La Salle expeditions

Map showing the course of the first three expeditions

The Expeditions of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle were a series of trips into the Mississippi and Ohio Valley by French explorers led by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle that began in the late 1660s and continued for two decades. Much of the area that was explored was land that no European had ever ventured into. The expeditions led to the establishment of an overland trade route connecting French colonies in Canada with French colonies in Louisiana. All of the land covered in the expedition was claimed on behalf of Louis XIV, King of France, and initiated a period of French control in the region that would last for nearly a century.

Early expeditions


René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle arrived in New France in 1666. He was the son of a wealthy merchant family from Rouen, France and came to the New World to set up trade with Native American populations. He went immediately to Montreal, which was then the furthest inland post the French controlled. At that time, the post was little more than a mission where his brother served as a Jesuit priest who was working to convert the local Huron to Christianity. At that time, the region was in the height of the Beaver Wars, a brutal conflict between the French-backed Algonquian tribes fighting against the English-supported Iroquois Confederacy.[1]

La Salle purchased a large tract of land near modern Lachine, Quebec. There he set up a thriving trading post, purchasing furs from the local tribes and serving as a middleman, selling the furs to European merchants who transported them back to France. From Seneca traders, La Salle first learned of the Ohio country and that a river flowed from there all the way to a great sea. The possibility of such a river intrigued La Salle because of its obvious value to trade. If such a route existed, it would make trading trips deep into the interior of North America possible and much easier than overland routes.[1] If discovered, the trade from such a route could also be very lucrative. At the time, most Europeans, having no clear idea of the actual size of North America west of the Appalachians, still thought that they were very near the source of the Asian spices, and La Salle thought that perhaps this route would lead to India.[2]

First expedition

On July 6, 1669,[3] La Salle set out with his first expedition to explore the region he had heard of. He put together a group of twenty-four men and canoes and set off up the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Ontario. After thirty-five days they reached the mouth of the Seneca River on the south shore of Lake Nassau in New York State. A Seneca village was located there, but they discouraged him from continuing his expedition westward and told him his presence in the Ohio Country would be unwelcome. Despite their warning and refusal to provide a guide, he continued towards the Niagara River where he encountered a group of Seneca returning to their territory with a Pottawatomie prisoner captured in a raid. He paid a ransom for the captive after he agreed to lead the explorers into the Ohio Country.[2] The actual routes of La Salles' early expeditions are not geographically known, it reported from second hand descriptions.

From there the party continued westward overland reaching Lake Erie where they turned toward the south. If La Salle struck Lake Erie near present-day Erie, Pennsylvania, The party would have been west of the Allegheny range. They continued moving overland until they reached a branch of the Ohio River which they canoed down to reach the main channel of the river. One possible route would have been up the Grand River, and then a short expedition over the established portage trail to the Mahoning River. Upon reaching the Ohio, in the area of modern western Pennsylvania, it would have been obvious that the expedition had reached a major river, rivaling the size of the largest European rivers. La Salle continued downstream and westward reaching the Falls of the Ohio near modern Louisville, Kentucky. There his men refused to go further and deserted him to return to Canada. La Salle continued to explore only briefly on his own, and returned to Canada on his own.[2]

During his trip, his group became the first Europeans to see the Ohio River. He had also traveled further into the Ohio country than any previous expeditions. Despite his lack of success in finding the "southern sea", what he did find only intrigued him more and he soon decided that he wanted to launch a second attempt to find the outlet of the river.

Second expedition

In 1670 La Salle set out on another expedition. He led a group of men west across Lake Erie and then overland ending up at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Although reports from the expedition do not indicate, it would have been obvious that the Great Lakes represented a vast freshwater sea. From Lake Michigan, the party moved south across Illinois and encountered the Mississippi River. From the first expedition, La Salle would have known that the position on the Mississippi was far north of the Ohio. He likely deduced that both rivers flowed South to the river reported by De Soto.

It was not until 1673 that Louis Jolliet and Père Father Jacques Marquette explored the upper Mississippi Valley, including the area where it was joined by the Ohio River.[10] La Salle later participated in an expedition to follow the northern shore of Lake Erie across Lake Huron to Michilimackinac, where Lake Michigan empties into Lake Huron. La Salle named the entire area of the Mississippi watershed Louisiana after king Louis XIV of France.

La Salle later followed up the discovery and sailed down the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. His trip made him the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi, but it had been visited by Europeans at its southern end possibly as early as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and its midsection by Hernando De Soto a century earlier.[2]

La Salle did not lead another expedition for seven years, but he never forgot the rivers and continued to form plans for more expeditions. The land he discovered was all claimed in the name of Louis XIV and added to New France. The French Crown expanded on his exploration by claiming the entire Mississippi River Watershed|Mississippi River Basin, and New Orleans was later created to control the southern end of the river.

