Explorer, b. at Rouen, 1643; d. in Texas, 1687
La Salle, RENE-ROBERT-CAVELIER, SIEUR DE, explorer, b. at Rouen, 1643; d. in Texas, 1687. In his youth he displayed an unusual precocity in mathematics and a predilection for natural science; his outlook upon life was somewhat puritanical. Whether or not he was educated with a view to entering the Society of Jesus is a matter of doubt, though some religious order he must have subsequently joined, for to this fact is assigned the forfeiture of his estates. The career of a churchman was definitively abandoned, however, when, after receiving the feudal grant of a tract of land at La Chine on the St. Lawrence from the Sulpicians, seigneurs of Montreal—perhaps through the influence of an elder brother who was a member of the order at that place—he came to Canada as an adventurer and trader in 1666. For three years La Salle remained quietly upon his little estate, mastering Indian dialects and meditating on a southwest passage. Upon the latter quest he set out in 1669 with a party of Sulpicians, who, deeming that there was greater missionary work among the northwestern tribes, soon abandoned the expedition. La Salle's subsequent travels on this occasion are shrouded in an obscurity that will perhaps never be dispelled. Whether he was the first white man to gaze upon Niagara, whether he explored the Allegheny valley or the Ohio river, he seems not to have reached the Mississippi, Joliet's undisputed claim to that distinction during La Salle's residence in Canada being regarded, at present, as finally established. Indeed Joliet's announcement, some few years later, that the Grande Riviere flowed into the Gulf of Mexico perceptibly stimulated La Salle to fashion and carry out those schemes which must have been taking shape even in the novitiate at Rouen—dreams of acquiring a monopoly of the fur trade and of building up the empire of New France. The French doctrine that the discovery of a river gave an inchoate right to the land drained by its tributaries suggested to La Salle and Governor Frontenac a "plan to effect a military occupation of the whole Mississippi valley ... by means of military posts which should control the communication and sway the policy of the Indian tribes", as well as present an impassable barrier to the English colonies. The money needed for such a plan drove La Salle to those attempts at a monopoly which engendered such persistent opposition, and which account, partly at least, for the failure of his plans.
A trip to France in the autumn of 1674 followed his erection of Fort Frontenac for the protection of the fur trade at the outlet of Lake Ontario. The king gave him a grant of this fort and the adjacent territory, promised to garrison it at his own expense, and conferred upon him the rank of esquire. Upon his return, La Salle rebuilt the fort, launched upon the Niagara River the "Griffin", a forty-five ton schooner with five guns, in which, with Hennepin, a Franciscan, and the Neapolitan Henri de Tonty, he set sail in the autumn of 1678, passed over Lakes Erie and Huron, and reached the southern extremity of Lake Michigan. Here the gunboat was sent back, unlawfully laden with furs to appease La Salle's creditors, and was never heard from again. The expedition pushed on to the Illinois, where Fort Crevecceur was built. After waiting through the winter for the return of the "Griffin", La Salle, leaving the faithful Tonty in charge of the fort, resolved to return one thousand miles on foot to Montreal, accompanied by four Frenchmen and an Indian guide. The sufferings of this famous retreat were borne with incredible fortitude, and he was returning with supplies when it was learned that the garrison at Fort Crevecceur had mutinied, had driven Tonty into the wilderness, and were then cruising about Lake Ontario in the hope of murdering La Salle. The dauntless Frenchman pushed out at once upon the lake, captured the mutineers, sent them back in irons to the governor, and then went to the rescue of Tonty, whom he met at Mackinaw on his return trip after abandoning the search. For a brief space in 1682 La Salle's fate seems more propitious, when, on April 9, we catch a glimpse of him planting the fleurs-de-lis on the banks of the Mississippi, and claiming for France the wide territory that it drained. But, five years later, in the wretched failure of an attempt to plant a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, he was murdered by mutineers from ambush.
La Salle's schemes of empire and of trade were far too vast for his own generation to accomplish, though it was along the lines that he projected that France pursued her colonial policy in the New World in the eighteenth century until finally overthrown by the English in the French and Indian Wars.