Robert de la Salle




The World


Anglo-American Atlantic World (1641-1750)






Explorer� In 1667� [La Salle] went to New France, penniless but with many influential connections. There his brother, a Sulpician, was doubtless responsible for his obtaining from that order a grant of a seigneury on Montreal Island, but after two years La Salle sold most of it back to them and began his career of exploration by attaching himself to the Dollier and Galin�e missionary party bound for the western Great Lakes. Hearing of the Ohio River from Iroquois Indian guides, he left the party, claiming illness, and virtually disappeared for four years.

What precisely he did between 1669 and 1673 is unknown, although it was probably no more mysterious than what hundreds of other French voyageurs were doing in the interior: trading for furs. His subsequent familiarity with the whole Great Lakes region suggests this, as do his routine yearly visits to Montreal, where he communicated with Governor Jean Talon and dealt with finances. Claims have been made for his having "discovered" the Ohio and even the Mississippi during this time, but if he did so he never personally advanced such a claim�

In 1679 he built a ship, the Griffon, below Niagara to be used to transport furs from the hinterlands of the western Great Lakes, sending his new lieutenant Henri de Tonti and others westward to organize the collection of furs. Large stocks of peltry were gathered at Detroit and Green Bay, and the Griffon was sent back to Fort Frontenac while La Salle and Tonti went with a party southward down Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, where La Salle built Fort Cr�vecoeur. He left Tonti in charge when he started in March 1680 for Fort Frontenac.

La Salle arrived to find that the Griffon had disappeared, Fort Niagara was burned, a cargo of Indian trade goods had been lost, and the workmen at Cr�vecoeur had deserted when the Iroquois attacked the Illinois tribes. La Salle made another trip to the Illinois country in late 1680-1681 and then returned to Montreal toconsult with Frontenac. From that meeting he emerged with the resolution to make the voyage of discovery down the Mississippi.

The expedition itself is perhaps most notable for its lack of exciting events. Departing in mid-February of 1682 from the mouth of the Illinois River, the expedition, consisting of twenty-four Frenchmen and twenty-five Indians, reached the Gulf of Mexico on 7 April and executed a formal French claim to the Mississippi Valley on 9 April, having established peaceful relations with the Chickasaw, Quapaw, Taensa, Natchez, and Koroa Indians along the way� He established Fort St. Louis at Starved Rock in the winter of 1682-1683 to serve as a fortified settlement for the Indians of the region against the Iroquois�

In April 1684 La Salle received from Louis XIV command of the whole region between the Illinois country and Mexico and set out with ships and men to reach the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to make a settlement� La Salle's constant quarrels with Tanguy Le Gallois de Beaujeu, captain of the convoy's warship, eventuated in the loss of one ship and the expedition's supplies to Spanish pirates near Santo Domingo. The convoy landed at Matagorda Bay on the coast of Texas in mid-February 1685. After a final quarrel Beaujeu returned to France, leaving La Salle and some 180 people to build a settlement and to continue the search for the Mississippi.

The story of La Salle's efforts to find the Mississippi, which lasted nearly two years, is known to us through the account of Henri Joutel, La Salle's closest assistant. Much of the interior of east Texas was explored but without finding what was sought. Supplies dwindled, the last small ship was lost, people died of illness, and some were killed by Indians. As the search apparently grew more hopeless, morale plummeted. La Salle pushed his men deeper and deeper into the interior, and finally members of the expedition turned on one another. La Salle himself was shot to death somewhere in east Texas�

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