He was our funniest explorer, forever getting lost and dismissed as a nutbar
PETER SHAWN TAYLOROctober242005
DUDE, WHERE’S MY RIVER?
He was our funniest explorer, forever getting lost and dismissed as a nutbar
PETER SHAWN TAYLOR
AMERICANS have no choice but to rub up against René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. They might bank at LaSalle National Bank, or drive a classic Buick LaSalle luxury car, or live in any one of the LaSalle counties that pop up from Illinois to Texas. The greatest 17th-century French explorer and arguably the most ambitious man ever to call Canada home, La Salle today is seen as a major U.S. figure for being the first white man to explore the length of the Mississippi River. As if to put a point on America’s ownership of his legacy, 10 years ago then-Texas governor George W. Bush authorized US$1.75 million to excavate the remains of one of La Salle’s ships, which had sunk off the Gulf coast, and used the artifacts to fill seven La Salle museums across the state.
Canada’s claim on the man should be even stronger. After all, he lived here and made it his life’s work to turn New France into a success. And yet there is very little of him left north of the border. A bridge and high school in Kingston, Ont. A small museum on the island of Montreal. The name on Prime Minister Paul Martin’s federal riding: LaSalle-Emard. The story of how Lachine, Que., got its name. That’s about it.
Philip Marchand is out to rectify this crime against our own history with his new book, Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America. Had La Salle succeeded in his most visionary of goals— turning the heartland of North America into a territory ruled by Louis XIV—our continent’s history would be a French, and hence Canadian, one. But in the end it was a failed dream, a ghost empire swept away by the success of English America.
It is La Salle’s failures, rather than his successes, that make him such an intriguing figure. He had all the obvious attributes of a great explorer. He was at ease in the forest and could hunt and paddle like a native. He was capable of amazing feats of endurance. He demonstrated a refined sense of strategy in politics and geography. But at the same time, he carried with him an aura of the absurd. He was, without doubt, the funniest explorer ever to walk the woods of North America.
Forsaking life as a Jesuit priest in France, La Salle caught the exploring bug and came to New France in 1667. His privileged background earned him a claim to a seigneurial
estate on the island of Montreal. But he was too restless to live as a gentleman farmer. He held court with natives, coureurs de bois and other free spirits, and dreamed of finding a route through the Great Lakes to China. He claimed to speak Iroquois and flattered himself into thinking he could converse with any Indian. But when his first major expedition stopped at a Seneca village near Lake Ontario, La Salle soon found himself in dire need of an interpreter. And on his return, after failing to find the route to the Orient, he discovered that his neighbours had renamed his farm La Chine (literally, China) as a joke.
Not content with one grand failure, he went on to attempt a revolution in fur-trading economics by building the first proper sailing ship on the Great Lakes. The Griffon sank its first time out, laden with a fortune in beaver pelts.
In 1682, La Salle famously became the first white man to travel to the mouth of the Mississippi. He thus claimed the entire Mississippi Valley for France and found himself on the verge of transforming a continent. Not only could his claim put the fur trade solely in French hands, but bifurcating North America in this way would halt the westward expansion of the British colonies on the Atlantic coast and put a stop to Spanish ambitions as well. La Salle knew it would never be possible to control the continent from frozen Quebec City. But a seaport on the Mississippi and a chain of forts up the spine of North America? Now that could be an empire.
Unfortunately, his return trip to establish a settlement at the mouth of the river didn’t quite work out. In sailing around Cuba to avoid the Spanish fleet, La Salle and Taneguy Le Gallois de Beaujeu, who commanded the flotilla of ships and settlers, managed to miss the Mississippi altogether. The pair squabbled and kept heading west until they ended up off the coast of Texas. (The spats between Beaujeu and La Salle are among the most amusing in history. In one letter to a friend, the admiral says of La Salle: “There are very few people who do not think that his brain is ‘frappé’. ”) Anxious to land, at which point the leadership of the expedition would revert to himself, La Salle became convinced that desolate Matagorda Bay and what is now called Garcitas Creek was actually the Mississippi delta. He landed, wrecking two ships in the process. Beaujeu left, and the grand design unravelled almost immediately.
Left alone in the Texas desert, almost the entire expedition died from sickness or misadventure-killed by snakes and alligators, or by Indians when they wandered too far afield. La Salle eventually abandoned the colony in an effort to find the real Mississippi, and was killed by one of his own men in 1687 during the trek. While France did return to found Louisiana a decade later, that modest colony never fulfilled La Salle’s original design.
What makes La Salle so captivating is his inability to see his own visions through to completion. His plans, while brilliant in conception, required the efforts of a supporting cast to achieve success, but he was singularly unable to demonstrate the leadership skills necessary to command men.
He sulked, he raged, he kept his own counsel when it was best to be open, he habitually accused others of plotting to undermine or assassinate him (with good reason, it turns out). He left his men alone at crucial moments, and disaster was often the result. It is now popular among historians to argue that he was insane, or at least manicdepressive. But La Salle was brilliant in selling the sizzle to kings and financial backers. He just couldn’t deliver on the steak.
Marchand intertwines stories of La Salle’s adventures with contemplation of his own Catholicism and French-Canadian roots.
He then adds a travelogue of his search for remnants of the French North American empire La Salle
envisioned. The book GHGST EMRiRE . . Philip Marchant
goes a long way in reMcC|e||and &
claiming a portion of Stewart; S37.99 La Salle’s legacy for all Canadians.
But La Salle deserves much more than a melancholy lament for a lost people. Marchand never captures the soul of La Salle and his status as an archetypal tragic hero— a mesmerizing character whose flaws inevitably brought about his own demise. There is room for novelists and playwrights here as well. (The only English-language fiction about La Salle is, naturally enough, by a U.S. writer.) Then again, if you bend tragedy far enough, it starts to look like something a lot more fun. And maybe that’s where La Salle’s ultimate resurrection lies.
Australians have no trouble appropriating their historical figures for a bit of a laugh. Ned Kelly, the greatest of Aussie bushrangers, was another man of vision let down by the details. His plan to build suits of armour for his robber band, to take on troops sent to quell his reign of lawlessness, was brilliant —if only he’d remembered about his legs. After shooting in vain at Kelly’s well-covered head and chest, the soldiers eventually lowered their aim and felled him like a tree.
For his fair dinkum efforts at insurrection, Kelly has been immortalized in songs, plays, operas, movies, the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics and, most famously, in a series of paintings of an empty helmet by Australian modernist Sidney Nolan. “Our Ned” is a national icon, a misguided rogue and object of fun all at the same time.
So if you can’t laugh at an explorer who misses the mighty Mississippi by a few degrees, keeps heading west and then convinces his followers that some godforsaken treeless stream in the middle of the desert coast of Texas—not even a river, but a creek— is really the largest river system in North America, well, who can you laugh at? Perhaps the way to insert La Salle into our past is to concentrate on bringing him alive in our present. If Sir Ernest Shackleton, the failed Antarctic explorer, can earn a second life as an icon for modern business leaders, surely we can do the same thing for La Salle: leadership lessons from Canada’s most troubled explorer. He could even become part of the business lexicon. Visionary plans gone awry due to managerial incompetence? Someone must have pulled a La Salle. Co-workers making fun of you behind your back? You’re suffering from Lachine syndrome. Afraid you’re paranoid? Maybe everyone is out to get you. It’s one way to save Canadian history—not with a bang, but a chuckle.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.