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

The Close of the Drama


The latter part of June they approached a village, when a large number of men came out to greet them, and to escort them in. The Indians insisted upon carrying the Frenchmen into the village upon their backs, saying that it was their invariable custom in the reception of guests. They were constrained to submit. Seven savages stooped down, and each one received one of the guests upon his shoulders. Others led the horses.

M. Joutel was a very tall man and very heavy. He also carried a gun, two pistols, some powder and lead, and several articles of clothing. The savage who undertook to carry him, was a small man, so that M. Joutel's feet almost touched the ground. As he tottered beneath his burden, two other savages came to his aid, helping to sustain him by the legs. Thus he had three porters.

The Frenchmen, whose vivacity seemed never long to forsake them, found it very difficult to restrain their laughter in view of the ludicrous spectacle they presented. It was three-quarters of a mile to the village. The porters, quite exhausted, surrendered their burdens in the cabin of the chief. The Indians wore but little clothing; some of them none at all. They brought water, saying that it was their custom to wash their guests, but as they perceived that the Frenchmen were encumbered with garments, they would wash only their faces.

After this ceremony, they were placed upon a platform about four feet high, and addressed in long speeches of welcome. As usual there was smoking, feasting, and the exchange of presents. They then opened a very successful traffic with the Indians for the purchase of corn.

These Indians had never heard the report of a gun. They were astonished in view of the deadly power of the invisible bullet; and they implored the strangers to remain with them and aid them in a war expedition. Though M. Joutel was the historian of this expedition, they seem, by common consent, to have regarded La Salle's brother, M. Cavalier, as their leader. He informed the Indians that they must hasten on their way, but that they hoped, ere long, to return and bring with them guns, powder, hatchets, knives, and other articles to exchange for their furs. This pleased them greatly.

A melancholy accident occurred at this place. M. Marle went into the river to bathe. Accidentally he got beyond his depth and was drowned. The savages manifested the deepest sympathy on the occasion. They rushed to the spot in large numbers, plunged into the water, regained the lifeless body, and with mournful wailings bore it back to the village. They watched with intensest interest the rites of Christian burial. The grave of the unfortunate man was in a beautiful grove, on the banks of the river. His mourning companions raised over the spot a cross, the touching emblem of the great atoning sacrifice for sin.

"It is our duty to testify," writes M. Joutel, "to the kindness of this affectionate people. Their humanity, manifested in this sad accident, was very remarkable. Their sympathy in our grief was greater than we could have experienced in any part of Europe."

There were four very pleasant and populous villages here, situated near each other. The inhabitants seemed to be united in the most fraternal alliance. And yet these people, who could be so gentle, tender and sympathetic in receiving their friends, could be as merciless as demons in torturing their enemies.

On the 30th of June, the travellers again took up their line of march. There was a wide river, near by, to be crossed. They had spent several days in this village, receiving unbounded acts of politeness and hospitality from the people. The men and the women alike vied in delicate attentions, such as could not have been expected from savages.

There was a broad and deep river near by to be crossed. The chief and a large escort of the natives accompanied them to the river, and paddled them over in their canoes, swimming the horses. M. Chevalier, in taking leave of his friends, gave them some rich presents, not forgetting to make the women happy in the gift of some gorgeous beads. Several Indians guided the party to the next tribe, at a distance of about thirty miles. Here again they were received in the cabin of the chief with unbounded hospitality.

After being welcomed with their many ceremonials of greeting, guides were furnished to accompany them to the next tribe. Thus they pressed on, day after day, with but occasional delays. Their route lay through a very rich country, abounding with deer and turkeys and prairie chickens. Village after village they entered. Tribe after tribe they met. But everywhere they encountered the same invariable hospitality. On one occasion a group of singers came to their cabin, and treated them with a serenade of plaintive music. At the same time one of their number crowned M. Chevalier with a beautiful head-dress of colored plumes.

The ceremony, on this occasion, was very elaborate, in which the females as well as the men took an active part. Two girls, of remarkably graceful form, and whose symmetric limbs were but slightly veiled, were brought, evidently without any intentional immodesty, into such affectionate contact with M. Chevalier, as greatly to confuse him.

It was quite evident that the Indians did not expect that their wealthy guests would receive these attentions without making them some return. They seem to have regarded themselves as abundantly rewarded by a gift of a hatchet, four knives, and a few beads. They regarded the French as superior beings, and were amazed and awed by the report of the guns, and the deadly flight of the bullet. They entreated the strangers to remain with them, offering them cabins and food and wives.

They had reached a broken, hilly country, with ravines and forests, and Indian trails leading in many directions. Guides were greatly needed; and guides were always furnished. On the evening of the 24th of July, they came to the banks of a river of unusual flood and breadth. To their surprise and delight they saw, upon the opposite bank, a large cross, and near by a spacious log-cabin, such as the French were accustomed to rear at their stations.

