La Salle: “Wilderness martyr or deceitful lunatic?”

The conspirators stripped his corpse and left it for the wolves.

On March 19, 1786, somewhere in the trackless wilderness of southern Texas, the French explorer Cavalier de La Salle approached the camp of a party he had sent ahead to find food. La Salle sensed that something was wrong and shouted “Where is my nephew?” “Gone to the dogs,” was the reply. As La Salle angrily advanced, one of the men shot him in the head, killing him instantly. The conspirators stripped his corpse and left it for the wolves.

“Thus ended, paradoxically in blood, mud and silence, a life given over to the frenzied pursuit of fame,” writes one historian of La Salle. It was truly a remarkable destiny that had left him lying in such a remote corner of the world.

The brilliant young man had studied at the Jesuit college in his native Rouen and spent nine years in the order. He was a restless soul who was easily bored. He had himself released from his vows because of what he called his own “moral frailties.”

La Salle’s quest for new horizons brought him to Canada in 1667. There the Sulpicians granted him a seigneury, but the life of a seigneur suited him no better than that of a priest. He sold the land and set out to satisfy the demon of adventure in exploration and the fur trade.

La Salle led his first expedition inland in 1669. When, at Lake Ontario, the Seneca discouraged him from traveling among their enemies, he lost patience and set out on his own. La Salle was always an intrepid traveler, adept at learning Native ways and languages, but it is not known where he went that year. Much ink has been spilled over his unfounded claim that he went on to explore the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

La Salle's one claim to fame is his descent of the Mississippi, upon which French claims to Louisiana were to be based (courtesy NAC/C-1843).

In 1674-75 as a result of his friendship with Governor Frontenac, La Salle was able to secure for himself the grant of Fort Cataracoui (now Kingston), which he renamed Frontenac. In August 1679 he arrived at the mouth of the Niagara River and ordered the building of a boat armed with 7 cannon. The Griffon was launched on August 7, the first European vessel on the Great Lakes. He proceeded inland and in January 1680 he set about the building of the fort that he called Crèvecoeur (“heartbreak”), a reference to his many disappointments.

Yet La Salle’s troubles had only just begun. That February the Griffon, laden with a cargo of furs, was lost. La Salle and his men spent months traveling the ice and woods looking for the lost vessel, their clothes torn to shreds by briars and thorns and their faces so slashed and covered with blood that they were not recognizable. On returning to Montreal he learned that the men that he had left at Crèvecoeur had pillaged the post and were on their way to kill him.

In 1682 the undaunted La Salle returned to the Illinois territory. He traveled the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River, where the voyages of Jolliet and Marquette had ended in 1673. They finally came within sight of the sea on April 6 — the first Europeans to reach the mouth of the Mississippi. There on April 9, 1682 La Salle, resplendent in a scarlet tunic, solemnly raised a cross and laid claim to a vast region of America for the king of France.

Despite his great achievements, La Salle fell out of favour with a new governor and the King dismissed his discovery as “completely useless.”

The only way La Salle could return to the New World was by allowing himself to get involved in a scheme to set up an establishment on the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of Rio Bravo (Rio Grande), from which the French hoped to conquer Mexico and its precious mines. La Salle likely knew that the plan was based on false geography (placing the mouth of the Mississippi 1000 km closer to Mexico than it really is) but the king believed him and granted him command of all the territory lying between the Illinois and the Gulf. He sent him off with four vessels and 180 soldiers and colonists.

The flotilla missed the Mississippi Delta and drifted westward, anchoring at the southwest tip of the island of Matagorda. Disease, death and hunger decimated the colonists and La Salle finally decided to abandon the coast and to set out to find “his river.” He made three futile journeys inland and finally set out on that last, fateful trip to “seek help from Canada.” He was killed scarcely 150 km from the southwestern edge of the great river system he had claimed so confidently only five years earlier.

La Salle shares with other explorers the sorrowful honour of being assassinated and then forgotten. For La Salle, unlike Hudson or Verrazano, there is no beautiful river or spectacular bridge to recall his name. Yet it was he who gave Louisiana and so much more to France.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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