Robert de La Salle

René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687), was a French explorer and colonizer, best known for his discovery of the Mississippi Delta. His career is a remarkable tale of wanderings in North America and of the intrigues of Versailles.

René Robert Cavelier, later Sieur de La Salle, was born on Sept. 21, 1643, near Rouen into a wealthy bourgeois family. In 1658 he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, taking his vows in 1660. But Cavelier proved to be somewhat intractable, and after several unsuccessful attempts to conform to the rigid discipline of the Jesuit order he was released from his vows in 1667.

With no prospects in France, Cavelier followed family connections and a wandering spirit and set out for New France that same year. He was immediately granted a seigneury, known as Lachine, by his Sulpician brother's order on Montreal Island. It is an instructive comment on the Sieur de La Salle's character that he ignored the grant and quickly sold it back to the Sulpicians, who had given it to him. The money allowed him to satisfy his desire to search for the Ohio River, "the way to the Southern Sea, and thereby the route to China."

La Salle's first expedition, in 1669, plagued by his inexperience and that of his companions, accomplished little. His activities for the next 3 years remain a mystery. Through cultivation of the Comte de Frontenac, the governor of New France, and a trip to France in 1674-1675, La Salle was granted Cataraqui (now Kingston) and promptly renamed it in honor of his patron, Governor Frontenac. In 1678 he was granted permission by the King to explore the western part of North America. Over the next 2 years La Salle traveled about the basin of the Great Lakes as far west as the Illinois country.


Exploration of the Mississippi

After a brief visit to Montreal in the summer of 1680, during which he attempted, with little effect, to satisfy his creditors, La Salle again set out for the Illinois country. On this occasion he reached the Mississippi River but did not proceed further. He wintered at Michilimackinac and returned to Montreal in the summer of 1681, following the orders of Frontenac. After a conference with the governor and the stalling of his principal creditor, La Salle headed westward once more, determined this time to reach the mouth of the Mississippi.

By February 1682 La Salle, with 22 men, including Indian guides, had reached the Mississippi again. They descended the river in easy stages, even stopping long enough to build a rough fort near the present city of Memphis. A few leagues farther on they reached the point where Louis Jolliet's expedition had turned about in 1673. La Salle reached the sea, finally, in early April. In as grand a ceremony as he could stage, he solemnly took possession of Louisiana in the name of His Most Christian Majesty, a rather bizarre display by men reduced to living on potatoes and crocodile.

The party undertook a brief exploration of the delta and then began the long journey back to Canada. La Salle fell ill and did not arrive back at Michilimackinac until the autumn of 1682. Frontenac, meanwhile, had been replaced as governor by A. J. L. La Barre, who excited considerable hostility against La Salle among the merchants of New France. When La Salle finally arrived back in Montreal in August 1683, he found his authority had been suspended and charges laid against him of jeopardizing the uneasy peace between the French and the Iroquois. In official dispatches to France his explorations were denigrated as being of little significance.


Ill-fated Colonization Scheme

La Salle felt the only method of justifying himself and reaping any advantage from his discovery was to take his case to the court at Versailles. Once there, he was caught up in the schemes and intrigues which surrounded the King. He was persuaded to join a plan to establish a colony in Louisiana, and, to make the presentation stronger, he even agreed to alter maps of the territory he had explored. The minister, on the basis of documents and claims that were complete falsehoods, prevailed on Louis XIV to restore La Salle to favor and assist in the scheme to plant a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, with La Salle as governor of the whole valley of the river as far as the Spanish possessions. The grandiose scheme was doomed from the start.

La Salle proved to be quite incapable of working with Beaujeu, the naval commander of the expedition. Largely as a result of the explorer's stubborn insistence on having his own way, the party, after many misadventures, found themselves deposited on the gulf shore of Texas, well to the west of the Mississippi. Beaujeu, his task more or less accomplished, sailed for home in March 1685, leaving La Salle and the 180 members of his group to build their colony and find the belle rivière again. Within 2 years the project had failed completely, and the 42 survivors unhappily followed La Salle northward in an attempt to gain the Illinois country. On March 19, 1687, near the Trinity River, La Salle was assassinated by his men.

The paradoxical La Salle, a mixture of idealism and impracticality, is thus remembered as the discoverer of the mouth of the Mississippi River and the leader of that ill-fated colonization scheme. His energy and courage must be acknowledged, but his passionate pursuit of fame and glory render him one of the most perplexing of the explorers of the interior of North America.


Further Reading on Sieur de La Salle

Most of the material written on La Salle is in French. The best study in English is Jean Delanglez, Some La Salle Journeys (1938). The romantic prose of Francis Parkman, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (1869; many later editions), is worth reading. Also useful are the references in Grace Lee Nute, Caesars of the Wilderness (1943). Newer works are Edmund Boyd Osler, La Salle (1967), and John Upton Terrell, La Salle: The Life and Times of an Explorer (1968).