Later expeditions

Third expedition

Native Americans guide French explorers through Indiana as depicted by Maurice Thompson in Stories of Indiana.

In the late 17th century, La Salle began the process of expanding and securing the fur trade by building series of forts and a line of communications from Montreal into the upper Great Lakes and into the Ohio Valley and Mississippi regions. In 1673 he built Fort Frontenac at Cataraqui (now Kingston) on Lake Ontario. In 1679 he built Fort Conti at the mouth of the Niagara River on Lake Ontario. Near the fort he constructed a sailing ship he named Le Griffon and used it to explore much of the Great Lakes. He voyaged as far as modern Green Bay, Wisconsin in the following summer where he set up a trading post. The region was still locked in the Beaver Wars and this new route over the lakes allowed the French to bypass the dangerous countryside and trade with the tribes beyond the front lines of the war.[4] While he remained at the post, he sent two men with an Indian guide westward in search of the Mississippi River. Two men eventually located the Falls of St. Anthony before returning.[5]

In September 1679 he began the return trip to Niagara but stopped at the mouth of the St. Joseph River on the east shore of Lake Michigan. They paddled upstream and there they built a small fort to serve as a base of operations for continued expeditions into the Illinois and Ohio Country. There they waited for supplies and men which were traveling overland to meet them.[4] He sent the Griffon and crew back to Montreal, but they never arrived and were believed to have died on the return journey.[5]

On December 3, 1679 a party of twenty-men started out for the Illinois Country. They set out to search for the Kankakee portage, an overland path that connected the St. Joseph River to the Kankakee River, but they missed the portage and La Salle became separated from the rest of his men. The group spent the night separated in a snow storm, but the next morning La Salle was able to relocate the river and rejoin his men. They continued searching and finally found the path and started overland to the Kankakee River. Once reaching the river they took to their canoes and traveled westward and then down the Mississippi. Their supplies began to run low, but they found a bison stranded in a mud pool which they were able to kill and eat, replenishing a large part of their supplies. They continued downstream and encountered a large Indian village where they stopped to build a fort he named Fort Crèvecoeur.[6]

Using his new fort as the start of a trading post, La Salle invited the local tribes for negotiations. There he established a trading agreement with the tribes and also discovered that they were also locked in the war with the Iroquois who had been frequent raiders in the area. The area contained numerous tribes, including the Miami tribe to the east, the Wea and Piankeshaw to the south-east, the Illinois tribe in the immediate area, and the Peoria tribe to the farther west. There were even several groups of refugees from as far away as Maine who had fled into the region hoping to avoid the Iroquois who had invaded their own homelands. Most of the country east of the fort, which was the Ohio Country, was empty according to the local tribes, most of the inhabitants had fled into the Illinois Country and beyond to escape the Iroquois.[6]

The remainder of the winter was spent collecting furs from the surrounding area and after spring arrived a group of men was sent to deliver the furs to Montreal via the trade route that had just been established. The men returned and sold the furs, but deserted and did not return. La Salle then set out for Canada to discover what had become of his men. On the return trip he encountered the new governor of New France who was coming to take possession of the outposts La Salle had established for the crown and to put in garrisons.[7] Upon his return to his outpost he discovered it had been destroyed by his own men who mutinied not long after his departure in the autumn of 1680. The local tribes were nowhere to be found and had fled to the west of the Mississippi River, likely because of continued Iroquois raids.[5]

Later expeditions

In 1681 La Salle returned again to the Illinois Country and rebuilt his fort. This time he began negotiations with the tribes to return and set up an alliance. He immediately began trade with them and through the next two years he began to import firearms and other metal tools that the tribes never had previous access to.[8] In 1682 La Salle began to establish a post he named Fort Saint Louis on the Mississippi. He used the post as an even more forward base into the countryside. He spent the next several years establishing posts and trade throughout the Illinois Country. Although the Iroquois returned to again destroy the French posts, the plan succeeded in the years after La Salle's death in 1687. Using their new arms, the odds were evened with the Iroquois and the tribes were eventually able to reclaim their homeland following the 1701 Great Peace of Montreal.

A 1688 map of the region explored by La Salle, based in large part on the findings of his expeditions

La Salle then assembled a party for the expedition for which he is most remembered. Leaving Fort Crevecoeur with eighteen Native Americans, he canoed down the Mississippi River in 1682, naming the Mississippi basin "La Louisiane" in honor of Louis XIV.[9] At what is now the site of Memphis, Tennessee he built a small fort, Fort Prudhomme. On April 9, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, near modern 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 of Illinois, at Starved Rock on the Illinois River, to replace Fort Crevecoeur. Tonti was to command the fort while La Salle traveled again to France for supplies.

