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

The Great Enterprise Accomplished


For several days La Salle and his party remained with their hospitable friends the Arkansas Indians. On the 14th of March, 1682, La Salle took possession of the country in the name of the king of France. He invested the ceremony with all the pomp he could command. An immense cross was raised in the centre of the village; and the Christian's God was recognized with anthems, prayers and imposing religious rites. Thousands of savages gathered around, gazing with delight upon the scene so novel to them. They had no conception of its significance. They supposed it a festival got up for their entertainment, as they would got up a war-dance to please their guests. As the cross was raised, Father Membre made some attempt to teach them the significance of this emblem of the way of salvation through faith in an atoning Saviour. He writes:

"During this time they showed that they relished what I said by raising their eyes to heaven, and kneeling as if to adore. We also saw them rubbing their hands over their bodies, after rubbing them over the cross. In fine, on our return from the sea, we found that they had surrounded the cross with a palisade."

On the 17th of the month, the explorers reembarked, and continued their voyage down the river about eighteen miles, when they came to two other villages of the Arkansas tribe. Here they were again received with the utmost hospitality. Continuing their sunny voyage beneath cloudless skies and upon a glassy stream for four days, they came to quite a large lake formed by an expansion of the river. This sheet of water seemed to be fringed with villages. There were forty on the east side of the lake, and thirty-four on the west side, upon its banks. All were picturesquely situated and, in the distance, presented an aspect of much beauty.

The houses were well built, of clay mixed with straw baked in the sun. The roofs were constructed of canes quite gracefully bent in the form of a dome. Their beds or mats were raised on wooden bedsteads, and they had many convenient articles of household furniture. The bark of a tree furnished very fine white fibres, which they braided into blankets and other articles of dress. The head chief was an absolute sovereign, having the property and the lives of his subjects entirely at his disposal. A retinue of slaves attended him. He was luxuriously clothed, fed, and housed.

The village of the chief was at a little distance from the banks of the lake. La Salle was quite sick, and unable to go up to the palace to pay his respects to the monarch. He encamped upon the borders of the expanded stream, and beneath the shade of his roof sought repose upon his mat. He, however, sent Lieutenant Tonti and Father Membre with presents to the chief. In return, several men were sent to La Salle, munificently laden with provisions and other gifts. Soon after, the king himself appeared in regal state. First came a master of ceremonies, with six pioneers, to remove every obstruction from the way, and to make the path level for the feet of royalty. They selected a spot upon which the monarch was to give audience to his guests. The ground was carefully smoothed, and carpeted with beautiful mats.

The monarch soon made his appearance. He was richly dressed in white robes. Two officers preceded him, bearing plumes of gorgeously colored feathers. He was followed by another official, bearing two large plates of copper, highly polished. The king had the bearing of a gentleman. He was grave, dignified, and courteous. Having ever been accustomed to absolute command, he had that peculiar air of self-possession and authority which seems to be the inheritance of those who can boast a long line of illustrious ancestry.

It was the 22nd day of March, 1682. The scene presented was in the highest degree picturesque and beautiful. The widely expanded lake glittered in the sunlight as placid as a mirror. The villages of the Indians, clustered so thickly along the shores, were composed of substantial dwellings, whose roofs of curved canes, thatched with thick mats, were rounded into graceful domes. The barbarian splendor assumed by the monarch, the group of French adventurers, with their Indian companions, gathered near by, the thousands of the Taensa tribe, men, women, and children, standing at a respectful distance, silently gazing upon the scene, the little fleet of canoes upon the beach, and the encampment hastily thrown up—these combined to open to the eye a picture of peace and loveliness, which the pencil of the most skilful artist might in vain attempt to rival.

It did indeed seem then and there, as though God had intended this for a happy world—for a world where his children might live together in paternal love, and with the interchange of the kindliest sympathies. Though in the early spring, the foliage beneath those sunny skies was in full leaf, and the flowers in full bloom.

"The whole country," writes Father Membre, "is covered with palm trees, laurels of two kinds, plums, peaches, mulberry, apple, and pear trees of every variety. There are also five or six kinds of nut trees, some of which bear nuts of extraordinary size. They also gave us several kinds of dried fruit to taste. We found them large and good. They have also many varieties of fruit trees which I never saw in Europe. The season was however too early to allow us to see the fruit. We observed vines already out of blossom."

