LA HARPE, JEAN BAPTISTE BÉNARD DE (1683-1765)
Explorer Jean Baptiste Bénard de La Harpe was born in 1683 in Saint-Malo, France. In 1703, after serving for a short time in the army of Philip V of Spain, he traveled to Peru. There in 1705 he married a wealthy widow, Doña Maria de Rokafull, and returned to France. He published an account of his experiences, Relation, circa 1706, now lost. In 1718 La Harpe decided to return to the New World.
Accompanied by forty fellow adventurers, in the summer of 1718 La Harpe disembarked on Dauphin Island off the coast of present Alabama. The group went to New Orleans and claimed to have orders to settle lands along the Red River. The nature of La Harpe's commission is unclear; however, he assumed role of concessionaire for the Company of the Indies. In the spring of 1719 the party explored the lower Mississippi River and then traveled up the Red and Sulphur rivers, probably reaching present Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
La Harpe founded Fort Saint Louis de los Cadodaquious in late April, 1719. Located in present Bowie County, Texas, the site is also called Fort Breton or Fort San Luis de Cadodachos. La Harpe immediately wrote to Gov. Martín de Alarcón and Father Margil de Jesús in Spanish Texas, proposing a trade relationship. However, Spanish law outlawed trade between the two colonies. Moreover, Spain and France were engaged in the War of the Quadruple Alliance. After La Harpe exchanged threats with the Spaniards and the French attacked the Mission of San Miguel de Linares de los Adaes, the Frenchman turned his attention to exploration.
Seeking trade with the Comanche, in the summer of 1719 La Harpe's party crossed present Oklahoma, probably following the Canadian River. The precise route is unknown. They did not find trading partners, and in November 1719 the expedition returned to the Red River. La Harpe was ill and disenchanted with his Red River concession. After regaining his health, he traveled down to New Orleans in January 1720 and then returned to France. His second venture to the New World ended in failure.
Within the year, La Harpe returned to North America to rebuild the outpost that René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, had founded on Matagorda Bay in present Texas. The ship Subtile missed its mark and deposited La Harpe and his fifteen soldiers on Galveston Bay in the late summer of 1721. After a difficult winter La Harpe abandoned the post and once more set out to explore. His plan to open trade with the Spanish colonies via the Arkansas River in 1722 was thwarted by lack of logistical support. After returning to France, La Harpe published the Journal historique concernant l'établissement des Français à la Louisiane, putatively an account of his work in the New World. Unfortunately, it is not a reliable source inasmuch as La Harpe makes many claims that cannot be substantiated. He died on September 26, 1765.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Isaac J. Cox, "The Louisiana-Texas Frontier," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 10 (July 1906). Ralph A. Smith, trans., "Account of the Journey of Benard de La Harpe," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62 (July, October 1958, January, April 1959). Carl N. Tyson, The Red River in Southwestern History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).
Carl N. Tyson
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