The Mad Visions of La Salle
THE WHITE AND THE GOLD
With nearly every man's hand against him, this French nobleman opened the fabulous Mississippi, offered and empire to his king, then was murdered by his own mer
THOMAS B. COSTAI
P art Thirteen
RENE Robert Cavelier de la Salle was born at Rouen on Nov. 21, 1643, of a noble and wealthy family. It must have been apparent from the first that this boy was destined for an unusual life. He had an ngated face and a nose too long in proportion d brows which slanted down at the outer corners an angle most often associated with bloodunds. Under these heavy brows were eyes which her smoldered with the tension of his innermost oughts or flashed with animation and excitement, ä was fairly pulsing with energy and filled with e desire to do things, to keep forever on the move, became certain early that nothing could divert m after his mind was made up. He was always ady to face any odds.
In his early youth he conceived a desire to join e Jesuit Order and fit himself for the mission Ids. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at fifteen d two years later took the vows. After three ars of intensive study he was sent as a teacher Alençon. He was to prove unsuccessful as a acher, being too impatient, too filled with vibrant ergy. Next he demanded to be sent at once to e missions. When this was denied, he obtained 3 release.
At 24, therefore, La Salle found himself free, with 3 life ahead of him and his prospects rather blank, fllowing the customary practice he had surrenred his property rights to his brothers when he tered the novitiate and they now showed no clination to return him his share. The best they >uld agree to was to contribute a yearly income 300 to 400 livres. On such meagre means he uld not hope to accomplish anything in France, d so his thoughts turned to Canada where an 1er brother, Jean Cavelier, had joined the ilpicians in Montreal. He arrived in the New orld in 1667.
This was the land to which fate had been çkoning him; he was sure of it at once. He -ew, moreover, the role he was to play. There re still so many things to be discovered; the >rthwest Passage, the great rivers farther inland, i lands of the west. He would solve these 'steries and open up new dominions of incallide grandeur for France.
The story of the mighty river which had its rise
beyond the Great Lakes and then rolled majestically southward took a special hold on his imagination. The Father of Waters drew him, it gave him no peace of mind. To see the Mississippi with his own eyes, to follow it wherever it led, was the task of all tasks for him. He never lost sight of this objective. It was the Mississippi which called to him all the time, which drew him finally like a lodestone across the lakes and the smaller rivers and the endless forests.
La Salle reached Montreal at a most opportune juncture. The Sulpicians were looking for a man of spirit and determination. They wanted to develop the country around Montreal and they were beginning to cast eyes farther afield. The result was a grant of land to the newcomer on Montreal Island, on the north shore of Lake St. Louis. So handsome was his grant that he was able to set aside four hundred arpents for himself, and still retain enough to portion out farms of sixty arpents to all settlers who applied.
Almost from the first, however, he was hearing things which set his mind to wandering and gave him an itch in the soles of his feet. Some friendly Seneca Indians who camped on his land for a whole winter talked about the Beautiful River (the Ohio) which ran due west, was much greater even than the St. Lawrence, and flowed finally to the Vermilion Sea. The Vermilion Sea! Could such a name be applied to anything but the warm waters of the Orient? Here, without a doubt, was a substitute for the Northwest Passage which men had sought so long in vain.
The result of these provocative rumors was a decision to toss away the orderly living he now enjoyed, to sacrifice to his dreams the certainty of ultimate comfort and wealth. The sympathetic Sulpicians bought back all of La Salle’s land save the four hundred arpents where he planned to settle finally, fixing the price at one thousand livres, payable in merchandise.
But La Salle needed still larger sums. He decided to sell the balance of his land and found a purchaser in Jean Milot, a resident of the town, who paid him twenty-eight hundred livres, a generous enough deal. Now the indomitable La Salle had sufficient ready money to make a start. He joined forces with another expedition which the Sulpicians were sending out to open a mission among the Shawnee Indians, under Dollier de Casson, the gigantic ex-cavalryman.
