Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
CAVELIER DE LA SALLE, RENÉ-ROBERT, explorer, founder of Lachine, seigneur of Cataracoui, discoverer of the mouths of the Mississippi; b. 21 Nov. 1643 at Rouen (Normandy), son of Jean Cavelier, a wholesale haberdasher, and of Catherine Geest; assassinated 19 March 1687 in Texas.
René-Robert was baptized in the parish of Saint-Herbland, and brought up in the same district as Pierre Corneille, scarcely five minutes’ walk from the great playwright’s dwelling. He belonged to a rich family of the upper bourgeoisie of provincial France, and the name La Salle, which he was later to make famous, was that of an estate owned by his parents in the vicinity of Rouen.
He studied at the Jesuit college in his native town until 1658, the year when he entered upon his noviciate in the Society of Jesus in Paris. He was to spend nine years in that order. He made his vows in 1660, and for two years took up logic and physics at La Flèche, studies which he later completed with one year of mathematics after he had been a teacher in the second form of secondary school at Alençon. Then he taught once more, at Tours and Blois, from 1664 to 1666.
Apparently this young scholastic felt a perpetual need to change his occupation and environment. “Inquietus” was the word used to describe his lack of steadiness. He would grow bored and lose interest in his work, yet despite everything he displayed real gifts, particularly in mathematics. On the other hand, his superiors held his judgement in rather low esteem, and had a scarcely higher opinion of his discretion. They found him, moreover, by temperament emotional and imaginative, and at the same time unsociable, autocratic, and fiery, ill suited for conformity to rigid rule. The robust and impulsive Brother Cavelier, despite his efforts and his scrupulous conscience, was an elemental force that defied all attempts to master it. He himself, at the age of 22, tried to sublimate his indomitable energy, mobility of character, and spirit of independence, by asking on two occasions to be sent to a mission. But the authorities did not consider him sufficiently ready: his theological training was not completed, his religious preparation was still inadequate. So in October 1666 he resumed his studies at La Flèche, only to request soon afterwards permission to continue them in Portugal, with a view to preparing himself for his eventual missionary apostolate. He met with another refusal. Unable any longer to stand the strain, he had himself released from his vows, because of what he called his “moral frailties.” On 28 March 1667, the convent doors closed behind him for ever.
Cavelier had at his disposal only meagre financial resources with which to make his way in the world. Legally he was excluded by his vow of poverty from sharing in any paternal legacy (his father had died shortly before the young man left the Jesuit order), and he possessed only a modest income. Furthermore, he had no profession. His restless urge to see ever new horizons had not left him, however. He had an uncle in the Compagnie des Cent-Associés and a brother who was a Sulpician at Montreal; he had, in addition, grown up in a city oriented towards Canada and situated in an archdiocese to which the Church in New France belonged as a dependency. Such a background could not fail to prompt him to go to America. He lost no time, and arrived in the colony between June and the beginning of November 1667. There the Sulpicians granted him a seigneury on Montreal Island.
On 9 Jan. 1669, after giving it relatively little attention, La Salle sold the major portion of the fief on the Côte Saint-Sulpice to its first owners, who had given it to him for nothing. The money realized from this transaction would later help him to gratify the demon of adventure lodged within him, the yearning for glory that consumed him. He dreamed of discovering the Ohio River, “in order not to leave to another the honour of finding the way to the Southern Sea, and thereby the route to China.” Since La Salle’s plans might fit in with the missionary programme of the Sulpician Dollier* de Casson, the governor requested that the two men join forces. However, the superior of the Sulpicians feared that La Salle’s disposition, “known to be somewhat changeable,” might cause him to abandon the expedition “at the first whim.” Therefore he allowed the deacon Bréhant de Galinée, who had “some smattering of mathematics, and enough to put a map together after a fashion,” to join the enterprise.
La Salle disposed of his Montreal properties, keeping only his house as a fur-trading factory. He left Ville-Marie (Montreal) at the beginning of July 1669 with a flotilla of nine canoes. From the start the voyage proved difficult, for La Salle was ill prepared, and his companions were not much better off. They were all more or less novices in the art of surviving in the woods, they had no guide, and if Galinée, by his own admission, was a mediocre cartographer, La Salle himself was no more competent as an astronomer. Finally, they would not be able to communicate with the Iroquois, among whom they were going, except by using as an interpreter a Dutchman who had little mastery of French. “M. de La Salle,” wrote Galinée, “who said that he understood the Iroquois perfectly, and had learned all these things from them as a result of the perfect knowledge that he had of their language, did not know it at all, and was undertaking this voyage almost blindly, without knowing where he was going.”
With much trial and tribulation, they reached Lake Ontario on 2 August and the approaches to the Seneca country six days later. About 10 August, some Indians came in a delegation to meet the French at a river called Karongouat. La Salle, Galinée, and a few men agreed to follow them to their village (on the site of what is today Boughton Hill, N.Y.), in the hope of obtaining a guide for the Ohio River country. The Senecas held a great council – in which La Salle admitted his ignorance of their language — and, while not openly refusing to lend their aid to the French, the natives advanced pretexts for deferring it. It seemed that they did not look favourably upon the idea of these Frenchmen going among their enemies. They even endeavoured secretly to discourage the Dutch interpreter. In the end their intrigues were so successful that the explorers were held up there for a month, disturbed at finding themselves in the neighbourhood of the relatives of a Seneca chieftain murdered in June by soldiers from the Montreal garrison. But the arrival of a traveller on his way to the north shore of Lake Ontario got them out of their difficulty. It was an Iroquois who was returning to Ganastogué, his village, and he offered to lead the white men to it. He assured them that they would easily find a guide there to take them to the Ohio via Lake Erie, a more convenient route, according to him, than the one through the Seneca country. At the far end of Burlington Bay, La Salle was struck down by fever: “Some said,” remarked Galinée naïvely, or slyly, “that it was at the sight of three large rattlesnakes which he found in his path as he climbed up a rock.” Then, on 24 September, he and his companions proceeded to Tinaouataoua (a few miles north of Hamilton), where they were to make a decisive encounter. Adrien, the brother of Louis Jolliet, had been there since the previous day, having returned from a mission to the Great Lakes. He described to the two Sulpicians the route he had just traversed from the country of the Ottawas, where he had left his men searching for a large tribe not yet evangelized, the Potawotomis. The missionaries at once saw in this tribe a field for their apostolate that would enable them to reach the Belle Rivière (Ohio) region via the Great Lakes, a route that seemed to them all the easier because Dollier and Galinée spoke the Ottawa tongue.
However, La Salle had by this time lost his enthusiasm. He made his poor state of health a pretext for leaving Dollier and Galinée on 1 October, and for returning, so he said, to Montreal.
The true motive for this decision still gives rise to queries. Officially, the explorer was ill, and by reason of his inexperience and that of his party, was afraid to spend the winter in the woods. However, although several of his men did return to Ville-Marie, La Salle himself continued to travel.
