Adventures of Chevalier de La Salle - John S. C. Abbott

The Abandonment of Fort Crevecoeur


It will be remembered that on the last of February, 1680, M. La Salle left the fort at Crevecoeur, with four Frenchmen and an Indian guide, for his perilous journey of four hundred leagues, through the pathless wilderness, to Frontenac, at the eastern extremity of Lake Ontario. His chosen companion, Lieutenant Tonti, was intrusted with the military charge of the garrison. Fathers Membre and Gabriel, both inspired with the noblest spirit of missionary enterprise, were appointed to instruct and, if possible, to convert the Indians.

They raised a pretty capacious log-cabin, which was both their residence and their chapel. This humble sanctuary was every day crowded with Indians from various tribes. A very large Indian village was on the shores of Lake Peoria, about half a mile from the cabin of the missionaries. Father Membre, a true apostle of Jesus Christ, wrote an account of the momentous scenes which transpired. To his narrative we are indebted for the facts which we now give.

One of the chiefs, Oumakouka, adopted, according to Indian custom, Father Membre as his son. He ever welcomed him to a warm seat by his wigwam fire, and presented him with tender morsels of game. While Father Gabriel spent the most of his time in the fort with Lieutenant Tonti and the workmen, Father Membre, who was soon quite familiar with their language, devoted much of his time to the instruction of the Indians in their wigwams. This was the arrangement which La Salle had made. He felt that the wild and reckless spirits in the garrison needed the restraints of the constant presence of their spiritual father. Individuals might otherwise be guilty of violating the rights of the Indians, and thus the whole of the little community might be involved in ruin.

The large Indian village where Father Membre exerted his ministry contained a population of about eight thousand souls. There were also a large number of villages within a circle of fifty miles in diameter, some of which belonged to other tribes. These the unwearied missionary frequently visited. All these Indians made their wigwams of mats of braided flat rushes. They were tall, well formed, and very skilful archers. But the good father does not give a very flattering account of the characters they developed. They were genuine loafers; idle, excessively superstitious, quarrelsome, under scarcely any restraints of law, and they would steal everything upon which they could lay their hands. Their lands were exceedingly fertile that, with very slight labor, they had an abundance of corn. Pounded corn, mixed with water and baked in the ashes, would afford but a meagre repast in the humblest log-cabin. It was deemed all-sufficient in the wigwam.

All who could afford it had several wives. They were as unfeeling as brutes. If a wife displeased her lord and master, he would mercilessly cut off her nose; and with apparently as little concern as a dog-fancier trims the ears of a terrier. United with these execrable traits of character, there were others, to which we have already alluded, which were alluring. In the summer, the men often went without any clothing, except moccasins made of buffalo hide.

These poor savages were engaged in almost incessant wars. Even the religion of Jesus, whose great mission was to bring peace on earth and goodwill to man, has not yet been able to obliterate these sanguinary propensities from the human heart. England, France, Germany, are great slaughterhouses, where millions of men have hurled themselves upon each other in demoniac strife. What, then, could be expected of savages.

The Miamis of the north were organizing an expedition against the Illinois. The rumor reached the Indian village at Crevecoeur, and created great consternation. Lieutenant Tonti endeavored to inspire the Indians with a spirit of defence. He taught them how to surround their village with palisades, and influenced them to build a fort with intrenchments. Some of the French garrison, weary of the restraints of the fort, deserted, and wandered away among the Indian tribes; and so incorporated themselves with the savages, in dress, in war-paint, in habits, and in taking Indian wives, that it required very close scrutiny to distinguish them from the Indians.

The two missionaries, conscious that there was no substantial remedy for the ills of humanity but in the regeneration of the soul which the religion of Jesus enjoined, consecrated, with increasing zeal, all their energies in the endeavor to make Frenchmen and Indians good men, new creatures in Jesus Christ.

One of the Illinois chiefs, Asapista by name, became very strongly attached to good Father Gabriel, and adopted him as his son. This was quite a favor. The generality of the Indians, like the populace everywhere, were exceedingly fickle. The friendship and caresses of to-day might be hatred and the tomahawk to-morrow. The adoption of a stranger into the tribe, as the son of a chief, was a great security against any sudden outburst of suspicion, which might lead to massacre.

The Gospel of Christ makes slow headway against the wickedness of man. As in our own enlightened times, the multitude listened, were respectful to their teachers, even reverenced them, but did not heed or obey.