The interview between the monarch and La Salle passed off very pleasantly. It was conducted mainly by signs. Smiles and presents were interchanged. For four days the voyagers remained the guests of these friendly people. They rambled through their villages, entered their dwellings, and were abundantly feasted. The natives seemed very amiable, quite intelligent, and were far in advance, in civilization, of the nations or tribes farther north. Father Membre was much pleased with their candor, and with the clearness with which he thought they comprehended his instructions. They readily accepted his teaching of God; and apparently comprehended, without any difficulty, the plan of salvation through an atoning Saviour.

In truth, this doctrine is apparently the most simple and the most powerful which can be presented to the savage. All over the world, the necessity of an atonement for sin seems to be implanted in the human breast. And when the missionary teaches the savage that God, our Heavenly Father, in the person of His Son has borne our sins in His own body on the tree, the most ignorant can comprehend it, and the most wicked can be moved by it.

On the 26th of March, La Salle and his companions, greatly refreshed by their delightful visit, resumed their voyage down the river. They descended very rapidly, by the aid of the current and the paddle. Having sailed about forty miles, they saw in the distance below them, a large wooden boat containing a number of Indians. The savages seemed alarmed as they caught sight of the fleet of canoes coming down so rapidly upon them. They plied their paddles with all diligence, and run into the eastern shore.

La Salle, with his usual caution, landed upon the opposite bank. The two parties gazed at each other across the rolling flood, a mile in width. La Salle sent Lieutenant Tonti, in a canoe with several Indians, to carry to the boatmen the calumet of peace. While the Indians plied their paddles, he stood up in the canoe, waving toward the boatmen the plumed badge of fraternity. As Lieutenant Tonti was crossing the river, a large number of Indians were seen running in, from various directions, and crowding the banks. When within arrow-shot of the shore, he stopped, still presenting the calumet, which all the tribes seemed to recognize and respect.

All suspicion was allayed. The savages, unapprehensive of any treachery, crowded their periagua, and the boat and the canoe, with the inmates on terms of the kindest fellowship, passed over to the French on the western bank. The two parties blended as brothers. The Indians were fishermen of the Natches tribe. They had a large village about nine miles inland, east of the river. Without any hesitancy La Salle, Father Membre, and a few others, accepted an invitation to accompany them to their village.

There are some men so frank, genial, kind-hearted that they win affection at sight. La Salle was such a man. With no special effort to make friends, his nature was such that the savage and the civilized man alike were immediately won by the fascination of his presence. Father Membre gives frequent testimony to these peculiar attractions of the chivalric pioneer. On this occasion he writes:

"We slept in the wigwams of these savages. They gave us as kindly a welcome as we could desire. The Chevalier La Salle, whose very air, engaging manners, and captivating mind, everywhere commanded respect and love, so impressed the hearts of these Indians that they did not know how to treat us well enough. They would gladly have kept us with them permanently."

For three days La Salle and his companions enjoyed the hospitality of these friendly natives. About thirty miles below the Natches Indians, there was another powerful tribe called the Koroas. They were friends and allies of the Natches. A courier was despatched to inform the chief of the Koroas of the arrival of the distinguished strangers, and to invite him to come and share in giving them a suitable welcome. He hastened to Natches with an imposing retinue of his head men. They also paid prompt homage to the dignity and the attractions of La Salle.

Again a cross was erected, while admiring multitudes gazed admiringly upon the religious and civil pomp with which the ceremony was invested. A plate was attached to the cross, upon which was engraved the arms of Louis XIV. The Indians were delighted with the show, and with the memorial thus left of the visit; though they could not comprehend the significance of the rite as taking possession of their country in the name of the King of France.

La Salle and his companions returned to their canoes. The Chickasaw Indian who had accompanied them from their encampment near the mouth of the Ohio, and which they had named Camp Prudhomme, from the man who had been lost and found there, remained at the village of the Natches Indians. The journey of a few days would take him to his own tribe.