In what regions? That particular question has caused much ink to flow, and is one of the more confused issues in Canadian history. It has been claimed that in 1669–70 La Salle explored the Ohio. More than that, certain admirers, thinking that they were bestowing upon the city of Rouen the honour of being the birthplace of a conquistador after the fashion of Cortez – Margry, Chesnel, Gravier, and other historians of the same school – have gone so far as to maintain that La Salle discovered the Mississippi before Jolliet and Father Marquette, that is before 15 June 1673. The archivist Pierre Margry’s lack of care in editing the documents concerning his hero may have contributed to the growth and persistence of this double myth.
Very little is known for certain about La Salle’s movements during the period under review. Nicolas Perrot* says that he met him early in the summer of 1670, hunting on the Outaouais (Ottawa River) below the Rapide des Chats, that is to say more than 700 miles, as the crow flies, from the Louisville Rapids, the point La Salle is supposed by some to have reached in exploring the Ohio. However, this testimony proves little, for Perrot is usually at variance with accepted chronology.
In any case, it is beyond doubt that La Salle came to Quebec, having discovered neither the Ohio nor the Mississippi, between 18 Aug. 1670, the date of Talon’s return to the colony, and the following 10 November, the date of a letter in which Talon stated that he had sent La Salle southward, to find “the passage to Mexico.” Furthermore, on 6 Aug. 1671 and 18 Dec. 1672, he was at Montreal again, in search of money, as is attested by documents deposited in the registry at Ville-Marie.
Then, at the beginning of 1673, we find him among the Iroquois, busy preparing for the expedition that Frontenac [see Buade] was planning to Lake Ontario: the Relations des Jésuites and a letter from the governor are our sources of information here.
Consequently only two intervals remain during which La Salle could possibly have made the discovery of the Ohio or the Mississippi. Those periods fall respectively within the 10 months or so from the autumn of 1670 to 6 Aug. 1671, the date on which the explorer was at Montreal, and the 16 months separating the latter date from 18 Dec. 1672, the day on which he was again at Ville-Marie. No document belonging to these periods, at least in the present state of our knowledge, gives the slightest indication that La Salle could have discovered at that time either of the waterways in question.
Certainly nobody in the colony appears to have known anything about a discovery, not even Dollier de Casson, who, in the summer or autumn of 1671, when recounting Governor Rémy de Courcelle’s expedition to Lake Ontario, refers to the discovery of the Ohio as a goal still to be attained. More than that, Talon and Frontenac gave Louis Jolliet, who set out in the autumn of 1672, the task of looking for the Mississippi.
La Salle seems to have kept completely silent about his explorations at this time; it was even without Talon’s knowledge that he turned up in August 1671 at Montreal, since on 2 November of that year the intendant declared that the explorer had not returned from his trip. Yet, if La Salle had had some important discovery to his credit, it was in his own interest to publish it widely; it was even his duty to report it to Talon, since the latter had entrusted him with an official mission. The only plausible explanation of La Salle’s attitude is that he had found neither the Ohio nor the Mississippi.
The supporters of Cavelier de La Salle as the discoverer of the two great waterways rest their case on two later documents: the “Récit d’un ami de l’abbé de Gallinée” and the “Mémoire sur le projet du sieur de la Salle pour la descouverte de la partie occidentale de l’Amérique septentrionale entre la Nouvelle-France, la Floride et le Mexique.” These texts were composed by the two éminences grises of La Salle who, in Europe, were busy behind the scenes of French colonial policy. The “Récit” is attributed to Abbé Eusèbe Renaudot, a grandson of the founder of the Gazette de France, of which he in his turn became the editor. An outstanding orientalist, a polyglot, and a member of the French Academy, this personage, famed for his erudition, was very valuable to Louis XIV in that monarch’s relations with Rome, England, and Spain. His passion for the sciences, among them geography, his religious zeal, tinged with Jansenism and hostile to the Jesuits, made him just the person to become the protector of La Salle, an explorer in perpetual conflict with the sons of Loyola.
The “Récit,” which is not, it should be noted, an original document, but a copy (the author and date of which are unknown), is an account of conversations alleged to have taken place in 1678, in Paris, between La Salle and Renaudot in the presence of friends. Despite the guarantees of veracity with which the learned ecclesiastic tries to shore it up, his text is none the less suspect. First, its objectivity is very doubtful, for it comes from a collection of anti-Jesuit manuscripts and is itself, in large part, a pamphlet directed against the Jesuits in Canada. Then, too, it is difficult to take seriously a text based on the most unlikely geographical descriptions.
Abbé Claude Bernou, to whom we owe the “Mémoire” (presented at the court in 1677), does not produce any more solid testimony, since his is based on a lax chronology and inaccurate geographical details. Besides, he merely states vaguely: “In 1667 and the following years, he [La Salle] made various voyages involving much expense, in the course of which he was the first to discover many countries to the south of the Great Lakes, and also the great River Ohio.”
The abbé had good reasons for wishing to attribute such a discovery to La Salle. In addition to being a member of Renaudot’s circle, which brought together many influential persons who expressed the most lively curiosity concerning explorations in the New World and who supported the Recollets in their opposition to the Society of Jesus, Bernou (who himself carried out, on occasion, diplomatic missions) had definite personal ambitions that La Salle’s success might advance. The priest, indeed, on his own admission, wished to become the explorer’s paid agent, and even dreamed of an episcopate in the territories with which La Salle might be expected to enrich the kingdom of France.
However, Bernou was obliged to retract in 1685. During a controversy with Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix*], who was claiming for the diocese of Quebec the region around the Gulf of Mexico, where La Salle had gone to found a post, Bernou wrote quite explicitly: “It is true that Father Marquette discovered the Mississippi River, but he merely skirted it.”
Among the other arguments used by La Salle’s supporters in this controversy, one of the weightiest would seem to be the cartographic evidence. Two maps attributed to Louis Jolliet indicate the course of the Ohio, and, under the outline of the river, include respectively the following inscriptions: “Route of the sieur de La Salle for going into Mexico” and “River down which the sieur de La Salle went on leaving Lake Erie, to go into Mexico.” These references have been construed as a tacit admission by Jolliet himself of the discovery of the Ohio by La Salle. But according to careful scientific research, particularly that of Father Jean Delanglez, both these inscriptions are interpolations having nothing to do with Jolliet, the first being of unknown origin, the second in the hand of Bernou himself.
Finally, a letter written by La Salle, dated 29 Sept. 1680, should suffice to settle the argument. The letter shows fairly clearly that the explorer was at that time still almost entirely ignorant of the Colbert River (Mississippi), in view of the elementary questions he admits having asked the Illinois about it.
In the autumn of 1673, La Salle returned to Montreal. The colony was then the scene of a tragi-comedy in which the rival protagonists were Perrot, the governor of Montreal, Abbé Fénelon [see Salignac], and Frontenac. There, siding with the governor of New France, whose vehement supporter he became, La Salle played a part akin to that of the valet in comedy. The two individuals had seemingly every reason to get on well together: their personalities were equally strong, but complementary, their respective interests could be of mutual advantage, and they shared an antipathy towards the Jesuits.
It was not long before La Salle benefited from his alliance with Frontenac. Thanks to his powerful protector, the discoverer managed, during a voyage to France in 1674–75, to secure for himself the grant of Fort Cataracoui (now Kingston), which he renamed Frontenac, and he even acquired letters of nobility for himself and his descendants. La Salle, who had ambitions of empire, knew well how he could profit from a post on Lake Ontario, which, according to Talon, might be “the first opening towards an overland route to Florida.”
