Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Adventures of La Salle

For a long time Canada was under the rule of fur-traders and companies, and it did not prosper well. The whole people did not number two thousand. Most of those lived in Quebec, Montreal, and Three Rivers, and in the forts, scattered and few, stretching inland along the banks of the river St. Lawrence to the great lakes. But in 1663 Canada was made a crown colony, and King Louis XIV. took the ruling into his own hands.

Canada was now ruled by a Governor, a Bishop, and a third man called an Intendant. One of the Intendant's chief duties was to look after the money and see that it was properly spent. In a different way he was quite as powerful as the Governor, and the Bishop also had great power.

The Sieur de Courcelle was the first governor under the new arrangement. And now, from having utterly neglected the colony, the king began to take a great interest in it. With Courcelles came the Marquis de Tracy, the Viceroy of all King Louis' western colonies and possessions, in order that be might see for himself what the land of New France was like. He brought with him a famous regiment of soldiers called the Carignan-Callieres, from the names of two of their leaders. They were the first real soldiers that had ever come to Canada. Besides the soldiers, the marquess brought many settlers and a great train of servants and courtiers.

In a day the population of Canada was doubled. Fresh life seemed to have been poured into the colony. The towns were gay with courtiers in ribbons, lace, and feathers, through the trackless woods marched the brightly-clad soldiers of the line. But though they seemed gorgeous as peacocks, they were brave as lions. Soon the pride of the Iroquois was humbled. The white man was no longer bullied by haughty, half-naked savages, and for twenty years Canada had peace from the RedMan.

Louis de Baude, Count Frontenac, was one of the greatest of the governors of New France. Next to that of Champlain, his name is perhaps the best remembered in the history of the colony. He was the first man who tried to give the people of Canada freedom. Until Frontenac came, the people had no say in ruling. Now the governor tried to form a parliament. He asked the townspeople to come to talk about the affairs of the colony together with the priests and nobles. But when the French king heard about it, he was very angry. He did not wish the people to be free. He wished to keep all the power in his own hands, and Count Frontenac was forbidden to call his little parliament together again.

Although Frontenac was not allowed to do all he wished, he was a very powerful ruler. But he was proud and haughty, and often quarrelled with the Intendant and with the Bishop. The Indians, however, dreaded and respected him more than any other "Onontio," as they called the white rulers.

Onontio means "great mountain" in the Indian language. One of the governors of New France had been called Montmagny. The Indians had been told that in the French language that meant Great Mountain, and from his name they called all the governors who came after him, Onontio or Great Mountain.

But never had Onontio been respected as Frontenac was respected. The Indians felt that he was their master. He would not call their great chiefs "Brother," as other rulers had done. He called them his children and he was their Great Father. Yet though they feared him, they loved him too, for he would laugh and jest with them, play with their children, and give their wives strings of beautiful beads. Then, too, at times he would paint his face and dress himself like an Indian chief, and with tomahawk in hand would lead the war-dance; or again he would sit by the council fire making speeches as fine as any savage warrior.

It was while Frontenac was ruler that the great time of Canadian exploration began. In spite of both French and British colonies, little was known of the vast continent of America. The French forts stretched inland along the river St. Lawrence to the great lakes; the British crept along the seashore from Florida in the south to Acadie in the north, and were shut out from the great west by the Alleghany Mountains. But what was behind and beyond none knew.

The British, when they went to live in the New World became fishermen and farmers, settling down quickly to a peaceful home life. Not so the Frenchmen. Priest, soldier, or colonists, each seemed filled with the roving spirit of the forest, the desire for adventure and the thirst for knowledge and conquest. Indeed the desire for a wild and roving life became so strong in some, that they could no longer remain in towns and villages, and they wandered away into the woods to live among the Indians. They dressed like Indians and married Indian women. They were reckless, fearless men, loving the forests and the lonely lakes and rivers, and instead of taming the Redskins they themselves became almost like savages. In vain the King of France made laws forbidding the young men to wander away and live in the woods. The woods called them, and they could not resist the call. These men became known as "wanderers of the woods," or, in the French language, Coureurs de bois.

These forest adventurers were great fur-traders. They knew all the haunts and habits of the wild animals. They read the signs of sky and wood as we might read a book. In winter, alone across the trackless snow, they found their way. In summer the pathless forest had no terrors for them. They were warriors and explorers as well as trackers and traders. Lawless and brave, they were looked upon as outlaws, and sometimes in battles they might be seen fighting for Indians, sometimes for the French.

"Give me freedom, give me space,

Give me the open air and sky,

With the dean wind in my face

Where the quiet mountains lie.

I am sick of roofs and floors,

Naught will heal me but to roam;

Open me the forest doors,

Let the green world take me home.

I am sick of streets and noise,

Narrow ways and cramping creeds;

Give me back the simpler joys;

Nothing else my spirit needs.

