Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/La Salle, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de
LA SALLE, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de, French explorer, b. in Rouen, 22 Nov., 1643; d. in Texas, 20 March, 1687. He was of an honorable burgher family, in early life became connected with the Jesuits, and seems to have taught in their schools; but he soon left them, and in 1666 went to Canada to seek his fortune. The priests of the Seminary of St. Sulpice, feudal owners of the island of Montreal, granted him a tract of land at an exposed and dangerous place, to which, in mockery of his schemes, was afterward given the nickname of La Chine. These schemes involved no less than the discovery of a way to China across the American continent. In 1669 La Salle sold his new estates, and set out on his tour of western exploration in company with two Sulpitian priests, who were bound for the upper lakes. He soon left them, and with a few followers made his way southward and westward, discovered the Ohio, and descended it as far at least as the rapids at Louisville. A year or two later he made another journey, ascended Lake Michigan, and crossed thence to the Illinois. It is maintained by some that he descended this river to the Mississippi, thus anticipating the discovery of Marquette and Jolliet; but the weight of evidence inclines to the belief that he visited only the upper part of the Illinois. In 1673, on the recommendation of Count Frontenac, governor of Canada, La Salle obtained a patent of nobility and a grant of Fort Frontenac, with adjacent lands. This post had just been established at the site of the present city of Kingston, on Lake Ontario. It was well situated for the fur-trade, and La Salle was now in a fair way of enriching himself, had riches been his chief object. He regarded them, however, as but the instruments of his favorite designs. Going to France in 1677, he laid his plans before the minister, Colbert, and dilated on the vast extent of the great west, its boundless resources, and the advantages of colonizing it and opening trade with its numerous Indian tribes. To this end he asked permission to build forts in the western valleys, with seignorial rights over all lands that he might discover and colonize within twenty years. He received in return royal letters-patent, which, while they did not grant all he asked, gave him ample powers of exploring and occupying the west, provided always that it should cost the king nothing. He looked to the fur-trade to support the enterprise, and appealed to relatives and friends to become his partners. Having thus raised the needful money, he returned to Canada, accompanied by the Chevalier de Tonti and a friar named Louis Hennepin.
The new enterprise aroused jealousy and opposition among the Canadian merchants; but men at length were hired and stores collected, and in November, 1678, La Salle and his company set out from Fort Frontenac. He had laid aside his scheme of finding a way to China, and, convinced that the Mississippi flowed to the Gulf of Mexico, had substituted a vast plan which should plant France on its shores, and open to her the whole interior of the continent. The party proceeded to Niagara, and spent the winter in building, above the cataract, a small vessel, which La Salle named the “Griffin.” In the following summer he ascended the lakes to Mackinaw, whence he continued his voyage in canoes, sending back the “Griffin” with a load of furs to appease his clamorous creditors. After a stormy autumnal voyage up Lake Michigan, he ascended the river St. Joseph, crossed to the waters of the Illinois, and descended that river to a spot below Peoria, where he built a fort that he named Fort Crèvecœur. He gave it this name by reason of the misfortunes that had already begun to overwhelm him. He learned that his creditors had seized his property in Canada, and that his vessel, the “Griffin,” which had on board materials that were indispensable to his undertaking, had been wrecked, probably through treachery. In this extremity he resolved to leave the party in command of Henry de Tonti, and return on foot to Canada for the necessary supplies. After a winter journey of more than a thousand miles he reached Fort Frontenac, provided the needed succor, and was about to return when he learned that the men that he had left with Tonti had mutinied, plundered his camp, and were advancing on Lake Ontario, intending to kill him. He met them with a few followers on the lake, effectually chastised them, and compelled them to submit. Then he set out again for the Illinois, hoping to rejoin Tonti, who had remained there with a few faithful men. On arriving, he found a scene of havoc. A war party of five hundred Iroquois had invaded the Illinois country, driven off the friendly tribes, and spread universal desolation. The great town of the Illinois Indians, near the present village of Utica, was burned to ashes; the bodies of the dead in the neighboring graveyard were dug up, the bones scattered, and the skulls stuck in derision on sticks that were planted in the ground. La Salle looked in vain for traces of his brave and faithful lieutenant, Tonti. He descended the Illinois to its mouth, and the mystery was still unsolved, though he found everywhere hideous signs of the triumph of the savage conquerors. The enterprise was ruined, and all must be begun anew. With unabated resolution he prepared for another effort, and, after spending the winter in negotiation with the Miamis and other western tribes, he set out for Canada in the spring of 1681 to collect his scattered resources. On reaching Mackinaw he was cheered by finding Tonti, who, after heroic but vain efforts to stay the carnage in the valley of the Illinois, had made his escape with his few followers. They went together to Fort Frontenac. Through the influence of the governor and the support of a rich relative, La Salle found means to appease his creditors, and even to gain fresh advances. Then, accompanied by Tonti, thirty Frenchmen, and a band of faithful Indians, he moved up the lakes with a flotilla of canoes, crossed by the Chicago portage to the waters of the Illinois, descended that stream to its mouth, and on 6 Feb., 1682, embarked on the Mississippi. After running the gauntlet of its various tribes, he reached its mouth on 9 April, planted a column bearing the arms of France, and in the name of Louis XIV. took possession of the whole valley of the great river, from the Alleghanies to the Rocky mountains.
The first step of his enterprise was at last accomplished. The next was to plant a fortified settlement on the Gulf of Mexico that should secure for France the vast regions between it and Canada. A bitter and vindictive opposition awaited him, not only from the jealous Canadian fur-traders, but from the new governor, La Barre, who had lately supplanted Frontenac. La Salle returned to France, and laid his plans before the court. They were approved, and, in spite of La Barre's hostile representations, a squadron was placed at his disposal, under command of an officer named Beaujeu. In 1684 he sailed for the Gulf of Mexico, fell into a misunderstanding with Beaujeu, failed to find the Mississippi, and landed with his colonists at Matagorda bay, which he mistook for a western mouth of the river of which he was in search. One of the vessels, laden with indispensable stores, was wrecked—it is said through treachery—at the entrance of the bay. Beaujeu and his squadron sailed for France, and La Salle, with his colonists, was left alone. The sick, disconsolate, famished, and mutinous company fortified themselves as they could by the banks of the little river Lavaca, and La Salle, becoming aware of the fatal error of his position, made repeated journeys to discover the mouth of the Mississippi. Nearly two years passed, and the situation grew from bad to worse. La Salle made a last and desperate attempt to reach the Mississippi, resolved to ascend it and bring back relief from Canada to the perishing colonists. In March, 1687, he reached a branch of the river Trinity, and here several of his followers, who bore a grudge against their leader, conspired to kill him, ambushed themselves in the high grass, and shot him through the brain. La Salle was of a shy, proud, and reserved nature, beloved by a few intimates, and greatly liked and respected by the Indians, but awakening neither enthusiasm nor affection in those under his command. Here lay one of the causes of his failure. His schemes, moreover, were too vast for his resources, and even his rare energy and fortitude could not grapple with the ceaseless enmities and jealousies arrayed against him. He stands, nevertheless, the foremost pioneer of the great west.