On July 6, 1669, the combined expedition started out. La Salle had four canoes and fourteen men, Dollier de Casson three canoes and seven men. Despite the strength of the party, it proved to
be a hazardous undertaking from the very beginning. The Iroquois were turning hostile and they detained the French party for a full month in the Seneca village of Tsonnontonan. Getting away finally, La Salle led his men across the Niagara River, hearing in the distance the roaring of the Great Falls. By the end of Septem ber t hey had reached the Indian village of Ganastogue, close to the site of the modern city of Hamilton, Ont. Here La Salle was told by a Shawnee prisoner of a direct route to the Ohio which would not take longer than six weeks.
At this point La Salle and Dollier de Casson parted company. Deserted by some of his men who had lost all stomach for such adventures, La Salle calmly turned his canoes in «a southerly direction. He must find that direct route to the Ohio.
He was away for two years and there is considerable doubt as to how he employed all of that time. It is certain that he reached the Ohio and continued down that broad and powerful stream. Some historians have contended that he went as far as the junction with the Mississippi. This would make him the discoverer of that mighty river and take the credit away from Marquette and Joliet (not to mention the shadowy claims of Radisson) who found it two years later. La Salle himself did not make any such claim, nor did he ever dispute the right of the others to priority of discovery. La Salle affirmed that he followed the Ohio until a waterfall made it impossible to continue. This must have been the falls above Louisville.
La Salle returned from his first great, exploration filled with a new purpose, a grand plan by which the whole of the west could be secured for France. First the great river would have to be explored from source to mouth. Forts would then be erected at strategic points to be used in the dual role of trading posts and units of defense. This would fence the English and the Spanish into the territory of the eastern seaboard.
It was a grandiose conception. Although other French Canadians with vision would share this dream, notably the sons of Charles le Moyne, it is La Salle who must be given credit for originating the plan.
La Salle returned, too, at a fortunate time. Frontenac, the new governor who had arrived while he was away, was a kindred spirit. An alliance was established between them at once. Frontenac, his energies and ambitions blunted by the long years in which he had vegetated with nothing serious to engage his mind and nothing constructive to occupy his hands, had plenty of the fire and fury of the trail blazer in him still. It was not hard for La Salle to convince him that a western empire was to be won by seizing control of the Mississippi; and incidentally to show him the personal wealth to be achieved at the same time.
The establishment of
Continued on page 75
They persuaded the tribe they were God and Jesus, and those who didn't agree were killed out on the ice floe.
theatre at Moose Factory. As the natives nailed him, handcuffed, into a box for “The Packing Case Escape,” one Indian leaving the stage was heard to say, “At last I have policeman where I want him. Now I make some home brew.” When he got back to his seat he found the Mountie sitting in it. Tiny’s awesome reputation kept the natives in his area in a constant state of grace.
In a land cut off from civilization, food takes on an added importance. Const. Hugh Margetts at Pangnirtung some years back was overwhelmed by a craving for roast weanling pig at Christmas. Returning from leave on the annual supply ship he brought three pigs in crates.
Off the Labrador coast the ship hit had weather. Margetts’ only concern was his pigs. Two of the crates, lashed amidships, were washed overboard, and the Mountie sprained his leg trying to save them.
At Pangnirtung he built a pen and a house for his one remaining pig. In the polar cold it sprouted hair till it looked like a miniature musk ox. Margetts and the other Mountie became so fond of the creature that they didn’t have the heart to shoot it for Christmas. But the vision of roast pork was overpowering. They asked the Eskimo hunter to shoot it.
Five Clubbed to Death
The Eskimo had also grown attached to the pig. He closed his eyes as he tired and shot the animal through the ear. Squealing, it ran into its shelter and refused to come out. The native had to tear down the place to shoot it. The two Mounties ate a delicious Christmas dinner with tears trickling down their wind-burned faces.
