IT WAS A rainy afternoon in late March, and Indiana Jones was seeking the Holy Grail. Or, more accurately, because it was only about 15 minutes into the movie, Professor Jones was giving an archaeology lecture to a group of fawning college students. “We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and X never, ever marks the spot,” he said. “Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library, research, reading ….”
Standing behind the counter at Teaberry Kombucha Co. in Little Rock, owner Nathan Brown nodded to the television mounted above and explained that he’d chosen to play the classic film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade in his taproom because, well, it was a good one to watch on rainy days. For better or worse, there was plenty of time to watch it largely uninterrupted. Although there’d been plenty of customers the day before, today had been slow. Coronavirus was keeping people inside.
As Indiana Jones made the acquaintance of the beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider, Nathan was talking about how his business and others might respond to the global pandemic, when he happened to mention a second, very different passion: a passion that had sent him all over the world searching for ever-elusive bits of information in a way that curiously mirrored the movie playing overhead.
In fact, Nathan said, if you looked closely at Teaberry’s labels (and the website), you could actually see how he’d incorporated that passion into the branding. To prove as much, he went to the back and returned with three as-yet-unfilled glass bottles. The designs for each of the three flavors, Strawberry, Yerba Mate, and Ginger Peach, were reminiscent of old WPA posters, all bold colors and dramatic vistas, but there was evidently more to them than met the eye.
On the Strawberry, he pointed out a group of French explorers, a native guide and a priest navigating around the bases of cypress trees as an ivory-billed woodpecker glided above. On the Yerba Mate, there were the Atlantean statues of Tula, Mexico, enormous stone monoliths, relics from the Toltec civilization. On the Ginger Peach, there was Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, a church atop Mexico’s Great Pyramid of Cholula, the enormous volcano Popocatépetl looming in the background, a pair of silhouetted figures entering a tunnel at the bottom right.
Although this collection of seemingly unrelated scenes might seem an odd choice for kombucha branding, the truth is, these were all nods and winks to a nearly forgotten story: a story about a French family from the 1600s, the Talons, whose six children had found their histories closely interwoven with some of the major historic events of their time.
Later, I’ll ask how many times people have asked about the labels.
With a laugh, he’ll say, “Zero times.”
WHEN I CALLED a few days later, Nathan was loading his little pickup truck with kegs of kombucha for the hour-and-a-half-long trip to Prestonrose Farm and Brewing Co., the Paris, Arkansas-based craft brewery. He said that he’d call back once he got on the road, but even in the few minutes before he resumed packing up the truck, he mentioned a few of the ways in which the story had opened doors that might have otherwise been closed, the ways in which it’d had some effect on his life.
There were, for instance, some of the trips that he’d taken in the past few years: a long road trip with his father down the Texas coast, in which they’d traced the steps of the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (most readers will know him as simply “La Salle”) as he’d sought the mouth of the Mississippi River. There was the trip to the Mormon church, (evidently, they’ve got exceptional genealogical records). There were the side trips to archives and libraries he’d taken while on a family trip to England and Paris, (Europe, not Arkansas).
“It is kind of funny,” he said, “getting to do things that I never would have done—sort of taking me out of my comfort zone, emailing people out of the blue in different countries.”
Oh, and actually, come to think of it, Nathan said before hanging up the phone, there was also his daughter, Madeleine, who was joining him on the trip out to Prestonrose: Her namesake was one of the children in the story.
IF YOU’RE WONDERING how a person can get so wrapped up in a sprawling historical narrative from 300-plus years ago, you’ve first got to do a little time-traveling—all the way back to 2008, when Nathan was taking an elective class on Arkansas history at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. When the class was reading about the LaSalle expedition—how the French explorer had tried to find the mouth of the Mississippi River, overshot and landed in Texas—there were a couple sentences in the textbook that grabbed Nathan’s attention: A family had been on that expedition, and a few of their children had been taken in by the natives before they were found by the Spaniards. He was a sucker for adventure stories, a lover of The Goonies and Indiana Jones and E.T., but this was something different: This was something real. This had really happened.
