La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West


This bold, hardy, and adventurous friar, the historian of the expedition, and a conspicuous actor in it, has unwittingly painted his own portrait with tolerable distinctness. “I always,” he says, “felt a strong inclination to fly from the world and live according to the rules of a pure and severe virtue; and it was with this view that I entered the Order of St. Francis.” He then speaks of his zeal for the saving of souls, but admits that a passion for travel and a burning desire to visit strange lands had no small part in his inclination for the missions. Being in a convent in Artois, his Superior sent him to Calais, at the season of the herring-fishery, to beg alms, after the practice of the Franciscans. Here and at Dunkirk, he made friends of the sailors, and was never tired of their stories. So insatiable, indeed, was his appetite for them, that “often,” he says, “I hid myself behind tavern doors while the sailors were telling of their voyages. The tobacco smoke made me very sick at the stomach; but, notwithstanding…. I could have passed whole days and nights in this way without eating.”

On arriving in Canada, he was sent up to Fort Frontenac, as a missionary. That wild and remote post was greatly to his liking. He planted a gigantic cross, superintended the building of a chapel for himself and his colleague, Buisset, and instructed the Iroquois colonists of the place. He visited, too, the neighboring Indian settlements, paddling his canoe in summer, when the lake was open, and journeying in winter on snowshoes, with a blanket slung at his back.

Thus he inured himself to the hardships of the woods, and prepared for the execution of the grand plan of discovery which he calls his own; “an enterprise,” to borrow his own words, “capable of terrifying anybody but me.” When the later editions of his book appeared, doubts had been expressed of his veracity. “I here protest to you, before God,” he writes, addressing the reader, “that my narrative is faithful and sincere, and that you may believe everything related in it.” And yet, as we shall see, this reverend father was the most impudent of liars; and the narrative of which he speaks is a rare monument of brazen mendacity. Hennepin, however, had seen and dared much: for among his many failings fear had no part; and, where his vanity or his spite was not involved, he often told the truth. His books have their value, with all their enormous fabrications.

The Expedition Sets Sail

La Motte and Hennepin, with sixteen men, went on board the little vessel of ten tons, which lay at Fort Frontenac. The friar’s two brethren, Buisset and Ribourde, threw their arms about his neck as they bade him farewell; while his Indian proselytes, learning whither he was bound, stood with their hands pressed upon their mouths, in amazement at the perils which awaited their ghostly instructor. La Salle, with the rest of the party, was to follow as soon as he could finish his preparations. It was a boisterous and gusty day, the eighteenth of November [1678]. The sails were spread; the shore receded—the stone walls of the fort, the huge cross that the friar had reared, the wigwams, the settlers’ cabins, the group of staring Indians on the strand. The lake was rough; and the men, crowded in so small a craft, grew nervous and uneasy. They hugged the northern shore, to escape the fury of the wind, which blew savagely from the north-east; while the long, gray sweep of naked forests on their right betokened that winter was fast closing in. On the twenty-sixth, they reached the neighborhood of the Indian town of Taiaiagon, not far from Toronto; and ran their vessel, for safety, into the mouth of the river—probably the Humber—where the ice closed about her, and they were forced to cut her out with axes. On the fifth of December, they attempted to cross to the mouth of the Niagara; but darkness overtook them, and they spent a comfortless night, tossing on the troubled lake, five or six miles from shore. In the morning, they entered the mouth of the Niagara, and landed on the point at its eastern side, where now stands the historic ramparts of Fort Niagara. Here they found a small village of Senecas, attracted hither by the fisheries, who gazed with curious eyes at the vessel, and listened in wonder as the voyagers sang Te Deum, in gratitude for their safe arrival.

Hennepin, with several others, now ascended the river in a canoe to the foot of the mountain ridge of Lewiston, which, stretching on the right hand and on the left, forms the acclivity of a vast plateau, rent with the mighty chasm, along which, from this point to the cataract, seven miles above, rush, with the fury of an Alpine torrent, the gathered waters of four inland oceans. To urge the canoe farther was impossible. He landed, with his companions, on the west bank, near the foot of that part of the ridge now called Queenstown Heights, climbed the steep ascent, and pushed through the wintry forest on a tour of exploration. On his left sank the cliffs, the furious river raging below; till at length, in primeval solitudes, unprofaned as yet by the pettiness of man, the imperial cataract burst upon his sight.