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

Escape from the Savages


There was a singular combination of intelligence and childish simplicity developed by the Indians. Father Hennepin had a small pocket compass, of which they stood in great need. When they saw him turn the needle with a key, they were awe-stricken, and whispered to one another that it was a spirit which had become obedient to the white man's will. He had an iron pot, with three feet resembling a lion's paws. This they never dared to touch, unless their hands were covered with some robe. What could have been the cause of this senseless fear, it is impossible to imagine. The same men on other subjects would reason with great logical acumen.

The good ecclesiastic was still very anxious for the conversion of the Indians. He manifested more solicitude for their salvation, than for his own restoration to liberty or the preservation of his own life. He immediately entered upon the vigorous study of the language. Having learned that the phrase, "Taket chia biheu," meant, "How do you call that," he commenced compiling a dictionary. He had a natural facility for the acquisition of languages, and made rapid progress. Fortunately he had paper and ink, and eagle's quills were easily obtained.

Hour after hour he spent inquiring the meaning of words and the names of things. The chiefs were quite pleased in teaching him and in seeing how fast he was acquiring the power of talking with them on all familiar subjects. His writing the words was an inexplicable mystery to them. They would often question him respecting the names of things. He would refer to his memorandum and then tell them correctly. This not only surprised but seemed to overawe them.

Father Louis Hennepin was called, by his two French boatmen, Pere Louis. The chief who had adopted him was one day exhibiting to some chiefs who were visiting his wigwam, this wonderful power of the white man in recalling a difficult name, by looking at the characters he had written. Very solemnly he said:

"There must be an invisible spirit who tells Pere Louis everything we say."

Neither of the other Frenchmen could write. The dress of the ecclesiastic was much more imposing than that of the boatmen. He was a tall, fine-looking man, ever moving with that dignity which seems instinctive in one accustomed to command. The keen-sighted Indians were not slow in recognizing his superiority of rank, and all considered him invested with supernatural powers. Often, when it rained as they were wishing to go hunting, they would entreat him to sweep away the clouds. His invariable reply was, pointing to the skies, "The Great Spirit there controls all things. I have no such ability." They stood in awe of his spiritual power, and their good feelings were won by his invariable serenity and kindness. They contributed beaver skins, to the value of about one hundred dollars, which they presented to him to induce him to remain and take some wives and have a richly furnished wigwam. But he declined the present, saying:

"I did not come among you to collect beaver skins, but to teach you to love and obey the Great Spirit. I wish to live as you do, sharing your hard fare."

Very wisely he assumed that he came voluntarily among them, and that when the time came for his departure, no one would think of throwing any obstacle in his way. It was a time almost of famine with the Indians. The summer birds had not returned. Game was very scarce. There was great suffering for want of food. And these strangely inconsistent creatures, while affecting the greatest kindness, would conceal the little food they had, get up in the night and eat it secretly, leaving Pere Hennepin to the gnawings of hunger.

"Although women," he writes, "are for the most part more kind and compassionate than men, they gave what little fish they had to their children, regarding me as a slave made by their warriors in their enemy's country, and they reasonably preferred their children's lives to mine."

One day a deliberative council of Issati chiefs was held, to consult respecting various matters. Pere Louis, having been adopted into the tribe as the son of the head chief, attended. He could understand nearly all that was said. There was a very able chief, by the name of Ou-si-cou-de, who had manifested great esteem for the father. He rose and said:

"We all ought to feel indignant in view of the insulting manner in which our young men treated Pere Louis on the way. They were young warriors without sense, and perhaps knew no better. They robbed him and wanted to kill him. They acted like hungry dogs, who snatch a bit of meat from the bark dish, and run. They abused men who brought us iron and merchandise, which we never had before."

Pere Louis had considerable medical skill, and had brought with him several simple remedies. He was ever ready to attend the sick, and his success in medical practice gave him great renown. A little child was dying. According to the belief of Father Hennepin, if it should die unbaptized, it was lost. But how could he baptize the heathen child of heathen parents. Great was his anxiety, and fervent were his prayers for enlightenment. At length his kind heart obtained the victory over his theological creed. The solemn rite was performed with deepest emotion. Giving the child, a little girl, the Christian name of Antoinette, in honor of St. Anthony, he said:

"Creature of God, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

To his great grief he could not say mass, for want of wine and the appropriate vestments, which had been taken from him. He however spread an altar cloth, which he had retained about his person, upon the body of the child. When the spirit had taken its flight, he gave the remains Christian burial.

