René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Murdered by His Own Men (1687)
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (November 22, 1643 – March 19, 1687) was a 17th century French explorer and fur trader in North America. He explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. He is best known for an early 1682 expedition in which he canoed the lower Mississippi River from the mouth of the Illinois River to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France.
La Salle is often credited with being the first European to traverse the Ohio River, and sometimes the Mississippi as well. It has now been established that Joliet and Marquette preceded him on the Mississippi in their journey of 1673-74, and the existing historical evidence does not indicate that La Salle ever reached the Ohio/Allegheny Valley.
Sieur de La Salle
Sieur de La Salle is a French title roughly translating to “Lord of the manor”, from the old French sal(e) (modern salle), “hall”, a manor house. Sieur is a French title of nobility, similar to the English “Sir”, but under the French Signeurial system, the title is purchased rather than earned, and does not imply military duty. It refers to Robert Cavelier’s Signeurial purchase of Lachine from the Sulpician order at Ville Marie around 1667. The phrase La Salle has become iconic, and associated with the person as if it were his name, in expressions such as Robert La Salle, or simply “La Salle”.
Robert Cavelier was born on November 22, 1643, into a comfortably well-off family in Rouen, France, in the parish Saint-Herbland. When he was younger, he enjoyed science and nature. As a man, he studied with the Jesuit religious order and became a member after taking initial vows in 1660.[a] At his request on March 27, 1667, after he was in Canada, he was released from the Society of Jesus after citing “moral weaknesses.” Although he left the order, never took final vows in it, and later became hostile to it, historians sometimes described him incorrectly as a priest or a leader.
La Salle never married, but has been linked to Madeleine de Roybon d’Allonne, an early settler of New France. His older brother, Jean Cavelier, was a Sulpician priest. His parents were Jean Cavelier and Catherine Geest.
Required to reject his father’s legacy when he joined the Jesuits, La Salle was nearly destitute when he traveled as a prospective colonist to North America. He sailed for New France in the spring of 1666. His brother Jean, a Sulpician priest, had moved there the year before. He was granted a seigneurie on land at the western end of the Island of Montreal, which became known as Lachine. [b] La Salle immediately began to issue land grants, set up a village and learn the languages of the native people, several tribes of Iroquois in this area.
The Seneca told him of a great river, called the Ohio, which flowed into the sea, the “Vermilion Sea”.[d]. He began to plan for expeditions to find a western passage to China. He sought and received permission from Governor Daniel Courcelle and Intendant Jean Talon to embark on the enterprise. He sold his interests in Lachine to finance the venture.
La Salle left Lachine by the St. Lawrence on July 6, 1669 with a flotilla of nine canoes and 24 men, plus their Seneca Indian guides: himself and 14 hired men in 4 canoes, the two Sulpicians Dollier de Casson and Abbé René de Bréhan de Galinée with 7 new recruits in three canoes, and two canoes of Indians. There they went up the St. Lawrence and across Lake Ontario. After 35 days, they arrived at what we call today, Irondequoit Bay on the southern shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of Irondequoit Creek, a place now commemorated as “La Salle’s Landing”.
There they were greeted by a party of Indians, who escorted them starting the next day to a village some leagues distant, a journey of a few days. At the village, the Seneca vehemently attempted to dissuade the party from proceeding into the lands of their enemies, the Algonquins, telling of the dire fate awaiting them. The necessity of securing guides for the further part of the journey, and the obstinacy of the Seneca to provide them, delayed the expedition a month. A fortuitous capture by the Indians in the lands to the south of a Dutchman who spoke Iroquois well but French ill, and was to be burned at the stake for transgressions unknown, provided an opportunity to obtain a guide. The Dutchman’s freedom was purchased by the party in exchange for wampum.
While at the Indian village in Sept. 1669, La Salle was seized with a violent fever[e] and expressed the intention of returning to Ville Marie.
Niagara and Lake Erie
At this juncture, he parted from his company and the narrative of the Jesuits, who continued on to upper Lake Erie.The missionaries continued on to the upper lakes, to the land of the Potawatomies. Other accounts have it that some of La Salle’s men soon returned to New Holland or Ville Marie.
