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A 19th-century engraving of Cavelier de La Salle
November 22, 1643|
Rouen, Normandy, France
|Died||March 19, 1687
present day Huntsville, Texas
|Known for||exploring the Great Lakes,
and the Gulf of Mexico
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, or Robert de La Salle (November 22, 1643 – March 19, 1687) was a French explorer. He explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. He claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France.
Robert Cavelier was born on November 22, 1643, into a comfortably well-off family in Rouen, France, in the parish Saint-Herbland. When he was younger, he enjoyed science and nature. As a man, he studied with the Jesuit religious order and became a member after taking initial vows in 1660.[a] At his request on March 27, 1667, after he was in Canada, he was released from the Society of Jesus after citing "moral weaknesses." Although he left the order, never took final vows in it, and later became hostile to it, historians sometimes described him incorrectly as a priest or a leader.
La Salle never married, but has been linked to Madeleine de Roybon d'Allonne, an early settler of New France. His older brother, Jean Cavelier, was a Sulpician priest. His parents were Jean Cavelier and Catherine Geest.
Required to reject his father's legacy when he joined the Jesuits, La Salle was nearly destitute when he traveled as a prospective colonist to North America. He sailed for New France in the spring of 1666. His brother Jean, a Sulpician priest, had moved there the year before. He was granted a seigneurie on land at the western end of the Island of Montreal, which became known as Lachine. (This was apparently from the French la Chine, meaning China. Some sources say the name referred to his desire to find a route to China, though the evidence for this claim is unclear and has been disputed.)
La Salle immediately began to issue land grants, set up a village and learn the languages of the native people, mostly Mohawk in this area. The Mohawk told him of a great river, called the Ohio, which flowed into the Mississippi River. Thinking the river flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, he began to plan for expeditions to find a western passage to China. He sought and received permission from Governor Daniel Courcelle and Intendant Jean Talon to embark on the enterprise. He sold his interests in Lachine to finance the venture. In 1682, he named the area Louisiana after King Louis XIV of France.
On July 12, 1673, the Governor of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, arrived at the mouth of the Cataraqui River to meet with leaders of the Five Nations of the Iroquois to encourage them to trade with the French. While the groups met and exchanged gifts, Frontenac's men, led by La Salle, hastily constructed a rough wooden palisade on a point of land by a shallow, sheltered bay. Originally the fort was named Fort Cataraqui but was later renamed Fort Frontenac by La Salle in honor of his patron. The purpose of Fort Frontenac was to control the lucrative fur trade in the Great Lakes Basin to the west. The fort was also meant to be a bulwark against the English and Dutch, who were competing with the French for control of the fur trade. La Salle was left in command of the fort in 1673.
Thanks to his powerful protector, the discoverer managed, during a voyage to France in 1674–75, to secure for himself the grant of Fort Cataraqui and acquired letters of nobility for himself and his descendants. With Frontenac's support, he received not only a fur trade concession, with permission to establish frontier forts, but also a title of nobility. He returned and rebuilt Frontenac in stone. An Ontario Heritage Trust plaque describes La Salle at Cataraqui as "[a] major figure in the expansion of the French fur trade into the Lake Ontario region, Using the fort as a base, he undertook expeditions to the west and southwest in the interest of developing a vast fur-trading empire." Henri de Tonti joined his explorations as his lieutenant.
In early 1679, La Salle's expedition built Fort Conti at the mouth of the Niagara River on Lake Ontario. There they loaded supplies from Fort Frontenac into smaller boats (canoes or bateaux), so they could continue up the shallow and swiftly flowing lower Niagara River to what is now the location of Lewiston, New York. There the Iroquois had a well-established portage route which bypassed the rapids and the cataract later known as Niagara Falls.
La Salle sailed in Le Griffon up Lake Erie to Lake Huron, then up Huron to Michilimackinac and on to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. Le Griffon left for Niagara with a load of furs, but was never seen again. He continued with his men in canoes down the western shore of Lake Michigan, rounding the southern end to the mouth of the Miami River (now St. Joseph River), where they built a stockade in January 1680. They called it Fort Miami (now known as St. Joseph, Michigan). There they waited for Tonti and his party, who had crossed the Lower Michigan peninsula on foot.
