The story of La Salle’s exploration was magnificently told in Francis Parkman’s The Discovery of the Great West. First published in 1860, this classic work was completely revised after Parkman gained access to a treasure trove of French manuscripts, and was republished in 1879. A selection from Parkman’s history, dealing with La Salle and the episodes which are shown in the Catlin paintings, begins below.
In 1643 was born at Rouen Robert Cavelier, better known by the designation of La Salle. His father Jean and his uncle Henri were wealthy merchants, living more like nobles than like burghers; and the boy received an education answering to the marked traits of intellect and character which he soon began to display. He showed an inclination for the exact sciences, and especially for the mathematics, in which he made great proficiency. At an early age, it is said, he became connected with the Jesuits; and, though doubt has been expressed of the statement, it is probably true.
The Society of Jesus may have had a powerful attraction for his youthful imagination. This great organization, so complicated yet so harmonious, a mighty machine moved from the centre by a single hand, was an image of regulated power, full of fascination for a mind like his. But, if it was likely that he would be drawn into it, it was no less likely that he would soon wish to escape. To find himself not at the centre of power, but at the circumference; not the mover, but the moved; the passive instrument of another’s will, taught to walk in prescribed, paths, to renounce his individuality and become a component atom of a vast whole—would have been intolerable to him. Nature had shaped him for other uses than to teach a class of boys on the benches of a Jesuit school.
La Salle had an elder brother in Canada, the Abbé Jean Cavelier, a priest of St. Sulpice. Apparently, it was this that shaped his destinies. His connection with the Jesuits had deprived him, under the French law, of the inheritance of his father, who had died not long before. An allowance was made to him of three or, as is elsewhere stated, four hundred livres a year, the capital of which was paid over to him; and with this pittance he sailed for Canada, to seek his fortune, in the spring of 1666.
Next, we find him at Montreal…. The priests of St. Sulpice were granting out their lands, on very easy terms, to settlers. They wished to extend a thin line of settlements along the front of their island, to form a sort of outpost, from which an alarm could be given on any descent of the Iroquois. La Salle was the man for such a purpose. Queylus, Superior of the Seminary, made him a generous offer; and he accepted it. This was the gratuitous grant of a large tract of land at the place now called La Chine, above the great rapids of the same name, and eight or nine miles from Montreal. On one hand, the place was greatly exposed to attack; and, on the other, it was favorably situated for the fur-trade. La Salle and his successors became its feudal proprietors.
That La Salle came to Canada with objects distinctly in view, is probable from the fact that he at once began to study the Indian languages, and with such success that he is said, within two or three years, to have mastered the Iroquois and seven or eight other languages and dialects. From the shore of his seigniory, he could gaze westward over the broad breast of the Lake of St. Louis, bounded by the dim forests of Chateauguay and Beauharnois; but his thoughts flew far beyond, across the wild and lonely world that stretched towards the sunset. Like Champlain, and all the early explorers, he dreamed of a passage to the South Sea, and a new road for commerce to the riches of China and Japan. Indians often came to his secluded settlement; and, on one occasion, he was visited by a band of the Seneca Iroquois, not long before the scourge of the colony, but now, in virtue of the treaty, wearing the semblance of friendship. The visitors spent the winter with him, and told him of a river called the Ohio, rising in their country, and flowing into the sea, but at such a distance that its mouth could only be reached after a journey of eight or nine months. Evidently, the Ohio and the Mississippi are here merged into one. (According to Dollier de Casson, who had good opportunities of knowing, the Iroquois always called the Mississippi the Ohio, while the Algonquins gave it its present name.) In accordance with geographical views then prevalent, he conceived that this great river must needs flow into the “Vermilion Sea”; that is, the Gulf of California. If so, it would give him what he sought, a western passage to China; while, in any case, the populous Indian tribes said to inhabit its banks might be made a source of great commercial profit. La Salle’s imagination took fire.
[About this time, while Joliet was first visiting the upper Mississippi (which he never descended to its mouth) La Salle spent several years of exploration in the Ohio and the Great Lakes area. He reached the Ohio River, and probably penetrated the Michigan and upper Illinois country; the exact extent of these travels, in 1669-71, is in doubt.]
La Salle’s enemies called him a visionary. His projects perplexed and startled them. At first, they ridiculed him; and then, as step by step he advanced towards his purpose, they denounced and maligned him. What was this purpose? It was not of sudden growth, but developed as years went on. When his earlier journeyings revealed to him the valley of the Ohio and the fertile plains of Illinois, his imagination took wing over the boundless prairies and forests drained by the great river of the West. His ambition had found its field. He would leave barren and frozen Canada behind, and lead France and civilization into the valley of the Mississippi. Neither the English nor the Jesuits should conquer that rich domain: the one must rest content with the country east of the Alleghanies, and the other with the forests, savages, and beaver-skins of the northern lakes. It was for him to call into light the latent riches of the great West. But the way to his land of promise was rough and long: it lay through Canada, filled with hostile traders and hostile priests, and barred by ice for half the year. The difficulty was soon solved. La Salle became convinced that the Mississippi flowed, not into the Pacific or the Gulf of California, but into the Gulf of Mexico. By a fortified post at its mouth, he could guard it against both English and Spaniards, and secure for the trade of the interior an access and an outlet under his own control, and open at every season. Of this trade, the hides of the buffalo would at first form the staple; and, along with furs, would reward the enterprise till other resources should be developed.
Canada must needs be, at the outset, his base of action, and without the support of its authorities he could do nothing. This support he found. From the moment when Count Frontenac assumed the government of the colony, he seems to have looked with favor on the young discoverer. There were points of likeness between the two men. Both were ardent, bold, and enterprising. The irascible and fiery pride of the noble found its match in the reserved and seemingly cold pride of the ambitious burgher. Each could comprehend the other; and they had, moreover, strong prejudices and dislikes in common. An understanding, not to say an alliance, soon grew up between them.
[Frontenac, leading a large expedition into Lake Ontario, now built a fort on the present site of Kingston, Ontario, and decided to entrust it to his loyal follower, La Salle.]
In the autumn of 1674, La Salle went to France with letters of strong recommendation from Frontenac. He was well received at Court; and he made two petitions to the king: the one for a patent of nobility, in consideration of his services as an explorer; and the other for a grant in seigniory of Fort Frontenac, for so he called the new post, in honor of his patron. He was raised to the rank of the untitled nobles; received a grant of the fort, and lands adjacent, to the extent of four leagues in front and a half a league in depth, besides the neighboring islands; and was invested with the government of the fort and settlement, subject to the orders of the governor-general.
Had La Salle been a mere merchant, he was in a fair way to make a fortune, for he was in a position to control the better part of the Canadian fur-trade. But he was not a mere merchant; and no commercial profit could content his ambition.
No sooner was La Salle installed in his new post than the merchants of Canada joined hands to oppose him. Duchesneau, intendant of the colony, aided the malcontents. As time went on, their bitterness grew; and when at last it was seen that, not satisfied with the monopoly of Fort Frontenac, La Salle aimed at the control of the valleys of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and the usufruct of half a continent, the ire of his opponents redoubled, and Canada became for him a nest of hornets, buzzing in wrath, and watching the moment to sting. But there was another element of opposition, less noisy but not less formidable; and this arose from the Jesuits. For the plans of the daring young schemer jarred with their own.