Yet Fort Frontenac was not enough for him. In 1677, he returned to the court to seek authorization to construct, at his own expense, “two establishments . . . one at the entrance to Lake Erie, the other at the exit from the Lac des Illinois [Michigan]; [to become] seigneur of the lands that he might discover and populate . . . ; to receive ownership of all the cleared lands that the Indians might abandon of their own accord, as they do sometimes, and the office of governor in the said territories.” Despite his detractors, in whose eyes his inordinate ambitions put him on the level of a fool “fit and ready for the madhouse,” the explorer, thanks to his powers of persuasion and to the good offices of Bernou and Renaudot, obtained permission from the king, 12 May 1678, to reconnoitre the western part of North America between New France, Florida, and Mexico.
On the following 15 September, La Salle arrived at Quebec with some 30 craftsmen, seamen, and gentlemen, among them Dominique La Motte de Lucière and the Chevalier Henri Tonty*, who was to be the explorer’s confidential agent and his tireless lieutenant in his undertakings. Anxious to get started, La Salle, together with Tonty and a few men, joined La Motte at the Niagara River, around Christmas; La Motte had been sent on ahead as a scout, with Father Hennepin* and a small band of Frenchmen, to prepare for the building of a bark above the falls.
By January the boat was on the stocks, and construction began on the fort, which was to be called Conti. Because of unfortunate mishaps, La Salle found himself forced to go back immediately, on foot and under the worst conditions, to Fort Frontenac, and he did not return until the end of July.
During his absence, in spite of the most unfavourable circumstances, it proved possible to finish a boat of about 45 tons, armed with 7 cannon. The Griffon – so called in honour of Frontenac’s coat of arms – was launched on 7 Aug. 1679. La Salle had on board, in addition to a pilot and some 30 men, Fathers Hennepin, Membré, and La Ribourde. After 20 days of extremely dangerous sailing, he reached the strait between lakes Huron and Michigan and went ashore at the Saint-Ignace de Michilimackinac mission. On 12 September he headed for the Baie des Puants (Green Bay). From there, notwithstanding the king’s express order to him not to engage in “any trade with the Indians called Outaouacs and others who bring their beavers and other pelts to Montreal,” he sent the Griffon back to Niagara loaded with a substantial cargo of furs, as well as merchandise intended to be stored at Michilimackinac until his return. With the coming of winter, he had to continue his journey by canoe.
On 19 Sept. 1679 La Salle set out with 14 men and 4 canoes. Amid wind and storm he went towards the south of Lake Michigan, stopping on 1 November at the mouth of the Rivière des Miamis (Saint-Joseph), where he had a rendezvous with Tonty. As the site had advantages, he caused a fort 40 feet by 30 to be built there, and decided to bring the Griffon from Michilimackinac. Nobody there, however, had seen the bark, according to Tonty, who turned up at the Rivière Saint-Joseph on the twentieth. Consequently La Salle set out again anxiously on 3 December, having doubled his forces and leaving instructions for the Griffon in case it should appear. He first went up the river, then crossed to the Téatiki (Kankakee), which led him to the Illinois.
On 5 Jan. 1680, the expedition reached the Illinois village of Pimitoui, in the vicinity of the present city of Peoria. La Salle outlined to the Indians his plan for building a fort and a bark in the neighbourhood, assuring them at the same time of his good intentions. His listeners willingly agreed. But the visit of a Mascouten chief soon caused them to change their attitude. They allowed themselves to be convinced of the insincerity of the explorer, who, they thought, was a dangerous ally of their mortal enemies, the Iroquois. They therefore did their utmost to dissuade him from his plan of exploring the Mississippi, trying to frighten the French with the description of imaginary dangers awaiting them on the river. Six valuable workmen, impressed by this talk, abandoned the party and slipped away. But despite everything, on 15 January, at a prudent distance from the Indian village, La Salle set about the building of the fort that was to be called Crèvecœur, an allusion to the manifold disappointments of the explorer. He was, however, only at the beginning of his troubles.
On 29 February La Salle sent Father Hennepin and two companions as an advance guard towards the upper Mississippi. He himself, lacking the tackle necessary to equip a new bark because of the disappearance of his first one, decided to set out in search of the Griffon. The unsettled spring weather, with its alternating periods of freezing and thawing, increased tenfold the difficulties of such an adventure. After 18 March, La Salle and the five men travelling with him had to abandon their canoe in order to continue their journey on foot. Six days later, weighed down under the burden of their equipment, they reached the end of a journey of 275 miles in all: the fort at the Rivière Saint-Joseph. Obtaining no information there about the fate of the Griffon, La Salle went on towards Lake Erie, “through woods so thickly intertwined with briars and thorns that in two and a half days he and his men had their clothes torn to shreds, and their faces so covered with blood and slashed that they were not recognizable.” During the journey, some of his companions fell sick. To transport them, makeshift boats were assembled, and, sometimes on snow-shoes, sometimes river-borne, the party reached Niagara on 21 April 1680. As a reward for his superhuman efforts, La Salle found the fort there burned down, and learned of the loss, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a vessel bringing him more than 20,000 francs worth of goods. But, nothing daunted, the explorer mustered enough courage to go to Fort Frontenac, where on 6 May he completed “a voyage of nearly 500 leagues, and the most arduous that any Frenchman has ever undertaken in America.”
He then hastened on to Montreal to settle some money matters, and quickly returned to Cataracoui, more in debt than ever. On 22 July two messengers sent by the Chevalier de Tonty, who had remained at Crèvecœur with Fathers Membré and La Ribourde, brought the news that the fort had been sacked and abandoned by the party that had been left there. This veritable catastrophe was a serious threat to the success of La Salle’s explorations in the Illinois country. But he did not waste his time in useless lamentation. When he heard that several of the men were on their way to kill their master, after pillaging all the posts they came across where his goods were to be found, La Salle embarked on Lake Ontario, to hunt down the deserters. He lay in ambush in the Baie de Cataracoui, and captured them at the beginning of August.
Then, on the tenth of the same month, with 25 men, he undertook a second expedition to the territory of the Illinois. On the way he was to lose the last shred of hope of seeing the Griffon again: according to certain Potawatomis, a storm had beyond all doubt sunk the bark, sending to the bottom of Lake Michigan the equivalent of 10,000 écus.
The flotilla crossed Lake Ontario, and, by making use of the Humber River, Lake Simcoe, the Severn River, and Georgian Bay, reached the Sault Ste. Marie on 16 September. The next day La Salle left the mission, bound for Michilimackinac, where he believed he would be able to find out what had happened to Tonty, left helpless in a territory that the Iroquois had set out to attack. But his trip was fruitless: there was no news of his lieutenant. La Salle, consumed with apprehension, then hastened to Fort Saint-Joseph, and afterwards to Pimitoui.
