The Explorations of La Salle Essay

This essay has a total of 3282 words and 13 pages.

The Explorations of La Salle

Before a territory can be settled, it has to be explored. Through an exquisite quest,
amongst adventure and hardships, Sir Rene Robert Cavelier de La Salle set out to explore
the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.

In the winter of 1681-1682, the French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle,
led an expedition from Canada down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle
reached the river's outlet to the gulf, where he set up a cross and a wooden post carved
with the coat of arms of his king, Louis XIV. In the presence of a handful of followers,
the thirty-nine-year old explorer claimed the entire Mississippi watershed for France, and
named the new territory "Louisiana." His goals were to chart the lands for claims and
settlement of his beloved France. Unfortunately, not all explorers achieve success, and
hardships come with the tide.

A Proposal to the King
La Salle returned to French Canada, then set sail for France to seek the king's support
for a scheme to fortify and colonize the Mississippi valley and the Gulf Coast. Arriving
in Paris, LaSalle presented the royal court with a glowing description of the settlement
potential of the great river valley, emphasizing that he had already "made five journeys
of more than five thousand leagues through unknown country, largely on foot, among savages
and cannibals," all in the name of his sovereign." (Cox) The most forceful point in La
Salle's presentation to the king was a proposal to challenge Spanish control of the Gulf
of Mexico.

The king of Spain had issued a territorial decree barring the ships of other nations from
entering the gulf. Some French ships that had ventured into the forbidden waters had been
attacked and had their crews imprisoned or enslaved by the Spanish. At the same time, the
fame of Spanish silver mines in northern Mexico provided a strong incentive for the French
to invade the region and claim its treasures. La Salle proposed to lead an invasion force
to seize the Spanish mining settlements and begin the French colonization of the Gulf
Coast. The many Indian tribes of the region, he assured the king would "become good French
subjects, so that, without drawing any considerable number of men from Europe, they will
form a powerful colony, with enough troops to act in any emergency." (Cox) La Salle asked
for two fully equipped ships with which to return to the Gulf Coast. Impressed by the
explorer's ambition, the king gave him four. Two warships, the Aimable and the Joly, were
outfitted for the expedition, along with a supply ship, La Belle, and a small ketch, the
St. Francois. The expedition was placed under La Salle's direction, but command of the
ships was given to an experienced naval captain named Beaujeu.

Beaujeuís Command
La Salle objected to this chain-of-command, and soon began to quarrel with Beaujeu over
the details of the planned journey. Beaujeu, whose only responsibility was to get the four
ships safely across the Atlantic, tolerated La Salle's incessant arguments, sarcastically
confiding in his correspondence that "I will humor him, even to sailing my ship on dry
land, if he likes." (Parkman) By order of the king, 200 French soldiers were recruited to
accompany the explorer. Another 200 colonists, including craftsmen, families and single
young girls volunteered to populate the proposed colony. At last, equipped with all the
weapons, food, and other supplies that La Salle had requested, the fleet sailed out of the
harbor of La Rochelle on July 24, 1684.

The two-month Atlantic crossing was plagued by stormy weather and disagreements between La
Salle and Beaujeu, and ended with the capture of the lagging ketch St. Francois by Spanish
pirates in the Caribbean Sea. Early in September, the three remaining ships put in at the
French-controlled port of Haiti, where La Salle and many of his followers became seriously

For three months, while the invalids recovered, the remainder of the crew spent their time
carousing in the taverns and brothels of Port Au Prince. "The air of that place," wrote
one member of the expedition, "is bad, so are the fruits, and there are plenty of women
worse than either." Another later recorded that "the soldiers and most of the crew, having
plunged into every

kind of debauchery and intemperance, so common in those parts, were so ruined and
contracted with dangerous disorders that some died on the island, and others never