The Jesuits were no longer supreme in Canada, or, in other words, Canada was no longer simply a mission. It had become a colony. Temporal interests and the civil power were constantly gaining ground; and the disciples of Loyola felt that relatively, if not absolutely, they were losing it. They struggled vigorously to maintain the ascendancy of their Order, or, as they would have expressed it, the ascendancy of religion; but in the older and more settled parts of the colony it was clear that the day of their undivided rule was past. They dreaded fur-traders, partly because they interfered with their teachings and perverted their converts, and partly for other reasons. But La Salle was a fur-trader, and far worse than a fur-trader: he aimed at occupation, fortification, and settlement. The scope and vigor of his enterprises, and the powerful influence that aided them, made him a stumbling-block in their path. He was their most dangerous rival for the control of the West, and from first to last they set themselves against him.
The Jesuits procured an ordinance from the Supreme Council, prohibiting traders from going into the Indian country, in order that they, the Jesuits, being already established there in their missions, might carry on trade without competition. But La Salle induced a good number of the Iroquois to settle around his fort; thus bringing the trade to his own door, without breaking the ordinance.
Now, at length, [La Salle’s] plans were ripe and his time was come. In the autumn of 1677, he left the fort in charge of his lieutenant, descended the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and sailed for France. He had the patronage of Frontenac and the help of strong friends in Paris. It is said, as we have seen already, that his enemies denounced him, in advance, as a madman; but a memorial of his, which his friends laid before the minister Colbert, found a favorable hearing. In it he set forth his plans, or a portion of them. He first recounted briefly the discoveries he had made, and then described the country he had seen south and west of the Great Lakes.
La Salle seems to have had an interview with the minister, in which the proposals of his memorial were somewhat modified. He soon received in reply the following patent from the king:
“Louis, by the grace of God King of France and Navarre, to our dear and well-beloved Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, greeting. We have received with favor the very humble petition made us in your name, to permit you to labor at the discovery of the western parts of New France; and we have the more willingly entertained this proposal, since we have nothing more at heart than the exploration of this country, through which, to all appearance, a way may be found to Mexico. For this and other causes thereunto moving us, we permit you by these presents, signed with our hand, to labor at the discovery of the western parts of our aforesaid country of New France; and, for the execution of this enterprise, to build forts at such places as you may think necessary, and enjoy possession thereof under the same clauses and conditions as of Fort Frontenac … on condition, nevertheless, that you finish this enterprise within five years, failing which, these presents shall be void, and of no effect; that you carry on no trade with the savages called Ottawas, or with other tribes who bring their peltries to Montreal; and that you do the whole at your own cost and that of your associates, to whom we have granted the sole right of trade in buffalo-hides. And we direct the Sieur Count Frontenac, our governor and lieutenant-general, and also Duchesneau, intendant of justice, police, and finance, and the officers of the supreme council of the aforesaid country, to see to the execution of these presents; for such is our pleasure.
“Given at St. Germain en Laye, this 12th day of May, 1678, and of our reign the 35th year.”
What he now most needed was money; and, having none of his own, he set himself to raising it from others. A notary named Simonnet lent him four thousand livres; an advocate named Raoul, twenty-four thousand; and one Dumont, six thousand. His cousin François Plet, a merchant of Rue St. Martin, lent him about eleven thousand, at the interest of forty per cent; and, when he returned to Canada, Frontenac found means to procure him another loan, of about fourteen thousand, secured by the mortgage of Fort Frontenac. But his chief helpers were his family, who became sharers in his undertaking.
Henri de Tonty, an Italian officer, a protégé of the Prince de Conti, [was] sent to La Salle as a person suited to his purposes. Tonty had but one hand, the other having been blown off by a grenade in the Sicilian wars. His father, who had been governor of Gaeta, but who had come to France in consequence of political disturbances in Naples, had earned no small reputation as a financier, and had invented the form of life insurance still called the Tontine. La Salle learned to know his new lieutenant on the voyage across the Atlantic; and, soon after reaching Canada, he wrote of him to his patron in the following terms: “His honorable character and his amiable disposition were well known to you; but perhaps you would not have thought him capable of doing things for which a strong constitution, an acquaintance with the country, and the use of both hands seemed absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, his energy and address make him equal to any thing….”
Besides Tonty, La Salle found in France another ally, La Motte de Lussière, to whom he offered a share in the enterprise, and who joined him at Rochelle, the place of embarkation. It was not till the fourteenth of July  that La Salle, with Tonty, La Motte, and thirty men, set sail for Canada, and two months more elapsed before he reached Quebec. Here he found Father Louis Hennepin, who had come down from Fort Frontenac to meet him.
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.
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 . 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.
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.
During his absence, Tonty finished the vessel, which was of about forty-five tons burden. As spring opened, she was ready for launching. They now took her up the river, and made her fast below the swift current at Black Rock. Here they finished her equipment, and waited for La Salle’s return; but the absent commander did not appear. The spring and more than half of the summer had passed before they saw him again. At length, early in August, he arrived at the mouth of the Niagara, bringing three more friars; for, though no friend of the Jesuits, he was zealous for the Faith, and was rarely without a missionary in his journeyings. Like Hennepin, the three friars were all Flemings. One of them, Melithon Watteau, was to remain at Niagara; the others, Zenobe Membré and Gabriel Ribourde, were to preach the Faith among the tribes of the West. Ribourde was a hale and cheerful old man of sixty-four.
La Salle brought a tale of disaster. His enemies, bent on ruining the enterprise, had given out that he was embarked on a harebrained venture, from which he would never return. His creditors, excited by rumors set afloat to that end, had seized on all his property in the settled parts of Canada, though his seigniory of Fort Frontenac alone would have more than sufficed to pay all his debts. There was no remedy. To defer the enterprise would have been to give his adversaries the triumph that they sought; and he hardened himself against the blow with his usual stoicism.
On the seventh of August , La Salle and his followers embarked, sang Te Deum, and fired their cannon. A fresh breeze sprang up; and with swelling canvas the Griffin ploughed the virgin waves of Lake Erie, where sail was never seen before. For three days they held their course over these unknown waters, and on the fourth turned northward into the Strait of Detroit. Here, on the right hand and on the left, lay verdant prairies, dotted with groves and bordered with lofty forests. They saw walnut, chestnut, and wild plum trees, and oaks festooned with grape-vines; herds of deer, and flocks of swans and wild turkeys.
The bulwarks of the Griffin were plentifully hung with game which the men killed on shore, and among the rest with a number of bears, much commended by Hennepin for their want of ferocity and the excellence of their flesh. “Those,” he says, “who will one day have the happiness to possess this fertile and pleasant strait, will be very much obliged to those who have shown them the way.” They crossed Lake St. Clair, and still sailed northward against the current, till now, sparkling in the sun, Lake Huron spread before them like a sea.
For a time they bore on prosperously. Then the wind died to a calm, then freshened to a gale, then rose to a furious tempest; and the vessel tossed wildly among the short, steep, perilous waves of the raging lake. Even La Salle called on his followers to commend themselves to Heaven. All fell to their prayers but the godless pilot, who was loud in complaint against his commander for having brought him, after the honor he had won on the ocean, to drown at last ignominiously in fresh water. The rest clamored to the saints. St. Anthony of Padua was promised a chapel to be built in his honor, if he would but save them from their jeopardy; while in the same breath La Salle and the friars declared him patron of their great enterprise. The saint heard their prayers. The obedient winds were tamed; and the Griffin plunged on her way through foaming surges that still grew calmer as she advanced. Now the sun shone forth on woody islands, Bois Blanc and Mackinaw and the distant Manitoulins—on the forest wastes of Michigan and the vast blue bosom of the angry lake; and now her port was won, and she found her rest behind the point of St. Ignace of Michillimackinac, floating in that tranquil cove where crystal waters cover but cannot hide the pebbly depths beneath. Before her rose the house and chapel of the Jesuits, enclosed with palisades; on the right, the Huron village, with its bark cabins and its fence of tall pickets; on the left, the square compact houses of the French traders; and, not far off, the clustered wigwams of an Ottawa village. Here was a centre of the Jesuit missions, and a centre of the Indian trade; and here, under the shadow of the cross, was much sharp practice in the service of Mammon.
