La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West


As they descended the river, they passed, on the same day, six abandoned camps of the Illinois, and opposite to each was a camp of the invaders. The former, it was clear, had retreated in a body; while the Iroquois had followed their march, day by day, along the other bank. La Salle and his men pushed rapidly onward, passed Peoria Lake, and soon reached Fort Crèvecœur, which they found, as they expected, demolished by the deserters. The vessel on the stocks was still left entire, though the Iroquois had found means to draw out the iron nails and spikes.

La Salle and his companions hastened on, and during the following day passed four opposing camps of the savage armies. The silence of death now reigned along the deserted river, whose lonely borders, wrapped deep in forests, seemed lifeless as the grave. As they drew near the mouth of the stream, they saw a meadow on their right, and, on its farthest verge, several human figures, erect, yet motionless. They landed, and cautiously examined the place. The long grass was trampled down, and all around were strewn the relics of the hideous orgies which formed the ordinary sequel of an Iroquois victory. The figures they had seen were the half-consumed bodies of women, still bound to the stakes where they had been tortured. Other sights there were, too revolting for record. All the remains were those of women and children. The men, it seemed, had fled, and left them to their fate.

Here, again, La Salle sought long and anxiously, without finding the smallest sign that could indicate the presence of Frenchmen. Once more descending the river, they soon reached its mouth. Before them, a broad eddying current rolled swiftly on its way; and La Salle beheld the Mississippi, the object of his day-dreams, the destined avenue of his ambition and his hopes. It was no time for reflections. The moment was too engrossing, too heavily charged with anxieties and cares. From a rock on the shore, he saw a tree stretched forward above the stream; and stripping off its bark to make it more conspicuous, he hung upon it a board on which he had drawn the figures of himself and his men, seated in their canoe, and bearing a pipe of peace. To this he tied a letter for Tonty, informing him that he had returned up the river to the ruined village.

They retraced their course and, paddling at times both day and night, urged their canoe so swiftly that they reached the village in the incredibly short space of four days.

The sky was clear, and, as night came on, the travellers saw a prodigious comet blazing above this scene of desolation. On that night, it was chilling with a superstitious awe the hamlets of New England and the gilded chambers of Versailles; but it is characteristic of La Salle, that, beset as he was with perils, and surrounded with ghastly images of death, he coolly notes down the phenomenon, not as a portentous messenger of war and woe, but rather as an object of scientific curiosity.

After collecting a store of half-burnt corn from the ravaged granaries of the Illinois, the whole party began to ascend the river, and, on the sixth of January, reached the junction of the Kankakee with the northern branch. On their way downward, they had descended the former stream. They now chose the latter, and soon discovered, by the margin of the water, a rude cabin of bark. La Salle landed, and examined the spot, when an object met his eye which cheered him with a bright gleam of hope. It was but a piece of wood; but the wood had been cut with a saw. Tonty and his party, then, had passed this way, escaping from the carnage behind them. Unhappily, they had left no token of their passage at the fork of the two streams; and thus La Salle, on his voyage downward, had believed them to be still on the river below.

With rekindled hope, the travellers pursued their journey, leaving their canoes, and making their way overland towards the fort on the St. Joseph. At length, they reached their goal, and found shelter and safety within the walls of Fort Miami. Here was the party left in charge of La Forest; but, to his surprise and grief, La Salle heard no tidings of Tonty.

[What had befallen Tonty? Soon after La Salle’s departure, bad news of his reverses reached the men, and all but a loyal handful deserted. Tonty and these few went to live in the Illinois village, and became involved in the ensuing war with the Iroquois, in which Tonty, attempting the role of peacemaker, narrowly escaped with his life. After great hardships, his tiny band reached safety with the friendly Pottawattamies on the west shore of Lake Michigan.]

[La Salle’s] white enemies had found, or rather, perhaps, had made, a savage ally in the Iroquois. Their incursions must be stopped, or his enterprise would come to nought; and he thought he saw the means by which this new danger could be converted into a source of strength. The tribes of the West, threatened by the common enemy, might be taught to forget their mutual animosities, and join in a defensive league, with La Salle at its head. They might be colonized around his fort in the valley of the Illinois, where, in the shadow of the French flag, and with the aid of French allies, they could hold the Iroquois in check, and acquire in some measure the arts of a settled life.