In the electric-lit oases where gold and uranium are mined, Mounties patrol paved streets in jeeps, and life and crime are not much different from in the towns to the south. “Perhaps a little more drunkenness,” says S/Sgt. Kearney, “but the farther north we go the less crime we have. The Eskimos are a law-abiding people. Occasionally, we* get an outbreak of murder, but it’s seldom murder as we know it. One old sick Eskimo, for example, asked his son to hang him so he wouldn’t be a burden on the family. Another was an insane Eskimo who couldn’t be left in the camp with the women while the men were away hunting so they shot him.”
In the Belcher Islands in 1941, live Eskimos were shot and clubbed to death. Two natives, Peter Sala and Charley Ouyerack, had persuaded themselves and their tribe that they were God and Jesus, respectively. Those who didn’t agree were killed. Sala’s sister, a large powerful woman, went hysterical, thought the real Christ was coming, took the women and children out to floe edge and half-persuaded, half-bullied them into stripping naked to meet him. Whereupon, another five froze to death.
The Mounties flew' in a Norseman, put up a shelter as big as a carnival tent, hung a picture of the King and Queen, draped the Union Jack over a table, summonsed a prospecting party to act as jury and then waited for a judicial party from “outside” which tried the case on the spot. The crimes were considered from the viewpoint of
the life the Eskimos lead. Sentences of one to two years were given. Then the portable court packed up and flew out again.
The longest chase in the RCMP, probably the longest police patrol ever made, was in pursuit of the killers of Harry Radford, an American biologist, and Tom Street, a Canadian surveyor. The two men set out to explore the Barrens in 1911. Reports drifted back of Radford’s high-handedness with the natives, then no more was heard until 1913, when word came out via moccasin telegraph—news passed on from native to native—of two white men killed by a primitive Eskimo tribe beside the Arctic Ocean on remote Bathurst Inlet.
An RCMP schooner set sail from Halifax to erect a patrol base on Baker Lake off Hudson Bay. Blizzards and bad luck delayed the ship and twice the storm-swept, boulder-strewn Barren Lands turned back Inspector W. J. Beyts, a strong, experienced officer. In 1917 the exhausted Beyts was replaced by Inspector Frank French, a handsome vital man, son of a Mountie and nephew of the force’s first commissioner. French was serenely confident. With Sgt.-Major T. B. Caulkin, four natives and 25 dogs, he headed northwest for Bathurst Inlet on March 21.
Driving gales tore their clothing. They went snow-blind for three weeks. They wandered off course, their compass needle gyrating uselessly from mineral deposits. But they had the good luck to travel with migrating caribou and by May 7 they sighted the Arctic Ocean. A week later they trudged into an Eskimo camp on the Inlet.
The women fled to their igloos. The men had been hunting; in single file they ran toward the police, spears and snow knives half-raised.
“Tell them we come in friendship,” French told his interpreter, holding his hand above his head in the universal sign of peace. The headman slowed his pace and smiled. “Welcome to our camp,” he said.
They exchanged gifts, then French asked, “Do you know of two white men who passed this way, said to have been killed?” With the candor of children, the Eskimos told what had happened. Here is the statement of one eyewitness:
About five winters ago, two white men came from the south. One was named Ishumatak (man who does the thinking — Radford) and the other Kiuk (meaning wood, a tribute to Street’s strength). | Radford j was bad, but the other white man was good. They made us understand a little by making signs.
They wanted two men to go away with them to the west. Two men, Haría and Kaneak. were going with them, but Kaneak’s wife was sick and [he did not want to leave her there. The white man [Radford got very mad and ran at Kaneak and hit him with a whip. The other man [Street tried to stop him. The white man was shouting all the time. He dragged Kaneak to the water edge. The other white man went with him. They were going to throw Kaneak in the water. Everybody was frightened the two white men were going to kill Kaneak.
Two men, Okitok and Hulalark, ran out and stabbed [Radford . He fell on the ice. The other white man ran off shouting toward the sleigh and Okitok ran after him and caught
The White and the Gold
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 31
Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui may have been part of the program they discussed between them. La Salle went to the French court the following year with a proposition: place the new fort in
his hands with an ample stretch of territory about it and he would pay back out of his own purse the ten
thousand francs of government money which had been spent in the building of it. In addition he would guarantee to maintain at his own expense a garrison there as numerous as that of Montreal.