The adventurers landed in state, and marched, under arms, to the bark chapel of the Ottawa village, where they heard mass. La Salle knelt before the altar, in a mantle of scarlet, bordered with gold. Soldiers, sailors, and artisans knelt around him—black Jesuits, gray Récollets, swarthy voyageurs, and painted savages; a devout but motley concourse.
Yet it was with more wonder than good-will that the Indians of the mission gazed on the floating fort, for so they called the vessel. A deep jealousy of La Salle’s designs had been infused into them. His own followers, too, had been tampered with. In the autumn before, it may be remembered, he had sent fifteen men up the lakes, to trade for him, with orders to go thence to the Illinois, and make preparation against his coming. Early in the summer, Tonty had been despatched in a canoe from Niagara to look after them. It was high time. Most of the men had been seduced from their duty, and had disobeyed their orders, squandered the goods intrusted to them, or used them in trading on their own account. La Salle found four of them at Michillimackinac. These he arrested, and sent Tonty to the Falls of Ste. Marie, where two others were captured, with their plunder. The rest were in the woods, and it was useless to pursue them.
Anxious and troubled as to the condition of his affairs in Canada, La Salle had meant, after seeing his party safe at Michillimackinac to leave Tonty to conduct it to the Illinois, while he himself returned to the colony. But Tonty was still at Ste. Marie, and he had none to trust but himself. Therefore, he resolved at all risks to remain with his men; “for,” he says, “I judged my presence absolutely necessary to retain such of them as were left me, and prevent them from being enticed away during the winter.’ Moreover, he thought that he had detected an intrigue of his enemies to hound on the Iroquois against the Illinois, in order to defeat his plan by involving him in the war.
Early in September, he set sail again, and, passing westward into Lake Michigan, cast anchor near one of the islands at the entrance of Green Bay. Here, for once, he found a friend in the person of a Pottawattamie chief, who had been so wrought upon by the politic kindness of Frontenac that he declared himself ready to die for the children of Onontio. Here, too, he found several of his advance party, who had remained faithful, and collected a large store of furs. It would have been better had they proved false, like the rest. La Salle, who asked counsel of no man, resolved, in spite of his followers, to send back the Griffin, laden with these furs, and others collected on the way, to satisfy his creditors. It was a rash resolution, for it involved trusting her to the pilot, who had already proved either incompetent or treacherous. She fired a parting shot, and on the eighteenth of September set sail for Niagara, with orders to return to the head of Lake Michigan as soon as she had discharged her cargo. La Salle, with the fourteen men who remained, in four canoes, deeply laden with a forge, tools, merchandise, and arms, put out from the island and resumed his voyage.
The parting was not auspicious. The lake, glassy and calm in the afternoon, was convulsed at night with a sudden storm, when the canoes were midway between the island and the main shore. It was with difficulty that they could keep together, the men shouting to each other through the darkness. Hennepin, who was in the smallest canoe, with a heavy load, and a carpenter for a companion, who was awkward at the paddle, found himself in jeopardy which demanded all his nerve. The voyagers thought themselves happy when they gained at last the shelter of a little sandy cove, where they dragged up their canoes, and made their cheerless bivouac in the drenched and dripping forest. Here they spent five days, living on pumpkins and Indian corn, the gift of their Pottawattamie friends, and on a Canada porcupine, brought in by La Salle’s Mohegan hunter. The gale raged meanwhile with relentless fury. They trembled when they thought of the Griffin. When at length the tempest lulled, they re-embarked, and steered southward, along the shore of Wisconsin; but again the storm fell upon them, and drove them, for safety, to a bare, rocky, islet. Here they made a fire of driftwood, crouched around it, drew their blankets over their heads, and in this miserable plight, pelted with sleet and rain, remained for two days.
At length they were afloat again; but their prosperity was brief. On the twenty-eighth, a fierce squall drove them to a point of rocks, covered with bushes, where they consumed the little that remained of their provisions. On the first of October, they paddled about thirty miles, without food, when they came to a village of Pottawattamies, who ran down to the shore to help them land; but La Salle, fearing that some of his men would steal the merchandise and desert to the Indians, insisted on going three leagues farther, to the great indignation of his followers. The lake, swept by an easterly gale, was rolling its waves against the beach, like the ocean in a storm. In the attempt to land, La Salle’s canoe was nearly swamped.
When all were safe ashore, La Salle, who distrusted the Indians they had passed, took post on a hill, and ordered his followers to prepare their guns for action. Nevertheless, as they were starving, an effort must be risked to gain a supply of food; and he sent three men back to the village to purchase it. Well armed, but faint with toil and famine, they made their way through the stormy forest, bearing a pipe of peace, but, on arriving, saw that the scared inhabitants had fled. They found, however, a stock of corn, of which they took a portion, leaving goods in exchange, and then set out on their return.
This was no journey of pleasure. The lake was ruffled with almost ceaseless storms; clouds big with rain above; a turmoil of gray and gloomy waves beneath. Every night the canoes must be shouldered through the breakers and dragged up the steep banks.
At length, they descried, at a distance, on the stormy shore, two or three eagles among a busy congregation of crows or turkey buzzards. They paddled in all haste to the spot. The feasters took flight; and the starved travellers found the mangled body of a deer, lately killed by the wolves. This good luck proved the inauguration of plenty. As they approached the head of the lake, game grew abundant; and, with the aid of the Mohegan, there was no lack of bear’s meat and venison. They found wild grapes, too, in the woods, and gathered them by cutting down the trees to which the vines clung.
While thus employed, they were startled by a sight often so fearful in the waste and the wilderness, the print of a human foot. It was clear that Indians were not far off. A strict watch was kept, not, as it proved, without cause; for that night, while the sentry thought of little but screening himself and his gun from the floods of rain, a party of Outagamies crept under the bank, where they lurked for some time before he discovered them. Being challenged, they came forward, professing great friendship, and pretending to have mistaken the French for Iroquois. In the morning, however, there was an outcry from La Salle’s servant, who declared that the visitors had stolen his coat from under the inverted canoe where he had placed it; while some of the carpenters also complained of being robbed. La Salle well knew that, if the theft were left unpunished, worse would come of it. First, he posted his men at the woody point of a peninsula, whose sandy neck was interposed between them and the main forest. Then he went forth, pistol in hand, met a young Outagami, seized him, and led him prisoner to his camp. This done, he again set out, and soon found an Outagami chief—for the wigwams were not far distant—to whom he told what he had done, adding that, unless the stolen goods were restored, the prisoner should be killed. The Indians were in perplexity, for they had cut the coat to pieces and divided it. In this dilemma, they resolved, being strong in numbers, to rescue their comrade by force. Accordingly, they came down to the edge of the forest, or posted themselves behind fallen trees on the banks, while La Salle’s men in their stronghold braced their nerves for the fight. Here three Flemish friars, with their rosaries, and eleven Frenchmen, with their guns, confronted a hundred and twenty screeching Outagamies. Hennepin, who had seen service, and who had always an exhortation at his tougue’s end, busied himself to inspire the rest with a courage equal to his own. Neither party, however, had an appetite for the fray. A parley ensued: full compensation was made for the stolen goods, and the aggrieved Frenchmen were further propitiated with a gift of beaver-skins.
