René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

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Engraving of  La Salle
Engraving of La Salle

René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (November 21, 1643March 19, 1687) was a French cleric and explorer. He explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed the entire Mississippi basin for France.

La Salle was born in Rouen and was briefly a member of the Jesuit religious order, taking his vows in 1660. On 27 March 1667, he was released from the Society of Jesus after citing "moral weaknesses" in his request. La Salle travelled to America, arriving in 1667 in New France, where his brother Jean, a Sulpician priest, had moved the year before. He received land on the western end on the Island of Montreal which became known as "Lachine", in recognition of La Salle's desire to find a route to China. He led his first expedition in 1669, the results of which are unclear. He may have reached the Ohio River, but not the Mississippi, which Louis Joliet discovered in 1672. His group consisted of five canoes and fifteen men. Father Dollier de Casson travelled with him with seven men in another three canoes.

In 1674, he established Fort Frontenac (now Kingston, Ontario) on Lake Ontario as part of a fur trade venture. The fort was named for La Salle's patron, Louis de Baude Frontenac, governor of New France. La Salle travelled to France that year to establish his claim and to procure royal support. With Frontenac's influence, he received not only a fur trade concession, with permission to establish frontier forts, but also a title of nobility. He returned with Henri de Tonti, who would join his explorations.

On 7 August 1679, La Salle set sail on Le Griffon, which he and Tonti had constructed at Fort Conti, near Niagara Falls. Becoming the first to navigate the Great Lakes, they sailed up Lake Erie to Lake Huron and then down Lake Michigan. On November 1, he built a fort at the mouth of the St. Joseph River in present day Michigan, and waited for a party led by Tonti, who had crossed the peninsula on foot. Tonti arrived on November 20, and on December 3 the entire party set off up the St. Joseph, which they followed until they reached a portage to the Kankakee River. They followed the Kankakee to the Illinois River, where they established Fort Crèvecoeur near present-day Peoria, Illinois. LaSalle then set off on foot for Fort Frontenac for supplies. While he was gone, Louis Hennepin followed the Illinois River to its junction with the Mississippi, but was captured by a Sioux war party and carried off to Minnesota. The soldiers at the fort mutineed, destroyed the fort, and exiled Tonti, whom La Salle had left in charge. La Salle captured the mutineers on Lake Ontario and eventually rendezvoued with Tonti at Mackinaw.

La Salle then reassembled his party for the expedition for which he is most remembered. Leaving Fort Crevecoeur with twenty-three Frenchmen and eighteen Native Americans, he canoed down the Mississippi River in 1682, naming the Mississippi basin Louisiana in honour of Louis XIV. At present-day Memphis, Tennessee he built a small fort, Fort Prud'homme. On April 9, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, near present-day Venice, Louisiana, La Salle buried an engraved plate and a cross, claiming the territory for France. In 1683, on his return voyage, he established Fort Saint Louis, at Starved Rock on the Illinois River, to replace Fort Crevecoeur. Tonti was to command the fort while La Salle travelled again to France for supplies.

La Salle returned with a large expedition designed to establish a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. They left France in 1684 with 4 ships and 300 colonists. The expedition was plagued by pirates, hostile Indians, and poor navigation. One ship was lost to pirates in the West Indies, a second sank in the inlets of Matagorda Bay, where a third ran aground. They set up Fort Saint Louis, near Victoria, Texas. La Salle led a group eastward on foot on three occasions to try to locate the Mississippi. During the last such search his remaining 36 followers mutinied, and he was murdered near Navasota, Texas. The colony lasted only until 1688, when Karankawa-speaking Indians massacred the 20 remaining adults and took 5 children as captives. Tonti sent out search missions in 1689 when he learned of the expedition's fate, but failed to reach their fort and found no survivors.

The encroachment of La Salle and other French interests in the Spanish claimed territory of Texas, led Spain to establish a fort, Presidio La Bahia, in 1721, at the site of the remains of Fort Saint Louis.

LaSalle's primary ship, Belle, was discovered in the muck of Matagorda Bay in 1995 and is the site of an archeological dig. [1] [2]

The LaSalle automobile brand and many places were named in his honor (see La Salle for a list of places, most of which were named after him).

See also: French colonization of the Americas.

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