"No one," writes M. Joutel, "can imagine the joy with which this sight inspired our hearts. We threw ourselves upon our knees, and with tearful eyes thanked God for having so safely led us. We had no doubt that those on the opposite shore were Frenchmen, and the cross proved that they were fellow Christians."

The inmates of the log-cabin caught sight of the strangers. Probably their dress indicated that they were not Indians. They fired two muskets as a salute. The salute was promptly returned. Immediately several canoes pushed off, from the opposite bank, paddled by Indians, and in which the travellers saw two men in European dress. They were two Frenchmen, M. Charpentier and M. Launay, both from Rouen. Their station was on the northern bank of the Arkansas River, not far from its entrance into the Mississippi. Lieutenant Tonti had established the post, that he might receive news from La Salle's expedition.

In this interview, as in nearly all the scenes of earth, joy and grief were blended. The travellers felt that now they were safe, and that return to friends and home was secure. But all wept over the death of La Salle, for he was revered and loved by all who knew him. There was quite a large number of Indians at the station. They unloaded the horses, brought up the baggage, and men and women crowded around with unfeigned joy.

After a short time the Indians all left the cabin, and the white men held a conference together, narrating past events. Lieutenant Tonti had stationed six men at that post. They were to remain there until they should receive tidings of La Salle's landing at the mouth of the Mississippi. As the months passed away, and they heard nothing of his expedition, four of the party went to fort St. Louis on the Illinois River, leaving but two behind. It was decided that it was best to conceal the death of La Salle until it could be communicated by his brother, Chevalier, to the court in France. In the meantime the impression was to be left that he was still superintending the affairs of the settlement at the bay of St. Louis.

At a little distance from the log-cabin of the French there was quite a group of Indian wigwams. The chief soon came and invited the newly arrived strangers to dine with him and his chief men. Mats were spread in the large cabin of the chief, and an ample feast provided. At the close of the entertainment M. Cavalier addressed them, in substance as follows:

"We accompanied the Chevalier La Salle from France, to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi River. We left our colony on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and are on our way to Canada. We have passed through the territories of very many tribes, who have all treated us in the kindest manner. It is our intention to return from Canada to the mouth of the river, with a large supply of merchandise. The people, through whose countries we have passed, have furnished us with guides. We ask the same favor of you, with canoes to ascend the river, and with a supply of food. The guides shall be well rewarded, and we will pay you for all the supplies with which you may furnish us."

All this was very easily said, through an interpreter. The chief expressed his surprise that they could have passed through so many tribes without having been either killed or robbed. He said that he would immediately send couriers to the other villages of his tribe, to inform them of the wishes of the Frenchmen and to decide what could be done to aid them in their object.

M. Joutel gives a very alluring account of the situation and structure of this village. It was delightfully situated on an elevated plain commanding an extensive view of the river and of the adjacent country. The wigwams were substantially built, presenting very comfortable interiors. The region around was almost crowded with buffaloes, deer, antelopes, and a vast variety of prairie and water-fowls. Fruit trees and vines were abundant, and they were richly laden with their delicious burdens. Extended fields were waving luxuriantly with the golden corn. Fish of many kinds were taken from the river. It is indeed a glowing account which the pen of the historian gives of this favored land.

The tribe at that point was called the Arkansas. They occupied four large villages. Two of these villages were on the Arkansas River, and two upon the Mississippi. These savages did everything in their power to testify the pleasure with which they received the strangers. Some of their ceremonies were so tedious that the guests would gladly have avoided them. A delegation of the chiefs, from the other villages, was soon assembled. A very formal council was held. It was decided that the four villages should furnish one large boat, and one man from each village to aid in navigating it, and also the needful supply of food.

One of M. Cavalier's party, M. Barthelmy, who was a young man from Paris, weary with the long journey he had already taken, and charmed with the friendly character of the natives and the Eden-like region they had found, decided to remain there. The horses also were left. They had, as they judged, a voyage of twelve hundred miles from the mouth of the Arkansas to the mouth of the Illinois. They had travelled, according to their estimate, seven hundred and fifty miles from their settlement on the Gulf.

The French party had now dwindled to five persons. The boat in which they embarked was forty feet long. Fifteen Indians, men and women, entered the boat with them, to accompany them a part of the way. The windings of the river were such that it required a voyage of several leagues to reach its mouth. It would seem, from the narrative, that they reached a village at the mouth of the river on the 29th. Here they exchanged their large and heavy periagua, for two light canoes, with which to ascend against the swift current of the Mississippi.

