Chronicles of America 

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

La Salle's party lost no time in proceeding to Fort Frontenac. Even though the winter was at hand, Hennepin was at once sent forward to Niagara with instructions to build a post and to begin the construction of a vessel so that the journey westward might be begun with the opening of spring. Later in the winter La Salle and Tonty joined the party at Niagara where the fort was completed. Before spring arrived, a vessel of about forty-five tons, the largest yet built for service on the lakes, had been constructed. On its prow stood a carved griffin, from the armorial bearings of Frontenac, and out of its portholes frowned several small cannon. With the advent of summer La Salle and his followers went aboard; the sails were spread, and in due course the expedition readied Michilimackinac, where the Jesuits had already established their most westerly mission.

The arrival of the "Griffin" brought Indians by the hundred to marvel at the "floating fort" and to barter their furs for the trinkets with which La Salle had provided himself. The little vessel then sailed westward into Lake Michigan and finally dropped anchor in Green Bay where an additional load of beaver skins was put on deck. With the approach of autumn the return trip began. La Salle, however, did not accompany his valuable cargo, having a mind to spend the winter in. explorations along the Illinois. In September, with many misgivings, he watched the "Griffin" set sail in charge of a pilot. Then, with the rest of his followers he started southward along the Wisconsin shore. Reaching the mouth of the St. Joseph, he struck into the interior to the upper Kankakee. This stream the voyageurs, who numbered about forty in all, descended until they reached the Illinois, which they followed to the point where Peoria now stands.

Here La Salle's troubles began in abundance. The Indians endeavored to dissuade him from leading the expedition farther, and even the explorer's own followers began to desert. Chagrinned at these untoward circumstances and on his guard lest the Indians prove openly hostile, La Salle proceeded to secure his position by the erection of a fort to which he gave the name Crevecoeur. Here he left Tonty with the majority of the party, while he himself started with five men back to Niagara. His object was in part to get supplies for building a vessel at Fort Crevecoeur, and in part to learn what had become of the "Griffin", for since that vessel had sailed homeward he had heard no word from her crew. Proceeding across what is now southern Michigan, La Salle emerged on the shores of the Detroit River. From this point he pushed across the neck of land to Lake Erie, where he built a canoe which brought him to Niagara at Eastertide, 1680. His fears for the fate of the "Griffin" were now confirmed: the vessel had been lost, and with her a fortune in furs. Nothing daunted, however, La Salle hurried on to Fort Frontenac and thence with such speed to Montreal that he accomplished the trip from the Illinois to the Ottawa in less than three months--a feat hitherto unsurpassed in the annals of American exploration.

At Montreal the explorer, who once more sought the favor of Frontenac, was provided with equipment at the King's expense. Within a few months he was again at Fort Frontenac and ready to rejoin Tonty at Crevecoeur. Just as he was about to depart, however, word came that the Crevecoeur garrison had mutinied and had destroyed the post. La Salle's one hope now was that his faithful lieutenant had held on doggedly and had saved the vessel he had been building. But Tonty in the meantime had made his way with a few followers to Green Bay, so that when La Salle reached the Illinois he found everyone gone. Undismayed by this climax to his misfortunes, La Salle nevertheless pushed on down the Illinois, and early in December reached its confluence with the Mississippi.

To follow the course of this great stream with the small party which accompanied him seemed, however, too hazardous an undertaking. La Salle, therefore, retraced his steps once more and spent the next winter at Fort Miami on the St. Joseph to the southeast of Lake Michigan. In the spring word came to him that Tonty was at Michilimackinac, and thither he hastened, to hear from Tonty's own lips the long tale of disaster. "Any one else," wrote an eye-witness of the meeting, "would have thrown up his hands and abandoned the enterprise; but far from this, with, a firmness and constancy that never had its equal, I saw him more resolved than ever to continue his work and push forward his discovery."

