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Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle
Texas Historical Commission

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was born in France in 1643. He received his education through Jesuit schools, and planned to enter the priesthood himself. However, in an age of discovery, he set out for the as yet unexplored regions of Canada. Here he was given land on the the edge of Île de Montréal. La Salle now had the status of a landowner with the opportunity for exploration that he craved.


La Salle set up a fur trading outpost and began to learn what existed elsewhere in the territories. Through trade with the Indians he learned new languages and heard tales of the New World. He became convinced that a trade route to the Orient was possible through the rivers and lakes of the Western frontier.


By 1669, he had sold his land and set out to explore the Ohio region. Although originally given credit for discovering the Ohio River, historians now question the validity of this claim.


La Salle found a supporter in the Count de Frontenac, the "Fighting Governor" of New France, the French possessions in Canada. Together, they sought to expand on French holdings in the territories by setting up a fort on Lake Ontario (Fort Frontenac). Now, not only would they have more power over the Iroquois Indians, but they would also control the fur trade between the Upper Lakes and the Dutch and English coastal settlements.


Their objectives were not well received. The traders in Montreal were afraid of losing their livelihood, and the Jesuit priests were afraid of losing influence with the Indians. La Salle and Frontenac won out. Fort Frontenac was built near present-day Kingston.


Frontenac had recommended that La Salle be instated as seigneur. The governor noted that La Salle was the man most capable of helping France fulfill its ambitious plans for exploration and discovery in the New World. King Louis XIV not only appointed him governor, but also granted La Salle a title of nobility.


Although La Salle proved to be a good businessman, by 1677 he had grown bored with life at the fur-trading outpost and went to France to ask that Louis XIV give him official authorization to explore the western parts of New France and build as many forts as he saw fit. Still a businessman, he would also have a monopoly in the trading of buffalo hides.


Even though La Salle's ventures had the official support of France, he received no funding. Because of this, he was forced to borrow large sums of money in both Montreal and Paris. These debts would continue to mount as he pursued his quest for exploration. Another ongoing problem concerned the Jesuits. They never supported any of La Salle's endeavors.


La Salle returned to Canada in 1678, accompanied by Henri de Tonty, an Italian soldier of fortune. Tonty would become La Salle's best friend and prove to be a very important ally. In 1679, the Griffon, the first commercial sailing ship on Lake Erie, was built. La Salle hoped that profits from this venture would provide funding for an expedition into the interior via the Mississippi.


He had acquired basic survival skills from the Seneca Indians. Through them, La Salle learned how to live off the land. He learned how to make long journeys overland regardless of the season, subsisting only on what he could trap and a bag of corn. His journey from Niagara to Fort Frontenac in the winter won the respect of a normally cynical member of his expeditions, the friar Louis Hennepin.


La Salle's plans to ship merchandise aboard vessels such as the Griffon on the lakes and down the Mississippi ended when the vessel was wrecked. A second setback followed in 1680 with the destruction and desertion of Fort Crevecoeur on the Illinois River, where a second ship was being built.


La Salle had a strong personality, demanding the most not only of himself, but also of others. Often he pushed people to their limits, and became upset when they would not see a situation as he felt they should. Not a good leader, he was never on friendly terms with most of his men.


He finally reached the point where the Illinois River and the Mississippi joined, but instead of finally being able to explore the river, he returned to the fort, where his friend Tonty was in danger.


La Salle and Tonty did eventually canoe down the Mississippi and reach the Gulf of Mexico. On April 9, 1682, he claimed the entire Mississippi basin in the name of France and named it Louisiana. The region he claimed contained the best farmlands in North America.

The following year La Salle built Fort Saint Louis at Starved Rock on the Illinois River. Here, he established a colony of several thousand Indians. He sought assistance from Quebec to help sustain the new colony. Frontenac, however, was no longer in office, and the new governor disliked La Salle. La Salle was ordered to surrender Fort Saint Louis. La Salle refused to do so, and left for France to appeal to Louis XIV. The king sided with La Salle and ordered the governor to return in full La Salle's property.


La Salle began to formulate another ambitious project -- to build forts along the mouth of the Mississippi and to invade and conquer Spanish provinces in Mexico. To accomplish this, he would need an army of 200 Frenchmen, 15,000 Indians and privateers. La Salle's opponents doubted the feasibility of his plan, but Louis XIV saw it as an opportunity to strike out against Spain, with whom France was at war. La Salle was given men, ships and money.


The mission would be a series of failures. La Salle and the naval commander did not get along. After a stop in the West Indies, La Salle had a ship captured by pirates. Sickness also took its toll. Maps available were difficult to follow. Because of this, La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi River and made landfall at Matagorda Bay in Texas, nearly 500 miles away. While attempting to negotiate the narrow passageways of the inlets, a second ship, the Aimable, was lost. Also lost was a valuable cargo of food, medicine, supplies and trade goods for the Indians. A third ship, the Belle, became stranded on a sandbar during a storm. Several men drowned as they tried to raft away from the vessel.


La Salle made several attempts to correct his navigational error, but was never able to lead his party to the Mississippi. He then attempted to lead his men overland, but was killed by his own men near present-day Navasota, Texas. Although he was praised by his close friends Tonty and Frontenac, detractors such as Henri Joutel, one of the few survivors of La Salle's last expedition, felt his arrogance towards his subordinates contributed to his death. A man of great vision, he lacked leadership ability. The building of a French empire in the New World would be left to other men.



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