The offer was accepted. All that the youthful La Salle, fired now with new zeal and determination, had to do was to raise the necessary funds. He had nothing in his own purse but he had wealthy relatives and connections. His brothers contributed more generously than might have been expected in view of their attitude over his share in the
family estates. Afterward they declared that his operations in New France had cost them five hundred thousand livres; and, needless to state, they were very bitter about it. A cousin, François Plet, loaned him eleven thousand livres, demanding interest at the rate of forty percent. Some outsiders contributed shares amounting to more than twenty thousand livres. La Salle now had ample funds. He paid the government the stipulated sum and returned to Canada to claim Fort Frontenac.
The consummation of this pact was the signal for a storm of protest in the
colony. Montreal merchants and fur traders complained that Frontenac had built the fort with government money and then turned it over to his new ally, the visionary La Salle. Between them they would have a monopoly of the western fur trade and Montreal’s trade would be cut in two.
Paying little heed to the uproar La Salle proceeded to carry out his promises. He replaced the wooden palisade, which Raudin had raised at Cataraqui with such remarkable celerity, with a wall of hewn stone. Inside this he erected a barracks for the men of the garrison, a mill and a bakery. The staff he maintained at the start consisted of two officers, a surgeon and ten soldiers. There were in addition thirty workers and two Récollet fathers, Luc Buisset and Louis Hennepin. Cannon frowned through gun emplacements in the walls. Outside the fort a village was established and in short order one hundred acres of land had been cleared and crops planted.
It became apparent at this point that these two outstanding men had joined forces with more in mind than making a profit from the western fur trade. They had a far greater objective, the conquest of the west. The establishment of Fort Frontenac was the first step in this magnificent design.
While La Salle was in France making these arrangements he was introduced to a man who was to play a large part in his life. This was a young Italian named Henri de Tonty who had come to France under unusual circumstances.
The father of this brave officer was a Neapolitan banker, Lorenzo de Tonty, who got into trouble in his native city by dabbling in politics and involving himself so deeply on the losing side that he had to flee with his family.
Henri de Tonty was a sailor. He had entered the French service as a cadet and through sheer merit and bravery had advanced rapidly to the rank of captain. At the battle of Libisso a grenade shot away his right hand. Knowing that he could not expect medical aid at once, the gallant young officer cut away the jagged flesh with a knife and kept on fighting. He had an iron hand made and thus, at a time when rumors still circulated in France about a mysterious prisoner who was called the Man in the Iron Mask, Tonty became known as the Man with the Iron Hand. He wore a glove over it and was believed to be capable of handling a sword just as well with his artificial hand as before.
When he met La Salle, Tonty was in his late twenties. He was a tall fellow with a prominent nose jutting out from gaunt cheeks. His mustache had waxed ends that turned up sharply. La Salle conceived an immediate liking for Tonty and offered him a post as his lieutenant in America. Tonty accepted gladly. The brave Italian seems to have been the only real friend the reserved La Salle ever had.
La Salle never seemed concerned over the ease with which he made enemies. He was too engrossed in his dreams to care what other men thought of him. La Salle was practical enough to know that money was needed in large quantities to carry out the plans which filled his head. He was willing to go to any lengths to get it. But a study of this strange man leaves the conviction that he had no concern over money for its own sake. His was the true pioneering spirit, and the almost demoniac passion with which he fought to claim the Mississippi was not inspired by a consideration of future profits. He saw glory in the accomplishment and he would have been content if no other reward had offered.
On his return to New France with
Tonty, La Salle lost no time in setting out for the west. A party of volunteers went ahead to prepare a base on the Niagara River. La Salle and Tonty followed with the bulk of the party.
The next step was to build a boat above the Falls, one large enough to take the whole party with their supplies over the waters of the Great Lakes. La Salle had received disturbing intelligence from the colony that his enemies, now including his brother at Montreal, who was standing like a watchdog over the family funds, were combining actively against him. He felt it advisable to return at once and do whatever he could to repair his fences. This meant a trip on foot, across the face of the Iroquois country and over the frozen surface of Lake Ontario, a matter of many months. The task of constructing the boat, therefore, fell to the lot of Henri de Tonty.
