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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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