Their late enemies, now become friends, spent the next day in dances, feasts, and speeches. They entreated La Salle not to advance farther, since the Illinois, through his country he must pass, would be sure to kill him; for, added these friendly counsellors, they hated the French because they had been instigating the Iroquois to invade their country. Here was another subject of anxiety. La Salle was confirmed in his belief that his busy and unscrupulous enemies were intriguing for his destruction.
He pushed on, however, circling around the southern shore of Lake Michigan, till he reached the mouth of the St. Joseph, called by him the Miamis. Here Tonty was to have rejoined him, with twenty men, making his way from Michillimackinac, along the eastern shore of the lake; but the rendezvous was a solitude, Tonty was nowhere to be seen. It was the first of November. Winter was at hand, and the streams would soon be frozen. The men clamored to go forward, urging that they should starve if they could not reach the villages of the Illinois before the tribe scattered for the winter hunt. La Salle was inexorable. If they should all desert, he said, he, with his Mohegan hunter and the three friars, would still remain and wait for Tonty. The men grumbled, but obeyed; and, to divert their thoughts, he set them at building a fort of timber on a rising ground at the mouth of the river.
They had spent twenty days at this task, and their work was well advanced, when at length Tonty appeared. He brought with him only half of his men. Provisions had failed; and the rest of his party had been left thirty leagues behind, to sustain themselves by hunting. Happily, the men left behind, excepting two deserters, succeeded, a few days after, in rejoining the party.
Thus was one heavy load lifted from the heart of La Salle. But where was the Griffin? Time enough, and more than enough, had passed for her voyage to Niagara and back again. He scanned the dreary horizon with an anxious eye. No returning sail gladdened the watery solitude, and a dark foreboding gathered in his heart. Yet further delay was impossible. He sent back two men to Michillimackinac to meet her, if she still existed, and pilot her to his new fort of the Miamis, and then prepared to ascend the river, whose weedy edges were already glassed with thin flakes of ice.
On the third of December , the party reembarked, thirty-three in all, in eight canoes, and ascended the chill current of the St. Joseph, bordered with dreary meadows and bare gray forests. When they approached the site of the present village of South Bend, they looked anxiously along the shore on their right, to find the portage or path leading to the headquarters of the Illinois. The Mohegan was absent, hunting; and unaided by his practised eye, they passed the path without seeing it. La Salle landed to search the woods. Hours passed and he did not return. Hennepin and Tonty grew uneasy, disembarked, bivouacked, ordered guns to be fired, and sent out men to scour the country. Night came, but not their lost leader. Muffled in their blankets and powdered by the thick-falling snowflakes, they sat ruefully speculating as to what had befallen him; nor was it till four o’clock of the next afternoon that they saw him approaching along the margin of the river. His face and hands were besmirched with charcoal; and he was further decorated with two opossums which hung from his belt, and which he had killed with a stick as they were swinging head downwards from the bough of a tree, after the fashion of that singular beast. He had missed his way in the forest, and had been forced to make a wide circuit around the edge of a swamp; while the snow, of which the air was full, added to his perplexities. Thus he pushed on through the rest of the day and the greater part of the night, till, about two o’clock in the morning, he reached the river again, and fired his gun as a signal to his party. Hearing no answering shot, he pursued his way along the bank, when he presently saw the gleam of a fire among the dense thickets close at hand. Not doubting that he had found the bivouac of his party, he hastened to the spot. To his surprise, no human being was to be seen. Under a tree beside the fire was a heap of dry grass impressed with the form of a man who must have fled but a moment before, for his couch was still warm. It was no doubt an Indian, ambushed on the bank, watching to kill some passing enemy. La Salle called out in several Indian languages; but there was dead silence all around. He then, with admirable coolness, took possession of the quarters he had found, shouting to their invisible proprietor that he was about to sleep in his bed; piled a barricade of bushes around the spot, rekindled the dying fire, warmed his benumbed hands, stretched himself on the dried grass, and slept undisturbed till morning.
The Mohegan had rejoined the party before La Salle’s return, and with his aid the portage was soon found. The party shouldered their canoes and baggage, and began their march for the sources of the river Illinois, some five miles distant. Around them stretched a desolate plain, half-covered with snow, and strewn with the skulls and bones of buffalo; while, on its farthest verge, they could see the lodges of the Miami Indians, who had made this place their abode.
They soon reached a spot where the oozy, saturated soil quaked beneath their tread. All around were clumps of alder-bushes, tufts of rank grass, and pools of glistening water. In the midst, a dark and lazy current, which a tall man might bestride, crept twisting like a snake among the weeds and rushes. Here were the sources of the Kankakee, one of the heads of the Illinois. Fed by an unceasing tribute of the spongy soil, it quickly widened to a river; and they floated on their way through a voiceless, lifeless solitude of dreary oak barrens, or boundless marshes overgrown with reeds. At night, they built their fire on ground made firm by frost, and bivouacked among the rushes. A few days brought them to a more favored region. On the right hand and on the left stretched the boundless prairies, dotted with leafless groves and bordered by gray wintry forests, scorched by the fires kindled in the dried grass by Indian hunters, and strewn with the carcasses and the bleached skulls of innumerable buffalo. The plains were scored with their pathways, and the muddy edges of the river were full of their hoof-prints. Yet not one was to be seen. At night, the horizon glowed with distant fires; and by day the savage hunters could be descried at times roaming on the verge of the prairie. The men, discontented and half-starved, would have deserted to them had they dared. La Salle’s Mohegan could kill no game except two lean deer, with a few wild geese and swans. At length, in their straits, they made a happy discovery. It was a buffalo bull, fast mired in a slough. They killed him, lashed a cable about him, and then twelve men dragged out the shaggy monster, whose ponderous carcass demanded their utmost efforts.
The scene changed again as they descended. On either hand ran ranges of woody hills, following the course of the river; and when they mounted to their tops, they saw beyond them a rolling sea of dull green prairie, a boundless pasture of the buffalo and the deer, in our own day strangely transformed—yellow in harvest time with ripened wheat, and dotted with the roofs of a hardy and valiant yeomanry.
They passed the site of the future town of Ottawa, and saw on their right the high plateau of Buffalo Rock, long a favorite dwelling-place of Indians. A league below, the river glided among islands bordered with stately woods. Close on their left towered a lofty cliff, crested with trees that overhung the rippling current; while before them spread the valley of the Illinois, in broad low meadows, bordered on the right by the graceful hills at whose foot now lies the village of Utica. A population far more numerous then tenanted the valley. Along the right bank of the river were clustered the lodges of a great Indian town. Hennepin counted four hundred and sixty of them. In shape, they were somewhat like the arched top of a baggage wagon. They were built of a framework of poles, covered with mats of rushes, closely interwoven; and each contained three or four fires, of which the greater part served for two families.
Here, then, was the town; but where were the inhabitants? All was silent as the desert. The lodges were empty, the fires dead, and the ashes cold. La Salle had expected this; for he knew that in the autumn the Illinois always left their towns for their winter hunting, and that the time of their return had not yet come. Yet he was not the less embarrassed, for he would fain have bought a supply of food to relieve his famished followers. Some of them, searching the deserted town, presently found the caches , or covered pits, in which the Indians hid their stock of corn. This was precious beyond measure in their eyes, and to touch it would be a deep offence. La Salle shrank from provoking their anger, which might prove the ruin of his plans; but his necessity overcame his prudence, and he took thirty minots of corn, hoping to appease the owners by presents. Thus provided, the party embarked again, and resumed their downward voyage.