The Man with the Iron Hand rose nobly to the need. While La Salle was
plowing on snowshoes over the Iroquois trails, in constant danger of his life, his Italian-born friend was performing a miracle of another kind, the construction of the forty-five-foot vessel which had been designed.
By spring the vessel was ready. It was christened the Griffin as a compliment to Frontenac, whose coat of arms included that mythical beast. It was not until late in August, however, that La Salle put in an appearance. He had much bad news to tell. His brother, the Montreal Sulpician, had ordered all the pelts stored at Fort Frontenac to be seized and sold at auction in Quebec. Of the amount realized, which was considerable, La Salle himself had been allowed only 14,990 livres. François Plet, maker of loans at forty percent interest, had come over from France to protect his investment and had located himself at Fort Frontenac, where he was watching everything that happened with what might be termed a forty-percent eye. Other creditors in the colony were clamoring for dividends.
What course should they follow now? The indomitable La Salle declared that they must go on. They had the Griffin, they had food in the hold, they had a stout crew. They had nothing to lose but their debts.
There has never been a story to excel that of La Salle. It was adventure piled on adventure, misfortune added to misfortune, curious quirk imposed on twist of malign circumstance. It was a tale in which stout comrades and unrelenting enemies played their parts, an epic of cruelty and suffering and privation. Through it all La Salle displayed a grim determination to succeed in spite of everything and a courage which at times strains credulity and defies comparison.
When the Griffin reached the head of the lakes, the La Salle party found themselves balked at every turn by open opposition. The Jesuit missionaries, who had come to distrust and even hate Frontenac, regarded this partner and favorite of the governor with an equal degree of resentment. Even the Indians had been poisoned against him in advance. In spite of the suspicion they encountered at every step La Salle and his companions threw themselves into the fur trading with so much success that the hold of the Griffin became filled with prize pelts. La Salle decided then to send the ship back so that the cargo could be used to pay off the most pressing of his debts.
After the departure of the Griffin with its vital cargo the explorer made himself familiar with the course of the Illinois and at a strategic point near what is now Peoria he built a strong post and called it Fort Grèvecoeur. The construction of a new ship to be used in the navigation of the Mississippi was begun.
They Wanted to Kill Him
In the meantime disturbing rumors began to percolate down from Michilimackinac and Green Bay to the effect that the Griffin had been lost with all on board. Leaving Tonty in charge at Fort Crèvecoeur, La Salle set out on foot with a few companions to discover what had happened. This reckless journey proved to be a long series of adventures. He reached his headquarters at Fort Frontenac finally with one distressing fact established: the Griffin had vanished, no one knew where or when or how. Obviously it had foundered on its way down from the head of the lakes and the crew had been lost. The only other explanation was that it had been scuttled by the malice of his enemies and all trace of it skillfully covered up. The first seems to have been the truth, although it took nearly three hundred years for the fate of the vessel to be determined.
Less than a quarter of a century ago six skeletons were found in a cave on a Lake Huron island. The crew of the Griffin had consisted of Pilot Luc as master, four sailors and a boy; as further proof the hull of a ship was found nearby at the bottom of the lake. This evidence seems to be reasonably conclusive.
When La Salle reached Fort Frontenac there was news of other disasters to greet him. A ship coming out from France had been wrecked in the St. Lawrence and everything it held, including supplies for his use to the value of 22,000 livres, had been lost. The supply depot he had left on the Niagara had been broken open and rifled. The final blow was news from the west that most of the men under Tonty at Fort Crèvecoeur had mutinied. They had destroyed the fort and carried off all the goods which had been stored there. The mutineers, it developed, were on their way east and were planning to attack and destroy Fort Frontenac. They had even announced their purpose of killing La Salle himself to prevent any reprisals on his part. La Salle resolved the last menace by
waylaying the mutineers. Two of them were killed and the rest were made prisoners.
