- Historic Sites
La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
In the morning, La Salle saw a change in the behavior of his hosts. They looked on him askance, cold, sullen, and suspicious. There was one Omawha, a chief, whose favor he had won the day before by the politic gift of two hatchets and three knives, and who now came to him in secret to tell him what had taken place at the nocturnal council. La Salle at once saw in it a device of his enemies; and this belief was confirmed, when, in the afternoon, Nicanopé, brother of the head chief, sent to invite the Frenchmen to a feast. They repaired to his lodge; but before dinner was served—that is to say, while the guests, white and red, were seated on mats, each with his hunting-knife in his hand, and the wooden bowl before him, which was to receive his share of the bear’s or buffalo’s meat, or the corn boiled in fat, with which he was to be regaled; while such was the posture of the company, their host arose and began a long speech. He told the Frenchmen that he had invited them to his lodge less to refresh their bodies with good cheer than to cure their minds of the dangerous purpose which possessed them, of descending the Mississippi. Its shores, he said, were beset by savage tribes, against whose numbers and ferocity their valor would avail nothing: its waters were infested by serpents, alligators, and unnatural monsters; while the river itself, after raging among rocks and whirlpools, plunged headlong at last into a fathomless gulf, which would swallow them and their vessel for ever.
La Salle’s men were, for the most part, raw hands, knowing nothing of the wilderness, and easily alarmed at its dangers; but there were two among them, old coureurs de bois, who unfortunately knew too much; for they understood the Indian orator, and explained his speech to the rest. As La Salle looked around on the circle of his followers, he read an augury of fresh trouble in their disturbed and rueful visages. He waited patiently, however, till the speaker had ended, and then answered him, through his interpreter, with great composure. First, he thanked him for the friendly warning which his affection had impelled him to utter; but, he continued, the greater the danger, the greater the honor; and, even if the danger were real, Frenchmen would never flinch from it. But were not the Illinois jealous? Had they not been deluded by lies? “We were not asleep, my brother, when Monso came to tell you, under cover of night, that we were spies of the Iroquois. The presents he gave you, that you might believe his falsehoods, are at this moment buried in the earth under this lodge. If he told the truth, why did he skulk away in the dark? Why did he not show himself by day? Do you not see that when we first came among you, and your camp was all in confusion, we could have killed you without needing help from the Iroquois? And now, while I am speaking, could we not put your old men to death, while your young warriors are all gone away to hunt? If we meant to make war on you, we should need no help from the Iroquois, who have so often felt the force of our arms!” Nicanopé had nothing to reply, and, grunting assent in the depths of his throat, made a sign that the feast should proceed.
The French were lodged in huts, near the Indian camp; and, fearing treachery, La Salle placed a guard at night. On the morning after the feast, he came out into the frosty air, and looked about him for the sentinels. Not one of them was to be seen. Vexed and alarmed he entered hut after hut, and roused his drowsy followers. Six of the number, including two of the best carpenters, were nowhere to be found. Discontented and mutinous from the first, and now terrified by the fictions of Nicanopé, they had deserted, preferring the hardships of the midwinter forest to the mysterious terrors of the Mississippi. La Salle mustered the rest before him, and inveighed sternly against the cowardice and baseness of those who had thus abandoned him, regardless of his many favors. If any here, he added, are afraid, let them but wait till the spring, and they shall have free leave to return to Canada, safely and without dishonor.
This desertion cut him to the heart. It showed him that he was leaning on a broken reed; and he felt that, on an enterprise full of doubt and peril, there were scarcely four men in his party whom he could trust. Nor was desertion the worst he had to fear; for here, as at Fort Frontenac, an attempt was made to kill him. Tonty tells us that poison was placed in the pot in which their food was cooked, and that La Salle was saved by an antidote which some of his friends had given him before he left France. This, it will be remembered, was an epoch of poisoners. It was in the following month that the notorious La Voisin was burned alive, at Paris, for practices to which many of the highest nobility were charged with being privy, not excepting some in whose veins ran the blood of the gorgeous spendthrift who ruled the destinies of France.