La Salle, René-Robert Cavelier de

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La Salle, René-Robert Cavelier de

November 22, 1643

Rouen, France

March 19, 1687

Navosta, Texas

French explorer

"Such was the end of one of the greatest men of an age, a man of admirable spirit, and capable of undertaking all sorts of explorations."

Italian explorer Henri de Tonti.

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was a celebrated French explorer who made great strides in the exploration of North America. As a young man he hoped to be a Jesuit missionary, but he became an explorer instead and later was vital as a builder of New France (present-day Quebec, Canada). After the French government granted La Salle the right to explore, trade, and construct forts in New France, he and his men set out across the Great Lakes in a specially built ship called the Griffon. During their journey they established many present-day cities in the Midwest and La Salle became the first European to sail down the Mississippi River to its mouth. Yet in spite of La Salle's success, he was responsible for several misadventures and disasters that directly led to his being killed in cold blood by his own men.

Raises money for expedition

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was born into a well-to-do family in Rouen, the capital of the French province of Normandy. He studied at a school run by Jesuits (a Roman Catholic religious order) in his hometown and then became a novice (a student who studies for the Catholic priesthood) at a Jesuit seminary in Paris, France. He showed an aptitude for mathematics and taught that subject to secondary school students while pursuing his own studies. La Salle was not a successful seminarian, however—the Jesuits thought he was too adventurous and unstable. After being turned down twice for a chance to be a missionary, he quit his religious studies in 1667.

La Salle had family connections in New France, so he moved there soon after leaving the seminary. Upon his arrival in Quebec, sometime before November 1667, he was granted a gift of land on the island of Montreal (located on the St. Lawrence River in Canada). Two years later he sold the land for a profit. With this money La Salle decided to lead an expedition to find the Ohio River, which he thought would lead to the South Seas and eventually to China.

Searches for Ohio River

La Salle's expedition attracted the attention of the Sulpicians, a Roman Catholic order that sent two of their members along to serve as missionaries. The party left Montreal in July 1669. Since none of the group had any exploring experience, the trip turned into a disaster. After crossing Lake Ontario, they were forced to spend a month in the village of the hostile Seneca tribe. They were finally rescued by an Iroquois who offered to guide them to the Ohio by way of Lake Erie. But before they got as far as Lake Erie, La Salle became sick with fever and the two missionaries were lured away to visit the Potawotami tribe.

Because of his illness, La Salle told his companions he was returning to Montreal. However, he did not reach the settlement until the fall of 1670. There is no record of his travels during 1669–70, but many of his later supporters claimed that he discovered the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during this time. Evidence shows, however, that this is almost certainly not true and that the Mississippi was not found until 1673 by the French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette (see dual entry).

Explores American Southwest

La Salle made other unknown trips from 1671 to 1673. In the fall of 1673 he returned to Montreal. Once there, he allied himself with Louis de Buade (also known as the Count of Frontenac), the governor of New France, in a dispute that was then going on in the colony. For his support, La Salle was rewarded with a title of nobility (Sieur de La Salle) and command of Fort Frontenac at the site of present-day Kingston, Ontario. In 1677 he went back to France, and the following year he received permission from King Louis XIV to explore the western part of North America between New France, Florida, and Mexico.

The following September, La Salle started the expedition by constructing a fort on the Niagara River. He was accompanied by several other French explorers who were to gain fame as well, including Henry de Tonti and Louis Hennepin. La Salle was forced to spend the winter of 1678–79 at Fort Frontenac at Kingston. Upon his return he discovered that his men had built a ship, the Griffon, for exploration of the Great Lakes. They sailed on August 7, 1679.

Explores Great Lakes

The explorers traveled through Lake Erie into Lake Huron and then to Michilimackinac, a strip of land that separates Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. Leaving the Griffon, they went south on Lake Michigan in canoes. In the middle of winter they reached a village of the Illinois tribe near the present-day city of Peoria, Illinois. Discouraged by Native Americans from continuing, several of La Salle's men deserted. But La Salle built a fort called Crèvecoeur in the area to serve as a supply center for future explorations. He then sent Hennepin to lead an advance party to find the Mississippi River while La Salle headed back to Canada.

