Builders of Our Country: Book I  by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

La Salle

His Plans and Early~Explorations

WHEN Joliet reached Montreal with the news of his great discovery, he found there a very brave and strong-minded man named La Salle. And La Salle, hearing Joliet's story, asked Count Frontenac to let him go to France to tell the King of all that he had heard.

Frontenac gladly gave his permission, and in the year 1677 La Salle sailed for France. He told the King of the journey of Joliet and Marquette, of the fertile soil of the Mississippi valley, and the abundant game and the pleasant climate. He told him of the wool of the buffaloes, which could be used in making cloth, and of the hemp and cotton that grew wild along the banks of the great river.

"Now," said La Salle, "why should not all this rich land belong to France, instead of waiting for the English and Spanish to come and take it away from us before our very eyes?"

The King was pleased with what La Salle said, and gave him permission to make a voyage of discovery which should last not more than five years. He was to build forts wherever he thought it necessary.

In 1678 La Salle came back to Canada to prepare for his voyage through the west. He thought that, if he could start with a ship above the falls in the Niagara River, he would be able to sail up the river to the lakes, and then through the lakes to the Mississippi. He did not know that part of this distance lay overland.

So with his men he sailed up the Niagara as far as the falls. Then with their baggage on their backs the men plodded twelve miles through the forest until they reached a creek above the falls.

Here La Salle immediately set the men to work building a ship. He drove the first nail himself. When the work was well under way, he started back to Fort Frontenac on foot—a distance of two hundred and fifty miles through a snow-covered forest, with no food but roasted corn. This was in February, 1679.

It was summer before he returned to the Niagara. He found the ship all finished and towed out into the river. She had been named the Griffon.

In August, 1679, the voyagers left the Niagara River and sailed out into Lake Erie. Through Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron they went, and westward into Lake Michigan. At the entrance of Green Bay La Salle cast anchor.

Here he found some men whom he had sent ahead to buy furs of the Indians. He told these men to load the furs upon the Griffon  and take them back to Niagara, where they would find men to carry them to Montreal. Then they were to come back again with the ship. So on a September morning the Griffon  fired a parting shot and set sail for Niagara.

La Salle, with fourteen men and four canoes, went down the lake to the St. Joseph River. Here he built a fort and waited till December, hoping for the return of the Griffon;  but no Griffon  came. Finally he sent two men back to seek her while he with the others made his way up the St. Joseph River, until they came to the portage, or path, which led to the headwaters of the Illinois River.

As La Salle sailed down this river he came to an Indian encampment. He told the Indians that he had come to protect them against their enemies and to teach them about the true God. He told them also that he was going to build a great wooden canoe, with which to sail the Mississippi. This pleased the Indians, and they feasted and entertained the white men.

During the night some Indians, sent by the enemies of La Salle, came to the camp. These Indians told the Illinois that La Salle was going down the Mississippi to stir up the Arkansas tribes to fight against the Illinois. Then they crept stealthily away.

When morning came it was easy to tell that a change had come over the Illinois. After breakfast they began to talk about the terrible dangers of the river.

"There are fierce monsters," they said, "which will devour white men. There are great whirlpools which will swallow your big canoe."

La Salle saw at once that his enemies had been at work. So he told the Indians that he was not afraid of monsters or whirlpools and that he was going on to the great river. But his men were of a different temper. Most of them were much alarmed by what they had heard. That night six of them ran away, and some others tried to poison their brave leader.

La Salle now went farther down the river, where he built a strong fort, which he called Crèvecoeur. This word means "Broken Heart." Surely La Salle had already had trouble enough to break any man's heart. His ship was lost, many of his men were unfaithful, his enemies in Canada were plotting against him.

And yet La Salle did not lose hope. Since his ship was gone, he resolved to build another. As the timber sawyers were among the men who had run away, La Salle said that he would saw the timbers himself, if one man would help him. This made the rest ashamed, and they all set to work.

In six weeks the ship was half done. But there were no anchors or cables or rigging. There was nothing to be done but to go back for these things to Fort Frontenac, a distance of one thousand miles. La Salle was not a man to hesitate at a little journey like this; so one day in March, with two canoes, an Indian hunter, and four Frenchmen, he started up the river.

It was a fearful journey. Sometimes pushing the canoes through the drifting ice, sometimes walking overland shoulders, sometimes in danger from the Iroquois, sometimes torn by brush and briers through which they made their way, the men kept bravely on until they reached the Niagara. By this time all but La Salle were worn out, so he left his companions at Niagara and took three fresh men in their stead.