"With regard to conversions," Father Membre writes, "I cannot rely on any. There is in these savages such an alienation from the faith, so brutal and narrow a mind, such corrupt and anti-Christian morals, that much time would be needed to hope for any fruit. It is however true, that I found many of quite docile character. We baptized some dying children, and two or three dying persons who manifested proper dispositions. As these people are entirely material in their ideas, they would have submitted to baptism, had we liked, but without any knowledge of the sacrament."

During the summer, the Indians wandered about in large hunting expeditions. The missionaries accompanied these bands, seeking day by day opportunities to teach them. Father Membre also visited several remote tribes. He found much to discourage him. He said that their blindness and obduracy were quite indescribable.

On the 10th of September, 1680, when the Indians had generally returned from their hunting parties, and were loitering about in indolent groups, with nothing to do, an Indian, from an allied tribe, came rushing almost breathless into the village, with the tidings that a united army of the Iroquois and the Miamis from the north, five hundred in number, had already entered their territory, and were on the rapid march to attack their village by surprise. He also made the astounding assertion that M. La Salle himself was leading this band of hostile warriors. There was no foundation for this last statement excepting that the chief of the Iroquois wore a European coat and hat. This led the courier to think he was La Salle, whom he had seen similarly dressed.

The Indians, accepting this statement, of course believed that there was treachery. Supposing the Frenchmen at Crevecoeur were prepared to join the invading army immediately upon its arrival, they resolved to tomahawk them all. The peril of the French was great. The Indians, like children, were apt to act first and think afterwards. The French were entirely unprepared for such a sudden change of feeling.

But Lieutenant Tonti, whose presence of mind never forsook him even in the greatest perils, ran from the fort to the village, and assured the warriors that La Salle was not with their foes, and that he was ready to muster his whole force, at the garrison, with their fire-arms, and accompany the warriors to repel the enemy. This caused another change of public sentiment. All looked to the French as their deliverers. In a few hours several hundred warriors, with the French, were on the march.

The arrow from the bow is but a feeble weapon compared with the bullet from rifle. The Iroquois, having had much intercourse with the French in Canada, were many of them supplied with fire-arms. They were allies of the French, and were very anxious to preserve friendship with them. The Illinois Indians, being more remote, had not been able to obtain the efficient European instruments of warfare.

The two parties approached each other; and the Illinois, guided by Tonti, were placed in a commanding position to resist attack. The allies were much disappointed in finding their plan of assailing the village by surprise frustrated. They paused in the march; and the two armies for some time looked each other in the face, neither venturing to commence the assault. The result of the battle was at least doubtful. So many of the Iroquois warriors were armed with muskets or rifles, and had become so skilful in the use of them that, in Indian warfare, dodging from rock to rock and from tree to tree, they were fully equal to the French. Whatever might be the result of the battle, it was certain that many on each side must be slain.

Lieutenant Tonti called the chiefs of the Illinois around him, and, after quite an earnest colloquy, induced them to consent that he should go to the Iroquois chiefs and endeavor to avert hostilities. It was a perilous enterprise. While some of the Indian chieftains were of much moral worth, there were many savages who were miserable wretches, and over whom the chiefs had but very little control.

Lieutenant Tonti, partly from necessity, partly from choice, was dressed mainly in Indian costume. As the European garments of the Frenchmen were worn out, they were constrained to supply their place with deer-skin jackets and leggins, generally painted and fringed after the fashion of the natives. Thus Lieutenant Tonti, at the council of the chiefs, in general appearance resembled the rest. But the Christian Fathers always wore a long black gown. As we have mentioned, they were called by that name among all the tribes, "The Black Gowns." Their teachings, their ministerings at the couches of the sick and dying, their utter renunciation of the character of warriors, and their self-denying devotion to the welfare of the Indians, had caused them to be generally revered. But, among the untutored tribes as in almost every village of our land, there were "certain lewd fellows of the baser sort," who hated the clergy.

Father Membre, with that calm, peaceful Christian chivalry which cannot be surpassed amidst the tumult and carnage of the field of battle, offered to accompany Lieutenant Tonti on his mission of peace.

