- Historic Sites
La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
He had reached his goal; but for him there was neither rest nor peace. Man and Nature seemed in arms against him. His agents had plundered him; his creditors had seized his property; and several of his canoes, richly laden, had been lost in the rapids of the St. Lawrence. He hastened to Montreal, where his sudden advent caused great astonishment; and where, despite his crippled resources and damaged credit, he succeeded, within a week, in gaining the supplies which he required, and the needful succors for the forlorn band on the Illinois. He had returned to Fort Frontenac, and was on the point of embarking for their relief, when a blow fell upon him more disheartening than any that had preceded. On the twenty-second of July, two voyageurs, Messier and Laurent, came to him with a letter from Tonty, who wrote that soon after La Salle’s departure nearly all the men had deserted, after destroying Fort Crèvecœur, plundering the magazine and throwing into the river all the arms, goods, and stores which they could not carry off.
And now La Salle’s work must be begun afresh. He had staked all, and all had seemingly been lost. In stern, relentless effort, he had touched the limits of human endurance; and the harvest of his toil was disappointment, disaster, and impending ruin. The shattered fabric of his enterprise was prostrate in the dust. His friends desponded; his foes were blatant and exultant. Did he bend before the storm? No human eye could pierce the depths of his reserved and haughty nature; but the surface was calm, and no sign betrayed a shaken resolve or an altered purpose.
His best hope was in Tonty. Could that brave and true-hearted officer, and the three or four faithful men who had remained with him, make good their foothold on the Illinois, and save from destruction the vessel on the stocks, and the forge and tools so laboriously carried thither, then a basis was left on which the ruined enterprise might be built up once more. On the tenth of August, he embarked again for the Illinois. With him went his lieutenant, La Forest, who held of him in fief an island, then called Belle Isle, opposite Fort Frontenac. A surgeon, ship-carpenters, joiners, masons, soldiers, voyageurs, and laborers completed his company, twenty-five men in all, with every thing needful for the outfit of the vessel.
His route, though difficult, was not so long as that which he had followed the year before…. He ascended the St. Joseph, crossed the portage to the Kankakee, and followed its course downward till it joined the northern branch of the Illinois. He had heard nothing of Tonty on the way, and neither here nor elsewhere could he discover the smallest sign of the passage of white men.
They … soon approached the great town of the Illinois. No hunters were seen; no saluting whoop greeted their ears. Now the meadow opened before them where the great town had stood. They gazed, astonished and confounded: all was desolation. The town had vanished, and the meadow was black with fire. They plied their paddles, hastened to the spot, landed; and, as they looked around their cheeks grew white, and the blood was frozen in their veins.
Before them lay a plain once swarming with wild human life, and covered with Indian dwellings; now a waste of devastation and death, strewn with heaps of ashes, and bristling with charred poles and stakes which had formed the framework of the lodges. At the points of most of them were stuck human skulls, half picked by birds of prey. Near at hand was the burial ground of the village. The travellers sickened with horror as they entered its revolting precincts. Every grave had been rifled, and the bodies flung down from the scaffolds where, after the Illinois custom, many of them had been placed. The field was strewn with broken bones and torn and mangled corpses. A hyena warfare had been waged against the dead. La Salle knew the handiwork of the Iroquois.
As La Salle surveyed this scene of havoc, one thought engrossed him: where were Tonty and his men? He searched the Iroquois fort: there were abundant traces of its savage occupants, and among them, a few fragments of French clothing. He examined the skulls; but the hair, portions of which clung to nearly all of them, was in every case that of an Indian.
“I supposed that, on hearing of the approach of the Iroquois, the old men and other non-combatants had fled [says La Salle], and that the young warriors had remained behind to cover their flight, and afterwards followed, taking the French with them; while the Iroquois, finding nobody to kill, had vented their fury on the corpses in the graveyard.”
Several leagues below the village, they found, on their right hand, close to the river, a sort of island, made inaccessible by the marshes and water which surrounded it. Here the flying Illinois had sought refuge with their women and children, and the place was full of their deserted huts. On the left bank, exactly opposite, was an abandoned camp of the Iroquois. On the level meadow stood a hundred and thirteen huts, and on the forest trees which covered the hills behind were carved the totems or insignia, of the chiefs, together with marks to show the number of followers which each had led to the war. La Salle counted five hundred and eighty-two warriors. He found marks, too, for the Illinois killed or captured, but none to indicate that any of the Frenchmen had shared their fate.