On New Year’s Day, 1680, they landed and heard Mass. Then Hennepin wished a happy new year to La Salle first, and afterwards to all the men, making them a speech, which, as he tells us, was “most touching.” Four days after these solemnities, they reached the long expansion of the river, then called Pimitoui, and now known as Peoria Lake, and leisurely made their way downward to the-site of the city of Peoria. Here, as evening drew near, they saw a faint spire of smoke curling above the gray forest, betokening that Indians were at hand. La Salle, as we have seen, had been warned that these tribes had been taught to regard him as their enemy; and when, in the morning, he resumed his course, he was prepared alike for peace or war.
The shores now approached each other; and the Illinois was once more a river, bordered on either hand with overhanging woods.
At nine o’clock, doubling a point, he saw about eighty Illinois wigwams, on both sides of the river. The men laid down their paddles and seized their weapons; while, in this warlike guise, the current bore them swiftly into the midst of the surprised and astounded savages. The camps were in a panic. Warriors whooped and howled; squaws and children screeched in chorus. Some snatched their bows and war-clubs; some ran in terror.
The uproar was quelled; and the strangers were presently seated in the midst of the camp, beset by a throng of wild and swarthy figures. [La Salle] told them that he had been forced to take corn from their granaries, lest his men should die of hunger; but he prayed them not to be offended, promising full restitution or ample payment. As for the Iroquois, they were subjects of the Great King, and therefore brethren of the French; yet, nevertheless, should they begin a war and invade the country of the Illinois, he would stand by them, give them guns, and fight in their defence, if they would permit him to build a fort among them for the security of his men. It was, also, he added, his purpose to build a great wooden canoe, in which to descend the Mississippi to the sea, and then return, bringing them the goods of which they stood in need; but if they would not consent to his plans, and sell provisions to his men, he would pass on to the Osages, who would then reap all the benefits of intercourse with the French, while they were left destitute, at the mercy of the Iroquois.
This threat had its effect, for it touched their deep-rooted jealousy of the Osages. They were lavish of promises, and feasts and dances consumed the day. Yet La Salle soon learned that the intrigues of his enemies were still pursuing him. That evening, unknown to him, a stranger appeared in the Illinois camp. He was a Mascoutin chief, named Monso, attended by five or six Miamis, and bringing a gift of knives, hatchets, and kettles to the Illinois. The chiefs assembled in a secret nocturnal session, where, smoking their pipes, they listened with open ears to the harangue of the envoys. Monso told them that he had come in behalf of certain Frenchmen, whom he named, to warn his hearers against the designs of La Salle, whom he denounced as a partisan and spy of the Iroquois, affirming that he was now on his way to stir up the tribes beyond the Mississippi to join in a war against the Illinois, who, thus assailed from the east and from the west, would be utterly destroyed. There was no hope for them, he added, but in checking the farther progress of La Salle, or, at least, retarding it, thus causing his men to desert him. Having thrown his firebrand, Monso and his party left the camp in haste, dreading to be confronted with the object of their aspersions.
In the morning, La Salle saw a change in the behavior of his hosts. They looked on him askance, cold, sullen, and suspicious. There was one Omawha, a chief, whose favor he had won the day before by the politic gift of two hatchets and three knives, and who now came to him in secret to tell him what had taken place at the nocturnal council. La Salle at once saw in it a device of his enemies; and this belief was confirmed, when, in the afternoon, Nicanopé, brother of the head chief, sent to invite the Frenchmen to a feast. They repaired to his lodge; but before dinner was served—that is to say, while the guests, white and red, were seated on mats, each with his hunting-knife in his hand, and the wooden bowl before him, which was to receive his share of the bear’s or buffalo’s meat, or the corn boiled in fat, with which he was to be regaled; while such was the posture of the company, their host arose and began a long speech. He told the Frenchmen that he had invited them to his lodge less to refresh their bodies with good cheer than to cure their minds of the dangerous purpose which possessed them, of descending the Mississippi. Its shores, he said, were beset by savage tribes, against whose numbers and ferocity their valor would avail nothing: its waters were infested by serpents, alligators, and unnatural monsters; while the river itself, after raging among rocks and whirlpools, plunged headlong at last into a fathomless gulf, which would swallow them and their vessel for ever.
La Salle’s men were, for the most part, raw hands, knowing nothing of the wilderness, and easily alarmed at its dangers; but there were two among them, old coureurs de bois, who unfortunately knew too much; for they understood the Indian orator, and explained his speech to the rest. As La Salle looked around on the circle of his followers, he read an augury of fresh trouble in their disturbed and rueful visages. He waited patiently, however, till the speaker had ended, and then answered him, through his interpreter, with great composure. First, he thanked him for the friendly warning which his affection had impelled him to utter; but, he continued, the greater the danger, the greater the honor; and, even if the danger were real, Frenchmen would never flinch from it. But were not the Illinois jealous? Had they not been deluded by lies? “We were not asleep, my brother, when Monso came to tell you, under cover of night, that we were spies of the Iroquois. The presents he gave you, that you might believe his falsehoods, are at this moment buried in the earth under this lodge. If he told the truth, why did he skulk away in the dark? Why did he not show himself by day? Do you not see that when we first came among you, and your camp was all in confusion, we could have killed you without needing help from the Iroquois? And now, while I am speaking, could we not put your old men to death, while your young warriors are all gone away to hunt? If we meant to make war on you, we should need no help from the Iroquois, who have so often felt the force of our arms!” Nicanopé had nothing to reply, and, grunting assent in the depths of his throat, made a sign that the feast should proceed.
The French were lodged in huts, near the Indian camp; and, fearing treachery, La Salle placed a guard at night. On the morning after the feast, he came out into the frosty air, and looked about him for the sentinels. Not one of them was to be seen. Vexed and alarmed he entered hut after hut, and roused his drowsy followers. Six of the number, including two of the best carpenters, were nowhere to be found. Discontented and mutinous from the first, and now terrified by the fictions of Nicanopé, they had deserted, preferring the hardships of the midwinter forest to the mysterious terrors of the Mississippi. La Salle mustered the rest before him, and inveighed sternly against the cowardice and baseness of those who had thus abandoned him, regardless of his many favors. If any here, he added, are afraid, let them but wait till the spring, and they shall have free leave to return to Canada, safely and without dishonor.
This desertion cut him to the heart. It showed him that he was leaning on a broken reed; and he felt that, on an enterprise full of doubt and peril, there were scarcely four men in his party whom he could trust. Nor was desertion the worst he had to fear; for here, as at Fort Frontenac, an attempt was made to kill him. Tonty tells us that poison was placed in the pot in which their food was cooked, and that La Salle was saved by an antidote which some of his friends had given him before he left France. This, it will be remembered, was an epoch of poisoners. It was in the following month that the notorious La Voisin was burned alive, at Paris, for practices to which many of the highest nobility were charged with being privy, not excepting some in whose veins ran the blood of the gorgeous spendthrift who ruled the destinies of France.
