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The Visionary La Salle

Artist's rendering of the explorer La Salle, shown looking at an early French map of North America. The map shows three forts built between 1679 and 1680: "Conty fort (or Fort Niagra, near Niagara Falls), Miamis Fort (south of Lake Michigan), and Crèvecour fort (left bank of the Illinois River). The Mississippi River (or Colbert) is only shown upstream of its confluence with the Ohio. Map, Carte de l'Amerique Septentrionale, by Claude Bernou, edited 1681, courtesy Wikipedia. See full map

Some of La Salle’s contemporaries in Canada referred to him as a wild dreamer, even as a mad man. Indeed, he was driven by a great dream, a vision of magnificent achievement and high glory. In pursuit of his dream, he perhaps displayed a touch of madness. He drove his men unmercifully; when they deserted, he blamed his enemies. Three times—before the final, fatal episode—there were attempts on his life, incited, he said, by the jealousies of his rivals. He gave his ship captains impossible orders, then, when a ship was wrecked, La Salle claimed that the captain had been seduced by his enemies, or was otherwise motivated by malice. Assuredly, if the man was not mad, he was paranoid.

The influences that shaped his character, and his vision, though often elusive, had their beginning in the wealthy merchant family into which he was born. La Salle—birth name Robert Cavelier—was born in Rouen, the capital of old Normandy, on November 21, 1643, the second of three sons of Jean Cavelier and his wife, Catherine Gest. The older son, Jean (named for his father), became a Sulpician priest and preceded Robert to Canada, where the French had established a foothold optimistically called New France. By La Salle’s time, ships laden with furs from America were ascending the Seine River to Rouen in numbers. In the young Robert Cavelier, the scene surely inspired dreams of one day crossing the ocean himself to conquer new territories to gain wealth and honor.

After a disappointing venture as a novice in the Jesuit priesthood, Robert left the order and sailed for America. By late summer 1667, he was at Ville-Marie, forerunner of Montreal, described as “perhaps the most dangerous place in Canada.” La Salle—a name taken from a family estate—made inroads in the fur trade among the Indian tribes and carved from the wilderness a colony called Saint-Sulpice. Yet his obsessive vision could not be suppressed.

 Having studied Indian languages, he learned from a band of Iroquois Seneca of a distant westward-running river called Ohio, which no Frenchman had ever seen. La Salle sold his concession in 1669 and used the proceeds to outfit his first exploratory journey, hoping to find a way to China by following that river. This all-or-nothing gamble set the pattern for his life, sacrificing the sure thing for a fantasy.

Whether La Salle made significant discoveries on that journey is not known. From that time on, his record in Canada is marked by intense rivalry and hostility among competing religious and commercial interests. With the discovery by the Jolliet-Marquette expedition that the Mississippi River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Pacific Ocean, La Salle laid his plan. He must find a way into the Upper Great Lakes, establish a string of outposts across the Illinois country, then descend the Mississippi and establish at its mouth a warm-water port for shipping furs when the Saint Lawrence River was frozen.

In pursuit of this plan, La Salle’s thirst for discovery overruled his practical judgment. His vigor and determination antagonized the various factions competing for the native fur trade, and they set out to destroy him with false rumors. His men, short of pay and often driven to the limit of their endurance, were moved to desert; his creditors to seize his assets; his brother to betray him; and the French Crown to question his sanity.


Timeline of La Salle and his Journeys


Born in the port of Rouen, France, to wealthy family of merchants.  


Becomes a novice with the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at age of 15 and gives up his share of family’s fortune.


Leaves the Jesuits and sails for “New France” (Canada), where he establishes a trading post and village at today's Lachine, a few miles above Montreal.

depiction of La Salle’s journey appearing in Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi.”
La Salle's expedition on the Mississippi, circa 1682. Painting by George Catlin, Paul Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art. Enlarge image.
illustration of beavers
Beaver were prized for their fur, from which felt hats and other articles of clothing were made for fashion-conscious Europeans. La Salle and other traders provided knives, beads, kettles, and other items to native trappers in exchange for pelts. From Historiae Animalium, a 17th-century pictorial catalogue of animals with Latin text compiled by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner. Enlarge image
Minet’s drawing of a calumet, or peace pipe
Minet's drawing of a calumet, or peace pipe, used by Indians encountered by La Salle and his party in Canada. Courtesy of Robert Weddle; original in Public Archives of Canada. Enlarge image
Map showing La Salle's route
Routes of La Salle's expeditions in colonial North America. Enlarge to see full map and location of Fort St. Louis in Texas. Image courtesy of Canadian Museum of Civilization. Enlarge image
Map of Fort Frontenac
Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario's north shore, as drawn by Minet. Key reads A. Fort Frontenac; B. The Récolets; C. French dwellings; D. French dwellings; E. Shore of Lake Frontenac; E. Head of St. Lawrence River; G. Spring. Courtesy of Robert Weddle; original in Public Archives of Canada. Enlarge image


Still, La Salle made significant gains in Canada. On a voyage to France in 1675, he obtained a royal grant to a post on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The new post, named Fort Frontenac, was but a stepping stone to his real ambition. He sailed again for France in 1677 to win a grant for the right to discover (at his own expense) “the western parts of New France; to establish forts wherever he deems necessary”; and to reap the commercial benefits.

Within a few years, La Salle built a fort above Niagara Falls and constructed the first sailing vessel (the Griffon) to ply the Upper Great Lakes. The Griffon was a key element of his plan; she would convey him to the lower end of Lake Michigan. From there, by canoe and the necessary portages, he would reach the Illinois River to build a fort and a new vessel for descending the Mississippi. Scarcely begun, the plan began to unravel. The Griffon, carrying a cargo of furs on which La Salle depended to pay his creditors, was lost on the way back to Niagara. The second vessel lay unfinished, as workers deserted. Forced to begin anew, La Salle, with 23 Frenchmen and 31 Mohegan and Abnaki Indians, traveling by canoe, descended the Illinois River to the Mississippi and then turned southward to the Mississippi’s mouth.

