Biography of Robert Cavelier de la Salle, French Explorer

Robert Cavelier de la Salle's expedition

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Robert Cavelier de la Salle (November 22, 1643–March 19, 1687) was a French explorer credited with claiming Louisiana and the Mississippi River Basin for France. In addition, he explored much of the Midwest region of what would become the United States as well as portions of Eastern Canada and the Great Lakes. On his last voyage, his attempt to set up a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River met with disaster.

Fast Facts: Robert Cavelier de la Salle

  • Known For: Claiming the Louisiana Territory for France
  • Also Known As: René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle
  • Born: Nov. 22, 1643 in Rouen, France
  • Parents: Jean Cavelier, Catherine Geeset
  • Died: March 19, 1687 near the Brazos River in what is now Texas

Early Life

Robert Cavelier de la Salle was on November 22, 1643, in Rouen, Normandy, France, into a wealthy merchant family. His father was Jean Cavelier, and his mother was Catherine Geeset. He attended Jesuit schools as a child and adolescent and decided to give up his inheritance and take the vows of the Jesuit Order in 1660 to start the process of becoming a Roman Catholic priest.

By age 22, however, La Salle found himself attracted to adventure. He followed his brother Jean, a Jesuit priest, to Montreal, Canada (then called New France), and resigned from the Jesuit order in 1967. Upon his arrival as a colonist, La Salle was granted 400 acres of land on the Island of Montreal. He named his land Lachine, reportedly because it means "China" in French; La Salle spent much of his life trying to find a route through the New World to China.

Exploration Begins

La Salle issued land grants of Lachine, set up a village, and set out to learn the languages of the native people living in the area. He quickly acquired the language of the Iroquois, who told him of the Ohio River, which they said flowed into the Mississippi. La Salle believed that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of California and from there, he thought, he would be able to find a western route to China. After receiving permission from the governor of New France, La Salle sold his interests in Lachine and began planning an expedition.

La Salle's first expedition began in 1669. During this venture, he met Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, two white explorers, in Hamilton, Ontario. La Salle's expedition continued from there and eventually reached the Ohio River, which he followed as far as Louisville, Kentucky before he had to return to Montreal after several of his men deserted. Two years later, Joliet and Marquette succeeded where La Salle had failed when they navigated the upper Mississippi River.

Upon his return to Canada, La Salle oversaw the building of Fort Frontenac, on the eastern coast of Lake Ontario in present-day Kingston, Ontario, which was intended as a station for the area's growing fur trade. The fort, completed in 1673, was named after Louis de Baude Frontenac, the governor-general of New France. In 1674, La Salle returned to France to gain royal support for his land claims at Fort Frontenac. He was granted support and a fur trade allowance, permission to establish additional forts in the frontier, and a title of nobility. With his newfound success, La Salle returned to Canada and rebuilt Fort Frontenac in stone.

Second Expedition

On Aug. 7, 1679, La Salle and Italian explorer Henri de Tonti set sail on Le Griffon, a ship he had built that became the first full-size sailing ship to travel the Great Lakes. The expedition was to begin at Fort Conti at the mouth of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. Before the voyage, La Salle's crew brought in supplies from Fort Frontenac, avoiding Niagara Falls by using a portage around the falls established by Native Americans and carrying their supplies into Fort Conti.

La Salle and Tonti then sailed Le Griffon up Lake Erie and into Lake Huron to Michilimackinac, near the present-day Straits of Mackinac in Michigan, before reaching the site of today's Green Bay, Wisconsin. La Salle then continued down the shore of Lake Michigan. In January 1680, he built Fort Miami at the mouth of the Miami River, now the St. Joseph River, in today's St. Joseph, Michigan.

La Salle and his crew spent much of 1680 at Fort Miami. In December, they followed the river to South Bend, Indiana, where it joins the Kankakee River, then along this river to the Illinois River, establishing Fort Crevecoeur near what is today Peoria, Illinois. La Salle left Tonti in charge of the fort and returned to Fort Frontenac for supplies. While he was gone, Fort Crevecoeur was destroyed by mutinying soldiers.

Louisiana Expedition

After assembling a new crew including 18 Native Americans and reuniting with Tonti, La Salle began the expedition he is most known for. In 1682, he and his crew sailed down the Mississippi River. He named the Mississippi Basin La Louisiane in honor of King Louis XIV. On April 9, 1682, La Salle placed an engraved plate and a cross at the mouth of the Mississippi River, officially claiming the Louisiana Territory for France.

In 1683 La Salle established Fort St. Louis at Starved Rock in Illinois and left Tonti in charge while he returned to France to resupply. In 1684, La Salle set sail from Europe to establish a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Disaster

The expedition started with four ships and 300 colonists, but in an extraordinary run of bad luck during the journey, three of the ships were lost to pirates and shipwreck. The remaining colonists and crew landed in Matagorda Bay, in present-day Texas. Due to navigational errors, La Salle had overshot his planned landing spot, Apalachee Bay near the northwestern bend of Florida, by hundreds of miles.

Death

They established a settlement near what became Victoria, Texas, and La Salle began searching overland for the Mississippi River. In the meantime, the last remaining ship, La Belle, ran aground and sank in the bay. On his fourth attempt to locate the Mississippi, 36 of his crew mutinied and on March 19, 1687, he was killed. After his death, the settlement lasted only until 1688, when local Native Americans killed the remaining adults and took the children captive.

Legacy

In 1995, La Salle's last ship, La Belle, was found at the bottom of Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast. Archaeologists began a decades-long process of excavating, recovering, and conserving the ship's hull and more than 1.6 million well-preserved artifacts, including crates and barrels of items intended to support a new colony and supply a military expedition into Mexico: tools, cooking pots, trade goods, and weapons. They provide remarkable insights into the strategies and supplies that were used to establish colonies in 17th century North America. 

The preserved hull of La Belle and many recovered artifacts are displayed in the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

Among La Salle's other important contributions was his exploration of the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Basin. His claiming of Louisiana for France contributed to distinctive physical layouts of cities in the far-ranging territory and to the culture of its residents.

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