La Salle now resolved to leave the Indian camp, and fortify himself for the winter in a strong position, where his men would be less exposed to dangerous influence, and where he could hold his ground against an outbreak of the Illinois or an Iroquois invasion. At the middle of January, a thaw broke up the ice which had closed the river; and he set out in a canoe, with Hennepin, to visit the site he had chosen for his projected fort. It was a half a league below the camp, on a low hill or knoll, two hundred yards from the southern bank. On either side was a deep ravine, and in front a marshy tract, overflowed at high water. Thither, then, the party was removed. They dug a ditch behind the hill, connecting the two ravines, and thus completely isolating it. The hill was nearly square in form. An embankment of earth was thrown up on every side: its declivities were sloped steeply down to the bottom of the ravines and the ditch, and further guarded by chevaux-de-frise; while a palisade, twenty-five feet high, was planted around the whole.
Such was the first civilized occupation of the region which now forms the State of Illinois. La Salle christened his new fort Fort Crèvecœur. The name tells of disaster and suffering, but does no justice to the iron-hearted constancy of the sufferer. Up to this time, he had clung to the hope that his vessel, the Griffin, might still be safe. Her safety was vital to his enterprise. She had on board articles of the last necessity to him, including the rigging and anchors of another vessel, which he was to build at Fort Crèvecœur, in order to descend the Mississippi, and sail thence to the West Indies. But now his last hope had well-nigh vanished. Past all reasonable doubt, the Griffin was lost; and in her loss he and all his plans seemed ruined alike.
Nothing, indeed, was ever heard of her. Indians, fur-traders, and even Jesuits, have been charged with contriving her destruction. Some say that the Ottawas boarded and burned her, after murdering those on board; others accuse the Pottawattamies; others affirm that her own crew scuttled and sunk her; others, again, that she foundered in a storm. But … she was gone, it mattered little how. The main-stay of the enterprise was broken; yet, its inflexible chief lost neither heart nor hope. One path, beset with hardships and terrors, still lay open to him. He might return on foot to Fort Frontenac, and bring thence the needful succors.
La Salle felt deeply the dangers of such a step. His men were uneasy, discontented, and terrified by the stories with which the jealous Illinois still constantly filled their ears, of the whirlpools and the monsters of the Mississippi. He dreaded lest, in his absence, they should follow the example of their comrades, and desert. In the midst of his anxieties, a lucky accident gave him the means of disabusing them. He was hunting, one day, near the fort, when he met a young Illinois, on his way home, half-starved, from a distant war excursion. He had been absent so long that he knew nothing of what had passed between his countrymen and the French. La Salle gave him a turkey he had shot, invited him to the fort, fed him, and made him presents. Having thus warmed his heart, he questioned him, with apparent carelessness, as to the countries he had visited, and especially as to the Mississippi, on which the young warrior, seeing no reason to disguise the truth, gave him all the information he required. La Salle now made him the present of a hatchet, to engage him to say nothing of what had passed, and, leaving him in excellent humor, repaired, with some of his followers, to the Illinois camp. Here he found the chiefs seated at a feast of bear’s meat, and he took his place among them on a mat of rushes. After a pause, he charged them with having deceived him in regard to the Mississippi; adding that he knew the river perfectly, having been instructed concerning it by the Master of Life. He then described it to them with so much accuracy that his astonished hearers, conceiving that he owed his knowledge to “medicine,” or sorcery, clapped their hands to their mouths, in sign of wonder, and confessed that all they had said was but an artifice, inspired by their earnest desire that he should remain among them. On this, La Salle’s men took heart again.
La Salle had now good reason to hope that his followers would neither mutiny nor desert in his absence. He resolved to see [his new ship] on the stocks before he set out. This was no easy matter, for the pitsawyers had deserted. “Seeing,” he writes, “that I should lose a year if I waited to get others from Montreal, I said one day, before my people, that I was so vexed to find that the absence of two sawyers would defeat my plans, and make all my trouble useless, that I was resolved to try to saw the planks myself, if I could find a single man who would help me with a will.” Hereupon, two men stepped forward and promised to do their best. They were tolerably successful, and, the rest being roused to emulation, the work went on with such vigor that within six weeks the hull of the vessel was half finished. She was of forty tons burden, and was built with high bulwarks, to protect those on board from Indian arrows.
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.
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 , 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.
It was the worst of all seasons for such a journey. The nights were cold, but the sun was warm at noon, and the half-thawed prairie was one vast tract of mud, water, and discolored half-liquid snow. On the twenty-second, they crossed marshes and inundated meadows, wading to the knee, till at noon they were stopped by a river, perhaps the Calumet. They made a raft of hardwood timber, for there was no other, and shoved themselves across. On the next day, they could see Lake Michigan dimly glimmering beyond the waste of woods; and, after crossing three swollen streams, they reached it at evening. On the twenty-fourth, they followed its shore, till, at nightfall, they arrived at the fort, which they had built in the autumn at the mouth of the St. Joseph. Here La Salle found Chapelle and Leblanc, the two men whom he had sent from hence to Michillimackinac in search of the Griffin. They reported that they had made the circuit of the lake, and had neither seen her nor heard tidings of her. Assured of her fate, he ordered them to rejoin Tonty at Fort Cre vecœur; while he pushed onward with his party through the unknown wild of Southern Michigan.
“The rain,” says La Salle, “which lasted all day, and the raft we were obliged to make to cross the river, stopped us till noon of the twenty-fifth, when we continued our march through the woods.
“The Indians do not hunt in this region, which is debatable ground between five or six nations who are at war, and, being afraid of each other, do not venture into these parts, except to surprise each other, and always with the greatest precaution and all possible secrecy. The reports of our guns and the carcasses of the animals we killed soon led some of them to find our trail. In fact, on the evening of the twenty-eighth, having made our fire by the edge of a prairie, we were surrounded by them; but as the man on guard waked us, and we posted ourselves behind trees with our guns, these savages, who are called Wapoos, took us for Iroquois, and thinking that there must be a great many of us, because we did not travel secretly, as they do when in small bands, they ran off without shooting their arrows, and gave the alarm to their comrades, so that we were two days without meeting anybody.”
La Salle guessed the cause of their fright; and, in order to confirm their delusion, he drew with charcoal, on the trunks of trees from which he had stripped the bark, the usual marks of an Iroquois war-party with signs for prisoners and for scalps, after the custom of those dreaded warriors.
[When] the party reached the banks of the Detroit … La Salle directed two of the men to make a canoe, and go to Michillimackinac, the nearest harborage. With the remaining two, he crossed the Detroit on a raft, and, striking a direct line across the country, reached Lake Erie, not far from Point Pelée. Snow, sleet, and rain pelted them with little intermission; and when, after a walk of about thirty miles, they gained the lake, the Mohegan and one of the Frenchmen were attacked with fever and spitting of blood. Only one man now remained in health. With his aid, La Salle made another canoe, and, embarking the invalids, pushed for Niagara. It was Easter Monday when they landed at a cabin of logs above the cataract, probably on the spot where the Griffin was built. Here several of La Salle’s men had been left the year before, and here they still remained. They told him woeful news. Not only had he lost the Griffin, and her lading of ten thousand crowns in value, but a ship from France, freighted with his goods, valued at more than twenty-two thousand livres, had been totally wrecked at the mouth of the St. Lawrence; and, of twenty hired men on their way from Europe to join him, some had been detained by his enemy, the Intendant Duchesneau, while all but four of the remainder, being told that he was dead, had found means to return home.