The next day they made twenty-four miles, and reached Cappa, the last village of the Arkansas on the Mississippi. Here the chief contrived to detain them a day, that the Indians might enjoy a few hours of barbaric festivity. On the 2nd of August the party reembarked, nine in number, five Frenchmen and four Indians. The rapidity of the current was such that they were frequently compelled to cross the river to take advantage of the eddies. Sometimes, at points in the river, the flow was so swift that they were compelled to land, and carry the canoes and all their luggage on their shoulders around the point.

The first night they encamped upon an island for greater security. The Indians in that vicinity had a bad reputation. The hardships of this voyage were very great. It was necessary for each one to ply the paddle with the utmost energy. They had often marshes to wade, dense forests to cut their way through, and desert plains to traverse beneath the rays of a blistering sun.

Weary days and nights came and went. Long accustomed to every variety of wilderness life, there was no novelty to charm them. On the 19th of August they reached the mouth of the Ohio. Occasionally they landed to shoot a buffalo or a deer or a turkey. Their Indian attendants now manifested a disposition to leave them, which caused the Frenchmen great alarm. Should the Indians stealthily, at night, take the canoes and descend the swift current of the stream, pursuit would be impossible, and the travellers would be left on the banks of the river, in a truly deplorable condition. This rendered it necessary for them to keep a constant watch, with their arms in their hands.

In this state of anxiety they continued their laborious voyage until the 30th of August, when they reached the mouth of the Missouri River. On the 2nd of August they passed the famous painting on the rocks to which we have before alluded. On the 3rd of September they joyfully left the Mississippi, and entered the more placid current of the Illinois. They judged it to be one hundred and eighty miles from the Ohio to the Illinois.

Upon this river they found a great and delightful change of scenery. The richest verdure and bloom of summer were all around them. Meadows, and prairies, and lawn-like groves crowded with game, constantly regaled the eye. The gentle flow of the river greatly relieved them from the fatigue of the paddle. Day after day they ascended the charming stream. Night after night they enjoyed encampment in lovely groves, beneath serene skies, and feasting upon the choicest game. They frequently came to villages and encampments of the Illinois Indians, with whom they felt entirely at home.

On the 11th of September a solitary Indian came down to the bank of the river, and hailed them. They understood his language, and informed him that they had come from M. de la Salle, and that they were bound to the station, farther up the river. He ran back to the encampment with the news. The whole multitude came rushing down to the river, with joyous shoutings; and several guns were fired by them in salute. The salute was returned from the boats. This was a band of the numerous tribe of Illinois Indians from the region of Kaskaskia.

The French fort on the Illinois River, as we have mentioned, was called St. Louis. The Indians said that Lieutenant Tonti was not then at the fort, but that he had accompanied a party of their warriors in an expedition against the Iroquois. They urged the voyagers to land and take some food with them. But the Frenchmen declined. Being now so near what they deemed their journey's end, they were eager to press on their way.

At two o'clock in the afternoon of Sunday, the 14th of September, 1687, the weary and way-worn travellers reached the trading and military post of St. Louis. Compared with the humble wigwams of the Indians, the fort assumed majestic proportions, standing upon an eminence which commanded an extensive view of the region around. A group of Indians was gathered upon the bank. When informed that the strangers were from the settlement of La Salle, they ran back to the fort with the joyful tidings. Immediately a Frenchman was seen, rushing down to the river, followed by a tumultuous group of Indians. M. Joutel writes:

"We returned together to the fort, where we found three Frenchmen. They inquired of us of the Chevalier de la Salle. We informed them that he had accompanied us a part of the way, and that we had left him about one hundred and twenty miles south of the great Cenis nation; and that he was then in good health. In that statement there was nothing which was untrue; for M. Cavalier and I, who said this, were not present at his death. He had left us in good health. I have already spoken of the reasons which induced us to conceal his death until we should arrive in France."

Upon entering the fort, the first movement was to go to the chapel in a body, with prayers and the Te Deum, to return thanks to God, for having conducted them so safely on their long and perilous way. La Salle was universally beloved and revered. His noble bearing, his winning deportment, his familiarity with Indian languages, his authority derived from the king, his extended explorations and perilous adventures, and his pure and sincerely devout spirit, caused him to be regarded as eminently the great man of the pioneers in this new world. He was Alonzo did everything in his power to redeem the captives, and that he ordered the dead to be buried, weeping over their misfortunes, and praying most earnestly for the salvation of their souls.

Such was the wonderful career of La Salle. Next to Columbus, he was the most illustrious of the pioneers of the New World. It would be difficult to find, in history, any one who has displayed in a higher degree the noble qualities of energy, courage, and perseverance, combined with the more gentle virtues of tenderness, humanity, and amiability. Adversity seemed to have no power to dishearten him. His character was pure, and we have no reason to doubt that he was in heart a sincere Christian. In the past history of our country, there are but few names which are entitled to stand so high on its roll of fame, as that of the Chevalier de la Salle.