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Robert Cavelier de la Salle

A Biography of Explorer Robert Cavelier de la Salle

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Robert Cavelier de la Salle was a French explorer credited with claiming Louisiana and the Mississippi River Basin for France. In addition, he explored much of the United States' Midwest region, portions of Eastern Canada, and the Great Lakes.

Early Life and Career Beginnings of La Salle

La Salle was born in Rouen, Normandy (France) on November 22, 1643. During his young adult years, he was a member of the Jesuit religious order. He officially took his vows in 1660 but on March 27, 1667, he was released by his own request.

Shortly after his release from the Jesuit order, La Salle left France and headed for Canada. He arrived in 1667 and settled in New France where his brother Jean had moved the year before. Upon his arrival, La Salle was granted a piece of land on the Island of Montreal. He named his land Lachine. It is believed he chose this name for the land because its English translation means China and during much of his life, La Salle was interested in finding a route to China.

Throughout his early years in Canada, La Salle issued land grants on Lachine, set up a village, and attempted to learn the languages of the native peoples living in the area. He quickly learned to speak to the Iroquois who told him of the Ohio River which flowed into the Mississippi. La Salle believed the Mississippi would flow into the Gulf of California and from there he would be able to find a western route to China. After receiving permission from the Governor of New France, La Salle sold his interests in Lachine and began planning his first expedition.

 

The First Expedition and Fort Frontenac

La Salle's first expedition began in 1669. During this venture, he met Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, the first white men to explore and map the Mississippi River, in Hamilton, Ontario. The expedition continued from there and eventually reached the Ohio River, which it followed as far as Louisville, Kentucky.

Upon his return to Canada, La Salle oversaw the building of Fort Frontenac (located in present-day Kingston, Ontario) which was intended to be a station for the growing fur trade in the area. The fort was completed in 1673 and named after Louis de Baude Frontenac, the Governor General of New France. In 1674, La Salle travelled back to France to gain royal support for his land claims at Fort Frontenac. He achieved this support and also got a fur trade allowance, permission to establish additional forts in the frontier, and a title of nobility. With his newly found success, La Salle returned to Canada and rebuilt Fort Frontenac in stone.

 

The Second Expedition

On August 7, 1679 La Salle and the Italian explorer Henri de Tonti set sail on Le Griffon, the first full sized sailing ship to travel into the Great Lakes. The expedition began at Fort Conti at the mouth of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. Prior to the start of the voyage however, La Salle's crew had to bring in supplies from Fort Frontenac. In order to avoid Niagara Falls, La Salle's crew used a portage route established by the Native Americans in the area to carry their supplies around the falls and into Fort Conti.

La Salle and Tonti then sailed on Le Griffon up Lake Erie and into Lake Huron to Michilimackinac (near the present-day Straits of Mackinac in Michigan) before finally reaching Green Bay, Wisconsin. La Salle then continued down the shore of Lake Michigan. In January 1680, La Salle built Fort Miami at the mouth of the Miami River (the present-day St. Joseph River in St. Joseph, Michigan).

La Salle and his crew then spent much of 1680 at Fort Miami. In December, they followed the Miami River to South Bend, Indiana, where it joins the Kankakee River. They then followed this river to the Illinois River and established Fort Crevecoeur near what is today Peoria, Illinois. La Salle then left Tonti in charge of the fort and returned to Fort Frontenac for supplies. While he was gone though, the fort was destroyed by mutinying soldiers.

 

The Louisiana Expedition

After reassembling a new crew consisting of 18 Native Americans and reuniting with Tonti, La Salle began the expedition he is most known for. In 1682, he and his crew set sail down the Mississippi River. He named the Mississippi Basin La Louisiane in honor of King Louis XIV. On April 9, 1682, La Salle buried an engraved plate and a cross at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This act officially claimed Louisiana for France.

In 1683 La Salle established Fort Saint Louis at Starved Rock in Illinois and left Tonti in charge while he returned to France to resupply. In 1684, La Salle set sail from France en route to America to establish a French colony upon his return at the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition had four ships and 300 colonists. During the journey though there were navigational errors and one ship was taken by pirates, a second sank, and the third ran aground in Matagorda Bay. As a result, they set up Fort Saint Louis near Victoria, Texas.

After Fort Saint Louis was set up, La Salle spent a significant amount of time looking for the Mississippi River. On his fourth attempt to locate the river 36 of his followers mutinied and on March 19, 1687, he was killed by Pierre Duhaut. After his death, Fort Saint Louis only lasted until 1688 when local Native Americans killed the remaining adults and took the children captive.

 

La Salle's Legacy

In 1995, La Salle's ship La Belle was found in Matagorda Bay and has since been the site of archaeological research. The artifacts retrieved from the ship are currently on display at museums throughout Texas. In addition, La Salle has had many places and organizations named in his honor.

Most important to La Salle's legacy though are the contributions he made to the spread of knowledge about the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Basin. His claiming of Louisiana for France is also significant to the way the area is known today in terms of its cities' physical layouts and the cultural practices of the people there.

 

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