas shores by mistake, but he certainly left his mark.
Born in France a century after Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked west of Galveston Island, and two centuries before the first shiploads of German immigrants made their way inland from Indianola, La Salle followed his brother to New France (now Canada) in order to enter the fur trade.
Once in New France, he discovered a preference for travel over trapping. Launching a first expedition to the Ohio River in 1669, he spent several years combining business with the pleasures of exploration. In 1682, he traveled the length of the Mississippi River, laying claim to the entirety of the immense drainage basin for France, and naming the territory Louisiana, after King Louis XIV.
Only a year later, La Salle sought and obtained support for a significant new venture. His intent was to sail to the mouth of the Mississippi via the Gulf of Mexico: there to establish a French colony capable of making inroads into Mexico, harassing Spanish shipping, and blocking English-American expansion toward the west.
Unfortunately, La Salle’s fleet of four ships, together with 280 colonists and crew, faced problems from the start. The Saint-François was lost to Spanish raiders on approach to Saint-Domingue. L’Aimable ran aground while attempting to navigate a narrow channel, then broke apart and lost most of the colony’s supplies. Untrustworthy maps resulted in a landfall almost 400 miles west of the explorers’ intended destination; instead of the Mississippi, they found Matagorda Bay.
Circumstances began to breed serious discontent, leading the third ship, Le Joly, to return to France. Then, late in the winter of 1686, the remaining ship, Belle, was driven aground by a squall and foundered on a sandbar off Matagorda Island. Only later would the Spanish expedition of Rivas and Iriarte find the wreck of Belle in Matagorda Bay as they searched for evidence of French intrusion:**
Exploring around Matagorda Bay, which they named San Bernardo, they found the wreckage of La Salle’s bark Belle on Matagorda Peninsula and, in the entrance channel, the rudder post of his storeship L’Aimable, which had run aground while trying to enter the bay.
They nevertheless concluded, because of the shallowness of the bay, that any attempt to establish a settlement here could only have met disaster and therefore no longer posed a threat.
A circa 1689 Spanish map depicting the shipwrecked Belle (“Navío quebrado” or “broken ship”) in San Bernardo (Matagorda) Bay. Click to enlarge the map, provided courtesy of the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin
On March 19, 1687, while attempting yet another overland expedition to find the Mississippi and resume his original mission, La Salle and seven others were killed by Pierre Duhaut and an accomplice during an uprising among his own men. The few colonists still remaining at Matagorda Bay fared no better. All but a few children were massacred by Karankawa Indians in December, 1688.
Success is no prerequisite for a statue, of course, particularly since dramatic struggle or failure often capture our imaginations more readily than easy success. Still, rising up against the horizon, halfway between Indian Point and Indianola, La Salle seems to gaze across the bay toward the site of his sunken Belle with an air of bemusement: as though wondering how he came to be so honored.
This much is certain. The decision to memorialize La Salle’s journeys through Texas by engaging the services of French-born sculptor Raoul Josset was inspired.
Prior to moving to the United States in 1933, Josset received training at the Paris School of Fine Arts and the Lycee of Lyons and Paris. He studied under Antoine Bourdelle, and received the Rome Prize in 1923. His first Texas commission, a striking tribute to the state’s hundred-year history titled Spirit of the Centennial, was placed in Dallas’s Fair Park in 1936. It quickly led to more commissions, including the statue of La Salle.
Many of Josset’s works are dedicated to individuals whose struggles helped to shape the State of Texas: the bronze and granite tribute to Captain Amon King, hero of the Battle of Refugio; an eight-foot bronze of George Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence; a bronze angel guarding the crypt at Monument Hill, where remains of Texans killed in the Mier-Sommerville expedition are interred. Perhaps best-known is his memorial to the men under Fannin’s command who died at Goliad.
The Fannin Memorial
On the other hand, while Josset’s 1939 statue of La Salle may be the state’s most impressive, it wasn’t the first. Navasota dedicated their monument to the French explorer in 1930, and an even earlier statue was unveiled on Labor Day, 1928, at an Indianola development known as Bayside Beach.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Bayside Beach was a scam. After a group of investors “discovered the beautiful beach at Indianola, they subdivided the barren site and made a house-to-house canvass of the larger cities of the state, selling their findings, and receiving from $15 to as high as $1,500 for a single lot.”
Unfortunately, few if any of the lots fronted the beach. Some lay on the mainland. Some were submerged in Powderhorn Lake. Still others were hidden beneath the bay, along with the old Calhoun County courthouse, Fort Esperanza, and La Salle’s unfortunate Belle.