The news of the arrival of the Frenchmen in the villages of Issati, spread far and wide through the adjacent tribes. An embassy of Indians came to visit Father Hennepin from the distance of several hundred miles in the far west. They approached him with reverence, and had many questions to ask him. They were men of high rank and dignity, and their questions indicated much thought.

"We live," they said, "in a much milder clime, where there are immense plains and boundless prairies; where herds of thousands of buffaloes roam, and where deer and turkeys and innumerable other kinds of game are found in abundance. There is no hunger there, for food can always be obtained."

They expressed the earnest wish to take Father Hennepin back with them. But his own tribe were just about to set out on a grand hunting excursion, to the sunny realms of the southwest. A hundred and thirty families, and also two hundred and fifty warriors, embarked in a fleet of eighty birch canoes, about the middle of July. The embarcation was a wondrous spectacle, such as civilized eyes have rarely beheld, and can never witness again. A canoe had been provided for the three Frenchmen. But the two Frenchmen were jealous of the extraordinary respect with which Father Hennepin was treated and refused to take him on board.

As this strange fleet in a long and straggling line descended the St. Francis River, Father Hennepin stood upon the banks extending his hands in a benediction. Two Indians, passing by in a small canoe, seeing him thus deserted, paddled ashore and took him with them. This overloaded the canoe, and it began to leak. It required constant exertion on the part of Father Hennepin to bail out the water with a small birch cup, as fast as it ran in. The canoe did not weigh fifty pounds. Great care was necessary to preserve its equilibrium, for almost the slightest irregular motion of the body would upset it.

At night all landed. Sleeping in the canoes, or navigating them in the dark, was impossible. Here again one of the strangest of earthly spectacles was witnessed. Beneath the gloomy pines which fringed the stream, countless camp fires were gleaming. Men, women and children were running about in all directions. Some were cooking the supper; some, rearing frail shelters for the night. There was chattering and bandied jokes and laughter. The proud warriors, despising any menial employment, strutted about with lordly air.

Michael Ako was a most graceless fellow, and it was his influence which had excluded Father Hennepin from the canoe. But Anthony Auguelle was much more devoutly inclined. He was ashamed of their conduct. In the evening he sought out Father Hennepin, and offered a poor excuse for not receiving him into their canoe, saying it was so small and frail that had three been in it, it would inevitably have been swamped. The father was not deceived, though he accepted the apology.

After four days' paddling down the St. Francis River, the little fleet reached its mouth, where it empties into the Mississippi. They crossed to the west shore of the great river, and encamped upon an eminence there. It was impossible for Father Hennepin to be very accurate in his estimate of distances. He judged that they were then about twenty-four miles above the Falls of St. Anthony.

At this spot there was a forest of birch trees, and suitable wood for canoe frames. They had commenced the voyage with old canoes, which were frail and decayed, and in which they could not safely launch forth upon the turbulent flood of the Mississippi. The whole band consequently encamped for several days upon this eminence, to construct new canoes. The veteran hunters wandered through the forests and over the prairies, to hunt stags, deer, and beaver. The larger boys and girls brought to the encampment their arms full of birch bark, with carefully selected twigs for frames. The experienced women, with nimble fingers, joined the seams and fashioned the buoyant and graceful boat. All were busy.

But the hunters were unsuccessful. They brought in but little game. The whole community was fed upon thin broth, and there was but little of that. Father Hennepin, accompanied by Anthony Auguelle, in their great hunger, wandered about searching for wild berries. They found but few, and those which they ate often made them sick. The surly Michael Ako refused to go with them.

The tribe of Indians encamped in July, 1680, upon the Upper Mississippi, opposite the mouth of St. Francis River, numbered between four and five hundred souls. There was a great want of food in the camp. According to Father Hennepin's estimate, they were about two hundred miles above the mouth of the Wisconsin River. He told the Indians that when La Salle left Crevecoeur for Fort Frontenac to obtain supplies, he promised to send to the mouth of the Wisconsin River, a reinforcement of men, with powder and guns, and very many other articles for traffic with the Indians.

They therefore consented that he should descend the river to this point, to obtain the supplies. These strange men were too polite to intimate that they distrusted his word and considered this merely a plan devised for his escape, as it probably was. They however, furnished him with a canoe only sufficiently large to bear him and Anthony Auguelle, with their needful luggage. By this contrivance, Michael Ako was left behind as a hostage for their return.