On 1 December he arrived at an Illinois village that had been destroyed by the Iroquois, who had also massacred its inhabitants. La Salle searched in vain for traces of the worthy Tonty among the debris and the horribly mutilated corpses. Some 30 leagues farther on, the sight of the ruins of Fort Crèvecœur and of the unfinished bark was scarcely more heartening. More and more uneasy, La Salle went on down the Illinois River to the Mississippi, coming across other signs of slaughter on the way, but still finding no trace of Tonty.
He then retraced his steps as far as Fort Saint-Joseph, which he reached at the end of January 1681. From information he gleaned there, he concluded that a canoe which had been seen passing Michilimackinac was Tonty’s. He immediately sent two men there, bearing a letter for his friend.
Meanwhile he himself endeavoured, by various negotiations, to encourage the Miamis and Illinois to unite against the Iroquois, in order to ensure the safety of the French establishment that he still planned to set up in the area.
At the beginning of March, some Outagamis (Foxes) revealed that Tonty had wintered among the Potawatomis. La Salle sent messengers to him, to arrange a rendezvous at Michilimackinac in May. Until that time, with unflagging energy, he was to go back and forth between the tribes he wanted to conciliate. Then, at the end of May, he finally met up with his confidential agent again, and heard the story of his distressing adventures, including the murder of Father La Ribourde by the Indians.
La Salle now made all speed to Montreal, whither Frontenac had summoned him. He took advantage of the occasion to draw up, on 11 Aug. 1681, a will in favour of his principal creditor – a whole pack of these were on his tracks – his cousin François Plet. And once more he set out, firmly resolved, this time, to get as far as the mouths of the Mississippi.
In the meantime, at Quebec, Intendant Jacques Duchesneau, who a year before to the day had denounced to the minister La Salle’s illegal trading with the Outaouais (Ottawas), now made an accusation against the explorer: in a letter dated 13 Nov. 1681, he stated that La Salle’s provocative attitude towards the Iroquois had incited them to war against the Illinois.
On 19 December, La Salle was back at the Rivière Saint-Joseph, where Tonty was waiting for him. About a month later, the expedition, comprising 23 Frenchmen and 18 Indians, was at Fort Crèvecœur. On 6 Feb. 1682 it reached the Mississippi itself, and a week later the breaking up of the ice made it finally possible to launch the canoes upon its waters. Six leagues farther on, they camped in shelters on the right bank, near the mouth of the Missouri. Then they set off again, paddling, hunting, and marvelling at the luxuriant country. About the fifth day, as evening drew on, they discovered on their left the turbulent waters of the mouth of the Ohio, that celebrated “Belle Rivière” which had so occupied La Salle’s thoughts. Another stop was made in the neighbourhood of the present city of Memphis. There they had to wait some ten days for a member of the expedition who had become lost when hunting. While they were looking for him, La Salle had a fort built and this he called Prud’homme, from the surname of the luckless gunsmith (son of Louis Prud’homme) who was found starving and drifting downstream on a piece of wood.
La Salle and his party broke camp on 5 March. On the twelfth, the alarm was given: war whoops resounded on the right bank of the Mississippi, accompanied by a menacing roll of drums. They came from Arkansas Indians startled at the sight of the French canoes. The French quickly reassured them, and smoked the pipe of peace with them. The natives welcomed the whites joyously, and supplied them sumptuously. La Salle, with all the customary ceremonies, took possession of the territory in the name of the king of France.
Tearing themselves away from the effusive and affectionate natives, who kept stroking their bodies by way of caressing them, the Frenchmen re-embarked, taking with them two guides. About 15 leagues farther on, they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, where the voyage of Jolliet and Marquette had ended in 1673. The otter country was giving way to the crocodile country. On 22 March they camped among the Taensas, in whom could be recognized, wrote Tonty, “some of the qualities possessed by civilized people.” These natives, of remarkable beauty, received their visitors with spectacular protocol, and in addition loaded them with presents.
Next they came to the Koroas, neighbours of the Natchez, who received them in their village and revealed to them that they were now only 10 days from the ocean. The expedition left at Easter, to come finally within sight of the sea on 6 April.
The next day La Salle, Tonty, and Jacques Bourdon d’Autray began the exploration of the Mississippi delta. And on 9 April 1682, probably near the place now called Venice, the French took solemn possession of Louisiana. La Salle, clad in scarlet trimmed with gold – where did the splendour of the Great Century not manage to intrude itself! – to the sound of triumphant hymns and salvoes of musketry, erected a cross and a column bearing the arms of His Most Christian Majesty, and buried a copper plate engraved with inscriptions. In ringing tones he delivered the record of the territories that thus passed under the rule of the French crown. Finally, the document was countersigned by twelve of the persons present.
But a man does not live by glory and fanfares alone, even if he is a Cavelier de La Salle. The French suffered from a shortage of food, having nothing to make a meal out of except potatoes and crocodile. Despite the inhospitable disposition of the Acolapissas, whose arrows they had had a taste of as they approached the mouths of the Mississippi, they had to resign themselves to seeking supplies from these natives. The journey upriver, on the way back to Canada, began on 10 April. Five days later, La Salle obtained a small quantity of maize, but at the price of a skirmish with the unco-operative Acolapissas. Suspecting the presence of some of them among the Koroas, whose country the French reached on the twenty-ninth, La Salle was prompted to hasten on to the territory of the Taensas. There his party again refreshed themselves copiously, acquired ample supplies, and re-embarked with much ceremony on 3 May.
In a greater hurry all the time, La Salle went ahead into the territory of the Arkansas, leaving Tonty behind him with part of the group. At the end of May, the faithful lieutenant joined his chief, who had fallen seriously ill, at Fort Prud’homme, among the Chickasaws. The explorer sent him to Fort Saint-Joseph, with instructions to write to the governor to recount the discovery to him; La Salle recovered just enough strength to start out again around 15 June. A month later he was at Crèvecœur, and from there, still convalescent, he went to Lake Michigan by land. Then he sailed towards Fort Saint-Joseph, and from there undertook a 120-league trek as far as Michilimackinac, where Tonty welcomed him in September 1682. Not being sufficiently recovered to travel to France and give an account of his discovery, La Salle went no farther, and confined himself to drawing up dispatches for which Father Membré was to be responsible. He wrote, in particular, to the governor of New France to ask him for help, at the very moment when Frontenac’s successor, Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre de La Barre, landed in the colony.
On 30 December, he went back to the Illinois River, upstream from the present town of La Salle. This place had been chosen by the discoverer for the building of a fort, on an almost inaccessible rock. Fort Saint-Louis, which was to group under its protection the Miamis, Illinois, and Shawnees, was finished in May 1683.
As it happened, it was on the tenth of that month that the king sent to Intendant de Meulles* instructions in which he expressed his opposition to the undertaking of further explorations, agreeing only to allow La Salle’s to be completed.