Searching for the Mississippi
In December, 1684, wary of merciless Spanish buccaneers, the French expedition left Haiti
and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. With no charts, the three remaining French ships
accidentally bypassed the marshy delta of the Mississippi and continued westward. Coasting
along the shore of what is now eastern Texas, La Salle and his men looked for signs of the
great river's main outlet, but saw only a low, unbroken shoreline. One morning, after
passing through a dense fog, the Joly, commanded by Beaujeu, became separated from La
Belle and the Aimable, with La Salle on board. When the ships were reunited, the two men
immediately blamed each other for the separation and then began to debate their true
position on the unmapped coast. La Salle sent a scouting party ashore to explore along the
beach, while the ships followed offshore, sailing cautiously through the dangerously
shallow coastal waters. Leading the scouts along the shore were Joutel, a French army
veteran who had come from La Salle's home town of Rouen, and Moranget, one of La Salle's
nephews. After weeks of fruitless searching along the Gulf Coast, the reconnaissance party
and the three ships came to Matagorda Bay, midway between modern Houston and Corpus
Christi, Texas. La Salle hopefully proclaimed that they had found the western outlet of
the Mississippi, the first goal of the expedition. In fact, the expedition had missed its
mark by nearly 300 miles; the river that LaSalle mistook for the Mississippi was the
Lavaca River at the head of the bay. La Salle instructed a work party to cut down a large
tree and fashion a dugout canoe for further exploration of the river. While at work on the
canoe, six of the eight crewmen were captured by local Indians and carried off. La Salle
quickly assembled a rescue party, which was met on the beach by a group of natives who,
according to the veteran Joutel, "gave us to understand that they had a friendship for us,
which they expressed by laying their hands on their hearts, and we did the same on our
parts... M. La Salle gave them some knives, hatchets and other trifles, with which they
seemed well pleased, and went away." (Parkman) The rescue party followed the Indians back
to their village, which consisted "of about fifty cottages made of rush mats, and others
of dried skins. With most of the savages sitting around them as if they were upon the
watch." (Parkman)

Just as the heavily armed Frenchmen entered the Indian village, a cannon thundered from
offshore. The captain of the Aimable had accidentally run his ship aground on a sandbar,
and had fired the shot to summon La Salle back to the beach. At the sound of the cannon,
the startled Indian villagers "all fell flat upon the ground" (Parkman) and quickly
released the hostages they had taken. La Salle rushed back to the grounded ship, which was
rocking back and forth on the sandbar as the waves broke against her collapsing hull.
Whatever could be saved from the wreck was drug ashore, where guards were posted to deter
Indian looters. Lost at the bottom of the bay were the bulk of the expedition's tools,
cannon balls and untapped wine kegs.

Fort St. Louis
Over the next few days, under La Salle's direction, a settlement was built on the shore. A
driftwood palisade was pieced together, and crude shelters were built inside this
enclosure by some of the colonists. Dysentery soon broke out in the encampment, killing
several colonists.

Dealings with the local Indians began smoothly enough, but soon went bad after a dispute
over the ownership of some blankets taken from the wreck of the Aimable. The Indians began
to harass the French settlement, setting brush fires outside its rampart, firing volleys
of arrows into the fort and killing soldiers who camped in the open. Having accomplished
his mission, Captain Beaujeu set sail for France in the Joly when the new settlement was
less than two months old. He left La Salle with only one ship, La Belle, and its
provisions to sustain his colony. A few weeks after the Joly departed, La Salle moved his
colony to a new location, a short distance inland from the mouth of the Lavaca River,
where they would be hidden from the Spanish warships that patrolled the coast. He named
this new settlement "Fort St. Louis."

An account of the settlement relates; "For a month, La Salle made them work in cultivating
the ground; but neither the grain nor the vegetables sprouted, either because they were
damaged by the salt water or because, as was afterward remarked, it was not the right
season. The maladies which the soldiers had contracted in Haiti were visibly carrying them
off, and a hundred died in a few days." (Cox)

Exploring the Lavaca River
Continues for 7 more pages >>