When he started looking for more information about the children’s fates, however, Nathan realized something: Even though several centuries had passed and the La Salle expedition had been exhaustively documented, there just wasn’t much information about the kids.
“That’s really what started it,” he said, on the road to Prestonrose. “It was this tiny little crack. And then I just tried to force that crack open. And it seems that’s a common theme: a lot of little, tiny cracks, little bits of information that throughout the years, you can expand.
“You find this vein of gold behind these tiny little cracks, and it gets really intoxicating when you’re looking at these obscure corners of history that nobody else really cares about,” he said. “And you kind of feel like you’re maybe looking at stuff and finding out stuff that nobody else has, or very few people, I guess, have explored.”
Roughly three years after he was out of college, Nathan found himself getting increasingly drawn down the rabbit hole. Even though he was a molecular biologist, not a historian, this passion project had something in common with his day job at UAMS: At heart, both interests were geared toward uncovering empirically provable truth. As Nathan tried to figure out each child’s trajectory, where they’d gone, how they’d lived their lives, he’d spend hours looking for a phrase in a letter, a single clue, something that would lend some insight into what had ultimately happened to them.
A FEW DAYS after he’d made the trek to Prestonrose, Nathan sent me a document he’d written which provided a brief overview of this history that he’d become so enthralled by. Just over seven single-spaced pages and nearly 4,000 words, it told the story of the Talon children, but also highlighted something that he’d noted in our previous conversations: that it was impossible to dig into the children’s histories without digging into the broader historical context. Despite being relatively minor players, occupying places in the backdrop of history, the Talon children had inadvertently played witness to some of the most historically significant moments of the time.
The story goes back to when their father, Lucien Talon, sailed to Quebec in 1665. A household servant to a wealthy family, he met their mother, Isabelle, in October 1671, when she arrived as part of the filles du roi (“The King’s Daughters”) voyages, which sought to increase the number of females in the colony. Lucien and Isabelle were married two months later, and within 10 years, they had five children: Marie-Elizabeth, Marie-Madeleine, Pierre, Jean-Baptiste and Lucien, (a sixth, Robert, would be born in 1685, named for La Salle, his godfather). After briefly returning to France, the family joined explorer La Salle on an expedition to find the Mississippi River from the south on July 24, 1684.
To make a long story very short and very simple, over the course of the next five years, the ill-fated expedition was crippled by disease, clashes with the natives and infighting. In fact, by the time La Salle embarked on a third overland expedition to find the river in October 1686, the oldest Talon daughter, Marie-Elizabeth, had succumbed to smallpox; the father, Lucien, had disappeared; and just 20 people remained of the 280 who’d started out. A few years later, however, further tragedy would strike.
“In the winter of 1688,” Nathan wrote, “five Karankawa approached the fort as friends. Others appeared, still friendly. They hugged each other. Then more crawled from trees and bushes with weapons. There was a shout, then the massacre. They scattered pages of hundreds of books. They took only the barrels and stocks of the guns. Isabelle was killed with an arrow. Two Karankawa women scooped up 6-year-old Lucien and 4-year-old Robert and led Marie-Madeleine and Jean-Baptiste, 15 and 9, respectively, to their village. The four children would live with the Karankawa for the next year and a half, although not always together.”
A Spanish expedition, which had gotten word that there were French trespassers in the area, came across the site of the massacre in April 1689. A few months later, the Spanish found the Karankawa—and along with them, Marie-Madeleine, Lucien and Robert. The expedition would later find Jean-Baptiste living with the Caddo. Eventually, in late summer 1690, they reached the Spanish viceroy’s palace in Mexico City. In July 1691, the Spanish found Pierre, who’d been previously left with the Hasinai to learn their language.
