CAVELIER, JEAN, priest, Sulpician, explorer, elder brother of Robert Cavelier* de La Salle; b. 27 Oct. 1636 at Rouen, son of Jean Cavelier, a wholesale haberdasher, and of Catherine Geest; d. 24 Nov. 1722 at Rouen.
Jean Cavelier was a member of a rich family belonging to the upper bourgeoisie of the provinces. We have no details on his life before 1658, the date at which he entered the Sulpician seminary in Paris. Four years later he was ordained priest.
On 7 Sept. 1666, at the same time as Dollier de Casson, he arrived at Montreal, where he was a parish priest until 1676. That year he was involved in a dispute with a certain Pierre Cavelier; he attempted to have the latter’s house and land in Montreal seized. Then in October 1679, while preparing to leave for France, he tried to recover the money which he had advanced to his brother, Robert Cavelier de La Salle, who had been in New France since 1667. On 23 November the Conseil Souverain rendered a judgement which allowed him to obtain a fairly large sum. This so ruined La Salle’s credit in the colony that he wrote in a letter: “[Jean] has done . . . all that the bitterest enemy could do.”
Finally, in November, Jean Cavelier left for France, where he remained until 1684, when his brother chose him as a member of his expedition to the Mississippi country [see Douay; Gravier; Hennepin]. Although he played only a secondary role in this expedition, Jean Cavalier has left us a journal written some years later. According to Barthélemy*, one of his travelling companions, he was the butt of his brother’s capricious temperament. Indeed, Barthélemy claimed that La Salle “almost starved him . . . allotting him only a handful of flour a day.” Several historians have labelled this story as ridiculous.
After La Salle’s tragic death, which occurred on 19 March 1687 near La Trinité, Abbé Cavelier and the remainder of the explorer’s companions reached Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois on 14 September. The Sulpician, concealing his brother’s death, presented to Henri Tonty a note signed by La Salle before his murder, and asked Tonty to supply him with the wherewithal to meet the costs of a journey to France which his brother wanted him to make. To comply with Cavelier’s request, Tonty gave him some beaver furs, and on 13 July 1688 Jean Cavelier reached Montreal. Instead of revealing La Salle’s death, he preferred to let people believe that he was still alive. He tells us himself in his journal that he had “concealed his [brother’s] death from M. the Governor General of Canada,” and that he was taking good care “not to let anyone know it.” This behaviour seems strange, for if the governor had been aware of the expedition’s failure early enough he could have done something to save the survivors abandoned near the Mississippi delta. This was at least the opinion expressed by Brisay de Denonville in a letter addressed to Seignelay [Colbert] in January 1690. Cavelier seems to have acted in this way with the object of obtaining for himself the assets owed to the creditors of his brother, who was acknowledged to be insolvent.
After spending a month at Montreal, where according to Henri Joutel (author of an account of La Salle’s last expedition), he concerned himself chiefly with business, the Abbé went to Quebec, then to Île Percée, and sailed on 4 Sept. 1688; he reached La Rochelle on 9 October. But instead of going directly to Paris he preferred to make a pilgrimage to Saumur, then to Mont-Saint-Michel, and after that to go to Rouen. It was only at the beginning of December that he met Seignelay, after M. Tronson, his superior, had urged him to make his report to the minister.
Subsequently Cavelier was to lose all interest in the Mississippi expedition, as is evidenced by a letter that Tronson wrote on 1 June 1690 to Bishop Saint-Vallier [La Croix]: “Monsieur Cavelier’s plan to charter a vessel has fallen through, he is entirely taken up at Rouen with straightening out what is left of his business affairs, which long absences have reduced to a sorry state; it is sad to see such a good worker spending a part of his life in difficulties of this kind.”
It was at this period that Cavelier wrote the journal of the expedition. The text was to be presented to Seignelay, no doubt with a view to obtaining some pecuniary advantages and defending his brother’s memory. This explains why scant credibility can be attached to the document.
Jean Cavelier spent his last days at Rouen, probably at his niece’s house, where he died a rich man on 24 Nov. 1722.
[Jean Cavelier], The journal of Jean Cavelier, the account of a survivor of La Salle’s Texas expedition, 1684–1688, trans. and annotated by Jean Delanglez (Chicago, 1938). Charlevoix, Histoire (1744), II. Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), II, III. [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 . . . rédigé et mis en ordre par Monsieur De Michel (Paris, 1713). Jug.et délib., II. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire. Rochemonteix, Les Jésuites et la N.-F. au XVIIe siècle, III. Jean Delanglez, “The authorship of the journal of Jean Cavelier,” Mid-America, XXV (1943; new ser. XIV), 220–23. George Paré, “The St-Joseph mission,” Mississippi Valley Hist. Review, XVII (1930–31), 24–54.