Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/La Salle, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de
LA SALLE, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de (1643-1687), a French explorer in North America, was born at Rouen in November 1643. He became a settler in Canada, and about 1669, leaving his trading post at La Chine, above Montreal, he sought to reach China by way of the Ohio, supposing, from the reports of Indians, this river to flow into the Pacific. He made explorations of the country between the Ohio and the lakes, but, when Joliet and Marquette made it evident that the main river Mississippi emptied in the Gulf of Mexico, he conceived a vast project for extending the French power in the lower Mississippi valley, and thence attacking Mexico. He obtained extensive grants from the French Government, rebuilt Fort Frontenac, established a post above Niagara Falls, and built a small vessel, in which he sailed up the lakes to Green Bay. Thence, despatching his vessel freighted with furs, he proceeded with the rest of the party, in boats and on foot, to the Illinois river, near the head of which he began a post called Fort Crêve Cœur, and a vessel in which to descend the Mississippi. Not hearing of his vessel on the lakes, he detached Hennepin, with one companion, to ascend the Mississippi from the mouth of the Illinois, and, leaving Tonty, with five men, at Fort Crêve Cœur, he returned by land to Canada. Towards the close of 1681 La Salle, with a party in canoes, again reached the head of Lake Michigan, at the present site of Chicago, and, making the long portage to the Illinois, descended it to the Mississippi, which he followed to its mouth, where he set up a cross and the arms of France, April 9, 1682. La Salle fell sick on his voyage up the river, and sent on intelligence of his success, which was carried to France by Father Membré, and was published in Hennepin's work in 1683. When La Salle reached France, projects were taken up by the Government for an expedition against the rich mining country of northern Mexico. Plans were submitted by La Salle and by Peñalosa, a renegade Spaniard, who, while governor of New Mexico in 1662, had penetrated apparently to the Mississippi. La Salle was accordingly sent out in July 1684, with four vessels and a small body of soldiers, ostensibly to found an establishment at the mouth of the Mississippi, but really to push on and secure a favourable base of operations, and gain the aid of the Indians against the Spaniards, while awaiting a more powerful force under Peñalosa. The design was so well masked, and subsequently misrepresented, that he is generally said to have been carried beyond the Mississippi by the treachery of Beaujeu, a naval officer commanding one of the vessels. After running along the coast, La Salle returned to Espiritu Santo Bay, Texas. There he landed his soldiers, but lost one vessel with valuable stores. He refused Beaujeu's offer to obtain aid for him from the West Indies, and when that officer, according to his orders, sailed back, La Salle put up a rude fort. Then for two years, from January 1685 to January 1687, he wasted the time in aimless excursions by land, never getting beyond the present limits of Texas, and making no attempt to explore the coast or reach the Mississippi with his remaining vessel. His colonists and soldiery dwindled away; no reinforcements or expedition under Peñalosa arrived; and in January 1687, leaving part of his force at Fort St Louis, he set out with the rest to reach Canada by way of the Mississippi to obtain relief. His harshness and arbitrary manner had provoked a bitter feeling among his followers, and he was assassinated on the 19th of March, near the Trinity river. Some of the survivors reached Tonty's post on the Arkansas, and returned to France by way of Canada. The party left at the fort were nearly all cut off by the Indians, a few survivors having been rescued by a Spanish force sent to root out the French.
Hennepin's Description of Louisiana, 1683; Le Clercq's Establishment of the Faith, 1691; Tonty's Narrative (1697), and Joutel's (1713); and the immense collection of documents published by Margry (3 vols. 8vo, Paris, 1875-78). Hennepin and Le Clercq's accounts were published partially in Shea's Discovery of the Mississippi, 1852, and recently entire. La Salle's early explorations have been discussed by Tailhan, Verreau, and Shea, historical scholars generally rejecting the claims set up by Margry. Parkman gives La Salle's whole career in his Discovery of the Great West, modified, however,greatly in his La Salle, Boston, 1879. (J. G. S.)