La Salle Explorations

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LA SALLE EXPLORATIONS. René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was among the foremost architects of French colonial expansion in North America. Between 1669 and 1687, he traversed the interior of the continent, from the Saint Lawrence River to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed nearly all the territory in between for France. La Salle's prodigious explorations were made possible by the imposition of royal authority over New France, or Canada, in 1663. An imperialist-minded governor, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et Pallau, gradually reversed the colony's floundering economy and initiated a new era of expansion and growth. La Salle became the principal architect of the imperial designs embodied by Frontenac.

La Salle's beginnings were inauspicious enough. He attended a Jesuit college and was educated for the priesthood in France, but in 1666 he left his homeland and his studies to pursue wealth and adventure in the New World. By 1669, he had established himself as a successful seigneur, or landowner, near Montreal, although he was not content to simply farm the land. He also dabbled in the fur trade, an occupation that brought La Salle into contact with the Native peoples of the region. He soon became enamored with Native accounts of the richness of the lands west of the French settlements. His interests closely coincided with the imperial aspirations of Frontenac, who wanted to expand French influence throughout the Great Lakes region to monopolize the fur trade. In 1672, La Salle sold his land and entered into Frontenac's service as an explorer. He was influential in the establishment of Fort Frontenac (present-day Kingston,

Ontario), the centerpiece for the governor's planned initiative against the Iroquois monopoly of the lower Great Lakes fur trade. In 1674, La Salle traveled to France and laid Frontenac's expansionist agenda before an enthusiastic King Louis XIV, who appointed La Salle the seigneur of Fort Frontenac and elevated him to the nobility.

La Salle grew wealthy from trade profits while presiding over Fort Frontenac, but his interest in the interior of North America never waned. He returned to France in 1677 to seek royal permission to explore the territory to the west of New France, to construct forts at advantageous locations, and to facilitate trade with the peoples he encountered. La Salle hoped to establish a new colony and to personally monopolize the extensive trade he expected to come from such an endeavor. The king granted La Salle permission to explore the region, open trade, and build forts, but refused to authorize any new interior colonies that might draw migrants from France and weaken the population base for the army. In addition, the French government refused to finance the expeditions on account of the uncertainty surrounding economic returns. Thus, La Salle had to underwrite his explorations personally, a decision that drained the fortune he had obtained through the fur trade and left him increasingly in debt.

Despite financial difficulties and strong opposition from merchants in Montreal, who believed their profits would diminish if La Salle transferred the center of trade further to the west, and Jesuit missionaries, who feared his transgression onto uncharted Native lands would anger potential future converts, La Salle began his western explorations in 1679. He set sail aboard the Griffon, a small but steady vessel, from a point just above Niagara Falls and entered Lake Erie. Exploring and charting much of the Great Lakes region, La Salle established a trade post on the site of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Griffon soon returned to Fort Frontenac with a full cargo of furs, while La Salle led an expedition to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, where he built Fort Miami, before continuing on to the intersection of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. After backtracking a short distance to Lake Peoria, La Salle began the construction of Fort Crèvecoeur and a ship to carry his expedition down the Mississippi.

However, his plans were thrown awry by the failure of the Griffon to return from Niagara, leaving his men perilously short of supplies. Unknown to La Salle, the vessel had sunk on Lake Erie. In early 1681, he was forced to endure a treacherous midwinter return to Fort Frontenac, during which time the post at Fort Crèvecoeur was attacked and subsequently deserted. Despite these setbacks, La Salle refused to relinquish his dream of descending the Mississippi River, and by the end of 1681 he had returned to Fort Miami to renew his efforts. Traveling primarily by canoe, he finally reached the Gulf of Mexico on 9 April 1682 and triumphantly claimed the entire Mississippi watershed for France and named the new territory Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV.

During his return up the Mississippi, La Salle constructed Fort Saint Louis along the Illinois River and organized a colony of several thousand Indians around the post. However, Frontenac was replaced as governor of New France, and his successor quickly proved hostile to La Salle's plans. The explorer was ordered to abandon the western posts and return to Montreal. La Salle refused and instead returned to France, where he once again sought royal permission for his western ambitions. The king upheld La Salle's claims against the governor and even authorized La Salle to establish a military colony in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In return, the king required that La Salle use the site as a base to launch campaigns against Spanish forces in Mexico.

La Salle's final expedition, begun in 1684, proved a disaster. He quarreled incessantly with the French naval officers in charge of the expedition, diseases ravaged his troops, and a nautical miscalculation landed the expedition at Matagorda Bay in Texas, nearly five hundred miles west of the intended destination. Despite repeated attempts, La Salle was unable to rediscover the mouth of the Mississippi River or to effect a junction with French forces in the Illinois country. In the interim, many of his men died. Finally, in 1687 his remaining troops, pushed to mutiny by hunger and privation, murdered the explorer near the Brazos River following yet another failed attempt to locate the Mississippi.


Galloway, Patricia K., ed. La Salle and His Legacy: Frenchmen and Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982.

Kellogg, Louise Phelps, ed. Early Narratives of the Northwest, 1634–1699. New York: Scribner, 1917. Contains English translations of the original narratives of La Salle's men.

Muhlstein, Anka. La Salle: Explorer of the North American Frontier. Translated by Willard Wood. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994. Modern biography of La Salle.

Parkman, Francis. La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West. New York: Modern Library, 1999. Originally published as The Discovery of the Great West in 1869; classic study based primarily on the writings of La Salle and his companions.

Danial P. Barr

See alsoExplorations and Expeditions: French ; Louisiana ; Mississippi River ; New France .

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La Salle Explorations

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