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, he was educated by the Jesuits and temperamentally unsuited to religious or indeed 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 that his seigneury, on the south-west of the island of Montreal, was named Lachine. (Both it and the adjacent LaSalle were merged into Montreal in 2001. The station itself is in the more easterly arrondissement of Verdun, near boulevard de LaSalle.)
Ambitious and easily bored, he sold his seigneury back the the Sulpicians as soon as he received it, keeping only his house as a fur trading factory. With the funds he hoped to discover a route to China by way of the Ohio River. It is now known that the Ohio does not lead to China but Cairo, Illinois, where it meets the Mississippi. In 1677 it suited a cleric at Versailles to display the discovery of the confluence of the rivers as the fruit of La Salle’s frenetic activity. More plausible is that the discovery was made by Louis Joliet and Father Marquet in 1673. It would have been in La Salle’s interests to write up his discovery – no such account survives. Further, in a letter of 1680, reporting on questioning of the Illinois nation, La Salle reveals his ignorance of its existence. Nevertheless, it is out of such rumours, myths and mystery are built, and it is the Mississippi that sets the tone for La Salle’s greatest dreams as well as his demise.
Through Bernou, La Salle succeeded where his contemporary, Radisson had failed. While Radisson could persuade neither the Governor’s of New France nor Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Colbert, to expand New France to the west, La Salle gained the support of Governor Frontenac and with it command of the fortifications and quasi-legal fur trading post at modern Kingston, Ontario. While an honor, the command could not satisfy La Salle’s need to make a name for himself as an explorer, and so in 1677, although many thought him a madman, he obtained permission from Louis XIV to navigate the western part of North America between New France, Florida and Mexico. It was a dubious victory.
Things went far from smoothly. Problems with creditors, including Charles Le Moyne, Sieur de Longueuil, and declining favour resulting from his abandonment of Fort Frontenac 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 Louisiana 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; official policy was aimed at the consolidation of the colony, not its expansion, yet La Salle uniquely had been permitted to lead his expedition. On his return to France, this royal favour had disappeared. Versailles was decidedly uninterested in his discoveries, and deemed them “completely useless [and that] such undertakings must in future be prevented.”
The solution to this problem was to solve other problems, specifically opposition to Bernou’s dream of a colony on the Rio Bravo. Taking advantage of instability in New Spain and the flight of Governor Peñalossa from the Inquisition, this would give France and Bernou – who would naturally become the colony’s bishop – access to the gold mines of New Spain. All that was required that La Salle’s discoveries and the Mississippi be moved 250 leagues west. This might mean that the Mississippi emptied somewhere near New Mexico, but with gold and a bishopric at stake, this scarcely mattered.
As a result of Bernou’s persuasion, La Salle left France in 1684 with four vessels and 320 men to establish a settlement. Perhaps for the simple reason that it existed on maps he knew to be false, however, he was unable to reveal any destination to Captain Beaujeu, the man selected to take charge of the ships. Convinced of La Salle’s madness, he 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. Having lost the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle established a fort on Matagorda Bay, near Corpus Christi on the eastern coast of Texas. From there he hoped to find the Mississippi, some 560 miles east. With no food, he was unable to conceal the harshness of the territory and became increasingly autocratic with the small band of survivors who remained with him. Hungry and lacking clear purpose, on March 18th they fell out over some smoked bison. Three followers of La Salle, including his nephew, were killed. Investigating the deaths only 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, his body 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.
Updated 6 September 2013 to reflect numerous edits.