At the risk of losing too much to paraphrasing, and to give a sense of just how well Nathan knows the material, I’ll let him tell the rest:
The five Talon children were all together in the summer of 1692 and living in the palace of the viceroy. They acted as personal servants and were treated as children of the viceroy and countess. The three oldest boys eventually joined the Armada de Barlovento. Their ship was captured by French privateers in 1697. Their sister Marie-Madeleine and youngest brother Robert went with the viceroy upon his retirement back to Spain. Lucien became a personal servant on the island of Oleron. Nothing more is heard from him.
Jean-Baptiste and Pierre went back to the new world on [Pierre Le Moyne d’]Iberville’s second voyage in 1700, finally sailing up the mouth of the Mississippi. The brothers spent two years exploring the Red River valley, then went back to France in 1702 to look for their sister. Pontchartrain, the marine minister, wrote to port intendant Michel Bégon about their return. Michel Bégon also happened to be a passionate plant person, so his friend and naturalist Charles Plumier named the begonia after him.
Unfortunately, by 1702, Marie-Madeleine had already gotten married in Paris and sailed back to Quebec. In 1704, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste appeared in a Portuguese prison for reasons unknown.
Nothing was heard of the Talons for almost ten years. Pierre, now 37, and his youngest brother Robert, 29, reappear in Mobile. A letter arrived in Mobile in 1713 from Father Francisco Hidalgo. It was dated January 17, 1711. He sent it from San Juan Bautista, an outpost on the Rio Grande, via an Indian trading network. Hidalgo felt bad that he left so many unguided native souls in Texas and since Spain wasn’t sending any missionaries, maybe France would? France took the invitation and sent St. Denis, Pierre Talon, Robert Talon, and twenty others to Mexico with a mule train loaded with goods.
They traveled from Mobile, up the Mississippi, up the Red River and stayed with the Natchitoches for a few weeks. St. Denis was very diplomatic and united three neighboring chiefs to prepare their fields to host their new French allies. St. Denis had a large storehouse and large residential house built in Natchitoches and left some Frenchmen to stand guard. A dozen Frenchmen set off westward, passing through Hasinai territory where the Talon brothers hadn’t been in 23 years. But still wearing Hasinai tattoos, they were welcome.
They finally made it to San Juan Bautista. They were immediately recognized by the intendant Diego Ramon who was part of the expedition that rescued them over twenty years earlier.
The Talon brothers left around February 15, 1715, perhaps secretly, with letters and maps from St. Denis for the governor at Mobile. They made it back to the storehouse in Natchitoches then to Mobile. St. Denis wrote in the letter, “I do not wish to write you fully of all that has happened here; the bearers, whom I have sent away in secret, will tell you the better part. I had them leave here in this manner because I have not had response from Mexico and the captain dares not allow us to depart without order from the viceroy. As for myself, I do not wish to leave in that manner, seeing a handsome fortune before my eyes for Mobile.” The better part was likely locations of silver and gold mines.
I don’t know if the Talon brothers ever found their sister, or if they were all reunited at some point. Some say Pierre went back to Paris. Robert was a carpenter in Mobile and raised a family there. In 1721, according to the census, he had six slaves—five Indians and an African. Records show Marie-Madeleine’s son, born upon her arrival in Canada, got married on the outskirts of Quebec.
IT TAKES A few minutes, but eventually, technology bends to effort, and Nathan Brown’s face fills the screen of my phone. Given the constraints of the virus and the necessary social distancing, we’ve had to resort to conducting our conversations mostly over the phone—however, I’ve asked if we could use video chat in this instance, because from what he’s told me, you’ve got to see his home office in order to believe it.
