la Salle, Robert Cavelier de
LA SALLE, ROBERT CAVELIER DE
French explorer; b. Rouen, France, Nov. 22, 1643;d. Texas, March 19, 1687. In 1658 he went to Paris, where he became a Jesuit novice, but finding himself unsuited to this kind of life, he left the society. He sailed for New France (1666), arriving at Montreal, where the Sulpicians granted him a seigneury on the island of Montreal, which he named Saint Sulpice in honor of his benefactors; Saint Sulpice later became the town of La Chine. La Salle's curiosity was aroused by the natives' tales of a great river to the southwest that flowed, no one knew how far, in a southerly direction. He spent two years learning eight Native American dialects and gaining practical experience with French homesteaders and native hunters in the Canadian terrain. In 1668 he approached Gov. Rémy Courcelle and the intendant, Jean Baptiste Talon, who authorized a trip for exploration, but advanced no funds and delegated no authority to draw upon state resources for any assistance. Unlike J. Cartier, La Salle had to finance his own exploring ventures; he obtained funds for the journey by selling to the Sulpicians the land they had given him earlier. At Courcelle's suggestion, the Sulpicians under Dollier de Casson sent a few of their number with La Salle to preach to the Native Americans. After exploring the Ohio River, the French penetrated into Lake Michigan and discovered the upper Illinois River. In 1672 La Salle was sent out by L. de B. Frontenac, governor of New France, to arrange a meeting
with the native tribes. It was held the following summer on the site of present-day Kingston, Ontario, at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, where Frontenac advised the tribes of his intentions to build a fort and trading post. La Salle was made commandant (1673) of the fort, named after Frontenac, and, after receiving a patent of nobility from Louis XIV, began (1675) to develop it as a trading post. In the autumn of 1677 he returned to France to obtain sanction for a proposed expedition in search of the Mississippi; he received authorization to erect at his own expense two forts, one at the mouth of the Niagara and one at the southern extremity of Lake Michigan. In return for these efforts, Louis XIV granted him exclusive right of the buffalo hide trade in the Mississippi region.
After his return to Fort Frontenac (1678), La Salle set out on his second trip of exploration, during which he succeeded (1682) in descending the Mississippi from its junction with the Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico at present-day New Orleans. He took possession of the whole area, which he named Louisiana. When he returned to France (1683) and discovered that war between Spain and France was imminent, he recognized that, since Spanish-controlled Mexico was relatively close to the regions he had recently penetrated, New Orleans could serve as a strategic base for military operations against Mexico. Moreover, the northern portion of Mexico contained rich gold and silver mines that would greatly increase French wealth. At Versailles, on April 14, 1684, Louis XIV sanctioned La Salle's plan and gave some state aid to the enterprise, which, however, met with trouble from the outset. La Salle was unsuccessful in his attempt to locate the mouth of the Mississippi by sailing from France directly to the Gulf of Mexico, and his four ships carrying potential settlers finally landed on the southern coast of Texas. The captains of the ships refused to cooperate with the unfortunate La Salle, who was shot and killed on March 19, 1687. The settlers fell victims to the natives, who spared only the children, who later were adopted by the Spaniards in Mexico. Of the 300 people who had set out from France on July 24, 1685, only five escaped the natives and made their way to New France.
La Salle's expeditions did not enjoy the full support of the French government, which was more interested in a thorough development of the St. Lawrence area and felt that exploration took men away from this goal. Despite this, the famous explorer added to European knowledge of North America and greatly extended French sovereignty there.
Bibliography: p. chesnel, History of Cavelier de La Salle, 1643–1687: Explorations in the Valleys of the Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi, tr. a. c. meany (New York 1932). w. j. eccles, Frontenac: The Courtier Governor (Toronto 1959). The Encyclopedia of Canada, ed. w. s. wallace, 6 v. (Toronto 1935–37) 6:75–76. l. v. jacks, La Salle (New York 1931). f. parkman, The Discovery of the Great West (Toronto 1962). Royal Fort Frontenac, comp. and tr. r. a. preston (Toronto 1958). j. l. rutledge, Century of Conflict: The Struggle between the French and British in Colonial America (Can. Hist. Ser. 2; Garden City, N.Y. 1956).