The great explorer now faced difficulties which seemed insurmountable. All he could hope for was to find the hull of the unfinished vessel on the Illinois and to meet with the everreliable Tonty.
Somehow he overcame all these difficulties. He placated his creditors by sheer vigor of argument. He secured from unstated sources the funds to provide' for a new start. He gathered together a party of twenty-five m 1,
and on Aug. 10, 1680, he started off again.
La Salle reached the Illinois country on the heels of a major tragedy. The Illinois Indians had been scattered, their great city on the river (it was spoken of as a city because of the density of its population) had been destroyed with a fury which passes belief. Only blackened ruins and mutilated bodies remained where once this teeming community of friendly aborigines had stood. The silence of death and desolation reigned over that once-fruitful countryside.
The perpetrators of this unprovoked attack had been the Iroquois. Their leaders had cast their eyes west, where the Illinois lived in peace and prosperity. Distance held no terrors for the Iroquois.
It seems possible that the selection of the Illinois as the next victims was due to the friendship they had displayed from the start for the white men. Back of the ceaseless war-making of the Five Nations was hate of the interlopers, these men of white skin with their superior weapons who had come to steal the land from its rightful
owners. The thought may have been expressed in the council house at Onondaga that to destroy the Illinois would be to serve notice on all men of red skin: make no peace with these grasping strangers who come in the guise of gods but with conquest in their hearts, or feel the might of the Five Nations.
La Salle’s arrival followed soon after the departure of the triumphant Iroquois. There was something strange and macabre about the sight that greeted him. Not a living soul was encountered in the wide district where the fury of the conquering bands had been vented. Where was Tonty? Had he and his few faithful followers been among the victims of the murderous onslaught? If this proved true, it would be for La Salle the final blow, the one loss for which there could be no compensation.
But Tonty was not dead. He had striven fearlessly to act as mediator between the Illinois and the invading hordes and had been close to death on several occasions. The Illinois had been filled with suspicion, conceiving the idea that this iron-handed man had been sent ahead by the Iroquois to spy out the land. While still convinced of this they seized the supplies of the Frenchmen and even destroyed the forge and tools to which Tonty had clung in the hope of using them in the construction of the new ship. His efforts to avert a clash failing, he fought bravely with the Illinois and survived by luck which verged on the miraculous. He made his way back finally to Michilimackinac. There, to his great joy, La Salle found him and what was left of his party.
Huts with Round Domes
Everything had gone wrong with La Salle up to this point, and the usually resolute leader had been sunk deep in despair. Finding the Man with the Iron Hand alive was sufficient to balance the scales. With Tonty beside him he felt that he could face the future with confidence. With the armor of his faith refurbished and shining brightly, he returned to Fort Frontenac to start over again.
It was late in the fall of 1681 that a start was made on the expedition which was to crown the long series of failures with the shining chaplet of success. There were a dozen canoes in the long line which took to the water at Green Bay. In the party were twenty-three Frenchmen, eighteen Indians of the Abnaki and Mohegan tribes, ten squaws and three children. La Salle could not cut down to the levels of efficiency and easy subsistence; he must travel in state, with his helpers and vassals about him.
The weather was good, the men were in good spirits, all the portents were favorable. In this spirit of confidence they crossed the Chicago River, reached and passed the Illinois, left Lake Peoria behind them.
On February 6 they sighted for the first time the broad surface of the mighty Mississippi. Spring came early and there was softness in the air when they passed the junction point where the brown and sluggish Missouri swelled the volume of the parent stream. A month later they reached the Arkansas and the promise of summer was all about them.
The most interesting of their advenI tures was a visit to what seemed a new civilization, the main town of the Taensas Indians. It consisted of dwellings of baked mud with rounded domes, grouped in circular form about the temple of the tribe and the house of the venerable chief. The Taensas were sun wo hipers, and their rites in-
eluded human sacrifices. This was the Frenchmen’s first contact with the customs which had crept north from the lands of the Aztec.