The two opposing forces were facing each other, with the space of perhaps an eighth of a mile between them. Both parties were concealed, as far as possible, though occasionally the nodding plumes of a warrior were visible, as he moved from one hiding-place to another. Lieutenant Tonti, holding high above his head, as a flag of truce, the gorgeously decorated calumet of peace, accompanied by Father Membre in his long, flowing black robe, boldly moved forward toward the Iroquois encampment. Several of the chiefs met him, and were surprised to find that he was a Frenchman. He addressed them in their own language, in substance as follows:

"I bring you the calumet of peace. The Illinois, against whom you are waging war, are our brothers. They are the friends and allies of the French. The great father in Canada is the protector both of the Iroquois and of the Illinois. He cannot see one destroy the other."

The chiefs were deeply impressed by this statement. It would be ruinous for them to bring down the terrible arm of the French power upon their nation. The French could withhold entirely from them arms and ammunition, and could supply their foes abundantly with these terrible materials of war. Such were the thoughts of the considerate chieftains. They perceived the necessity of heeding the remonstrance. But the reckless young men, who had their reputation as warriors to make, and whose hearts were glowing with the thought of returning to their village waving gory scalps as the trophies of their heroism, were resolved that there should be no peace. To render a battle inevitable they determined to kill the two envoys from the Illinois camp.

A small band of these ferocious, savage young men, crept up, cautiously and unperceived, to a spot within arrow-shot of the place where the conference with the chiefs was held. Suddenly they discharged several arrows upon Tonti and Membre, which whizzed by, fortunately, without hitting them. The perfidious wretches then rushed forward, with gleaming knives. The chiefs interposed to save those who were under the sacred protection of the calumet.

One young Indian, with vigorous arm and a gleaming knife, aimed a blow at the heart of Lieutenant Tonti. As by a miracle, he escaped from death. The blow struck him to the ground, and the blood gushed forth from a fearful gash. But the point of the knife glanced from a rib, and did not penetrate the heart. All this was the work of an instant. The chiefs, veteran warriors, who had a reputation for honor to sustain, promptly drew their knives, surrounded the envoys with their protection, and drove off the assassins. Tenderly they bound up the wound of Tonti, expressed to him their grief and indignation, assured him that hostilities should cease and that they would immediately withdraw, with their warriors, back to their own village.

The wounded lieutenant, aided by his clerical friend, returned to the Illinois camp, with the glad tidings that the Iroquois had consented to peace. Several hours passed, and the Iroquois bands, instead of retiring, were continually drawing nearer, in a very suspicious manner, apparently with the intention of surrounding the Illinois, and cutting off their retreat. The Illinois chief held another council, and requested Father Membre to go back to the Iroquois and inquire into the reason of their conduct. Father Membre writes:

"This was not a very agreeable mission to a savage tribe. Nevertheless, I made up my mind, and God preserved me from all harm."

The chiefs received him kindly. They were ashamed of the course which the warriors, notwithstanding their remonstrances, were pursuing. They said to him frankly:

"Our real trouble is that we are starving. We expected to find abundant food in the Illinois village, and have consumed all we brought with us. Our march has frightened away the game, so that we can expect to find but little on our return. We are in danger of perishing for want of food."

Membre brought back this message. At his suggestion an abundance of food was immediately sent, on many heavily-laden shoulders, to the Illinois camp. The good father accompanied this peaceful embassage, and slept in the camp of the Illinois. Still the young savages were determined, if possible, to bring on a fight. They longed for the excitement of battle. The hideous war-whoop, with the shrieks of women and children, falling beneath their tomahawks, was music to their ears. The burning wigwams, the mangled bodies, the bloody scalps, were pictures of beauty to their eyes. And, most glorious of all, to their purely unangelic natures, was the triumphant return to their village with prisoners to run the dreadful gauntlet; and to writhe, and perhaps be forced to scream, beneath the fiend-like tortures of the stake.

The next morning the Iroquois warriors, instead of turning their steps homewards, flocked, in large numbers, into the village of the Illinois. They were evidently bent upon picking a quarrel. They swaggered through the streets, insulted the women, trampled the corn-fields, and went even so far as to disinter, and knock about the bones of the dead.

It soon became manifest to all, that a bloody conflict was inevitable. The chiefs directed all the women and children to retire as silently and unobserved as possible, and hide themselves in the forest, behind a distant hill. Here they were in the vicinity of a trail which led quite directly to the Mississippi River. If the Illinois were defeated in the battle, they could by this line of retreat, cross the Great River, and take refuge with a friendly tribe upon the other side. Then the Illinois warriors, in a body, without venturing upon an engagement abandoned the village to the Iroquois, and commenced a precipitate flight to the Mississippi. They were not pursued. The Iroquois chiefs would not lead the young men in an enterprise which they deemed so dishonorable.

