The New Student's Reference Work/La Salle, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de


La Salle (lä′sȧl′) Robert Cavelier, Sieur de. More than two centuries ago the Mississippi Valley was the background for a group of picturesque heroes. Missionary and explorer they trod this wilderness, remote from the seaboard; raised the cross; unfurled the lilies of France; won the fealty of the red man as no man of Saxon blood ever won it; built their forts, did their deeds of daring with the gallantry and grace of romance; and vanished, to give place to the American pioneer. But, though they are gone, their names and the names of their kings and saints are preserved in city street and sylvan stream, in county and town, and the Father of Waters murmurs of them from St. Anthony's Falls to the Gulf of Mexico.

Of all these figures the greatest was the one born Robert Cavelier, son of a rich, middle-class burgher of Rouen, Normandy, 1643. His was no mere adventure directed by chance, but a dream of vast empire. The title of Sieur de la Salle, by which he is best known, would seem to indicate noble blood and possessions, but it was acquired, probably, in Canada, whither he emigrated and held by grant a seigniory on a big island in Lachine Rapids above Montreal. It was also, possibly, a tribute to a man who was essentially an aristocrat in intellect and bearing. On his island kingdom in the St. Lawrence he long wondered whence came that wild flood of waters flowing exhaustlessly out of the west. He made one expedition to the Ohio and thought it must flow into the Pacific and thus furnish the long-sought route to China. Joliet returning made it clear that the Ohio could be only a tributary of the continental river that flowed southward into the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle built a vessel at the head of Lake Erie and sailed to Green Bay, Wisconsin. He made his way over land to Illinois, built two forts west of Chicago, and sent an exploring party up the Mississippi under Father Hennepin. Support and supplies were withheld by jealous, petty officials in Canada. So La Salle, leaving his lieutenant, Henri di Tonti, at Fort St. Louis on Starved Rock, went to France and got the ear of the king.

He had conceived the idea of exploring, fortifying and colonizing the St. Lawrence and Mississippi basins and winning a fabulously rich empire for France with the help of friendly Algonquin tribes. He had gathered 20,000 Indians, numbering 4,000 warriors, around his rock of St. Louis. Louis XIV, le grand monarque, knew a great man when he saw him, and gave La Salle everything he asked for, but jealousy and malice prevented many things from reaching him. Three times he built up the structure that was to support New France; three times he saw the result of his toil and genius crumble into dust. Nothing daunted him or turned him from his purpose. Only death could defeat “the undespairing Norman.”

With four laden vessels, soldiers, arms, colonists and supplies, he started on his return from the third voyage to France, coming by way of the Mississippi, at whose mouth he had planted the French banner in the spring of 1682. The naval commander, Beaujeu, carried the expedition past the river, whether by intent is a disputed question. Certain it is that he landed the company on the coast of Texas, 1,000 miles from Ft. St. Louis on the Illinois, in an unhealthy country, among hostile tribes and in Spanish territory, and sailed back to France. Battle, famine and disease soon decimated their number and bred mutiny. La Salle was assassinated on the bank of Trinity River, in March of 1687. Tonti's red warriors were scattered by the savage Iroquois.

Early in 1700 France took up La Salle's task, proceeding westward along the lakes and northward up the Mississippi. But Illinois, the connecting link in the imperial chain, was never reforged. No new Vulcan appeared. The disastrous end of La Salle's enterprise must, in part, be ascribed to his own character. Wrapped in his splendid dream, reserved and naughty, he gave his confidence, his love, to no one but Tonti. By his Indian allies he was worshipped as a superior being, but it was this all too patent superiority that was resented by his white followers. It is improbable that anyone beside Tonti was with him who was capable of understanding him and his magnificent plan. He had powerful enemies in Canada and in France who finally were able to thwart him. The malice and treachery that hunted him to untimely death undoubtedly changed the course of American history. See Parkman's Discovery of the Great West and Mrs. Catherwood's romance: The Stury of Tonti.