For his part, the latter, faced with an imminent Iroquois attack, appealed once more to La Barre for help. He was unaware of the hostility of this governor, whom he had not yet even met. From the beginning of his career, the discoverer, with a persistence bordering on paranoiac obsession, had never ceased to believe himself the victim of dark plots contrived against his undertakings and even against his life, by enemies – whether business men or Jesuits – who were inconvenienced by his explorations and establishments; now, when a plot against him was developing in Canada, he did not suspect it. La Barre, for mercenary reasons, had rallied the merchants, who saw La Salle as a dangerous rival in the fur trade. Consequently, using as a pretext the so-called abandonment of Fort Frontenac by La Salle the previous autumn, he relieved François Dauphin* de La Forest of the command which the explorer had entrusted to him, and made of the fort a business centre under the control of Jacques Le Ber* and Charles Aubert* de La Chesnaye. And when La Salle, in August 1683, left Fort Saint-Louis with the intention of going to the court to give an account of his discovery, he had not covered 15 leagues before he found himself face to face with the Chevalier Henri de Baugy*. This officer, on La Barre’s orders, was on his way to take over the fort and send La Salle back to the authorities of the colony. La Barre justified himself this time by reviving a former complaint by Duchesneau: La Salle, by his imprudent relations with the enemies of the Five Nations, was compromising the peace negotiations between the French and the Iroquois. Furthermore, La Barre was not afraid to write to the minister about the Sieur de La Salle “that his arrogance has turned his head; that he has been brazen enough to advise [him] of a false discovery.” But the explorer, who was never behindhand when accusations were involved, was to assert, before he went back to the mother country, that La Barre, at the time of his meeting with the Iroquois at Montreal on 14 Aug. 1683, and in answer to their recriminations against La Salle, had given them permission to “kill him and the people who were assembled near his fort, without any consequence attaching to the matter.” Obviously La Barre would defend himself vigorously!
It was with a perceptible decline in favour that La Salle, of his own accord but also on the governor’s orders, boarded the Saint-Honoré, which carried him to La Rochelle shortly before Christmas.
The discoverer had barely set foot on French soil when he attempted to form a company of merchants, with a view to founding a colony among the Taensas. In the face of efforts that were patently useless, he decided to change his tactics.
He well knew that he could scarcely count on help from the king, who on the preceding 5 August had written to La Barre “that the Sieur de La Salle’s discovery is completely useless [and that] such undertakings must in future be prevented.” The explorer therefore let himself be persuaded to adapt to his own ends a plan presented to the court on 18 Jan. 1682 by Bernou. Because of his personal ambitions, the scheming priest had always had his heart set on his country’s colonial expansion. He had therefore proposed to the minister an establishment on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande), which would have the advantage of allowing the conquest of New Spain and its mines by Comte Diego de Peñalossa; the count, a former governor of New Mexico, had fled from the Inquisition and placed his sword at the service of France. Apparently Bernou, even before La Salle’s arrival in the mother country, was thinking of using him for the implementation of his plan. Indeed, the account of the 1682 expedition, prepared by Father Membré, and the Relation officielle of the discovery of the Mississippi delta forwarded to the court in 1683 (which some ascribe to the same author), had been reworked, as Delanglez has shown, by Bernou or some other member of his circle, so as to make the description of the Mississippi valley coincide more or less with that of the Rio Bravo, the manifold advantages of which the priest had boasted to the king.
It was consequently La Salle’s job to make his plan for an establishment in Louisiana attractive in the king’s eyes, by presenting the settlement that he wanted to found as the ideal base for the invasion of New Biscay. To do this he agreed to falsify the geography of the Mississippi. He had maps made on which the River Colbert, as he called the Mississippi, deviated 250 leagues westward from its real course, and emptied into the gulf in the vicinity of New Mexico. One cannot, in defence of the explorer, plead involuntary error: even if he had lost his compass among the Illinois, he was too good an observer – he had already proved it – to deceive himself to that extent about the general course of the Mississippi. Pierre Le Moyne* d’Iberville was to note later: “M. de La Salle, although a man who passed for being clever, has marked the lower part of the Mississippi, on the map he has made, with 273 degrees . . . I believe that this comes from the strong desire he had to see himself near the mines of New Mexico, and thereby to induce the court to set up in that country establishments which could not but be very profitable thereafter” (Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry)).
In addition, this time unbeknown to Bernou, four memoirs penned by La Salle, or by Renaudot, or by one of their followers, were addressed to the court at the beginning of 1684. They showed how the La Salle project and the Bernou-Peñalossa plan could be harmonized, for the greatest advantage of France. This thesis was supported by downright lies and wild exaggerations. Amongst them, to titillate the minister, the memoirs did not hesitate to say – although the explorer, better than anyone, was familiar with the petrified tree trunks that blocked the Colbert delta – that “the river he has discovered is an excellent port, which large vessels can ascend to a distance of more than 100 leagues inland, and small boats more than 500.” They further declared that, to attack the Spaniards, La Salle could easily recruit an army of 15,000 Indians, having already 4,000 at his disposal around Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois. Finally they pinpointed the spot where the discoverer claimed to be able to found an establishment: the confluence of the Rivière Rouge and the Mississippi, that is to say in an area covered with marshes.
Not very alert, it seems, to the chimerical nature of the plan submitted to him, Seignelay allowed himself to be won over. And on 10 April 1684, while M. Tronson, speaking of La Salle, was writing to Dollier de Casson, “The king has listened to him, received him well and given him satisfaction,” Louis XIV ordered La Barre to restore Fort Frontenac to La Salle through the intermediary La Forest. Four days later, the king granted La Salle a commission to command in all the territory lying between Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois and New Biscay. Louis XIV also gave him, among other things, 100 soldiers maintained at royal expense and commanded by 8 officers and non-commissioned officers, a warship carrying 36 cannon and a crew of approximately 70, called the Joly, in addition to the Belle, a bark of 60 tons armed with 4 small cannon. The convoy was to be completed by the Aimable, a flute of 180 tons fitted out by a La Rochelle merchant, and the Saint-François, a small ketch partly equipped by the intendant of Rochefort.
From the time of the first preparations for this expedition, which was doomed to be the most lamentable failure, difficulties arose. Not the least was the misunderstanding between La Salle and Taneguy Le Gallois de Beaujeu, selected by the king to command the Joly. The two men were certain to offend each other: a gentleman of the old stock and a commoner recently ennobled were scarcely likely to fraternize. More than that, friction was inevitable between a military man accustomed to command – a hard-headed sailor trained in navigation on the high seas – and an inexperienced, domineering, and quixotic civilian. Finally, to add to La Salle’s distrust of his colleague, Mme de Beaujeu had a Jesuit confessor!
La Salle and Beaujeu therefore came into conflict over each point in the organization of the undertaking: the estimated duration of the voyage, the choice and quantity of provisions, the stowage, the number of passengers, and above all the respective authority and prerogatives of the two leaders of the expedition. La Salle, as may well be imagined, had secured supreme control over the whole affair. But when the explorer claimed to be entitled to the obedience of the king’s soldiers not only on land, but also at sea, the captain protested. The latter saw his role reduced to no more than directing the handling of the ship. La Salle’s demands, according to Beaujeu, created “a great commotion at Rochefort among the officers, each one saying that a passenger had never been known to lay claim to being in command on a ship.” Furthermore, he did not scruple to add, “There are very few who do not believe he is crazy. I have spoken of it to people who have known him for 20 years. Everyone says that he has always been something of a visionary.”
