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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643 - 1687)

Portrait: Cavelier de La Salle

Born in Rouen in 1643 the son of a rich wholesale haberdasher, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle arrived in New France in 1667 after having left the Society of Jesus. He obtained a concession from the Sulpicians on which he established the Lachine post. This post, much later, would be the departure point for the "Upper Country". La Salle, who had come to America to make his fortune, was mostly interested in potentially profitable explorations. Intense and ambitious, but also curious and determined, he was hated by some but also convinced the highest authorities to support his projects.

On his first expedition in 1669, La Salle was accompanied by two Sulpicians, Dollier de Casson and Bréhant de Galinée, who hoped to establish a mission on the Ohio. La Salle abandoned the expedition along the way to go hunting with Native people, and later returned to Montreal with furs.

After Jolliet's discovery of the Mississippi, La Salle had a single aim -- to continue the exploration of this river. La Salle gained favour with Governor Frontenac, and around 1675 the latter granted him a Seignury at Fort Cataraqui, which he renamed "Frontenac".

Image: The building of La Salle's ship, the "Griffon"

Three years later, in France, La Salle obtained the King's permission to explore the western part of North America, between New France, Florida and Mexico. Preparing for this exploration, in 1679, he built the first Great Lakes ship, the Griffon, upstream from Niagara Falls. On board this ship, he sailed as far as Green Bay on Lake Michigan, and sent the ship back to Michillimakinac, filled with furs that he had acquired illegally. He then set up the various staging areas for his expedition. He built Fort St. Joseph (1679) on Lake Michigan and Fort Crevecœur (1680) in the village of Pimiteoui, near present-day Peoria. He then sent Accault and Auguel, accompanied by the Jesuit Father Hennepin to set up a post at the confluence of the Winsconsin and Mississippi rivers. Being advised of the loss of the Griffon (probably due to storm), he returned to Fort Frontenac to learn that Fort Niagara had burned down and that the supply ship coming from Montreal had sunk.

Image: Title page of Hennepin's account   Image: Page from Hennepin's account Image: Page from Hennepin's account

"[…] an Account of what was transacted at Fort Crevecoeur before M. la Salle's return to Fort Frotenac; […] one of their Warriors came before their Comrades, and visited us at our fort; we entertain'd him as well as we could, and ask'd him several questions touching the River Meschasipi, from whence he came and where he had been oftentimes, giving him to understand, that some other Savage had given us an Account of it. He took a piece of Charcoal, and drew a map of the Course of that river, which I found afterwards pretty exact…"

(Hennepin, 1699, 106-107)

Ever determined, La Salle left Fort St. Joseph in January 1682 with his lieutenant, Henri de Tonti, 23 Frenchmen and 18 Native people. He reached and descended the Mississippi. Three months later, on April 6, he saw the sea. He was close to present-day Venice, where, on April 9, 1682, dressed in gold-laced scarlet, to the sound of triumphal hymns and musket salvos, La Salle erected a cross and a column with His Majesty's coat of arms and buried a brass plaque engraved with inscriptions. In a sonorous voice he read a statement enumerating the territories that were thereby passing under French domination. In taking possession of Louisiana, New France extended from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Having achieved this goal, the explorer ordered a return as of the following day. The expedition had little food and had to get some from the Native people, who had very little at that time of year. La Salle and his companions ate food like crocodile and corn, and La Salle was ill when he reached Michillimakinac. From there, he sent the results of his expedition to de la Barre, Frontenac's successor as governor and no friend of La Salle's. His information was poorly received, but La Salle was unaware of this and returned to the Illinois River to build Fort St. Louis, which he would complete in 1683.

Image: Title page of de Tonti's account of La Salle's voyages   Image: Page from de Tonti's account of La Salle's voyages Image: Page from de Tonti's account of La Salle's voyages

"[...] aprés dix lieuës de chemin, nous commençâmes à nous appercevoir que l'eau étoit salée, la plage nous parut plus étenduë, & toute semée de coquilles [...] Nous allâmes plus avant, & aprés une heure de navigation, nous nous mîmes en un canot sur la mer, nous côtoïâmes le rivage, environ un grand quart de lieuë, pour mieux connoître les bords, & nous revinmes enfin prendre terre à l'embouchure de nôtre fleuve.

"Ce qui arriva le 7 Avril de l'année 1683. D'abord nôtre premier soin fut de rendre graces à Dieu, de nous avoir si heureusement conduits jusqu'au terme de nôtre voïage, aprés plus de huit cent lieuës de navigation & de course avec si peu de monde, si peu de munitions, & au travers de tant de Nations barbares, [...] "

(Tonti 1697, 190-191)

While in France to settle personal affairs, La Salle convinced the King to send him to the mouth of the Mississippi, by sea, to set up a French settlement. To this end, Louis XIV granted him a commission to command the entire territory south of Fort St. Louis, from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. He left France in July 1684 with a convoy of four ships carrying at least three hundred and twenty people. These included one hundred soldiers, eight officers, eight merchants, some forty employees and valets, a number of women, several children and six missionaries, including the Sulpician Jean Cavelier, La Salle's brother. Henri Joutel, a burgher of Rouen and La Salle's right-hand man, made the trip for pleasure and out of curiosity.

Hudson's history was to be repeated. La Salle, authoritarian and not listening to advice, quickly got into conflict with the military commander of the Joly, Le Gallois de Beaujeu, and with almost the entire crew. The passengers suffered from torrid heat and did not have enough water because La Salle had refused to take any on at Madeira. The Saint-François, which was transporting the food and supplies, was captured by the Spanish. After a stop at Haiti, La Salle skirted the south shore of Cuba, then entered the Gulf of Mexico around the middle of December. Night and fog prevented his recognizing the Mississippi delta. Thinking himself further to the east, he went too far west. He mistook one of the rivers of Matagorda Bay (Texas) for a branch of the Mississippi and sent the ships the Belle and the Aimable into it. When the term of commander Beaujeu's mandate had expired, the Joly returned to Europe.

Image: The assassination of La Salle

La Salle, unfortunately, was not on the Mississippi. While looking for it, the Aimable ran aground, giving its cargo up to the sea, and attracting pillagers. Taking advantage of proximity, the French stole the pillagers' canoes. A battle ensued, leaving two dead and two wounded. La Salle persevered and continued on his way on the Belle, which was also grounded in its turn. He then explored little rivers in the hope of finding the Mississippi, regardless of growing opposition from his crew. On March 19, 1687, after a series of misadventures, La Salle was assassinated by members of his expedition.

Guided by some Native people, La Salle's brother Jean Cavalier, Henri Joutel and several others finally reached the Mississippi and made their way north to Canada. Jean Cavelier insisted on keeping his brother's death quiet and led authorities to believe that the expedition had reached the mouth of the river. In 1713, Joutel published his Journal historique to claim the contrary and declared that this honour rather belonged to the Canadian Pierre Lemoyne d'Iberville.

Disagreeable as a character, La Salle was undervalued in his time as one of the great explorers. Still, he has the distinction of having pushed back the limits of New France to the Gulf of Mexico and of having set up a chain of posts tied to the St. Lawrence, most of which would serve the fur trade continually until after the Conquest of 1760.

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