On July 24, 1684, La Salle sailed again from France and returned to America 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 four 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 established Fort Saint Louis near Victoria, Texas. La Salle led a group eastward on foot on three occasions to try to locate the Mississippi. During another search for the Mississippi River, his remaining 36 followers mutinied, near the site of modern Navasota, Texas. On March 19, 1687, La Salle was slain by Pierre Duhaut, one of four attacking him, "six leagues" from the westernmost village of the Hasinai Tejas Indians. The colony lasted only until 1688, when Karankawa-speaking Indians massacred the 20 remaining adults and took five children as captives. They also destroyed Fort Saint Louis.


Beginning in 1700, the French Government began to become interested in the discoveries made by La Salle. The land was better for farming and settlement than lands in Canada and the government began plans to colonize the region. The land gained further importance with the growing power of the English colonies on the eastern seaboard. To counter the English colonies' growth a series of forts and outposts was built along the important trade routes pioneered by La Salle, including a new post named St Louis, this time on the west shore of Mississippi River. The French continued to control parts of La Salle's discoveries until as late as 1803.

La Salle's expedition began written history for most of the Midwest and his contact with the tribes of the west served as an important record of the early history of North America.

La Salle Texas expedition between 1685 and 1688, in which triggered a series of events that culminated in Texas with all its wealth joining the United States of America.

La Salle was never reported to have problems associating or interacting with the indigenous people in North America except for the Karankawa Indians of the gulf coast of Texas. Soon after his arrival in Texas in Jan 1685, La Salle was able to determine from the tool marks on human bones at old Karankawa campsites that they practiced cannibalism as a matter of course. Thereafter, likely as a matter of self-preservation, La Salle and his settlers viewed themselves in a state of war with the Karankawas. In fact, many settlers were lost to the Karankawas in the years that followed and the settlement itself, Fort St Louis, was overrun by the Karankawas in Dec 1688 and all remaining adults killed. In early 1689, a Spanish column searching for the French settlement happened upon the devastation that had been the fort and buried the remains of the dead which, inter alia, consisted of bones with tool marks scattered about the site.

La Salle triggered a Spanish effort to settle Texas with colonists of their own to deny the French entry and generally establish their sovereignty over the area. Any colonists moving north through the lands of the Karankawas in east Texas had to be protected by accompanying soldiers at great expense and each settlement had to have a small garrison of soldiers as well. Eventually new settlers from Mexico became but a trickle while the influx of Americans from the north increased.

In 1823, Steve Austin organized the Texas Rangers for the protection of settlers mainly from the depredations of the Karankawas.

The immigrants from the USA and Mexico gradually evolved into Texicans all having one interest – their Texas and freedom from Mexican occupation. When Generalissimo Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande with 6000 men in 1835 intent on reinforcing Mexican sovereignty in Texas, the Texicans declared independence. Santa Anna, at first, enjoyed success in his invasion by winning a number of battles. His most dramatic success was his victory at the Alamo in San Antonio. But he had expended men and material without achieving his end goal being the defeat of General Houston and his forces. After the Alamo, he unwisely split his forces and went looking for Houston. This was a major military blunder. Elements of the two armies met at San Jacinto on 21 Apr 1836. Houston with 900 men attacked Santa Anna and his 1400 troops during the siesta in the afternoon of that fateful day. Eighteen minutes after contact, it was over. Mopping up continued for the rest of the day and into the next day. Half the Mexican force was killed and the other half, including Santa Anna, taken prisoner. In the result, Santa Anna agreed to the independence of Texas and his army moved south of the Rio Grande leaving Texas free and independent in its wake. As history records, a few years later, Texas became a state of the United States of America bringing into the union its phenomenal oil, mineral and agricultural assets that fueled the massive industrialization of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In his Texas period, LaSalle lost his life and failed to find a route to the Pacific or to found a permanent settlement that would establish a claim for the King of France over the area. But he had set in motion a chain of events that ended with Texas and its huge land mass and riches becoming a part of the United States of America.[10]

See also


  1. 1 2 Esarey, p. 4
  2. 1 2 3 4 Esarey, p. 5
  3. Parkman, p. 19
  4. 1 2 Esarey, p. 6
  5. 1 2 3 Bateman, p. 246
  6. 1 2 Esarey p. 7
  7. Esarey, p. 8
  8. Funk, pp. 10–11
  9. "Handbook of Texas Online: La Salle, Rene Robert Cavelier"(history), Robert S. Weddle, February 21, 2002, webpage:TSHA-fla4.
  10. The Handbook of Texas
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