La Salle, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de 1643–1687

Like John White and Walter Raleigh with the Lost Colony at Roanoke, Ren© Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, did not succeed in establishing a viable colony. Still, as with the early voyages to Roanoke, La Salle’s voyage to the Gulf of Mexico paved the way for colonization, in his case, the establishment of Louisiana. In claiming the Mississippi River Valley for France, and naming the region Louisiana in honor of his king, La Salle advanced the cause of French colonization immeasurably, and the accounts of his expedition have taught generations of scholars about the native peoples of the Lower Mississippi Valley. La Salle’s vision was certainly impressive, but the man himself was noted for his fierce temper and paranoid tendencies. Seeking the mouth of the Mississippi River, the French explorer Ren© Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and his expedition reached what is now Matagorda Bay, Texas, in early 1685. They missed their destination by about 400 miles. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) La Salle was born in Rouen in 1643. Although trained for life as a priest, he gave up his religious training and, in 1667, sailed to Canada, where he received a large estate and prospered as a result of the fur trade. His fur-trading activities brought him into close proximity with the Iroquois, and he picked up the basics of the Seneca language from a band camped on his land.

La Salle, who had been obsessed with China from a young age, may have come to believe that the Ohio River, which his native clients claimed flowed into a great sea, was the same as the Colorado and, therefore, could prove to be the elusive passage through North America. In 1669, La Salle set out with a small group of Senecas and two priests to explore the Ohio River country. The party gradually splintered, and, after being abandoned near the site of Louisville by everyone except Nika, his Shawnee slave interpreter and guide, La Salle returned to Montreal in the dead of winter. (It is also possible that La Salle spent the winter trading in western Iroquois country. There is little firsthand evidence of his early journeys, and the secondary sources are often contradictory.)

La Salle’s hardships convinced the novice explorer, who by this point had been joined by Henri de Tonty, that the Ohio River was not part of a passage. He instead concentrated on finding a passable way from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. To this end, he spent 1679 and 1680 trading and exploring in the Great Lakes and the Illinois country, cementing an Illinois-French alliance and racking up considerable debt in the process. La Salle is best known for two dramatic voyages undertaken in the 1680s. In 1682, the explorer and his fleet, half-French and half-native, floated down the Illinois River to the Mississippi and then all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The French explorers were not particularly impressed by the Mississippi (which they called the Colbert), though they did make contact with many native groups in the region, including the Quapaw, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez. In April 1682, the party reached the Gulf of Mexico, and La Salle performed an elaborate ceremony, during which he claimed possession of the entire region for Louis XIV, naming it Louisiana in his honor.

In 1684, La Salle undertook to discover the mouth of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico, and he landed with soldiers and craftsmen at Matagorda Bay (in present-day Texas) to found a colony and look for the great river’s mouth, which he had missed by about 400 miles. The search lasted for two years, and resentment against La Salle and his violent nephew Crevel de Moranger boiled over. In March of 1687, La Salle, his nephew, his slave Nika, and Moranger’s servant Saget were killed by disgruntled members of the colonizing party. Only a handful survived the Matagorda expedition. La Salle advanced the cause of French colonization in the Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys. His failure to establish a lasting colony at the mouth of the Mississippi should probably be attributed to the nature of the Mississippi delta, rather than any shortcomings on his part. Future French colonizers would build on La Salle’s legacy in the years that followed. In the 1990s, the wreck of La Salle’s ship, the Belle, was discovered in Texas, sparking renewed interest in the discoverer and French colonization in North America.

Matthew Jennings See also: Exploration; French; French Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology); Mississippi River; Ohio Country. Bibliography Galloway, Patricia K., ed. La Salle and His Legacy: Frenchmen and Native Americans in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982. Muhlstein, Anka. La Salle: Explorer of the North American Frontier. Translated by Willard Wood. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994. Osler, E. B. La Salle. Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada, 1967. Wood, Peter H. “La Salle: Discovery of a Lost Explorer.” William and Mary Quarterly 89:2 (April 1984): 294323.

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