It was May when he saw before him the walls of Fort Frontenac. Here he heard nothing but bad news. Not only was the Griffon  lost, but a ship from France laden with La Salle's goods had been wrecked.

Still the brave leader did not give up. He went to Montreal for the supplies he wanted and returned with them to Fort Frontenac.

La Salle Reaches the~Gulf~of~Mexico

IT would be a long story to tell of the adventures which befell La Salle before he again reached Fort Crèvecoeur. He did reach it, however, the following winter. Here he found his men were gone and his fort pulled to pieces, but the ship was almost as he had left it. On one of the planks was written in French the words, "We are all savages."

From Fort Crèvecoeur, La Salle and his companions pushed on down to the Mississippi, the great river which they had never before seen. Then turning his canoe, La Salle sailed back the way he had come.

In December, 1681, La Salle started once more on his dangerous journey. With him were twenty-three Frenchmen, besides about thirty Indians. They set out in their canoes from Fort Miami, on Lake Michigan, and entered the Chicago River. Finding it frozen, they made sledges and loaded the canoes and baggage on them. Then they crossed overland to the Illinois, and finally reached the Mississippi. At first the river was full of floating ice, but as they went farther south it became clear.

They sailed on past the place where the mighty Missouri empties its muddy stream into the Father of Waters, and past the mouth of the Ohio. Winter gave way to spring, the air became soft and warm, and the banks were bright with the fresh green of the unfolding leaves.

Near the mouth of the Arkansas River La Salle raised a cross bearing the arms of France and took formal possession of the country for the French King. Then he went on south.

On the 6th of April La Salle found the river dividing into three streams. He separated his men into three parties, himself taking the western channel. As he drifted down the muddy stream, the salt smell of the sea reached him. The banks of the river disappeared. He had reached the Gulf of Mexico, his journey's end.

The three parties soon met. They landed upon a piece of dry ground, a little way from the river's mouth. Here La Salle made a column, bearing the arms of France and these words, in French: "Louis the Great, King of France and of Navarre, rules here. April 9, 1682."

The Frenchmen were drawn up in martial array and sang hymns. Then, amid volleys of musketry and shouts of "Long live the King!" La Salle set up the column. He proclaimed in a loud voice that he was taking for France all the land extending from the head of the Ohio River to the mouth of the Mississippi, including all the rivers which flow into the Mississippi. To this vast region he gave the name of "Louisiana," or "Louis's land." It extended from the Alleghanies to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

La~Salle's Attempted~Settlement

IN the year 1684 La Salle was in France for the last time. His purpose was to ask the King for one ship and two hundred men, that he might build a fort on the Mississippi. He would form an army of fifteen thousand Indians, he said, with which he could easily capture the Spanish silver mines. The King granted this request most generously. Instead of one ship he gave four, and recruiting agents were sent out to enlist the soldiers asked for.

La Salle's plan was to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River by crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

It was December before the little fleet entered the Gulf. On New Year's Day, 1685, they anchored about nine miles from the land. La Salle went ashore, but could find nothing that looked familiar. He had passed the mouth of the Mississippi without knowing it, and his great journey had been taken in vain.

Finally he entered Matagorda Bay on the coast of Texas, which he thought was the western mouth of the Mississippi. He ordered the ships to be brought within the bay, and the men to go ashore. The bay was shallow, and one of the ships was wrecked upon a reef. After building some houses for his little colony, La Salle started northward with about fifty of his men. They were gone five months and returned ragged and wearied, all but La Salle discouraged.

La Salle's fortunes were now in a very sad state. He had sent two of his ships back to France; and, a few days after his return, news came of the wreck of the one that he had kept. Many of the colony had died of disease, and La Salle himself was much broken in health. He resolved that he would find the Mississippi, journey to Canada, and get supplies for his colony. This was his last hope.

Everyone set to work to prepare for the journey. The sails of the wrecked vessels were cut up and pieced with deerskins to make coats for the men. On the 7th of January, 1687, La Salle made a farewell address to those who were to stay behind and with his men left the fort for the last time.

Across prairies and rivers they journeyed. In March they were still on the plains of northern Texas. One day the men fell into a quarrel about some buffalo meat. Three were killed, among them La Salle's nephew. La Salle, who knew nothing of this, asked one of the party where his nephew was. "He is skulking about somewhere," answered the man impudently.

La Salle rebuked him for his manner of speaking, when a shot whizzed from the grass, and the great leader fell dead. He had escaped the fury of flood and Indians, to die at the hands of one of his own countrymen; and the helpless colony in Texas was left to the mercy of the Spaniards.