His three followers were all unfit for travel: he alone retained his strength and spirit. Taking with him three fresh men at Niagara, he resumed his journey, and on the sixth of May descried, looming through floods of rain, the familiar shores of his seigniory and the bastioned walls of Fort Frontenac. During sixty-five days, he had toiled almost incessantly, travelling, by the course he took, about a thousand miles through a country beset with every form of peril and obstruction; “the most arduous journey,” says the chronicler, “ever made by Frenchmen in America.” Such was Cavelier de la Salle. In him, an unconquerable mind held at its service a frame of iron, and tasked it to the utmost of its endurance. The pioneer of western pioneers was no rude son of toil, but a man of thought, trained amid arts and letters.•
•A Rocky Mountain trapper, being complimented on the hardihood of himself and his companions, once said to the writer, “That’s so; but a gentleman of the right sort will stand hardship better than anybody else.” The history of Arctic and African travel, and the military records of all time, are a standing evidence that a trained and developed mind is not the enemy, but the active and powerful ally, of constitutional hardihood. The culture that enervates instead of strengthening is always a false or a partial one.
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.
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.
There were allies close at hand. Near Fort Miami were the huts of twenty-five or thirty savages, exiles from their homes, and strangers in this western world. Several of the English colonies, from Virginia to Maine, had of late years been harassed by Indian wars. A band of refugees, chiefly Abenakis and Mohegans, driven from their native seats, had roamed into these distant wilds, and were wintering in the friendly neighborhood of the French. La Salle soon won them over to his interests. One of their number was the Mohegan hunter, who for two years had faithfully followed his fortunes, and who had been four years in the West. He is described as a prudent and discreet young man, in whom La Salle had great confidence, and who could make himself understood in several western languages, belonging, like his own, to the great Algonquin tongue. This devoted henchman proved an efficient mediator with his countrymen. The New-England Indians, with one voice, promised to follow La Salle, asking no recompense but to call him their chief.
New allies soon appeared. A Shawanoe chief from the valley of the Ohio, whose following embraced a hundred and fifty warriors, came to ask the protection of the French against the all-destroying Iroquois. More important than all, the consent and co-operation of the Illinois must be gained; and the Miamis, their neighbors, and of late their enemies, must be taught the folly of their league with the Iroquois. The moment was favorable for negotiating; but, first, La Salle wished to open a communication with the Illinois, some of whom had begun to return to the country they had abandoned. With this view, and also, it seems, to procure provisions, he set out on the first of March , with his lieutenant, La Forest, and fifteen men. They found a camp of Outagamies, or Foxes, from the neighborhood of Green Bay. From them he heard welcome news. They told him that Tonty was safe among the Pottawattamies, and that Hennepin had passed through their country on his return from among the Sioux.
They soon met a band of Illinois. La Salle gave them presents, condoled with them on their losses, and urged them to make peace and alliance with the Miamis.
His new scheme was hopefully begun. It remained to achieve the enterprise, twice defeated…. To this end, he must return to Canada, appease his creditors, and collect his scattered resources. Towards the end of May, he set out in canoes from Fort Miami, and reached Michillimackinac after a prosperous voyage. Here, to his great joy, he found Tonty, and Zenobe Membré, who had lately arrived from Green Bay. The meeting was one at which even his stoic nature must have melted. Each had for the other a tale of disaster; but, when La Salle recounted the long succession of his reverses, it was with the tranquil tone and cheerful look of one who relates the incidents of an ordinary journey.
Without loss of time, they embarked together for Fort Frontenac, paddled their canoes a thousand miles, and safely reached their destination. Here, in this third beginning of his enterprise, La Salle found himself beset with embarrassments. Not only was he burdened with the fruitless costs of his two former efforts, but the heavy debts which he had incurred in building and maintaining Fort Frontenac had not been wholly paid. The fort and the seigniory were already deeply mortgaged; yet, through the influence of Count Frontenac, the assistance of his secretary, Barrois, a consummate man of business, and the support of a wealthy relative, he found means to appease his creditors and even to gain fresh advances. He mustered his men, and once more set forth, resolved to trust no more to agents, but to lead on his followers, in a united body, under his own personal command.
The season was far advanced. On the bare limbs of the forest hung a few withered remnants of its gay autumnal livery; and the smoke crept upward through the sullen November air from the squalid wigwams of La Salle’s Abenaki and Mohegan allies. These, his new friends, were savages whose midnight yells had startled the border hamlets of New England; who had danced around Puritan scalps, and whom Puritan imaginations painted as incarnate fiends. La Salle chose eighteen of them, whom he added to the twenty-three Frenchmen who remained with him, some of the rest having deserted and others lagged behind. The Indians insisted on taking their squaws with them. These were ten in number, besides three children; and thus the expedition included fifty-four persons, of whom some were useless, and others a burden.
On the 21st of December, Tonty and Membré set out from Fort Miami with some of the party in six canoes, and crossed to the little river Chicago. La Salle, with the rest of the men, joined them a few days later. They reached the site of the great Illinois village, found it tenantless, and continued their journey, still dragging their canoes, till at length they reached open water below Lake Peoria.
La Salle had abandoned for a time his original plan of building a vessel for the navigation of the Mississippi. Bitter experience had taught him the difficulty of the attempt, and he resolved to trust to his canoes alone. They embarked again, floating prosperously down between the leafless forests that flanked the tranquil river; till, on the sixth of February, they issued upon the majestic bosom of the Mississippi. Here, for the time, their progress was stopped; for the river was full of floating ice. La Salle’s Indians, too, had lagged behind; but, within a week, all had arrived, the navigation was once more free, and they resumed their course. Towards evening, they saw on their right the mouth of the great river; and the clear current was invaded by the headlong torrent of the Missouri, opaque with mud. They built their campfires in the neighboring forest; and at daylight, embarking anew on the dark and mighty stream, drifted swiftly down towards unknown destinies. They passed a deserted town of the Tamaroas; saw, three days after, the mouth of the Ohio; and, gliding by the wastes of bordering swamp, landed on the twenty-fourth of February near the Third Chickasaw Bluffs. They encamped, and the hunters went out for game.
More and more they entered the realms of spring. The hazy sunlight, the warm and drowsy air, the tender foliage, the opening flowers, betokened the reviving life of Nature. For several days more they followed the writhings of the great river, on its tortuous course through wastes of swamp and canebrake, till on the thirteenth of March they found themselves wrapped in a thick fog. Neither shore was visible; but they heard on the right the booming of an Indian drum and the shrill outcries of the war-dance. La Salle at once crossed to the opposite side, where, in less than an hour, his men threw up a rude fort of felled trees. Meanwhile, the fog cleared; and, from the farther bank, the astonished Indians saw the strange visitors at their work. Some of the French advanced to the edge of the water, and beckoned them to come over. Several of them approached, in a wooden canoe, to within the distance of a gun-shot. La Salle displayed the calumet, and sent a Frenchman to meet them. He was well received; and, the friendly mood of the Indians being now apparent, the whole party crossed the river.
On landing, they found themselves at a town of the Kappa band of the Arkansas, a people dwelling near the mouth of the river which bears their name…. Various were the dances and ceremonies with which they entertained the strangers, who, on their part, responded with a solemnity which their hosts would have liked less, if they had understood it better. La Salle and Tonty, at the head of their followers, marched to the open area in the midst of the village. Here, to the admiration of the gazing crowd of warriors, women, and children, a cross was raised bearing the arms of France. Membré, in canonicals, sang a hymn; the men shouted Vive le Roi; and La Salle, in the King’s name, took formal possession of the country. The friar, not, he flatters himself, without success, labored to expound by signs the mysteries of the Faith; while La Salle, by methods equally satisfactory, drew from the chief an acknowledgment of fealty to Louis XIV.