La Salle's return trip to Canada was beset by disaster after disaster: the Griffon got lost, then La Salle discovered the fort on the Niagara had been burned down and that a supply ship had sunk. At Fort Frontenac he learned that Crèvecoeur also had been destroyed by fire. Making matters even worse, many of his men had deserted and were returning to Canada, robbing his supply posts along the way. Setting an ambush, La Salle captured them at the beginning of August. He then retraced his route and went all the way back to Crèvecoeur, hoping to find Tonti, whom he had left in charge. Since Tonti was not among the corpses left behind at the burned fort, La Salle assumed he was alive. When the two explorers finally met the following May, La Salle discovered that Tonti had escaped by rowing a canoe back to Michilimackinac.

Travels length of Mississippi

In 1681 La Salle returned once again to Montreal, where he tried to calm his creditors as well as defend himself against his enemies, who were spreading rumors about his mismanagement of the expedition. He then headed back into the wilderness with a party of forty men, reaching Fort Crèvecoeur in January 1682. From Crèvecoeur they descended the Illinois River, reaching the Mississippi River in February. They built canoes and rowed down the river, passing the mouth of the Missouri. La Salle finally sighted the Ohio River, which had been his goal when he set out on his first expedition thirteen years earlier. On the site of present-day Memphis, Tennessee, he also built a fort called Prud'homme.

In March, La Salle and his men were threatened with attack by a party from the Arkansas tribe. Averting a conflict, La Salle took possession of the country in the name of King Louis XIV. Leaving Prud'homme, La Salle's party continued down the river and passed the farthest point reached by Jolliet and Marquette. They spent time among the Tensas and Natchez tribes before reaching the Gulf of Mexico on April 9, 1682. He claimed the territory for France, calling it Louisiana and erecting a great cross.

As they started back upriver the next day, however, they were attacked by Native Americans and La Salle again became seriously ill. Remaining at Fort Prud'homme to recuperate, he sent Tonti on ahead to report back to the governor of New France on their discoveries. After a five-month recovery, La Salle continued his journey to Michilimackinac, where he was reunited Tonti and sent dispatches about his successful ventures in Quebec to France.

Recalled to France

In the meantime, while La Salle was recovering from his illness, a new governor had arrived in New France. The governor was quickly influenced by La Salle's enemies, who charged the explorer with mismanagement of the expedition and mistreatment of his men. On the governor's orders, La Salle was sent back to France in December 1683 to report on his conduct. He found little support in France for his ideas on developing the Mississippi valley. He did learn, however, that an important group was trying to interest the French government in sending an expedition to the mouth of the Rio Grande River in the Gulf of Mexico. Their plan was to seize valuable mines in New Mexico and New Spain (also part of present-day Mexico). In order to be a part of these schemes, La Salle purposely falsified his discoveries, virtually moving the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Texas. That is, he made a map that placed the Mississippi River much farther to the west and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico from Texas rather than Louisiana.

Heads expedition to Gulf of Mexico

With the help of his false maps, La Salle was able to convince the king and rich French merchants to sponsor an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico. He left France at the end of July 1684, heading a party of four ships and 327 men and women. As a result of bad planning and La Salle's ongoing quarrel with the naval captain, the ships were overloaded and there was not enough fresh water for the voyage. The party was forced to stop at the French colony of Haiti (an island in the Caribbean Sea). There they learned that one of their ships, which had been following with most of their supplies, had been captured by the Spanish.

Leaving Haiti with the three remaining ships in November, La Salle headed toward the Mississippi delta (a deposit of sand, gravel, clay and similar material at the mouth of a river). On December 27 and 28, they saw muddy waters that indicated they were near the mouth of the great river. La Salle had made miscalculations in his navigation, however, and followed old, unreliable Spanish charts. Therefore, instead of investigating the immediate area, he decided he was much farther east than he actually was and headed west.