Beyond that, the factual record of La Salle’s first expedition ends, and what prevails is obscurity and fabrication. It is likely that he spent the winter in Ville Marie. The next confirmed sighting of La Salle was by Nicolas Perrot on the Ottawa River near the Rapide des chats in early summer, 1670, hunting with a party of Iroquois. That would be 700 miles as the crow flies from the Falls of the Ohio, the point supposed by some that he reached on the Ohio River.
La Salle’s own journal of the expedition was lost in 1756. Two indirect historical accounts exist. The one, Récit d’un ami de l’abbé de Galliné, purported to be a recitation by La Salle himself to an unknown writer during his visit to Paris in 1678, and the other Mémoire sur le projet du sieur de la Salle pour la descouverte de la partie occidentale de l’Amérique septentrionale entre la Nouvelle-France, la Floride et le Mexique. A letter from Madeleine Cavelier, his now elderly niece, written in 1746, commenting on the journal of La Salle in her possession may also shed some light on the issue.
La Salle himself never claimed to have discovered the Ohio River. In a letter to the intendent Talon in 1677, he claimed discovery of a river, the Baudrane, flowing southwesterly with its mouth on Lake Erie and emptying into the Saint Louis (i.e. the Mississippi), a hydrography which was non-existent. In those days, maps as well as descriptions were based part on observation and part on hearsay, of necessity. This confounded courses, mouths and confluences among the rivers. At various times, La Salle invented such rivers as the Chucagoa, Baudrane, Louisiane (Anglicized “Saint Louis”), and Ouabanchi-Aramoni. These included segments of those he’d actually traversed, which were earlier the Illinois and Kankakee, St. Joseph’s of Lake Michigan, probably the Ouabache (Wabash) and possibly the upper Allegheny and later, the Chicago and lower Mississippi. He also correctly described the Missouri, though it was hearsay – he’d never been on it.
Confounding fact with fiction started with publication in 1876 of Margry’s Découvertes et Etablissements des Français. Margry was a French archivist and partisan who had private access to the French archives. He came to be the agent of the American historian Francis Parkman. Margry’s work, a massive 9 volumes, encompassed an assemblage of documents some previously published, but many not. In it, he sometimes published a reproduction of the whole document, and sometimes only an extract, or summary, not distinguishing the one from the other. He also used in some cases one or another copies of original documents previously edited, extracted or altered by others, without specifying which transcriptions were original, and which were copies, or whether the copy was dated earlier or later. Reproductions were scattered in fragments across chapters, so that it was impossible to ascertain the integrity of the document from its fragments. Chapter headings were oblique and sensational, so as to obfuscate the content therein. English and American scholars were immediately skeptical of the work, since full and faithful publication of some of the original documents had previously existed. The situation was so fraught with doubt, that the United States Congress appropriated $10,000 in 1873, which Margry wanted as an advance, to have the original documents photostated, witnessed by uninvolved parties as to veracity.
Discovery of the Ohio and Mississippi
If La Salle is excused from discovering the two great rivers of the midwest, history does not leave a void. On May 8, 1541, south of present-day Memphis, Tennessee, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto reached the Mississippi River, which the Spanish called the Rio Grande for its immense size. He was the first European to document and cross the river, though not traverse it. It is uncontested that Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to traverse the upper Mississippi in 1673, and that Father Louis Hennepin and Antonine Augalle visited the Falls of St. Anthony on the upper Mississippi in spring, 1680, in advance of La Salle’s own excursion in early 1682.
Credit for discovery of the Ohio River is provisionally given to two obscure early English explorers, Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam from Virginia who visited Wood’s River (today called the New River), a tributary of the Ohio via the Kanawha, in what is today West Virginia in Sept. 1671. Other scholars declaim that this short (one month) expedition did not penetrate to the Ohio to the west, but elect instead Virginia Englishmen James Needham and Gabriel Arthur who in 1673-74 circumnavigated the southeast finally traversing Shawnee villages along the Ohio. The lower Ohio River first began appearing on French maps about 1674 in approximately its correct hydrography, and in its relation to the Mississippi, though diagrammed more northerly, approaching Lake Erie from the west and may have been confounded with the Maumee portage route.A memoir by M. de Denonville in 1688, recites that the lower Ohio, at least from its confluence with the Wabash to the Mississippi, was a familiar trade route. In 1692, Arnout Viele, a Dutchman from New York, traversed the length of the Ohio from the headwaters of the Allegheny in Pennsylvania to it’s mouth on the Mississippi, though the hydrography of the Allegheny remained opaque for at least several decades thereafter. Read More…