Discovering Canadian History One Station at a Time
In the history of New France there is perhaps no figure more colorful than René-Robert Cavalier de la Salle. Born in Rouen, France in 1643 where he was educated by the Jesuits, he was temperamentally unsuited to religious life or any other settled life. In 1667 joined the Compagnie de Cent Associés and headed to Quebec. So great was his desire to discover a route to China his seigneury, on the south-west of the island of Montreal, was named Lachine. His proposed method of reaching China was a navigation of the Ohio River.
It is now known that the Ohio does not lead to China but Cairo, Illinois, where it meets the Mississippi.
Ambitious and easily bored, some claim that he the first European to see the confluence of the rivers. Others say it was Louis Joliet and Father Marquet in 1673. The second explanation is more plausible; it would have been in la Salle’s interests to write up his discoveries and no such account survives. But out of such rumours, myths and mystery are built, and the Mississippi and the claim of its discovery set the tone for la Salle’s greatest dreams as well as his demise.
What is known is that he was far better navigator of the politics of New France and Versailles and an even greater manipulator of the truth than his contemporary, Radisson. While Radisson failed to persuade either the Governor of New France, then Argenson, or Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Colbert, of his plan to expand New France to the west, la Salle was able to gain the support of one of Argenson’s successors, Frontenac, and the command of the fortifications and quasi-legal fur trading post at modern Kingston, Ontario.
While an honor, the command clearly could not satisfy la Salle’s need to make a name for himself as an explorer, and so in 1677, although many others thought him a madman, he obtained permission from Louis XIV to navigate the western part of North America between New France, Florida and Mexico.
Things went far from smoothly. Problems with creditors and declining favour meant that he was losing support for his plan as well as suffering the reversals that inevitably go with a difficult journey in unknown territory. Delays meant that his expedition down the Mississippi did not begin in earnest until February 1682. Despite the setbacks, la Salle and his party reached the mouth of the Mississippi on April 9 and with all the pomp they could muster - they were living on potatoes and crocodile – claimed it in the name of Louis XIV, King of France.
If ever there was a chance for the explorer to make a name for himself, then this was it. He journeyed to France to propose the establishment of a new colony. He had reason to have high hopes; despite an official policy aimed at the consolidation of the colony, rather than its expansion, la Salle uniquely had been permitted to lead his expedition. On his return to France though, Versailles was decidedly uninterested in the discoveries of their favoured explorer. In fact, they deemed them ‘completely useless [and that] such undertakings must in future be prevented’.
The solution to this problem was to look to solve other problems and move the mouth of the Mississippi a significant distance west. Such a move might mean that Mississippi variously coincided with the Rio Grande or emptied somewhere in the modern and landlocked state of New Mexico, but it did mean that the territory became strategically useful in the career of an ambitious priest, Bernou, at Versailles and in France’s own competition with Spain.
And so in 1684, la Salle left France unable to reveal any destination to the men he led for the simple reason that it existed only on the maps he knew to be false. Captain Beaujeu, the man selected to take charge of the ships, wrote that ‘I am going into an unknown country to seek something almost as difficult to find as the philosopher’s stone, late in the season, laden above the water-line, and with an irritable man.’
The fog of lies and mistrust was not just metaphorical, and with true but inaccurate maps, la Salle managed to lose the mouth of the Mississippi. Vessels aground and his men came into conflict with the native population. With no food though, he was unable to conceal the harshness of the territory. Hungry and lacking clear purpose, the small band of survivors became prone to infighting and fell out over some smoked bison. Three followers of la Salle, including his nephew, were killed. Investigating the deaths further made la Salle the next casualty of the men he had brought on a mission he knew to be fruitless. When his murderers were done, the body of the man who had first imagined a new French colony between the territories held by England and Spain, was stripped naked and rolled into a thicket.
Consulted in this post
Cazaux, Yves. Le Rêve Américain: de Champlain à Cavelier de la Salle. Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1988.
Dupré, Celine. Cavalier de la Salle, René-Robert’. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto and Université Laval. 2000. Web. 7 June 2012.
Moore, Christopher. ‘Colonization and Conflict: New France and its Rivals, 1600-1760′. The Illustrated History of Canada. Ed. Craig Brown. Toronto: Key Porter, 2007.