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

The Adventures of La Salle (continued)

La Salle's troubles were not ended. At Fort Frontenac he was greeted with the news that a ship from France, laden with goods for him, had been wrecked. This was indeed bad news. But La Salle was not to be daunted. He at once set to work to gather fresh supplies, and made ready to start back to Fort Heart-Break, there to join his friends.

Then the worst news of all came. A letter from Tonty arrived to tell La Salle that soon after he had left, nearly all his men had mutinied. They had destroyed the fort, robbed the storehouse, and what they could not carry away they had thrown into the river. They had gone, leaving Tonty and four or five faithful men helpless and alone in the wilderness.

La Salle had been eager to set out. Now that he heard this evil news he was more eager still. He felt that there was no time to lose, and that he must find and help his friend at once.

But when, after a long and difficult journey, La Salle reached Fort Heart-Break again, there was no sign of any human being. The fort was ruined and deserted, and only the great staring ribs of the unfinished ship were left to show that white men had been there. No sign of Tonty or his faithful few was to be seen.

Never for a moment, however, did La Salle give in. He spent the winter in making friends with the Indians, and in trying in every way to hear news of Tonty, and at last, when spring came again, the two friends met. They had much to tell each other. But it was a tale of sorrow and failure on both sides. Yet La Salle was not beaten, and once more he set out with Tonty on his travels. But now he gave up the idea of building a ship, and the expedition started down the river in canoes.

It was the middle of winter before everything was ready. The river was frozen over, so the men made sledges, put their canoes upon them, and in this way dragged them over the ice. As they went southward it became warmer, spring came, and the ice began to melt. The sledges were of no more use, and for a time neither were the canoes, for the river soon became full of broken floating ice, through which it was impossible to paddle. But at length the ice was nearly all melted; they reached a clear and open stream, and, launching the canoes, they sailed swiftly onward.

Every day as they sailed they left winter further and further behind. The sun shone pleasantly; spring flowers nodded to them from the banks; the drooping trees put on a beautiful soft green. It seemed as if their troubles were over. On and on they floated easily down stream, through the smiling spring land, which no white man had ever before beheld. At last they reached their journey's end, and stood upon the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

On that lonely shore these few white men raised a pillar. Upon it they carved the arms of France and the words, "Louis the Great, King of France and Navarre, reigns, 9th April 1682." The white flag of France, with its golden fleur-de-lis,  floated out upon the breeze, and the silence was broken for the first time by the sound of guns and the shouts of "God save the King."

When the sound of the shouting died away, the men raised their voices once again. This time they sang a hymn of praise to God. Then with drawn sword La Salle stood beside the pillar. "In the name of the most high, mighty, invincible, and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre," he cried, "I do now take possession of this country of Louisiana, the seas, harbours, ports, bays, and all the nations, peoples, cities, towns, villages, mines, fisheries, streams, and rivers, within the said Louisiana from the mouth of the great river Ohio along the river Mississippi, and all the rivers which flow into it from its source to its mouth at the sea."

Then a cross was raised beside the pillar. Once more the guns rang out, once more shouts of "God save the King" awoke the silent echoes of the forest, and men's voices raised a Latin hymn of praise. To France a new kingdom had been added.

If you will look on the map you will see what a great region La Salle had claimed. He himself had no idea how great it was. You will see that the British colonies lay like a narrow strip between the Alleghanies and the sea, while the French had claimed all that lay behind; that is, all the country which is now the United States, as well as the whole of Canada.

It was a vast kingdom, and could not be held by France through the mere planting of a pillar. This La Salle well knew, though he himself did not guess how large a tract of land he had claimed. Now he formed a plan by which this kingdom might be held. His plan was to build a town at the mouth of the Mississippi, and forts all along its banks at certain distances. These forts would be resting-places for traders, and would form a barrier against the British, shutting them more than ever out from the unknown west. All the trade of Canada could then be borne down the Mississippi to the town at its mouth, which would thus grow into a great seaport. From there white-winged vessels would glide out to all parts of the world, and so great wealth and glory would be added to the crown of France.

Such was La Salle's dream. But meanwhile he had to battle his way up stream, back through savage wilderness to the dwellings of white men. And it was not until he had passed through many more adventures and dangers that he reached Quebec once more. From there he set sail for France, eager to tell the king of all that he had done, and of all that he hoped still to do.

King Louis received La Salle kindly, and gave him the help he asked. Soon four ships set sail from France filled with soldiers, workmen, and colonists, bringing with them all things needful to found a city.

La Salle sailed for the Gulf of Mexico, and meant to land at the mouth of the Mississippi, which he had reached before by paddling down the river. But coming at it from the sea was very different from coming to it from the land. La Salle could not find the place, and sailed more than a hundred miles beyond it. When at last they landed, the colonists were already disheartened. They had lost two ships: one had run upon rocks, the other had been taken by the Spaniards, who claimed the Gulf of Mexico as their own, threatening with death any who dared to enter it. On the way out, La Salle had quarrelled with his officers. Things from first to last went ill, and so it was with little spirit in the task that the colonists set about building their wooden houses.

Two years of struggle, toil, and misery followed the landing. "This pleasant land seemed to us an abode of weariness and an eternal prison," wrote one of the company. Sickness and death thinned their numbers, till at the end of these two years, of the two hundred men and women who had set sail, scarcely forty remained. And these were but a ragged and forlorn band. Their clothes were in such tatters that they were glad to make coats of sail cloth; their food was near an end. Gladly would they have left their prison, but they knew not how. In vain they strained their eyes seawards, hoping for the sight of a friendly, fearing to see a Spanish, sail. Sadly they thought of their beloved France, which they had left with such light hearts. They longed to return, but no ship came. They were alone, forsaken, and lost in that far land.

At length La Salle made up his mind to try to find his way back to Canada by land, and bring help from there to the forlorn colony. So one morning there was a sad scene within the walls of the little fort, as those who went said farewell to those who stayed. Many tears were shed as last handshakes were given, last good-byes said. Then the little band set out on the long and terrible journey northward.

They were a quaint and ragged party. Some wore the clothes they had brought from France, now much patched and darned; some wore coats of sailcloth; some the skins of wild animals. They were but ill prepared for their long and perilous journey through prairie and forest, by stream and lake. Yet in the brave, unyielding heart of La Salle, there was still hope.

La Salle was brave and strong, and his friends loved him well. But these friends were few. To most people he was cold and haughty, and he made many enemies. Now bitter hate and discontent filled the hearts of some Of his men. As the difficulties and hardships of the way grew greater, their hatred grew deeper, and at last one morning they shot their leader dead. "There thou liest, there thou liest, great Bashaw," cried one, rejoicing as he saw his enemy lie dead upon the ground. The mutineers then stripped the body of all its clothes and left it naked and unburied, a prey to the wild beasts. So he who would have founded a kingdom and made France great among the nations, lies in a nameless, unknown grave. Of what became of his murderers little is known. By man, at least, they went unpunished.

No help ever came to the little colony La Salle had left behind him. It was attacked by Indians; nearly all the colonists were killed, the rest scattered. La Salle's brilliant dream ended in nothingness, but he had shown his countrymen the way. Other great men followed him who were more successful, and it seemed for a time as if France would indeed hold the great possessions claimed for her in the New World.

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