The chief of the Koroas, having invited La Salle to visit his village, embarked with his suite, in their wooden boats, and descended the river in company with the French in their birch canoes. A sail of about four hours swept them down to the village, which was called Akoroa. It was beautifully situated on an eminence, commanding a view of a wide-spread and exceedingly fertile prairie, with large fields of corn, whose spear-like leaves were already waving in the gentle breeze.

The Indians were fond of ceremony. They held a council, presented the calumet, smoked the pipe of fraternity, made speeches which were but poorly understood, and exchanged presents. After a short tarry, the voyage was again resumed. The chief furnished them with a pilot, telling them that it would still require a voyage of ten days to reach the sea, and that the river broke into several channels or independent streams as it approached the Gulf. As the Indians considered thirty or forty miles a good day's voyage in descending the river, it was estimated that there was a journey of between three and four hundred miles still before them. They were also informed that there were numerous tribes upon the lower river, but that they were generally well-disposed.

On the 2nd of April, when the canoes had descended the river about eighteen miles below Akoroa, the river branched into two arms or channels, with an island between, which they estimated to be one hundred and eighty miles in length. They had been directed to take the channel on the left. But it so chanced that there was a heavy river fog, and they did not see it. La Salle's canoe was in the advance, and the canoe which held the guide happened to be far in the rear. Though the keen eyes of the Indian pierced the fog, and he did all in his power by signs to show them that they were wrong, the whole fleet followed its leader, and were swept along in the channel on the right.

The reason why they were cautioned to take the left branch, was that the eight or ten tribes on the western banks were friendly, and would make them no trouble, while those upon the eastern branch were ferocious, and would be likely to attack them. They soon experienced the wisdom of the advice which had been given them.

On the 2nd of April, when they had descended the river about one hundred and twenty miles, they saw a number of Indians on the bank of the river, fishing. The moment the savages caught sight of the fleet of canoes they fled. Immediately the forest seemed filled with the clamor of hideous war-whoops the beating of drums, and all other sounds of hostility. The branch of the river which they were descending, was here compressed into a narrow channel. A dense forest fringed both banks. It was evident that there were populous villages near by, for the warriors were seen rapidly gathering, as they ran from tree to tree to get good positions to overwhelm the canoes with their arrows.

The bows were very strong. The muscular arms of the Indians would throw an arrow with almost the velocity and precision of a rifle bullet. These barbed weapons would tear their way through the birch bark of the canoes as if they were but sheets of brown paper. With appalling suddenness this cloud of war was marshalling its forces. It was sufficiently menacing to alarm the bravest heart.

La Salle ordered all the boats to stop. He then sent one canoe forward, with four Frenchmen, to present the calumet of peace. They received orders not to fire upon the savages under any emergence. As soon as the canoe came within arrow-shot, the savages, regardless of the calumet, let fly a shower of arrows upon them. Fortunately, they nearly all fell a little short, and no one was hit. With the utmost precipitation, the Frenchmen paddled back to their companions. La Salle then sent another canoe, with four Indians, bearing the calumet. They advanced with great caution, and met with the same hostile reception.

He then directed the canoes to press as near the opposite bank as possible, to ply their paddles with all energy, and thus hurry by the point of peril. Humanely he ordered not a gun to be fired. He had no wish to engage in a battle in which nothing was to be gained. Very easily his sharp-shooters could cause many of those savage warriors to bite the dust, and thus lamentation and woe would be sent to many of those wigwams. But this would do no good. It would not subdue the savages; it would only exasperate them. He also remembered that he was to return, and that if the savages had received no harm at his hands, their spirit of revenge would not be aroused, and it would be much less difficult to establish friendly relations with them.

Though the savages yelled, and ran franticly along the shore, and threw their arrows with their utmost strength, the canoes, swept along by the rapid current, and the sinewy strength of the paddles, all passed in safety. The kind-hearted La Salle must have congratulated himself that none were left behind to mourn. He afterwards learned that this inhospitable tribe was called the Quinnipissa.