Sails off course to Texas

By the time La Salle realized his mistake, the ships were off Matagorda Bay south of the site of present-day Houston, Texas. After one of the ships ran aground while sailing into the bay, local Native Americans tried to ransack the wreckage. The Frenchmen shot at them, and from then on the two groups were enemies. In March the naval captain returned to France with one of his ships, leaving La Salle with only one vessel. By that time the remaining men were very discouraged, so La Salle was facing a tense situation.

Tonti witnesses La Salle's death

In 1678 Henri de Tonti, an Italian explorer, joined René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle on a return trip to North America. Tonti's journal provides a valuable record of this historic expedition, which extended French power more than two thousand miles into the interior of the continent. In addition to chronicling the voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi River, Tonti gave an account of the Europeans' uneasy relations with Native Americans and the eventual mutiny of La Salle's men. Tonti described how they murdered La Salle:

Du Haut [a member of La Salle's party] and Lanquetot [the surgeon on the expedition] had for a long time determined to kill M. [Monsieur] de La Salle, because, during the journey he had made along the seacoast, he had compelled the brother of Lanquetot, who was unable to keep up, to return to camp, and as he was returning alone he was massacred by the savages [Native Americans]. This caused Lanquetot to swear that he would never forgive his brother's death. And, as in long journeys there are always many discontented persons in a company, he easily found partisans [supporters]. He offered therefore, with them, to search for M. de Morganet [La Salle's nephew], in order to have an opportunity to execute their design. . . .

According to Tonti, du Haut and Lanquetot found de Morganet with one of La Salle's servants and a Chaouanon (Native American), all of whom they killed. Tonti continued the narrative:

Towards daybreak [du Haut and Lanquetot] heard the reports [shots] of pistols, which were fired as signals by M. de La Salle, who was coming with the Recollect Father [Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest] in search of them. The wretches, suspecting that it was he, lay in wait for him, placing du Haut's servant in front. When M. de La Salle came near, he asked where M. de Morganet was. The servant [insolently] keeping on his hat, answered that he was behind. As M. de La Salle advanced to remind him of his duty, he received three balls in his head, and fell down dead (March 19, 1687).

. . . Such was the end of one of the greatest men of an age, a man of admirable spirit, and capable of undertaking all sorts of explorations. . . .

Other witnesses to the murder were Hennipin and La Salle's brother (also a priest), who pleaded for their lives. Du Haut and Lanquetot finally agreed to spare the priests, but would not permit La Salle's brother to bury La Salle's body. Snatching the party's baggage, du Haut and Lanquetot fled to the village of a Natchez tribe. A few days later they themselves were killed in revenge for murdering La Salle and a Natchez chief.

Reprinted in: Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, p. 293.

In May 1685 La Salle constructed a fort at the mouth of the Lavaca River on Matagorda Bay. It was the only French colony to be established in the Southwest. With the fort as a base, La Salle and several members of the party made exploring trips into the surrounding countryside. In April 1686, when a drunken captain wrecked the last ship, the little colony was left with no means of escape. La Salle decided the only way out was to travel overland to the Mississippi and then head up the river to the Great Lakes, where they could find French missions and traders. The party of twenty men left at the end of April. As a result of various mishaps, the number was reduced to eight by October, and La Salle was forced to return to the fort on the Lavaca.

Killed by his own men

La Salle set out again in January 1687 with seventeen companions, leaving twenty-five behind at the fort. By this time the men hated La Salle for causing them such misery. On the night of March 18 and 19, 1687, a group of five killed his nephew, servant, and guide. The next morning, at a spot just north of the modern town of Navosta, Texas, the rebellious group shot La Salle in cold blood. They left his body to be eaten by wild animals. The remaining members of La Salle's expedition reached Montreal on July 13, 1688.

For further research

Coulter, Tony. La Salle and the Explorers of the Mississippi. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

Dupré, Céline. "Réne-Robert Cavelier de La Salle." Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Osler, E. B. La Salle. Toronto: Longmans Canada, 1967.

Stiles, T. J., ed. In Their Own Words: The Colonizers. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1998, p. 293.

Terrell, John Upton. The Life and Times of an Explorer. London, England: Weybright and Talley, 1968.

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