Nevertheless, when Maury Maverick and state representative Pat Jefferson asked Nora Sweetland to create a La Salle statue for the new development, she agreed. A Depression-era budget forced her to use concrete laden with shell, a mixture that made constructing a sword impossible. But Representative Jefferson provided an old family sword and, in the end, it was a fine statue.
Nora Sweetland & Friends Pose With La Salle
Unfortunately, her statue lasted only a few years. After a 1930s storm left it in pieces, the statue was decapitated under mysterious circumstances. La Salle’s head disappeared, along with the sword. Today, only the base and boots remain: a puzzle for visitors to the nearby cemetery where the statue finally came to rest.
It’s hard to imagine Nora shedding many tears over her cut-off-at-the-knees statue. She was a woman ahead of her time, and she had things to do.
Her engagement with life started early. Writing for the Waco, Texas History Project, Terri Jo Ryan says:
When she was 15, Nora [neé Currie] went to Waco with other suffragettes to march around the courthouse and hand out literature.
“There in the window of a general store on the square was a big sign that said, ‘Decent women do not want to vote,” Currie said. “I picked up a rock the size of a golf ball from the walk and threw it across the street and smashed that window. Then the other girls did the same thing.”
A sympathetic judge told the store owner that if he pressed charges, the suffragettes should sue him for libel for implying that they weren’t decent. He didn’t file charges.
Whether Homer Marlar knew of Nora’s feistiness is hard to say, but they married in 1917, when both were twenty-three. They had three children –Evelyn, Nolan, and Macie — and then divorced.
Before long, Nora remarried: this time into a notable Texas family. Her new husband, Henry W. Gammel, was the son of H.P.N. Gammel, a famous Austin bookseller and compiler of Gammel’s Laws of Texas.
After emigrating from Denmark, H.P.N. Gammel arrived first in Chicago, then in Galveston. After walking from Galveston to Austin, Gammel “built a shelf between two chinaberry trees, at Eighth Street and Congress Avenue, where he bought books for five cents and sold them for ten cents, reading and learning from them in the meantime.”
Eventually, that boyhood passion led to the establishment of one of the first book stores west of the Mississippi: a store known for specializing in literature, law, and Texana.
Walking from Galveston to Austin was quite an accomplishment, but it was another early experience which cemented Gammel’s place in Texas history. In the words of Dorothy Gammel Bohlender:
He was still a newcomer to Texas when, in 1881, the old Capitol in Austin burned. From the debris scattered on the Capitol grounds, young Gammel gathered wet papers and charred documents, loaded them in a wagon, and took them to his home. He and his wife gradually dried the pages on clotheslines and stored them with their belongings.
Years later he sorted and edited the crinkled papers, then published them, beginning in 1898, as the famous first ten volumes of Gammel’s Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 [now available online].
The work won immediate acclaim, and with the addition of other volumes in later years, the set came to be a basic item in law libraries across the state.
Nora’s new husband had followed his father into the book business. Henry moved to El Paso in 1907, to manage the Gammel store there. By 1909, he was serving as a Deputy Sheriff. On January 18, 1909, the El Paso Herald noted Deputy Gammel’s return from Big Springs, where he had gone to claim one Mrs. Frank Johnson and return her to her husband. According to the report:
Mrs. Johnson is the woman who ran away from her husband last Thursday, according to the husband’s charge, in the company of L. K. Powell…
Friday, a message was received from Big Springs announcing that the couple had been caught and were being held. Johnson refused to provide the money to bring Powell back to this city, but he paid for Mrs. Johnson’s transportation, and deputy Gammel went after her Friday night.
Perhaps Henry tired of such dramatic rescues. Whatever the reason, he returned to Austin, then moved on to Ft. Worth, where he managed another store. At some point in his travels, he met Nora. They married, had two children together, and then divorced. The divorce was less than amiable, and their story far from over.
On October 21, 1931, Nora married for a third and final time. It’s possible she met sculptor Leroy William Sweetland while studying and working at the Houston Art Stone Company, where she contributed to such projects as Houston’s Rialto Theater. Their marriage seems to have been companionable enough, and the fact that they remained married while Nora tied up some loose ends from her former life certainly speaks well of Leroy.
A brief story in the January 22, 1932 Abilene Reporter-News highlighted Nora’s attempt to deal with one issue:
FORT WORTH. Jan 21 — Mrs. Nora Currie Sweetland, 33, poet and sculptress, formerly of Oklahoma City, went to a book store here today with a hatchet, hacked out windows, and explained to police that she “wanted to let them know how serious I was about getting my children back.”
