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The French explorer Rene La Salle charted the Mississippi

Posted in America, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Rivers on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about Rene La Salle originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 273 published on 8 April 1967.

La Salle is shot, picture, image, illustration

The assassination of La Salle in Texas

It was in 1652 during his favourite lesson, geography, that young Rene La Salle, a 12-year-old schoolboy in Rouen in Normandy, first heard of the uncharted country which lay beyond the Great Lakes of North America. Travellers to the region said that there were rivers there which could ‘open the way to China’. And some spoke of a great river which flowed hundreds of miles south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The stories of the exploits of the French settlers and explorers greatly excited Ren√©, and he decided that as soon as he was able to he would join his fellow-countrymen in the New France. Rene’s father, a rich merchant, would have liked him to enter the family business, but in 1663 the would-be explorer sailed to Montreal.

Rene was granted some property on Montreal Island, and so became a seigneur, or overlord. He rented out plots of land and was soon the head of a flourishing and self-supporting community. For most men this would have been achievement enough, but Rene was intrigued by reports of the river which the Indians called Messi-Sipi.

“I want to found a colony, not just a settlement,” he told his followers. “I shall find this Great River and follow it to its meeting with the sea. If it flows to the Gulf of Mexico – Spanish territory! – I shall build forts at various points along its course, and two of the strongest at its mouth, and claim for King Louis all the country through which it flows.”

It was not until 1670 that Rene began the first of the voyages of exploration that were to make him famous. Instead of journeying south in search of the Messi-Sipi, he explored the country around Lakes Erie and Ontario. He took with him nine canoes and nearly 130 men, and eventually discovered and sailed down the Ohio River.

The party was constantly in danger from warlike Indians, and the men grew frightened as their leader insisted on paddling deeper into unknown territory. Eventually they told Rene they were leaving him to sail his ‘Beautiful River’ alone. They then took their weapons and supplies and departed.

Left on his own, with no one to aid him, La Salle courageously set out on the arduous return journey to Montreal. The only food he had was a bag of maize, and he spent the entire winter of 1670-71 ploughing through the snow-covered countryside.

He reached Montreal in the spring. He was physically weak and exhausted, but his ambition was as strong as ever. For a while he rested, then he sailed to France to seek the support of King Louis XIV in keeping open Fort Frontenac, which he used as his headquarters.

Some influential merchants thought that the Fort was monopolising the fur trade, and wanted it closed down. La Salle sided against them and took with him a letter from Count Frontenac, the Governor of New France.

King Louis was greatly impressed by La Salle’s air of daring when they met, and he gave his assurance that the Fort would remain open. Armed with this promise, La Salle returned to North America, and on 7th August, 1679, he took the Griffin on a history-making voyage across Lake Erie. It was the first time that a sailing ship had navigated one of the Great Lakes, and the success of the venture encouraged La Salle to prepare for his greatest exploit of all – the voyage down the Mississippi.

But before he could start out to found his ‘colony’, the Griffin was shipwrecked while sailing from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. La Salle, who had gone on ahead by canoe, was appalled when he heard the news. Without his ship he might not be able to attract followers, so he decided to get the materials needed to repair the shattered vessel.

Together with four other Frenchmen and a Mohican scout, he began the difficult return journey to Fort Frontenac. It took the men 67 days to complete the 1,000-mile trek. They were frequently half-frozen by snow, and spent countless heartbreaking hours dragging their canoes through swamps, forests, and mud-flats.

When they finally reached the Fort, on 6th May, 1680, La Salle’s ‘Winter Journey’ was hailed as the greatest feat of endurance made in the New World. But the explorer was destined not to relieve the Griffin. He was badly in debt and short of both money and supporters. His refusal ever to face defeat had turned him into a stern and relentless leader.

So, even without the Griffin, La Salle organised an expedition for his Mississippi voyage. On 21st December, 1681, the party set out across the ice-covered Lake Michigan. They towed their canoes behind them on sledges, and ten weeks later they arrived at the head of the Mississippi.

By the middle of March they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River. No white man had ever been farther south than that, but still La Salle sailed on. The canoes travelled through the ice and snow until they came across country which was as warm and hospitable as the north had been cold and unfriendly.

It was truly a country fit for a king. When La Salle’s canoes finally floated out of the Mississippi delta, and into the seemingly endless Gulf of Mexico, he immediately claimed the territory for Louis.

On 9th April, 1682, the explorers landed on the coast and, to loud shouts of ‘Vive le Roi’, erected a column bearing the arms of France. La Salle stood in front of the column with sword uplifted. Then, to an audience of bewildered Indians, he read his famous proclamation claiming the territory for France.

La Salle had achieved his greatest ambition. But he was not to enjoy it for long. Five years later, on 18th March, 1687, he was shot by three of his followers while setting up another colony in Texas.

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