Tonti arrived on November 20; on December 3, the entire party set off up the St. Joseph, which they followed until they had to take a portage at present-day South Bend, Indiana. They crossed to the Kankakee River and followed it to the Illinois River. There they built Fort Crèvecoeur, which later led to the development of present-day Peoria, Illinois. La Salle set off on foot for Fort Frontenac for supplies. While he was gone, the soldiers at Ft. Crevecoeur, led by Martin Chartier, mutinied, destroyed the fort, and exiled Tonti, whom he had left in charge. He later captured most of the mutineers on Lake Ontario, before rendezvousing with Tonti at St. Ignace, Michigan.
La Salle reassembled a party for another major expedition. In 1682 he departed Fort Crevecoeur with a group of Frenchmen and Indians and canoed down the Mississippi River. He named the Mississippi basin La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV and claimed it for France. At what later became the site of Memphis, Tennessee, he built the small Fort Prudhomme. On April 9, 1682, at the mouth of the Mississippi River near modern Venice, Louisiana, he buried an engraved plate and a cross, claiming the territory for France.
In 1683, on his return voyage, La Salle established Fort Saint-Louis of Illinois, at Starved Rock on the Illinois River, to replace Fort Crevecoeur. He appointed Tonti to command the fort while he traveled to France for supplies. On July 24, 1684, He departed France and returned to America with a large expedition designed to establish a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. They had four ships and 300 colonists. The expedition was plagued by pirates, hostile Indians, and poor navigation. One ship was lost to pirates in the West Indies, a second sank in the inlets of Matagorda Bay, and a third ran aground there. They founded a new Fort Saint-Louis, on Garcitas Creek in the vicinity of present-day Victoria, Texas.
La Salle led a group eastward on foot on three occasions to try to locate the mouth of the Mississippi.
During a final search for the Mississippi River, some of La Salle's remaining 36 men mutinied, near the site of present Navasota, Texas. On March 19, 1687, he was slain by Pierre Duhaut during an ambush while talking to Duhaut's decoy, Jean L'Archevêque. They were "six leagues" from the westernmost village of the Hasinai (Tejas) Indians. Duhaut was killed to avenge La Salle, while Jean L'Archevêque was killed in 1720 by Indians during the Villasur expedition—coincidentally in an ambush beside a river.
The Fort Saint Louis colony lasted only until 1688, when Karankawa-speaking Native Americans killed the 20 remaining adults and took five children as captives. Tonti sent out search missions in 1689 when he learned of the settlers' fate, but failed to find survivors.
There is some disagreement about accepting Navasota as the site of La Salle's death. The historian Robert Weddle, for example, believes that his travel distances were miscalculated, and that he was murdered just east of the Trinity River.
La Salle's major legacy was establishing the network of forts from Fort Frontenac to outposts along the Great Lakes, Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi rivers that came to define French territorial, diplomatic and commercial policy for almost a century between his first expedition and the 1763 cession of New France to Great Britain. In addition to the forts, which also served as authorized agencies for the extensive fur trade, La Salle's visits to Illinois and other Indians cemented the French policy of alliance with Indians in the common causes of containing both Iroquois influence and Anglo-American settlement. He also gave the name Louisiana to the interior North American territory he claimed for France, which lives on in the name of a US state. His efforts to encompass modern-day Ontario and the eight American states that border the Great Lakes became a foundational effort in defining the Great Lakes region.
In 1995, La Salle's primary ship La Belle was discovered in the muck of Matagorda Bay. It has been the subject of archeological research. Through an international treaty, the artifacts excavated from La Belle are owned by France and held in trust by the Texas Historical Commission. The collection is held by the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. Artifacts from La Belle are shown at nine museums across Texas. The wreckage of his ship L'Aimable has yet to be located. A possible shipwreck of Le Griffon in Lake Michigan is the subject of a lawsuit concerning ownership of artifacts. A more promising wreck has now been identified in the depths of northern Lake Michigan, divers Monroe and Dykster happened upon an ancient wreckage in 2011 while looking for Confederate gold. The bowsprit of their find includes what appears to be a carved wooden Griffin, similar to other examples of the French 17th Century. News of the find was not released to the public until December 2014, when it was published in the editor's note of issue #34 of "Wreck Diver" Magazine. Authentication of the find is expected to be painstaking, but forthcoming.
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