After touching at several other towns of this people, the voyagers resumed their course, guided by two of the Arkansas; passed the sites, since become historic, of Vicksburg and Grand Gulf; and, about three hundred miles below the Arkansas, stopped by the edge of a swamp on the western side of the river. Here, as their two guides told them, was the path to the great town of the Taensas. Tonty and Membré were sent to visit it. They and their men shouldered their birch canoe through the swamp, and launched it on a lake which had once formed a portion of the channel of the river. In two hours, they reached the town; and Tonty gazed at it with astonishment. He had seen nothing like it in America: large square dwellings, built of sunbaked mud mixed with straw, arched over with a dome-shaped roof of canes, and placed in regular order around an open area. Two of them were larger and better than the rest. One was the lodge of the chief; the other was the temple, or house of the sun. They entered the former, and found a single room, forty feet square, where, in the dim light—for there was no opening but the door—the chief sat awaiting them on a sort of bedstead, three of his wives at his side, while sixty old men, wrapped in white cloaks woven of mulberry-bark, formed his divan.
He received the visitors graciously, and joyfully accepted the gifts which Tonty laid before him. This interview over, the Frenchmen repaired to the temple, wherein were kept the bones of the departed chiefs. In construction, it was much like the royal dwelling. Over it were rude wooden figures, representing three eagles turned towards the east. A strong mud wall surrounded it, planted with stakes, on which were stuck the skulls of enemies sacrificed to the Sun; while before the door was a block of wood, on which lay a large shell surrounded with the braided hair of the victims. The interior was rude as a barn, dimly lighted from the doorway, and full of smoke. There was a structure in the middle which Membré thinks was a kind of altar; and before it burned a perpetual fire, fed with three logs laid end to end, and watched by two old men devoted to this sacred office.
The chief condescended to visit La Salle at his camp; a favor which he would by no means have granted, had the visitors been Indians…. The interview was very friendly; and the chief returned well pleased with the gifts which his entertainer bestowed on him, and which, indeed, had been the principal motive of his visit.
On the next morning, as they descended the river, they saw a wooden canoe full of Indians; and Tonty gave chase. He had nearly overtaken it, when more than a hundred men appeared suddenly on the shore, with bows bent to defend their countrymen. La Salle called out to Tonty to withdraw. He obeyed; and the whole party encamped on the opposite bank. Tonty offered to cross the river with a peace-pipe, and set out accordingly with a small party of men. When he landed, the Indians made signs of friendship by joining their hands—a proceeding by which Tonty, having but one hand, was somewhat embarrassed; but he directed his men to respond in his stead. La Salle and Membré now joined him, and went with the Indians to their village, three leagues distant. Here they spent the night. “The Sieur de la Salle,” writes Membré, “whose very air, engaging manners, tact, and address attract love and respect alike, produced such an effect on the hearts of these people that they did not know how to treat us well enough.”
The Indians of this village were the Natchez; and their chief was brother of the great chief, or Sun, of the whole nation. His town was several leagues distant, near the site of the city of Natchez; and thither the French repaired to visit him. They saw what they had already seen among the Taensas—a religious and political despotism, a privileged caste, descended from the sun, a temple, and a sacred fire. La Salle planted a large cross, with the arms of France attached, in the midst of the town; while the inhabitants looked on with a satisfaction which they would hardly have displayed, had they understood the meaning of the act.
The French next visited the Coroas, at their village, two leagues below; and here they found a reception no less auspicious. On the thirty-first of March, as they approached Red River, they passed in the fog a town of Oumas; and, three days later, discovered a party of fishermen, in wooden canoes, among the canes along the margin of the water. They fled at sight of the Frenchmen. La Salle sent men to reconnoitre, who, as they struggled through the marsh, were greeted with a shower of arrows; while, from the neighboring village of the Quinipissas, invisible behind the canebrake, they heard the sound of an Indian drum and the whoops of the mustering warriors. La Salle, anxious to keep the peace with all the tribes along the river, recalled his men, and pursued his voyage. A few leagues below, they saw a cluster of Indian lodges on the left bank, apparently void of inhabitants. They landed, and found three of them filled with corpses. It was a village of the Tangibao, sacked by their enemies only a few days before.
And now they neared their journey’s end. On the sixth of April, the river divided itself into three broad channels. La Salle followed that of the West, and D’Autray that of the east; while Tonty took the middle passage. As he drifted down the turbid current, between the low and marshy shores, the brackish water changed to brine, and the breeze grew fresh with the salt breath of the sea. Then the broad bosom of the Great Gulf opened on his sight, tossing its restless billows, limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos, without a sail, without a sign of life.
La Salle, in a canoe, coasted the marshy borders of the sea; and then the reunited parties assembled on a spot of dry ground, a short distance above the mouth of the river. Here a column was made ready, bearing the arms of France, and inscribed with the words,
Louis Le Grand, Roy de France et de Navarre, règne; le Neuvième Avril, 1682
The Frenchmen were mustered under arms; and, while the New England Indians and their squaws looked on in wondering silence, they chanted the Te Deum, the Exaudiat, and the Domine salvum fac Regem. Then, amid volleys of musketry and shouts of Vive le Roi, La Salle planted the column in its place, and, standing near it, proclaimed in a loud voice,
“In the name of the most high, mighty, invincible, and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by the grace of God King of France and of Navarre, Fourteenth of that name, I, this ninth day of April, one thousand six hundred and eighty-two, in virtue of the commission of his Majesty, which I hold in my hand, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken, and do now take, in the name of his Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of this country of Louisiana, the seas, harbors, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all the nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams, and rivers, within the extent of the said Louisiana, from the mouth of the great river St. Louis, otherwise called the Ohio, … as also along the river Colbert, or Mississippi, and the rivers which discharge themselves thereinto, from its source beyond the country of the Nadouessioux … as far as its mouth at the sea, or Gulf of Mexico, and also to the mouth of the River of Palms, upon the assurance we have had from the natives of these countries, that we are the first Europeans who have descended or ascended the said river Colbert; hereby protesting against all who may hereafter undertake to invade any or all of these aforesaid countries, peoples, or lands, to the prejudice of the rights of his Majesty, acquired by the consent of the nations dwelling herein. Of which, and of all else that is needful, I hereby take to witness those who hear me, and demand an act of the notary here present.”
Shouts of Vive le Roi and volleys of musketry responded to his words. Then a cross was planted beside the column, and a leaden plate buried near it, bearing the arms of France, with a Latin inscription, Ludovicus Magnus regnat. The weather-beaten voyagers joined their voices in the grand hymn of the Vexilla Regis:
and renewed shouts of Vive le Roi closed the ceremony.
On that day, the realm of France received on parchment a stupendous accession. The fertile plains of Texas; the vast basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to the sultry borders of the Gulf; from the woody ridges of the Alleghanies to the bare peaks of the Rocky Mountains—a region of savannahs and forests, sun-cracked deserts, and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes, passed beneath the sceptre of the Sultan of Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile.
The enthusiasm of the disinterested and chivalrous Champlain was not the enthusiasm of La Salle; nor had he any part in the self-devoted zeal of the early Jesuit explorers. He belonged not to the age of the knight-errant and the saint, but to the modern world of practical study and practical action. Beset by a throng of enemies, he stands, like the King of Israel, head and shoulders above them all. He was a tower of adamant, against whose impregnable front hardship and danger, the rage of man and of the elements, the southern sun, the northern blast, fatigue, famine, and disease, delay, disappointment and deferred hope emptied their quivers in vain.
Where La Salle had ploughed, others were to sow the seed; and on the path which the undespairing Norman had hewn out, the Canadian D’Iberville was to win for France a vast though a transient dominion.