As we have said, the control of the chiefs over the daring and lawless spirits of the young savages was feeble. The French garrison was greatly weakened by death and desertion. There was much reason to fear that the savages would fall upon them, and kill them all, for the sake of the plunder they would find in the fort. There was nothing to detain the missionaries. Upon the retirement of the Iroquois, they would be left in a lone and silent wilderness.

Lieutenant Tonti, and his two clerical associates, Fathers Membre and Gabriel, held a consultation, and decided upon an immediate withdrawal. It was the 13th of September, 1680. Their desire was to go back to Mackinaw, which station La Salle would necessarily revisit on his return from Frontenac, with reinforcements and supplies. Their numbers were so diminished, and their departure so hasty, that they all embarked in one frail canoe. The chiefs so far restrained the young savages, that no attack was made upon them. But the leaders of this feeble little garrison were well aware, that in all probability bands of the young men would pursue them, to lie in ambush at some narrow passage of the river, and cut them off, if possible.

They left the fort about noon, packing in their canoe only a few articles of absolute necessity. All the afternoon they plied their paddles vigorously, ascending the Illinois River, and passing through the broad expanse of Lake Peoria. Their canoe was leaky and heavily laden. The current was strong, and their passage slow. They did not venture to land until after dark, that the landing might not be seen by any foe, skulking through the forest along the banks of the river. They also took the precaution to seek their night's encampment on the side of the stream opposite that which was occupied by the Iroquois band.

At an early hour the next morning they resumed their voyage, still ascending the Illinois River. They had paddled along but a few hours, and had reached a point between twenty-five and thirty miles above the fort, when their dilapidated canoe leaked so badly, that they were forced to land, that they might repair it. They were on the borders of one of Illinois' most beautiful prairies. The smooth and verdant expanse, extending to the horizon, was dotted with groves, presenting a landscape of enchanting loveliness.

Father Gabriel, as he could be of no service in repairing the boat, decided to walk into one of the groves at a little distance from the river, with his prayer-book in his hand, that he might, alone in those lonely solitudes, worship his Creator. It was a temple for devout meditation and adoration such as no cathedral reared by man's hand ever presented.

It took all day to repair the canoe. Hour after hour passed away, and Father Gabriel did not return. His companions began to feel a little solicitude about his safety. Toward evening Father Membre set out in search of him. He was not in the grove. There were no traces of him to be seen. There were several groves in the distance; and there were gentle eminences in the rolling prairie, behind which he might be concealed. The anxious father ascended one after another of these eminences, but nowhere over the vast plain could he catch any sight of the lost one. Again and again he shouted. The silence of the prairie was the only response to his cry.

Greatly alarmed, he returned to his companions, who had now completed their repairs of the canoe. The whole party then set out on the search. They moved in various directions; hallooed, and fired their guns. All was in vain. Night had settled over the prairie, when they reassembled in great despondency at the canoe. Father Gabriel was greatly loved. He was a gentle, self-sacrificing man, of kindly words and generous deeds.

The party crossed the river, as a precaution against an attack from any band of the Iroquois who might be following them. They then built a large fire, that its rays, shining far and wide over the prairie, might arrest the eye of the lost one, and guide him on his return. The morning dawned. Still there was no clue to the disappearance of Father Gabriel. The voyagers returned to the other side of the river, and lingered there until the middle of the forenoon.

Lieutenant Tonti then said that it was clear that their companion had not wandered into the prairie and become lost; for from any of the eminences he could have discerned the line of the river, nor could he have wandered so far as neither to have heard the report of their guns nor seen the light of their fire. It was certain that he had either been cut off by some prowling band of savages, or that he had decided to follow up the banks of the river on foot, intending to enter the canoe when it came along. In either case it was their duty to press forward on their journey as rapidly as possible.

For a long time they heard no more of Father Gabriel. Finally they learned that some young savages, of the Kikapoo tribe, who were at war with the Iroquois, were prowling about when they caught sight of the father engaged in his devotions in the grove. His eyes were probably closed, and his whole soul absorbed in prayer. There is one advantage which the arrow has over the bullet. It performs its deadly mission without making any noise. The wily savages, unseen and unheard, crept near, and piercing him with their arrows he fell dead. They took his scalp, threw the body into a ditch, covering it with a few leaves, and fled. When they arrived at their village they very boastfully exhibited the scalp of the defenceless missionary, as that of an Iroquois warrior. To obtain this renown was the only object of the cowardly assassins in their murderous deed.

