La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West


La Salle now bethought him that, in his absence, he might get from Hennepin service of more value than his sermons; and he requested him to descend the Illinois, and explore it to its mouth. Hennepin reluctantly accepted the proposed task. “Anybody but me,” he says, with his usual modesty, “would have been very much frightened at the dangers of such a journey; and, in fact, if I had not placed all my trust in God, I should not have been the dupe of the Sieur de la Salle, who exposed my life rashly.”

On the last day of February, Hennepin’s canoe lay at the water’s edge; and the party gathered on the bank to bid him farewell. He had two companions, Michel Accau, and a man known as the Picard du Gay, though his real name was Antoine Auguel. The canoe was well laden with gifts for the Indians—tobacco, knives, beads, awls, and other goods, to a very considerable value, supplied at La Salle’s cost; “and, in fact,” observes Hennepin, “he is liberal enough towards his friends.”

The friar bade farewell to La Salle, and embraced all the rest in turn. Father Ribourde gave him his benediction. “Be of good courage, and let your heart be comforted,” said the excellent old missionary, as he spread his hands in benediction over the shaven crown of the reverend traveller. Du Gay and Accau plied their paddles; the canoe receded, and vanished at length behind the forest.

[Hennepin, after reaching the Upper Mississippi, was captured by the Sioux and “adopted” by them. He never rejoined La Salle, but, many adventures later—some true, some fabricated—returned to Canada and later France, to write his famous memoirs.]

On the first of March, before the frost was yet out of the ground, when the forest was still leafless, and the oozy prairies still patched with snow, a band of discontented men were again gathered on the shore for another leave-taking. Hard by, the unfinished ship lay on the stocks, white and fresh from the saw and axe, ceaselessly reminding them of the hardship and peril that was in store. Here you would have seen the calm, impenetrable face of La Salle, and with him the Mohegan hunter, who seems to have felt towards him that admiring attachment which he could always inspire in his Indian retainers. Besides the Mohegan, four Frenchmen were to accompany him: Hunaut, La Violette, Collin, and Dautray. His parting with Tonty was an anxious one, for each well knew the risks that environed both. Embarking with his followers in two canoes, he made his way upward amid the drifting ice; while the faithful Italian, with two or three honest men and twelve or thirteen knaves, remained to hold Fort Crèvecœur in his absence.

The Hardihood of La Salle

La Salle well knew what was before him, and nothing but necessity spurred him to this desperate journey. The winter had been a severe one; and when, an hour after leaving the fort, he and his companions reached the still water of Peoria Lake, they found it sheeted with ice from shore to shore. They carried their canoes up the bank, made two rude sledges, placed the light vessels upon them, and dragged them to the upper end of the lake, where they encamped. In the morning, they found the river still covered with ice, too weak to bear them and too strong to permit them to break a way for the canoes. They spent the whole day in carrying them through the woods, toiling knee-deep in saturated snow. Rain fell in floods, and they took shelter at night in a deserted Indian hut.

In the morning, the third of March [1680], they dragged their canoes half a league farther; then launched them, and, breaking the ice with clubs and hatchets, forced their way slowly up the stream. Again their progress was barred, and again they took to the woods, toiling onward till a tempest of moist, half-liquid snow forced them to bivouac for the night. A sharp frost followed, and in the morning the white waste around them was glazed with a dazzling crust. Now, for the first time, they could use their snow-shoes. Bending to their work, dragging their canoes, which glided smoothly over the polished surface, they journeyed on hour after hour and league after league, till they reached at length the great town of the Illinois, still void of its inhabitants.

On the fifteenth, the party set out again, carried their canoes along the bank of the river as far as the rapids above Ottawa; then launched them and pushed their way upward, battling with the floating ice, which, loosened by a warm rain, drove down the swollen current in sheets. On the eighteenth, they reached a point some miles below the site of Joliet, and here found the river once more completely closed. Despairing of farther progress by water, they hid their canoes on an island, and struck across the country for Lake Michigan.