- Historic Sites
La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
La Motte now began the building of a fortified house, some two leagues above the mouth of the Niagara. Hot water was used to soften the frozen ground; but frost was not the only obstacle. The Senecas of the neighboring village betrayed a sullen jealousy at a design which, indeed, boded them no good. Niagara was the key to the four great lakes above; and whoever held possession of it could, in no small measure, control the fur-trade of the interior. Occupied by the French, it would, in time of peace, intercept the trade which the Iroquois carried on between the western Indians and the Dutch and English at Albany, and in time of war threaten them with serious danger. La Motte saw the necessity of conciliating these formidable neighbors, and, if possible, cajoling them to give their consent to the plan. La Salle, indeed, had instructed him to that effect. He resolved on a journey to the great village of the Senecas, and called on Hennepin, who was busied in building a bark chapel for himself, to accompany him. The village was beyond the Genesee, south-east of the site of Rochester. After a march of five days, they reached it on the last day of December. They were conducted to the lodge of the great chief, where they were beset by a staring crowd of women and children. The chiefs, forty-two in number, squatted on the ground, arrayed in ceremonial robes of beaver, wolf, or black squirrel skin. “The senators of Venice,” writes Hennepin, “do not look more grave or speak more deliberately than the counsellors of the Iroquois.” La Motte’s interpreter harangued the attentive conclave, placed gift after gift at their feet—coats, scarlet cloth, hatchets, knives, and beads—and used all his eloquence to persuade them that the building of a fort on the banks of the Niagara, and a vessel on Lake Erie, were measures vital to their interest. They gladly took the gifts, but answered the interpreter’s speech with evasive generalities; and having been entertained with the burning of an Indian prisoner, the discomfited embassy returned, half-famished, to Niagara.
Meanwhile, La Salle and Tonty were on their way from Fort Frontenac, with men and supplies, to join La Motte and his advance party. They were in a small vessel, with a pilot either unskilful or treacherous. La Salle had gone up the Niagara, to find a suitable place for a shipyard, when he learned that the pilot in charge of the vessel he had left had disobeyed his orders, and ended by wrecking it on the coast. Little was saved except the anchors and cables destined for the new vessel to be built above the cataract. This loss threw him into extreme perplexity, and, as Hennepin says, “would have made anybody but him give up the enterprise.” The whole party were now gathered at the palisaded house which La Motte had built, a little below the mountain ridge of Lewiston. They were a motley crew of French, Flemings, and Italians, all mutually jealous. La Salle’s enemies had tampered with some of the men; and none of them seemed to have had much heart for the enterprise. The fidelity even of La Motte was doubtful. “He served me very ill,” says La Salle, “and Messieurs de Tonty and de la Forest know that he did his best to debauch all my men.” His health soon failed under the hardships of these winter journeyings, and he returned to Fort Frontenac, half-blinded by an inflammation of the eyes. La Salle, seldom happy in the choice of subordinates, had, perhaps, in all his company but one man whom he could fully trust, and this was Tonty.
A more important work than that of the warehouse at the mouth of the river was now to be begun. This was the building of a vessel above the cataract. The small craft which had brought La Motte and Hennepin with their advance party had been hauled to the foot of the rapids at Lewiston, and drawn ashore with a capstan, to save her from the drifting ice. Her lading was taken out, and must now be carried beyond the cataract to the calm water above. They came at last to the mouth of a stream which entered the Niagara two leagues above the cataract, and which was undoubtedly that now called Cayuga Creek.
Trees were felled, the place cleared, and the master-carpenter set his ship-builders at work. Meanwhile, two Mohegan hunters, attached to the party, made bark wigwams to lodge the men. Hennepin had his chapel, apparently of the same material, where he placed his altar, and on Sundays and saints’ days said Mass, preached and exhorted.
The work of the ship-builders advanced rapidly; and when the Indian visitors beheld the vast ribs of the wooden monster, their jealousy was redoubled. A squaw told the French that they meant to burn the vessel on the stocks. All now stood anxiously on the watch. Cold, hunger, and discontent found imperfect antidotes in Tonty’s energy and Hennepin’s sermons. The men, being half-starved, in consequence of the loss of their provisions on Lake Ontario, were restless and moody. The Senecas refused to supply them with corn, and the frequent exhortations of the Récollet father proved an insufficient substitute. In this extremity, the two Mohegans did excellent service; bringing deer and other game, which relieved the most pressing wants of the party, and went far to restore their cheerfulness.
La Salle, meanwhile, had gone down to the mouth of the river, with a sergeant and a number of men; and here, on the high point of land where Fort Niagara now stands, he marked out the foundations of two blockhouses. Then, leaving his men to build them, he set out on foot for Fort Frontenac, where the condition of his affairs demanded his presence, and where he hoped to procure supplies to replace those lost in the wreck of his vessel.