On April 6 and 7, 1682, La Salle and his men explored three of the river’s eastern outlet channels. Two days later, on a spot of dry land three leagues upstream, he planted the arms of France and claimed for Louis XIV the entire Mississippi drainage. Then began the long journey back up the river, hastened by a lack of provisions and threatened by the hostile Qunipissa and Koroa Indians. La Salle himself fell violently ill along the way.

As time would tell, the discovery had its confusing aspects. What he saw on the ground, La Salle realized, did not fit the maps. The discrepancies portended dire results for his effort to find the mouth of his river from the sea. Eager as he was to return to France to report his discovery, La Salle encountered delays. He finally sailed for France, arriving near the end of 1683 to seek support for his voyage to the Gulf of Mexico.

From the king of France, he received the grant of the royal ship Belle, a light frigate, with the 36-gun warship Joly assigned as escort. At his own expense, La Salle leased the 180-ton cargo vessel Aimable to carry supplies, then added the Saint François to carry supplies and trade goods as far as Saint-Domingue (Haiti).

With France at war with Spain, La Salle's plan was to establish a French base within striking distance of Spanish settlements and silver mines in Mexico. Some maps of the period—all hypothetical—showed the Mississippi River, or Río del Espíritu Santo, discharging into the Gulf near the Texas coastal bend. Without means of taking longitude, La Salle had been unable to determine at what point on the east-west coast his river was found. The faulty maps were his only clue. Thus, his voyage was doomed to failure at its inception.

The four ships sailed from La Rochelle, France, on July 24, 1684. Bad omens seemed to stalk the voyage from its inception. An accident aboard Le Joly forced a return to Rochefort for repairs, delaying final departure from France for another week. Dissension among the crew was followed by the loss of the Saint-François to Spanish raiders on the approach to Saint-Domingue, then the defection of several men to a pirate fleet at Petit Goâve.  Near Cuba’s western tip, a night-time squall caused the ships to drag anchor and crash together in a mass of tangled rigging.   From that point, La Salle set a course for the far end of the Gulf of Mexico, where the maps indicated the mouth of the Mississippi would be found. Navigation was precise but, on arrival there, La Salle could see nothing he recognized.

After a month of uncertainty, he began landing the people on Matagorda Island on the Texas coast. Then came the series of misfortunes that ultimately spelled the ruin of his enterprise. His supply ship, Aimable, wrecked while trying to enter Matagorda Bay. Still convinced that the Mississippi was near, he sent the warship, Joly, back to France. With people dying daily, La Salle put the survivors on a 50-mile march up the bay to the site he had chosen on Garcitas Creek, which he called Rivière aux Boeufs for the many buffalo.

Never intended as a permanent settlement, this wilderness outpost, known in history as ”Fort Saint Louis,” was meant to be a temporary encampment until La Salle found the main stem of the Mississippi. The means to accomplish his search was to have been his last remaining ship, the little frigate Belle, which he loaded with supplies and weaponry for establishing a post on his elusive river. Then the Belle, too, was lost, running aground on a sandbar during a fierce storm. The people, huddled in their crude camp on the Rivière aux Boeufs, were stranded.

La Salle took seventeen men on an eastward march, hoping to find the Mississippi and follow it to his Illinois post—the real Fort Saint Louis—and to travel onward to Canada to seek relief for his meager colony. Had the people waiting in their miserable settlement on the Texas coast received any word at all from the marchers, they would have learned that their leader was dead, the victim of a conspiracy among his disenchanted followers.

Although his life was cut short, La Salle’s vision and accomplishments were critical in the shaping of North America. He explored the Great Lakes region and Ohio and Mississippi valleys,  blazing a trail to the mouth of the Mississippi on the Gulf shore in 1682.  In the name of France, he laid claim to this vast territory, equivalent to roughly one-third of today’s United States, naming it La Louisiane in honor of the French monarch, Louis IV. In 1803, the United States was to acquire much of that land from France in the Louisiana Purchase.



Painting of La Salle at the mouth of the Mississippi River
La Salle discovers the mouth of the Mississippi River and lays claim to the land in its watershed for France, roughly one-third of the United States. He names the land La Louisiane in honor of King Louis XIV. "In the name of the most high, mighty, invincible and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by the Grace of God King of France and of Navarre, this ninth day of April, 1682." Color lithograph attributed to Bocquin. The Historic New Orleans Collection Enlarge image
painting of the port of La Rochelle, France
The port of La Rochelle, France. Here La Salle and his group set sail in four vessels, bound for the Gulf of Mexico. Enlarge image
painting of pirates
Pirates at Petit Goave near Haiti. Several of La Salle's men defected to the pirate fleet, a loss made more bitter by the earlier seizure of his ship, the Saint-François, by Spanish raiders. Painting by Charles Shaw, courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission. Enlarge image
painting of the supply ship, Aimable
Sailors struggle to leave the Belle in makeshift rafts after the vessel struck a sandbar in Matagorda Bay. The wreck of La Salle's fourth and final ship meant the end of the explorer's hopes of finding the mouth of the Mississsippi by sea. Painting by Charles Shaw from Bruseth and Turner (2005), courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission. Enlarge image
illustration of the murder of La Salle
Depiction of the murder of La Salle, March 1687. En route to Canada to gain help for his beleaguered colony, the explorer was ambushed and killed by several of his men in east Texas. Courtesy National Archives of Canada. Enlarge image