La Salle’s stubborn refusal to reveal to Beaujeu the destination of the voyage could also serve only to aggravate the situation. As well as being wounded in his pride, the captain was furious because he did not know what pilots to choose. Meanwhile, those responsible for recruiting the soldiers and the indentured workers were enrolling any kind of tatterdemalion or young blade who was ready to embark. Preparations dragged on, and La Salle became hesitant, irresolute, and irritable. Anxiety was probably taking hold of him, as he saw more and more clearly the enormous scale of the utopia that Versailles, at his own request, was sending him to create. On 2 Aug. 1684, Beaujeu summed up the situation thus: “I am going into an unknown country to seek something almost as difficult to find as the philosopher’s stone, late in the season, laden above the water-line, and with an irritable man.”
At the time when the captain was expressing himself in such a disillusioned manner, the expedition was already nine days out to sea. The convoy was transporting at least 320 persons, amongst whom, besides the 100 soldiers commanded by 5 officers and the 40 or so indentured workers and servants, were 6 missionaries, including the Sulpicians d’Esmanville and Jean Cavelier*, La Salle’s brother, and the Recollets Membré and Anastase Douay. Also on the voyage were the engineer Minet, 9 volunteers (including Henri Joutel, a bourgeois from Rouen, the author of the principal account of the expedition, and La Salle’s right-hand man), about 8 merchants, and even some women and children. By La Salle’s error, the Joly, which was planned for a crew of 125, had 240 persons on board, not to mention the goods between-decks, which “occupied the quarters of the soldiers and sailors,” forcing them “to spend the whole voyage on the upper deck, in the sun by day and the rain by night.”
As the ship’s bowsprit had snapped on the second day out, they had had to head back to the Île d’Aix, putting out to sea again only on 1 August. A week later, the flotilla rounded Cape Finisterre (in northwestern Spain). Then, on the twentieth, it arrived off Madeira, where Beaujeu proposed to stop and take on water. La Salle refused, which brought about a further deterioration in his relations with the commander. On 6 September they crossed the Tropic of Cancer. La Salle, who by all accounts took himself very seriously, was opposed to the traditional burlesque ceremony of ducking on crossing the line. “Assuredly,” admitted Joutel, “the sailors would gladly have killed us all. . . .”
Meanwhile, the unusual congestion on board the Joly, the heat, the slow speed, and the lack of drinking water were not long in having their effect. Some 50 persons, including La Salle, fell ill. It was therefore decided, on the eighteenth, to make for Santo Domingo as quickly as possible. However, instead of stopping at Port-de-Paix, as agreed, Beaujeu, perhaps thinking he could take advantage of a favourable wind, headed for the Petit-Goave (now in Haiti) which he reached, alas, only ten days later. Shortly after landing, the discoverer was stricken with a violent attack of fever, and was delirious for seven days. “M. de La Salle,” noted Minet in his diary, “believed that all those he saw were coming to call him to account, saying that he had deceived M. de Seignelay.” As soon as he had recovered, he went in quest of money – his pockets were always empty – and of supplies, and conferred with the government officials of the West Indies who came to meet him. On 2 October the Aimable and the Belle, which continually lagged behind, finally arrived. The Saint-François, however, a still slower ship, failed to appear. On 20 October fears were confirmed: the ketch, which carried the major part of the expedition’s provisions and supplies, had been captured by the Spaniards. This was a heavy loss, responsibility for which La Salle imputed to Beaujeu. However, the governor of the Île de la Tortue having offered help to the explorer, the latter was able to speed up his preparations for departure. He was eager to weigh anchor, for desertions were increasing among his men. Determined to protect at least his own possessions, La Salle this time went on board the flute Aimable.
They got under way in the night of 25 November. By hugging the south coast of Cuba, the flotilla reached the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico around the middle of December. On the 27 and 28 of that month, they noticed the white colour of the sea, and the soundings revealed a sea bed of “fine, greyish and muddy sand”: these are characteristics of the Mississippi delta, still visible today up to about 12 miles out from the coast of the gulf, which nowhere else has these particular features. For once it seemed that a good star had indeed guided La Salle straight to the objective. But it was not so. The explorer did not realize where he was: it was fairly easy, at that period, to calculate latitude correctly, but not to calculate longitude. Furthermore, the sea-charts of the region were all more or less inaccurate, and La Salle had made a mistake of two degrees when taking the latitude of the mouth of the Mississippi in 1682. The explorer therefore once more made a mistake in his reckonings, and, thinking he had got into the currents of the Gulf Stream the force of which “several learned persons of Paris” had given him an exaggerated idea, he concluded that he had drifted 300 miles eastward, as far as Apalachee Bay. Nevertheless, La Salle, on 1 January, when he was less than 15 leagues from the Mississippi, wondered momentarily if he had not arrived in the vicinity of Cap Escondito, by which the mouths of the Mississippi were marked on 17th-century maps. Unfortunately, rather than following his intuition, he preferred to trust some log-books of Spanish navigators which confirmed him in his error about a drift to the east.
So they turned their prows westward, in search of the hypothetical Baie du Saint-Esprit, to the west of which the discoverer hoped to find his river again. In the night of 3–4 Jan. 1685, despite the fog, La Salle gave the signal for departure. Beaujeu, who was anchored further out to sea, apparently did not understand, or did not want to understand, and the other ships lost sight of the Joly. La Salle apparently did not give Beaujeu too much of an opportunity to catch up with him. In fact he sailed for 19 consecutive hours in the fog, and then cast anchor in places where the Joly could not venture. On 6 January the Aimable and the Belle reached “a kind of bay” (probably that of Atchafalaya), which because of its reefs and sandbanks could not, according to La Salle, be the Baie du Saint-Esprit. They sailed on, going along the coasts of Texas. But about the eighteenth, the bend of the coast towards the south led La Salle to believe that they had in truth gone well beyond the Mississippi delta. They turned, and the next morning the Joly finally caught up with the other two ships, which were at anchor at the southwest tip of the island of Matagorda. Beaujeu and La Salle did not lose such an admirable opportunity for a quarrel, with mutual accusations of desertion. Then they spent several days hunting and exploring the seaboard, without managing to acquire any certainty as to the exact place where they had landed. La Salle was nonplussed, but nevertheless tried to convince himself that he had got to the mouth of one of the “outlets” of the Mississippi.
The stubborn explorer resumed his unflagging search. This time he changed his tactics: the soldiers were to move off by land, still towards the east, and the flotilla was to follow them offshore, at a reduced speed in order to help them if necessary. On 14 Feb. 1685, they all met off Matagorda Bay, to which La Salle was later to give the name Saint-Louis. An islet and reefs between the island and peninsula of Matagorda made access to the bay particularly difficult. However, the next day, reports Joutel, “M. de La Salle, who came ashore . . . examined the entrance to the said river or bay. He found it a very fine one, and after he had considered everything, he decided to bring the Belle and the Aimable in that way, hoping as he did that this might be an arm of his river.” A channel was therefore sounded and marked with buoys, and the Belle negotiated it successfully. But the Aimable, either because of La Salle’s rashness or because of a mistake on the pilot’s part, ran disastrously aground, spilling into the sea its cargo of foodstuffs, munitions, materials, and goods, only a small portion of which was recovered. Local Indians tried to take advantage of the shipwreck. In return, some of the French stole a number of their canoes. Fighting broke out: two people were killed and two wounded, among them La Salle’s nephew, Crevel de Moranget. The situation was deteriorating. But this was only the beginning.