Now that he had caught his first glimpse of the Mississippi, La Salle was determined to persist until he had followed its course to the outlet. Returning with Tonty to Fort Frontenac, he replenished his supplies. In this same autumn of 1681, with a larger number of followers, the explorer was again on his way to the Illinois. By February the party had reached the Mississippi. Passing the Missouri and the Ohio, La Salle and his followers kept steadily on their way and early in April reached the spot where the Father of Waters debouches through three channels into the Gulf. Here at the outlet they set up a column with the insignia of France, and, as they took possession of the land in the name of their King, they chanted in solemn tones the "Exaudiat", and in the name of God they set up their banners.

But the French were short of supplies and could not stay long after the symbols of sovereignty had been raised aloft. Paddling slowly against the current. La Salle and his party reached the Illinois only in August. Here La Salle and Tonty built their Fort St. Louis and here they spent the winter. During the next summer (1683) the indefatigable explorer journeyed down to Quebec, and on the last ship of the year took passage for France. In the meantime, Frontenac, always his firm friend and supporter, had been recalled, and La Barre, the new governor, was unfriendly. A direct appeal to the home authorities for backing seemed the only way of securing funds for further explorations.

Accordingly, early in 1684 La Salle appeared at the French court with elaborate plans for founding a colony in the valley of the lower Mississippi. This time the expedition was to proceed by sea. To this project the King gave his assent, and commanded the royal officers to furnish the supplies. By midsummer four ships were ready to set sail for the Gulf. Once more, however, troubles beset La Salle on every hand. Disease broke out on the vessels; the officers quarreled among themselves; the expedition was attacked by the Spaniards, and one ship was lost. Not until the end of December was a landing made, and then not at the Mississippi's mouth but at a spot far to the west of it, on the sands of Matagorda Bay.

Finding that he had missed his reckonings, La Salle directed a part of his company to follow the shore. After many days of fruitless search, they established a permanent camp and sent the largest vessel back to France. Their repeated efforts to reach the Mississippi overland were in vain. Finally, in the winter of 1687, La Salle with a score of his strongest followers struck out northward, determined to make their way to the Lakes, where they might find succor. To follow the detail of their dreary march would be tedious. The hardships of the journey, without adequate equipment or provisions, and the incessant danger of attack by the Indians increased petty jealousies into open mutiny. On the 19th of March, 1687, the courageous and indefatigable La Salle was treacherously assassinated by one of his own party. Here in the fastnesses of the Southwest died at the age of forty-four the intrepid explorer of New France, whom Tonty called--perhaps not untruthfully--"one of the greatest men of this age."

"Thus," writes a later historian with all the perspective of the intervening years, "was cut short the career of a man whose personality is impressed in some respects more strongly than that of any other upon the history of New France. His schemes were too far-reaching to succeed. They required the strength and resources of a half-dozen nations like the France of Louis XIV. Nevertheless the lines upon which New France continued to develop were substantially those which La Salle had in mind, and the fabric of a wilderness empire, of which he laid the foundations, grew with the general growth of colonization, and in the next century became truly formidable. It was not until Wolfe climbed the Heights of Abraham that the great ideal of La Salle was finally overthrown."

It would be difficult, indeed, to find among the whole array of explorers which history can offer in all ages a perseverance more dogged in the face of abounding difficulties. Phoenix-like, he rose time after time from the ashes of adversity. Neither fatigue nor famine, disappointment nor even disaster, availed to swerve him from his purpose. To him, more than to any one else of his time, the French could justly attribute their early hold upon the great regions of the West. Other explorers and voyageurs of his generation there were in plenty, and their service was not inconsiderable. But in courage and persistence, as well as in the scope of his achievements, La Salle, the pathfinder of Rouen, towered above them all. He had, what so many of the others lacked, a clear vision of what the great plains and valleys of the Middle West could yield towards the enrichment of a nation in years to come. "America," as Parkman has aptly said, "owes him an enduring memory; for in this masculine figure she sees the pioneer who guided her to the possession of her richest heritage."

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