Chronicles of America 

Voyageurs to the Back Country

The greatest and most enduring achievement of Frontenac's first term was the exploration of the territory southwestward of the Great Lakes and the planting of French influence there. This work was due, in large part, to the courage and energy of the intrepid La Salle. Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, like so many others who followed the fleur-de-lis into the recesses of the new continent, was of Norman birth and lineage. Rouen was the town of his nativity; the year 1643 probably the date of his birth. How the days of his youth were spent we do not know except that he received a good education, presumably in a Jesuit seminary. While still in the early twenties he came to Montreal where he had an older brother, a priest of the Seminary of St. Sulpice. This was in 1666. Through, the influence of his brother, no doubt, he received from the Seminary a grant of the seigneury at Lachine on the river above the town, and at once began the work of developing this property.

If La Salle intended to become a yeoman of New France, his choice of a site was not of the best. The seigneury which he acquired was one of the most dangerous spots in the whole colony, being right in the path of Iroquois attack. He was able to gather a few settlers around him, it is true, but their homes had to be enclosed by palisades, and they hardly dared venture into the fields unarmed. Though the Iroquois and the French were just now at peace, the danger of treachery was never absent. On the other hand no situation could be more favorable for one desiring to try his hand at the fur trade. It was inevitable, therefore, that a young man of La Salle's adventurous temperament and commercial ancestry should soon forsake the irksome drudgery of clearing land for the more exciting and apparently more profitable pursuit of forest trade. That was what happened. In the winter of 1668-1669 he heard from the Indians their story of a great southwestern river which made its way to the "Vermilion Sea." The recital quickened the restless strain in his Norman blood. Here, he thought, was the long-sought passage to the shores of the Orient, and he determined to follow the river.

Having no other means of obtaining funds with which to equip an expedition, La Salle sold his seigneury and at once began his preparations. In July, 1669, he set off with a party of about twenty men, some of whom were missionaries sent by the Seminary of St. Sulpice to carry the tidings of the faith into the heart of the continent. Up the St. Lawrence and along the south shore of Lake Ontario they went, halting at Irondequoit Bay while La Salle and a few of his followers went overland to the Seneca villages in search of guides. Continuing to Niagara, the party divided and the Sulpicians made their way to the Sault Ste. Marie, while La Salle with the remainder of the expedition struck out south of Lake Erie and in all probability reached the Ohio by descending one of its branches. But, as no journal or contemporary record of the venture after they had left Niagara has come down to us, the details of the journey are unknown. It is believed that desertions among his followers prevented further progress and that, in the winter of 1669-1670, La Salle retraced his steps to the lakes. In its main object the expedition had been a failure.

Having exhausted his funds, La Salle had no opportunity, for the present at least, of making another trial. He accordingly asked Frontenac for trading privileges at Cataraqui, the site of modern Kingston, where stood the fortified post named after the governor. Upon Frontenac's recommendation La Salle received in 1674 not only the exclusive right to trade but also a grant of land at Fort Frontenac on condition that he would rebuild the defenses with stone and supply a garrison. The conditions being acceptable, the explorer hastened to his new post and was soon engaged in the fur trade upon a considerable scale. La Salle, however, needed more capital than he himself could supply, and in 1677 he made a second trip to France with letters from Frontenac to the King and Colbert. He also had the further design in view of obtaining authority and funds for another trip of exploration to the West. Since his previous expedition in 1669 two of his compatriots, Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet, had reached the Great River and had found every reason for believing that its course ran south to the Gulf of Mexico, and not southwestward to the Gulf of California, as had previously been supposed. But they had not followed the Mississippi to its outlet, and this was what La Salle was now determined to do.

In Paris he found attentive listeners to his plans, and even the King's ministers were interested, so that when La Salle sailed back to Quebec in 1678 he brought a royal decree authorizing him to proceed with his project. With him came a daring spirit who was to be chief lieutenant and faithful companion in the ensuing years, Henri de Tonty. This adventurous soldier was later known among the Indians as "Tonty of the Iron Hand," for in his youth he had lost a hand in battle, and in its stead now wore an artificial one of iron, which he used from time to time with wholesome effect. He was a man of great physical strength, and commensurate courage, loyal to his chief and almost La Salle's equal in perseverance.

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