Thus died Father Gabriel. He was the last scion of a noble family of Burgundy. He had renounced his inheritance, and all the brilliant prospects of a courtly life, to consecrate himself to the service of his Saviour, the Son of God. In his own country, his family name, his many virtues, and his entire devotion to the ministry upon which he had entered, had elevated him to high positions of influence and honor. All these he relinquished, after he had passed his three-score years, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to the savages of North America. He landed in Canada, in the summer of 1670. For some time he was employed as chaplain of Governor Frontenac. Here he was untiring in his efforts to instruct the Indians. Having become in a good degree familiar with their language and customs, he embarked with La Salle to establish new missions in the vast and unexplored regions he was about to penetrate.

The good old man was now seventy years of age. For forty years he had been earnestly engaged in preaching the gospel of peace on earth, and good will among men. And now the blessed hour had come when God sent his angel to take the victor in many a hard-fought spiritual conflict, to his home in heaven; for God can convert even the wickedness of man into an agency for the accomplishment of His purposes.

How sublime the scene of his departure. It was a serene, beautiful autumnal day. The deep blue of the overarching skies were embroidered, as it were, with fleecy clouds. The waters of the river, clear as crystal, flowed gently by. The luxuriant prairie, brilliant with the bloom of autumn, almost entranced the eye as a garden of the Lord. In a majestic grove the veteran Christian knelt, at peace with God, with himself, and with all the world. His eyes were closed. His hands were clasped. His soul was all absorbed in prayer. Suddenly a shower of arrows pierce him, and he falls dead!

Dead! do I say? No! He awakes to a new life of inconceivable vitality and grandeur. A retinue of angels are there, ready to receive him. In their blest companionship he takes his rapturous journey to the bosom of his Saviour and his God.

"Oh, 'tis a glorious thing to die

As dies the Christian, with his armor on."

The saddened voyagers, as they plied their paddles in ascending the river, all unconscious of the fate which had overtaken the beloved father, had still a journey of nearly two hundred and fifty miles before them, ere they could reach their friends. The dilapidated canoe soon failed them entirely, and they were compelled to abandon it. The remainder of the long journey was to be made on foot. Their destitution was alarming. They had no food but such as they could pick up by the way. Their clothing was old, worn out, and very scant; for they had been waiting for supplies to be brought them by La Salle. They had neither companion nor guide. The route they were to follow was in a northerly direction through the pathless forests, and over the pathless prairies, many miles west of Lake Michigan, to the missionary station at the foot of Green Bay.

Father Hennepin had left his cloak in the canoe. They cut up the garment to repair their shoes and clothes. Often, in days of storm, they wandered bewildered and lost. They found but little game, for they were not professional hunters. Their food consisted mainly of acorns and roots. After a journey of fifteen days, and when almost starved, they were so fortunate as to kill a deer. Upon venison steaks they feasted luxuriously.

At length they came to a little cluster of Pottawatomi wigwams. This powerful tribe occupied an extensive territory southwest of Lake Michigan. About ten years before, a delegation from the tribe had visited the French, and friendly relations were established between them. Very hospitably they received the worn, emaciate, and ragged wanderers. They fed them with such morsels as could be fished from the pots of the Indians. The wigwams were comfortable, affording ample protection from wind and rain. The weary wanderers, who were scarcely able to stand, threw themselves upon mats before the wigwam fires and slept long, long hours of rich enjoyment.

Somewhat recruited by the repose of a few days, they again took up their line of march. After the endurance of great fatigue and many sufferings, they at length reached the missionary station at Green Bay. Here they were received as brothers, and here they passed the winter. Early in the spring, as soon as the ice had disappeared from the bay, Lieutenant Tonti and Father Membre set out in a canoe, with a few boatmen, for the station at Michilimackinac. After a prosperous voyage of a few days, they reached that important point in safety. They had been there but a short time, when a small fleet of canoes came paddling into the harbor. It was about the middle of June. To their great joy they found that it was an expedition of La Salle, and that he was on board. He had a sad story to tell of disasters and sufferings, which we must reserve for our next chapter.