They had paddled down the stream but about six miles, when they came to other and still more deplorable evidences of man's inhumanity to man. They found upon the banks the smouldering remains of a large village, which had recently been sacked and burned. It was evident that the inhabitants had been given up to indiscriminate massacre, with the exception of those who had been carried away into slavery, or to add to the revelry of a gala day, in the endurance of demoniac torture. The ground was covered with the bodies of men, women, and children, in all the loathsome stages of decay. Sadly the voyagers rambled through these awful scenes for an hour, meeting with no living being, and then hurried on their way. This village, it was subsequently ascertained, was called Tangibao.

Still they continued descending the river four days longer, without meeting any incident of importance. Their day's sail averaged about thirty miles. It was always necessary to land for the night's encampment. They had made, as they estimated, about one hundred and twenty miles from Quinnipissa when they came to the delta of the Mississippi. Here the majestic river divided into four branches. At this point they landed, and encamped in the midst of a dense and almost tropical forest, upon the bank, but slightly elevated above the surface of the water.

In the morning La Salle divided his fleet into three bands, one to descend each of these three branches. He took the one on the extreme right, or the western branch. Lieutenant Tonti, with Father Membre, took the middle. The eastern branch, on the left, was assigned to Mr. Dautray. Upon reaching the sea, the canoes on the right and left were to turn toward the centre until they should meet the party of Lieutenant Tonti, whose route to the sea, it was supposed, would be a little shorter than that of either of the other two.

They all found the water deep and brackish, and the current very slow. After sailing a few miles they tasted the salt of the ocean. Soon their eyes were gladdened with the sight of the open sea. It was mild, serene, beautiful summer weather. The region, as far as the eye could reach, was low and marshy, with no landmarks. The fleets were, however, all reunited in safety. La Salle having heard the report respecting the middle and eastern channels, decided to return to the western, by which he had descended.

They then ascended this branch before they could find any dry and solid ground, suitable to afford a permanent foundation for the cross of Christ and the arms of France. On the ninth of April, they were all assembled on a ridge slightly elevated, for the celebration of this all-important ceremony. First, they raised a massive column, at the foot of which they buried a leaden plate, bearing an inscription in Latin, to the following purport:

"Louis the Great Reigns. Robert, Cavalier, with Lord Tonti, Ambassador, Zenobia Membre, Ecclesiastic, and twenty Frenchmen, first navigated this river from the country of the Illinois, and passed through this mouth on the ninth of April, sixteen hundred and eighty-two."

The names of all the Frenchmen of the party were attached to this plate. La Salle then made a speech, which was carefully worded, and seems to have been recorded at that time. It was in substance as follows:

"In the name of Louis the Great, and in virtue of the commission I hold in my hand, I take possession of this country of Louisiana, its seas, harbors, ports, bays, and adjacent straits; and also of all the nations, people, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams, and rivers, comprised in the extent of the said Louisiana, from the mouth of the great river called the Ohio, and this with the consent of the people dwelling therein, with whom we have made alliance; and also of the rivers which discharge themselves therein, from the sources of the Mississippi to its mouth in the sea; upon the assurance of all these nations that we are the first Europeans who have descended or ascended the said Mississippi. I hereby protest against all those who may in future undertake to invade any of these countries, to the prejudice of the right of his Majesty, acquired by the consent of all the nations herein named. Of this I take to witness all those who hear me, and demand an act of the Notary as required by law."

To this the whole assembly responded with shouts of Vive le Roi and with a salute of fire-arms.

The civic ceremony being thus ended, the transaction was now to be ratified with religious rites. By the side of the column, a massive cross had been erected. The devout La Salle, who was earnestly a religious man, took his position at the foot of the cross, and said:

"His Majesty, Louis the Great, the eldest son of the Church, will annex no country to his crown without making it his chief care to establish the Christian religion therein. Its symbol must now be recognized." Several Christian hymns were then chanted. The sublime strains of the Te Deum resounded through the arches of the forest; and other ceremonies of the Catholic Church were performed with all the pomp which the circumstances would allow.

Thus the great achievement was accomplished. According to the then existing law of nations, the whole valley of the Mississippi was annexed to France. It was indeed a magnificent acquisition. It is estimated that the kingdom of France comprises an extent not quite three hundred thousand square miles. It is judged that the valley of the Mississippi drains a region of one million square miles. Thus the pioneer, La Salle, conferred upon France a territory more than three times as large as the kingdom of France itself.