As he spins the camera around the room, Nathan notes the candles that he’d picked up while at Notre Dame in Paris, a painting of La Salle’s three ships that landed at Matagorda Bay, flags similar to what the French would’ve been flying when they first colonized an area. Elsewhere, there are buffalo and crocodile heads (“All these animals are fake. … I couldn’t deal with the the karma”), a tomahawk that doubles as a pipe, a 6-foot bow, snowshoes, Day of the Dead figures, Spanish money, French journals, old stamps, a map of Spain’s Vigo Bay from the 1750s, a print of a painting from Mexico City in 1695, showing what the Talon children would’ve seen while working for the viceroy. There’s also a treadmill, and a replica of the map and key from The Goonies, though Nathan clarifies these have nothing to do with the story.
“It’s not really one theme if you look at it, upon first glance,” he says of his collection. “But once you know about the story, then it makes sense to add, you know, the Day of the Dead stuff with these old French battles and pirate stuff, and arrowheads. It all kind of comes together in this sort of a discordant way, all based on the Talon narrative.”
Surrounding himself with all of this, Nathan says, seeing objects similar to what the Talon kids would’ve seen, it all just makes it feel a little more real. Looking around the office, where every square inch of wall space has been devoted to this passion project, it’s tempting to think that he must have a pretty good handle on it, that at this point, the story must be done, all of the rabbit holes thoroughly flushed out.
On the contrary.
“It’s not finished,” Nathan says. “In fact, the more I know, the more I realize there’s so many gaps between what we do know. And so I feel like, to some degree, I’m just as ignorant as I was when I first started this.”
There are still so many questions without answers, he says. But lest you think that because these events are buried in well over three centuries of historical strata, thus winnowing any hope for newfound information down to a glimmer, or a pinprick at best, Nathan says you’ve just got to consider the story of how one of La Salle’s ships, La Belle, was discovered at the bottom of Texas’ Matagorda Bay in 1995:
“[Historian Robert Weddle] was going through old documents [in Madrid, Spain] and knocking the cobwebs off these maps, and he found the Spanish map that they drew on one of these expeditions,” Nathan says. “And they marked the broken-ship site exactly where the broken ship was. … And it was the very first day they went out looking for it, based on this old map, and they found it.
“When you hear stories like that, you think, Oh, there are still diamonds out there to be discovered. You know, there are still bits of valuable information. It’s stuck in some old library somewhere and hasn’t been seen in 300 years. So it gives you a lot of hope. But there’s still a lot of stuff out there.”
Nathan then turns the camera to a corner of his office, where he points out a halberd with a silver head: It’s a replica, he says, recreated from a barnacle-encrusted original found in the ship’s wreckage.
THE LAST QUESTION I have for him is a follow-up to something I’d asked in our first conversation, when he’d told me he’d been asked “zero times” about the bottles’ labels: Does he really want people to know about this?
“Maybe it’s a part of my psyche that I stick these little, you know, nuggets into my business,” Nathan says. “But I think, for the most part, it’s been sort of this thing that is mine. It’s my own little adventure, and I kind of liked the fact that not a lot of people were researching it, as far as I know.
“In fact, when you were starting to do this story, I thought, I don’t know if it would be treated the way I would treat it,” he goes on to say. “It is a very delicate thing to hand over, you know. … I guess I do want it out, you know, if I put it on my labels, if I’m slowly sneaking it out to the public. But it has been for so long my own little hobby—that I can kind of disappear into the office and look at stuff that makes no sense to anybody else—old ship’s logs and making these old connections.”
As we start to wrap up our conversation and say our goodbyes, I find myself looking past him to the books and flags and maps and prints that appear behind him, all the clues that point to the adventure that he’s had in learning about this family from so long ago. In thinking about all of this, I’m reminded of something he’d told me previously about this space: “I think if you can get lost in something for a couple hours—and then not realize that a couple hours have passed—I think that is the true definition of happiness,” he’d said.
“It really is.”
For more Teaberry, revisit our What’s in Our Glass feature at arkansaslife.com/whats-in-our-glass-its-kombucha-on-tap. Or better yet, swing by the taproom for a bottle delivered curbside. Visit teaberrykombucha.com for more information.