- Historic Sites
La Salle And The Discovery Of The Great West
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
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.