Early in April the party came to a point where the great river broke into three channels. The paddles of the weary men were lifted at once with renewed energy, their voices reflected a gain in spirits. This, they knew, was the beginning of the end. Below this division of the waters must be the ocean or gulf into which the river emptied. The flotilla was divided into three equal parts. La Salle chose the western channel, Tonty the centre, and D’Autray, third in command, the east. It was La Salle’s canoe which first issued out on the surface of the salt water, his eyes which first sighted the broad green gulf.
When the three parties came together, La Salle followed the example of all great explorers by erecting a tall cross on the shore. It carried the arms of France and the words:
Louis le Grand, Roy de France et de
Navarre Règne; Le Neuvième Avril,
All voices joined in singing The Banners of Heaven’s King Advance! and all arms were raised in the air. The whole of this unknown land which stretched in majesty to the western horizon had been claimed for France.
But more important was the fact that at last the mystery of the Mississippi had been solved.
La Salle returned to France amid great acclaim. He made a quiet entrance into Paris, restrained in mood and deeply preoccupied. A little shabby in attire, perhaps, for his purse was again flat. He applied at once for audiences with the King and his ministers. Louis, always curious and with an eye for the spectacular, decided to receive the homecomer.
One morning, therefore, La Salle appeared by appointment in the royal anterooms. At the designated moment (Louis being as punctual as any humble clerk) he was ushered into the cabinet of the King. La Salle had heard much about it, how in the blazing effulgence of the Sun King visitors blinked and became tongue-tied and the pretensions of the unworthy or the unlucky shriveled to nothing. But La Salle had room in his mind for one thought only, the need to convince this omnipotent being of the feasibility of a great new scheme.
This was what they discussed. France and Spain were now at war and La Salle pointed out to the King that the northwestern point of Mexico, where gold and silver mines were yielding their wealth to Castilian greed, was not far south of the mouth of the Mississippi. Why not, therefore, accomplish a double purpose by establishing on the newly claimed river a colony strong enough to command a foothold on the Mexican coast. He had a plan worked out in full detail. Give him two ships and two hundred men, half of them
soldiers, half artisans. He would then recruit in Canada a much larger force of trained woodsmen. An alliance would be made with the northern confederacy of Indian tribes, and a party of four thousand warriors would be brought down the Mississippi to join in an attack on the Spanish settlements.
Such was the scheme proposed to the ambitious King. It is hard to believe that La Salle could have advanced an idea as wild as this with a straight face or that a man as shrewd as Louis XIV could have considered it in full seriousness. If La Salle really believed that
a war party of four thousand western braves could be persuaded to travel down the great river (for which they had a superstitious dread) to fight a powerful white race, leaving their own lands wide open to more mass raids by the Iroquois, he had no conception whatever of Indian nature. If he was convinced, moreover, that such an army could be held together and made effective against the trained soldiers of Spain, he was indulging in dreams as ephemeral as soap bubbles.
As to the judgment displayed by King Louis in accepting this hare-
brained scheme, the less said the better.
The royal decision was known only to three men: the King himself; his colonial minister, the Marquis de Seignelay, a son of Colbert; and La Salle. The secret was closely held during the whole period of preparat ion. Men might guess that the fitting out of four ships and the recruit ing of a force of four hundred men (the King had doubled La Salle’s conservative estimate) had to do with a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi, but who could foresee the deeper purpose back of it?
At the start the King proceeded to
make a grava mistake. The Sire de Beaujeu, a commander in the royal navy, was given charge of the ships. La Salle, as usual, wanted to have every shred of power in his own hands and he glowered unhappily over the appointment. Beaujeu developed a supercilious attitude almost from the start and conceived a low opinion of La Salle. He began to write letters to vent his views. “I believe him,” speaking of La Salle, “to be a very honest man from Normandy. But they are no longer in fashion.”
The resentment of Beaujeu mounted when his instructions on sailing bore no information as to the destination of the expedition. This secret was being held among the King, Seignelay and La Salle. The latter proceeded to confound Beaujeu with conflicting hints. One day he would confide to the naval commander that the ships were to sail for Canada. The next day he would whisper that the real destination was the mouth of the Mississippi. “There are few people,” Beaujeu exploded in one of his letters, “who do not believe that his brain is touched.”