The place is owned by her divorced husband, Henry W. Gammel, who now has their two daughters, and who has this week obtained an injunction against the woman.
By January 29, the Mexia Weekly Herald reported that the stakes had been raised in the court battle:
FT. WORTH (UP) — Mrs. Nora Currie Sweetland, 33, poet and sculptress, who was acquitted of a lunacy charge only to be charged with malicious mischief, Thursday was taken to Groesbeck to face an additional complaint of swindling.
Henry W. Gammel, former husband, filed the lunacy charge against the woman after all windows in his bookstore had been smashed, and a number of books destroyed with a hatchet. Because all witnesses testified the woman was of sound mind, prosecuting attorneys moved for an instructed verdict of Not Guilty.
Gammel then signed a malicious mischief complaint, and Mrs. Sweetland was remanded to the country jail. There, a Limestone County Deputy Sheriff served her with a warrant charging swindling. She is alleged to have given a worthless check to R.M. Gralle, a Groesbeck hotel operator. She denied the charge.
Clearly, Nora had her supporters. By February 23, the Sarasota Herald Tribune was running another AP story out of Fort Worth with the title, “Woman Sculptor Arrested, Uses Cell as Studio.”
Stone walls do not a prison make. Sometimes, they make a studio.
Nora Currie Sweetland, arrested on charges of smashing windows at her former husband’s book store in a dispute over custody of her two children, didn’t let that interrupt her sculpturing.
Fitting up her cell as best she could, she chiseled out two figures while awaiting an insanity hearing growing out of her actions. Freed on this count, she returned to put the finishing touch on the models.
At first, she had only a butcher knife and spoon, furnished by a friendly turnkey, with which to shape the clay. Then, when she started working in plaster, the jailer found her a hammer and chisel. A wash rag from the jail bathroom, wrapped around the hammer head, served to muffle the sound of her blows and prevent disturbing other prisoners.
One of the figures she has shaped while in jail is that of her younger child as a baby; the other is her “Madonna of the Trenches,” symbolizing the Red Cross. Mrs. Sweetland has executed several pieces of statuary for public places in the Southwest.
Once freed from jail, Sweetland’s personal life stabilized and her reputation as the “Madonna sculptor” increased, Her Madonna of the Cotton Fields already graced the Robert B. Green Memorial Hospital in San Antonio, and her original Madonna of the Trenches, a tribute to the Red Cross, had been presented to the Fort Sam Houston base hospital in 1929.
Nora Sweetland with the clay model of her “Pioneer Madonna”
Over time, age and illness brought changes to Sweetland’s life. Though confined to a hospital bed for most of 1964 and 1965, she resolved to keep working. In August, 1965, she re-created her 1933 Madonna of the Trenches, and another piece, Pioneer Madonna, was unveiled at the Comfort, Texas Historical Museum in 1966.
She also began to write. A small book titled Scraps of My Life included poetry, selections from her column for an unknown newspaper (“Nora’s Views on the News”), and reviews of her sculpture.
Another book published in 1966, And So Flows the Brazos, contains a collection of reflective stories: the memories of a woman looking back over a life filled with the challenges and griefs common to us all.
When I found and ordered a copy of the book for myself, it brought with it a number of unexpected gifts: the faint scent of age; a crumbling, edge-worn jacket; yellowing paper soft as powder. On the title page, in an old-fashioned but still strong hand, the words First Edition had been written and underlined. Inside the front cover, a dedication had been added.
Could Leonard Schwartz have been a descendent of Johann Schwartz, the first man to settle and build at Indianola? I’d like to think so. It’s satisfying to imagine an enduring connection between Sweetland and Indianola: the site of one of her most well-known and least-permanent works.
Whatever the truth about her connection to Indianola, what can’t be denied is Sweetland’s connection to her river. And So Flows the Brazos is a love song meant for her Brazos de Dios:
…my green river, my blue river, my crystal clear river with its sand bars gleaming…my roaring, rampaging river with its uprooted trees…and its white foam lashing angrily at the river’s banks.
Sitting on the bank of her river, gazing out over the decades of her life with an air of bemused serenity La Salle might have envied, she makes no complaint, expresses no regret, issues not a word of blame or accusation. She only commends her life, and the lives of those she loves, into the hands of God, saying:
Now I will arise and go about my work, for there are so many things that I want to do, and so little time left in which to do them.