For the road goes up and the road goes down,

And the years go over and by,

And soon will the longest day be past,

Soon I must lay me down."

When these wanderers of the woods came to the towns to sell their furs, they brought with them many wonderful stories of the sights they had seen far in the unknown wilds. Among other things, they talked of a "great water" of which the Indians told wonderful tales. They called it the Mississippi or Father of Waters. Then men began to ask what this great water was. Was it perhaps the fabled passage to the Indies, which many a brave sailor had given his life to find? If it could be found, would it lead at last to the Vermilion Sea, to China, to the spice lands, and the glories of the East?

Many people set out to find this great water, and at last a priest named Marquette and an explorer named Joliet discovered the Mississippi. They sailed far down it, past where the yellow, angry waters of the Missouri join it. On and on southward they went, until at length they became sure that the great river did not flow across America and fall into the Pacific Ocean as they had thought, but southward into the Gulf of Mexico. Having made sure of this they turned home again with the news of their great discovery.

Among the many French adventurers was a man named Réné Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. He is generally called La Salle, and is one of the best known of the Canadian explorers.

Like others, La Salle had heard of the great water and was eager to follow it all the way to its mouth. So with a friend called Tonty he gathered a company, and went to explore.


"Alone across the trackless snow."

Tonty, like La Salle, was brave and fearless, and he was much dreaded by the Indians. He had only one hand, the other having been shot off while he was fighting once in Europe. So he had an iron hand made to replace the one he had lost, and he always wore a glove over it. Once or twice when the Red Men had been unruly he had brought them to order by knocking them down with this hand. Not knowing that it was of iron, they wondered at his power and strength, and called him a "medicine man" and feared him greatly.

La Salle was one of the most unlucky of men, and now he had many and terrible difficulties to fight. He had enemies who did their best to hinder and ruin him. His own men even were not true to him, besides which he had to fight with storms, and cold and heat, hunger and thirst, and not least, with savage Indians. But he was so brave and determined that nothing made him give in.

Before La Salle began his exploration, he built a ship Which he called the Griffin.  In it he sailed up Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. It was the first time that a sailing-boat had ever been seen on these great inland seas, and the Indians came to wonder and stare at it in astonishment.

La Salle had not much money, so from Lake Michigan he sent the Griffin  back to Montreal with a load of furs, giving the captain orders to sell them and return with goods needful for the expedition, as soon as possible.

When the Griffin  had sailed, La Salle journeyed on with the rest of his men to the head of Lake Michigan, and there he awaited the return of his ship.

But the Griffin  never came again. In vain La Salle waited and watched for a white sail. No white sail ever appeared. What became of the Griffin  will never be known. Somewhere upon the great lakes it was lost, with all the men on board. Not one returned to tell the fate of the others.

While La Salle waited and watched in vain for the return of the Griffin,  the good days were passing, winter was coming. At length he gave up hope of seeing his ship again, and made up his mind to go on without the fresh supplies he had sent for. So, through many trials and dangers, suffering from cold and hunger, the little band pushed on. For La Salle, perhaps, the hardest trial of all was that his men did not believe in him. Nearly all were discontented, and many were afraid of the difficulties and dangers of the way. Two, indeed, were so afraid that they ran away.

At length La Salle made up his mind to rest for the winter on the banks of the river Illinois. Here he built a fort which he called Fort Créve-Coeur, or Heart-Break. But in spite of the sad name he gave his fort, La Salle showed that he had not quite lost heart, for he began to build another ship to take the place of the Griffin.

But soon La Salle found that he had not many things which were needed for the ship. To get them, some one must return to Montreal, and La Salle resolved to go himself.

Taking with him one Indian and four other Frenchmen, La Salle set out on his terrible walk of a thousand miles. Tonty with the rest—some sixteen men—remained behind to guard the fort and work at the ship until their leader's return.

This journey of La Salle was tiresome beyond belief. With the first days of spring the snow began to thaw, and thawing it turned the prairies into wide and endless marshes, in which the travellers sank to their knees, or sometimes even to their waists. They could not walk upon the rivers, for the melting ice was not strong enough to bear them. Neither could they sail down them, for the broken ice would have smashed their frail canoes to pieces. So they scrambled along the banks, sometimes forcing their way through forests so dense, that their clothes were torn to rags and their faces so scratched and bleeding that they hardly knew each other.

They had to suffer both from cold and heat. The sun at midday blazed upon them, at night the frost was bitter. During the day they were often drenched with rain or half-melted snow, at night their soaking clothes would freeze. At night, wet and weary, they lay down to sleep around their camp fire, in the morning they awoke to find themselves encased in frosted armour.

Worn out with the terrible hardships of the journey, one after another the men fell ill. But at length, after more than two months crowded with pain and toil and danger, they reached Fort Frontenac, and found rest and shelter.

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