The expedition sailed from La Rochelle in the summer of 1684. The smallest of the four vessels, a ketch named the St. François, was captured by the Spaniards off San Domingo. La Salle was struck down with a fever at San Domingo, went out of his head and raved wildly. Finally a limp and very ill La Salle went aboard the Joly, his flagship, and gave orders to drive westward into the unknown waters of I the Gulf of Mexico.
La Salle had been unable to fix the location of the mouth of the Mississippi by scientific methods. He had found the latitude by some rough and ready way, but the longitude had been beyond him. This is not surprising, for navi■ gation was in a primitive stage. A writer of the period was frank enough ! to say: “I would not have any think
that the longitude is to he found at sea ... so let no seamen trouble themselves but keep a perfect account and reckoning of the way of the ship.”
Having nothing definite to guide them, therefore, the navigators of the little fleet took a course too far south. On the twenty-eighth of December land was sighted, a long stretch of flat islands behind which lay the waters of a large bay. At first La Salle was inclined to think that they had located the Mississippi, but observations soon showed him his mistake. This was Matagorda Bay, and it lay four hundred miles south and west of their destination.
The ill fortune which had pursued La Salle all his life—with the glorious exception of his Mississippi voyage —continued. One of his remaining ships, the Aimable, ran aground on a reef in the bay while coming in under full sail. Captain Beaujeu returned to France in the Joly, and the last vessel, the Belle, a small frigate, was wrecked on the river shoals.
Now the colony was cut off from the world in a strange hot land, ringed about by hostile and watchful tribes, with no prospect of early relief.
La Salle passed the long days in a state of despair. For the first time he had been entrusted with a royal mission and he was failing dismally. He had stranded the hopes of the King for a western empire in the muddy flats of Matagorda Bay. The people he had brought with him from France were dying of the malarial fevers.
The only hope left them was to get word back to France by way of the Mississippi. La Salle set out accordingly with a party of twenty men, including a nephew named Moranget. La Salle was playing again his most familiar role, risking life and limb in
a dangerous journey to rectify the consequences of bad luck and his own mistakes.
It would have been better if he had decided to leave his nephew with the colony at Matagorda Bay. Moranget was a bad-tempered youth who had won nothing but dislike. He was now to lead to La Salle’s final tragedy. A party, which included the expedition’s surgeon, Liotot, was sent to recover a cache of food. By now most of La Salle’s companions, and particularly the surgeon, had lost all respect for the high and mighty La Salle who had involved them in this mad adventure and whose mistakes seemed likely to cost them their lives. There was a quarrel among the party which set out in search of the cache; the leader’s nephew and two others were killed in their sleep. The assassins decided to dispose of La Salle as well, in order to cover up their guilt.
This was accomplished two days
later when the leader set out to find what was keeping the party absent. According to a friendly member who went with him, Friar Anastase Douay, La Salle was weighted down with a sense of doom. In his account of what happened the friar says that La Salle talked of nothing but “matters of piety, grace and predestination, enlarging on the debt he owed God.” When they approached the spot where the conspirators had hidden, a volley was fired from the ambuscade and the leader dropped dead, with a bullet through his brain.
“There thou liest, great Bashaw!” cried the surgeon, emerging to stand above the victim.
The body of the indomitable explorer was stripped naked and left in the dank reeds and bushes; and the air above was soon filled with the black wings of buzzards.
Thus ended the life of René Robert Cavelier de la Salle, who had compressed into his scant 43 years more excitement and adventure than any other man of the period. Fortunately the memory of his achievements has persisted down the years while the stories of failure and of the enmities he created have faded away. One hostile belief persists—that he was mad, that an inner demoniac fever had driven him into his excesses of energy and had led to the miscalculations which studded the record of his years.
Perhaps he was mad near the end; but certainly it was a glorious madness, for even his mistakes were of the kind which keeps history glowingly alive. *