In the middle of March, Beaujeu, whose task was completed, returned to France, taking with him some members of the expedition who were abandoning the cause. For protection against the Indians, those who remained began to construct a fort out of the wreckage of the Aimable. On the twenty-fourth, La Salle set off with some 50 persons to reconnoitre the surrounding district, but succeeded in finding no trace of his river. Since sickness and death were taking their toll at the first camp because of the unhealthy locality, La Salle set up another one slightly to the northwest of Matagorda Bay; this site was just as badly chosen from the sanitary point of view. The building of Fort Saint-Louis, started in May 1685 on the right bank of the Rivière aux Bœufs (Lavaca), was to cost several men their lives. As Joutel says, “This excessive toil; the scant food of the workers, which was very frequently docked because they had not discharged their duty; M. de La Salle’s vexation at not managing to accomplish things as he had imagined, which led him to treat his people harshly, often at the wrong time: all this saddened many, whose spirits visibly declined.”
On the eve of All Saints, La Salle set off in a canoe to go down the river as far as Matagorda Bay, where he wanted to examine the coves with minute care, still with the wild hope of finding an arm of the Mississippi. In mid-January 1686, Joutel, who was in command at Fort Saint-Louis, saw a lone figure returning: it was one of the men whom the explorer had taken with him. Pierre Duhaut, forced to stop in order to repair his makeshift footwear, had lost his way and had almost perished because of Moranget, who, ordered that day to bring up the rear, had refused to wait for him. La Salle’s nephew was to pay dearly, later on, for his callousness.
As for the explorer himself, he came back to the fort at the end of March empty-handed, without his six best men, who had been killed by the Indians. The bark was missing. La Salle very much feared that the Belle had disappeared for good, somewhere in the bay, where it had been following from offshore his movements along the coast. This new misfortune seriously lessened La Salle’s freedom of action, and the chances of the little colony’s survival. The last resort was to try to discover the Mississippi by land, in order to go and seek help from Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois. La Salle started out at the end of April with some 20 companions, among them his brother and Father Douay. Three days later, Joutel took in at the fort of the Rivière aux Bœufs the five survivors from the shipwreck of the Belle, which its pilot had run aground when he was drunk. The rescued men brought with them La Salle’s clothes and papers which they had saved.
Meanwhile the explorer was heading towards the northeast, crossing numerous rivers that he named as he went: the Princesse, the Mignonne, the Sablonnière, the Maligne, and the Rivière des Malheurs. Dominique Duhaut, as well as three or four other comrades, soon had to give up, and were sent back to the fort. On the way they became lost. The elder of the two Duhaut brothers was never to forgive La Salle for his younger brother’s death.
The remainder of the party arrived among the Cenis Indians. There they obtained five horses. Then, judging the number in his troop – now eight people – too reduced to continue, La Salle retraced his steps. Back in Fort Saint-Louis once more, he was laid up in October by a painful hernia.
When he had recovered, La Salle began anew to prepare for departure. This time Joutel was to follow his chief. On 12 Jan. 1687 they set out on foot, 17 of them, to find their way towards the Illinois country; with the 25 people – 7 of them of the female sex – left at the habitation, this was all that remained of the approximately 180 unfortunates who had been established in Texas two years earlier. It was certainly not a pleasure trip they were undertaking. Torrential rains flooded the countryside, rendering paths unusable and camping in shelters particularly arduous. The swollen watercourses were very difficult to ford, not to mention that the men, already overburdened, had to relieve the horses of the personal baggage of the Cavelier brothers, who had monopolized the animals. The priest alone made them carry, among other things, “several church ornaments, even a dozen habits . . . which could well have been dispensed with,” as Joutel remarks. But, he added in exasperation, La Salle and the Sulpician “did not have the inconvenience of this, and it meant nothing to them.” In addition, dense forests all around them proved to be uncommonly inhospitable. They advanced none the less, passing through numerous Indian villages which La Salle now approached tactfully, all too well aware how heavy had been the price, in dead men and futile wanderings, of his bad relations with the Texan tribes. The Indians, won over, showed themselves well disposed, and provided useful information about the country and its inhabitants. In the middle of March, the troop was in the neighbourhood of the Cenis Indians. On the fourteenth, they crossed the Trinity River, called by La Salle the Rivière aux Canots.
The next day, when they were camping two leagues from the left bank, La Salle sent his servant and his faithful Nika, a Shawnee hunter, together with Pierre Duhaut, the latter’s surgeon, and three or four others, to dig up provisions that the explorer had buried a little farther on, during his last voyage. On the seventeenth, Moranget and two companions went to meet them with horses, to bring back the meat of the bison slaughtered by Nika. As soon as he arrived, La Salle’s nephew flew into a rage against the men and claimed the flesh of the bison, which they had smoked and from which they had set aside the marrowbones for themselves. This really passed all bounds. Duhaut and his surgeon had long harboured a persistent resentment against Moranget, who had previously abandoned the former in the middle of the forest, and had requited the second with brutality for the careful attention he had lavished on his wounds at the time when the Indian canoes were stolen. A plot was therefore contrived, and during the night the surgeon, assisted by four accomplices, used an axe to kill Moranget, Nika, and La Salle’s servant, who were sleeping side by side.
On the morning of 19 March 1687, La Salle, warned by sombre forebodings, hastened to the scene of the crime with Father Douay. The murderers had just as strong a grudge against their chief. Duhaut in particular, who as well as being his creditor held against him the disappearance of his brother Dominique, had no desire to let La Salle denounce the triple assassination. While the explorer was approaching, the merchant lay in wait, crouching in the tall grass with his musket. La Salle inquired about the fate of his nephew. Duhaut’s servant replied impudently that the victim was adrift somewhere on a nearby stream. With a sudden angry gesture, La Salle turned towards the saucy fellow. A shot rang out. The discoverer slumped down, dead, with a bullet in his head. The “madmen” insulted the corpse, and, styling it a “grand bacha,” they stripped it and left it naked in a thicket, to be devoured by wild animals. Then they seized La Salle’s possessions, including his famous scarlet cloak, which had survived every shipwreck. Some time later, feeling the threat of impending justice, the conspirators, all but two, finished by killing one another off.
As for the rest of the troop, they reached Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois the following 14 September, and Montreal on 13 July 1688. During all that time, La Salle’s tragic end was kept a secret at the request of Abbé Cavelier, who, being anxious to collect the furs owing to his brother, revealed his death only some weeks after having returned to France, 9 Oct. 1688. The covetous Sulpician, still through self-interest, subsequently composed an account of his voyage to the Gulf of Mexico, stuffed with lies which were to mislead several generations of historians.
