La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West


La Salle now resolved to leave the Indian camp, and fortify himself for the winter in a strong position, where his men would be less exposed to dangerous influence, and where he could hold his ground against an outbreak of the Illinois or an Iroquois invasion. At the middle of January, a thaw broke up the ice which had closed the river; and he set out in a canoe, with Hennepin, to visit the site he had chosen for his projected fort. It was a half a league below the camp, on a low hill or knoll, two hundred yards from the southern bank. On either side was a deep ravine, and in front a marshy tract, overflowed at high water. Thither, then, the party was removed. They dug a ditch behind the hill, connecting the two ravines, and thus completely isolating it. The hill was nearly square in form. An embankment of earth was thrown up on every side: its declivities were sloped steeply down to the bottom of the ravines and the ditch, and further guarded by chevaux-de-frise; while a palisade, twenty-five feet high, was planted around the whole.

Such was the first civilized occupation of the region which now forms the State of Illinois. La Salle christened his new fort Fort Crèvecœur. The name tells of disaster and suffering, but does no justice to the iron-hearted constancy of the sufferer. Up to this time, he had clung to the hope that his vessel, the Griffin, might still be safe. Her safety was vital to his enterprise. She had on board articles of the last necessity to him, including the rigging and anchors of another vessel, which he was to build at Fort Crèvecœur, in order to descend the Mississippi, and sail thence to the West Indies. But now his last hope had well-nigh vanished. Past all reasonable doubt, the Griffin was lost; and in her loss he and all his plans seemed ruined alike.

Nothing, indeed, was ever heard of her. Indians, fur-traders, and even Jesuits, have been charged with contriving her destruction. Some say that the Ottawas boarded and burned her, after murdering those on board; others accuse the Pottawattamies; others affirm that her own crew scuttled and sunk her; others, again, that she foundered in a storm. But … she was gone, it mattered little how. The main-stay of the enterprise was broken; yet, its inflexible chief lost neither heart nor hope. One path, beset with hardships and terrors, still lay open to him. He might return on foot to Fort Frontenac, and bring thence the needful succors.

La Salle felt deeply the dangers of such a step. His men were uneasy, discontented, and terrified by the stories with which the jealous Illinois still constantly filled their ears, of the whirlpools and the monsters of the Mississippi. He dreaded lest, in his absence, they should follow the example of their comrades, and desert. In the midst of his anxieties, a lucky accident gave him the means of disabusing them. He was hunting, one day, near the fort, when he met a young Illinois, on his way home, half-starved, from a distant war excursion. He had been absent so long that he knew nothing of what had passed between his countrymen and the French. La Salle gave him a turkey he had shot, invited him to the fort, fed him, and made him presents. Having thus warmed his heart, he questioned him, with apparent carelessness, as to the countries he had visited, and especially as to the Mississippi, on which the young warrior, seeing no reason to disguise the truth, gave him all the information he required. La Salle now made him the present of a hatchet, to engage him to say nothing of what had passed, and, leaving him in excellent humor, repaired, with some of his followers, to the Illinois camp. Here he found the chiefs seated at a feast of bear’s meat, and he took his place among them on a mat of rushes. After a pause, he charged them with having deceived him in regard to the Mississippi; adding that he knew the river perfectly, having been instructed concerning it by the Master of Life. He then described it to them with so much accuracy that his astonished hearers, conceiving that he owed his knowledge to “medicine,” or sorcery, clapped their hands to their mouths, in sign of wonder, and confessed that all they had said was but an artifice, inspired by their earnest desire that he should remain among them. On this, La Salle’s men took heart again.

La Salle had now good reason to hope that his followers would neither mutiny nor desert in his absence. He resolved to see [his new ship] on the stocks before he set out. This was no easy matter, for the pitsawyers had deserted. “Seeing,” he writes, “that I should lose a year if I waited to get others from Montreal, I said one day, before my people, that I was so vexed to find that the absence of two sawyers would defeat my plans, and make all my trouble useless, that I was resolved to try to saw the planks myself, if I could find a single man who would help me with a will.” Hereupon, two men stepped forward and promised to do their best. They were tolerably successful, and, the rest being roused to emulation, the work went on with such vigor that within six weeks the hull of the vessel was half finished. She was of forty tons burden, and was built with high bulwarks, to protect those on board from Indian arrows.