Thus ended, paradoxically in blood, mud, and silence, a life given over to the frenzied pursuit of fame. However, history was again to invoke this man, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, to present him now as a hero worthy of inspiring a national holiday, now as a mere case for psychoanalysis. “Such is the fate of those men,” remarked Charlevoix* very rightly, “whom a mixture of great defects and great virtues lifts above the common sphere. Their passions cause them to make mistakes; and although they do what others could not do, their undertakings are not to everybody’s liking; their successes arouse the jealousy of those who remain in obscurity; they do good to some, and ill to others; the latter avenge themselves by discrediting them inordinately; the former exaggerate their worth. Hence the very different portraits that are made of them, no one of which is a likeness.”
Few historical personages are more difficult to judge than La Salle. The merit of having discovered the last 700 miles of the lower course of the Mississippi certainly belongs to him, but it is sullied by the failure in Texas, for which he was to a large extent responsible. He had the lofty audacity to conceive vast plans for the extension of the kingdom of France, but his idealistic mind prevented him from seeing the exaggerated dimensions of his dreams, and led him to take his desires for realities.
Again, one must admit that during his explorations he displayed an almost superhuman strength, tenacity, and courage. Yet what energy he wasted, by his lack of organization, by his perpetual comings and goings in the Great Lakes and Illinois regions! One might easily assert, also, that he was afflicted with a persecution mania, but his frightful death shows that he was not after all completely misguided in his suspicions. Finally, if his austere and solitary nature made him choose the life of the woods, as he himself wrote, it did not prevent him, alas, and to his very great detriment, from dabbling in the intrigues of Versailles and in those created by the rivalry between Jesuits and Recollets.
It will be apparent that a definitive study of Cavelier de La Salle’s life and work has yet to be made.
Among the numerous mss and printed sources on La Salle the following are listed: AN, Col., B, 3–8, 10–13, C11A, C13C, 3; Marine, B2, 50–52, 55, 58, 66, 104, B4, 9, 10; Archives du Service hydrographique de la marine, carton 671, nos. 15, 16; 115–19, no. 12. BN, ms, Clairambault 1016; ms, NAF 7497 (Renaudot), 21330, 21331 (Arnoul), 9288–94, 9300, 9301 (Margry).
[René de Bréhant de Galinée], Voyage de MM. Dollier & Galinée (SHM Mémoires, VI, Montréal, 1875); this incomplete edition is not worth consulting, except for the notes by Abbé H. A. Verreau; better is “Voyage de Cavelier de La Salle avec les Sulpiciens Dollier de Casson et Brehan de Gallinée” in Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), I, 101–66. See also the French-English edition of James H. Coyne, “. . . Exploration of the Great Lakes 1669–1670 . . .” in Ont. Hist. Soc. Papers and Records, IV (1903). Caron, “Inventaire de documents,” APQ Rapport, 1939–40, 221–25. [Jean Cavelier], The journal of Jean Cavelier: the account of a survivor of La Salle’s Texas expedition, 1684–1688, tr. and annotated by Jean Delanglez (Chicago, 1938); this work contains an extremely important critical analysis of the sources concerning La Salle, which clarify, in addition to La Salle’s account, those of Douay and the pseudo-Tonty (infra). “Correspondance de Frontenac (1672–82),” APQ Rapport, 1926–27. “Correspondance de Talon,” ibid., 1930–31. Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), I–III; the largest collection of printed sources, in which, however, the transcription is not always very faithful to the originals. Louis Hennepin, Description de la Louisiane . . . (Paris, 1683); Nouvelle découverte d’un très grand pays dans l’Amérique entre le Nouveau Mexique, et la mer glaciale . . . (Utrecht, 1697); Nouveau voyage d’un païs plus grand que l’Europe, avec les réflections des entreprises du Sieur de La Salle . . . (Utrecht, 1698); sources which are often quite untrustworthy. JR (Thwaites). [Henri Joutel], Journal historique du dernier voyage que feu M. de la Sale fit dans le Golfe de Mexique . . . Où l’on voit l’histoire tragique de sa mort, & plusieurs choses curieuses du nouveau monde . . . , éd. De Michel (Paris, 1713). Jug. et délib. Le Clercq, First establishment of the faith (Shea); Premier établissement de la foy, chap. XXI–XXV; chap. XII and XXIII contain the “Relation” of Membré and chap. XXV that of Douay. NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), IX. Perrot, Mémoire (Tailhan). “Le procès de l’abbé de Fénelon devant le Conseil de la Nouvelle-France en 1674,” APQ Rapport, 1921–22, 124–88. Raymond Thomassy, Géologie pratique de la Louisiane (Nouvelle-Orléans et Paris, 1860), 9–16, App. A et B; here is given, among other accounts, the official report (attributed to Membré) of La Salle’s 1682 explorations. [Henri de Tonti], Dernières découvertes dans l’Amérique Septentrionale de M. de la Sale . . . (Paris, 1697); apocryphal account.
Charlevoix, Histoire. P. Chesnel, Histoire de Cavelier de La Salle, exploration et conquête du bassin du Mississipi . . . (Paris, 1901). Delanglez, Jolliet; Some La Salle journeys (Chicago, 1938); monographs of the greatest importance. Faillon, Histoire de la colonie française, III, 228f., 286–314, 353f., 472–77, 495–514. Désiré Girouard, Les anciens forts de Lachine et Cavelier de La Salle (Montréal, 1891). Gabriel Gravier, Cavelier de La Salle de Rouen (Paris, 1871), which provides a very useful bibliography; Découvertes et établissements de Cavelier de La Salle, de Rouen, dans l’Amérique du Nord . . . (Paris, 1870). Lionel Groulx, Notre grande aventure: l’empire français en Amérique du Nord (1535–1760) (Montréal et Paris (1958)), 111–37, 193–98. Marion Habig, The Franciscan Père Marquette: a critical biography of Father Zénobe Membré . . . Franciscan studies, XIII, New York, 1934). Gérard Malchelosse, “La Salle et le fort Saint-Joseph des Miamis,” Cahiers des Dix, XXII (1957), 83–103. Nute, Caesars of the wilderness, 157–59, 201, et passim. Parkman, La Salle and the discovery of the great west (12th ed.). Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la Nouvelle-France au XVIIe siècle, III, 40–80, 162–64; best source for the years covering the religious life of La Salle. John G. Shea, The bursting of Pierre Margry’s La Salle bubble (New York, 1879). Sulte, Mélanges historiques (Malchelosse), X, 66–89; “La mort de Cavelier de La Salle,” RSCT, 2d ser., IV (1898), sect. i, 3–31. Roger Viau, Cavelier de La Salle (s.l., 1960). Marc de Villiers du Terrage, La découverte du Missouri et l’histoire du Fort d’Orléans, 1673–1738 (Paris, 1925); L’expédition de Cavelier de la Salle dans le golfe du Mexique, 1684–1687 (Paris, 1931): essential sources.
© 1966–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
This biography was first published with terms that were regarded as appropriate at the time and are now considered offensive. These terms have been amended.
Cite This Article
Céline Dupré, “CAVELIER DE LA SALLE, RENÉ-ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 20, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cavelier_de_la_salle_rene_robert_1E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Céline Dupré|
|Title of Article:||CAVELIER DE LA SALLE, RENÉ-ROBERT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1966|
|Year of revision:||2015|
|Access Date:||March 20, 2023|