The two Frenchmen set out, in a birch bark canoe, for this river voyage, going and returning, of four hundred miles. The only articles they could obtain to take with them, to meet the casualties of the way, were a gun, fifteen charges of powder, a knife, an earthen pot, and two robes of beaver skins, as blankets for the night's encampments. They safely reached the falls. Taking the canoe and freight upon their shoulders, they carried them along the well-trodden trail which constituted the portage. Here they found five or six of their Indian hunters. One of them had climbed a gnarled oak tree opposite the foaming cataract, and was offering the following prayer, which Father Hennepin took down on the spot. Peculiar moans and wails, as of penitence, were blended with the prayer.

"O Thou who art a Great Spirit, grant that our nation may pass these Falls quietly without harm. Help us to kill buffaloes in abundance. May we take prisoners who shall serve us as slaves. Some of them we will put to death in thine honor. Aid us to avenge our kindred whom they have killed."

At the same time this devout savage hung upon the tree, as an offering to the spirit of the falls, a rich robe of fur, gorgeously fringed and embroidered with porcupines' quills, variously colored. A few miles below the falls, they met another party of four or five hunters. They were encamped upon a small island, and were feasting upon an abundance of buffalo meat. The Frenchmen paddled ashore and joined eagerly in the repast. Scarcely two hours had elapsed ere four or five more canoes were seen descending the river. Sixteen warrior hunters of their own party leaped ashore. They seemed to be very angry. Tomahawk in hand, they knocked their cabin to pieces, and seized all the meat. Father Hennepin was astonished, and inquired what this meant. One of the warriors, who professed to be his uncle, replied:

"These men, contrary to our laws, have gone on a buffalo hunt before the rest. Thus, while they have furnished themselves with an abundance of meat, they have frightened away the buffaloes, and left us destitute. In punishment, we have a right to strip them."

The two solitary voyagers paddled down the stream, as they judged, one hundred and sixty miles. During this time they killed but one deer, which they shot as it was swimming across the river. The July heat was such that the flesh could be kept but for a few hours. They saw many turtles. But for a long time in vain they endeavored to take one. The timid animals would plunge into the water the moment they heard the least noise. At last they succeeded in taking one of them. But as Father Hennepin endeavored to cut off the turtle's head, he came very near losing one of his own fingers in its sharp jaws. The Frenchmen were very hungry, and had paddled their canoe to the shore. While the father was endeavoring to dress the turtle to be cooked. Anthony, with his gun, went back into the prairie, hoping to shoot some game. Father Hennepin chanced to look up from his work, and behold, a gust of wind had swept the canoe from the shore out into the stream, and it was floating rapidly down on the strong current.

Unless the canoe could be recovered, this would prove a terrible calamity. Not a moment was to be lost. Divesting himself of most of his clothing, he plunged into the stream, and being a strong swimmer, soon overtook the boat. It floated buoyant as an eggshell. He could not get into it. By pushing it before him he succeeded in effecting a landing, about half a mile down stream, and quite cut of sight of the spot he had left. In the meantime Anthony returned. Seeing the half-dressed turtle, and the father and the canoe both gone, he was thrown into a dreadful panic. He could not doubt that some hostile Indians had appeared and carried them both away, and that he was abandoned to perish of starvation. He went back into the prairie, to ascend an eminence which commanded a view of the country for some distance around.

Father Hennepin paddled up the stream with all possible diligence, drew the canoe well upon the shore, and had just reclothed himself, when he saw, near by, a herd of sixty buffaloes, swimming across the river. Anthony had the only gun. The father ran back into the prairie, shouting for him with all his might. It was indeed a joyful cry which reached the ears of Anthony. Eagerly he responded to it. They sprang into the canoe, pursued the buffaloes, and succeeded in shooting one. They towed him to the bank of the river. The father paddled, Anthony holding the huge carcass by the horns. But they could not drag the creature ashore. They could only cut off the tender morsels and leave the remainder to float down the stream. In consequence of their great hunger they ate so voraciously, that they were both made sick, and for two days could not leave their camp. Father Hennepin writes:

"Never have we more admired God's providence than during this voyage. We could not always find game. And when we did, could take but little meat with us, as our canoe was so small, and besides, the excessive heat spoiled it. When we embarked in the morning, we seldom knew what we should have to eat during the day. But the eagles, which were very common in those vast countries, frequently dropped from their claws large fishes, which they were taking to their nests!"

On the 11th of July, as they were paddling down the river in search of the mouth of the Wisconsin, they were startled by the sudden appearance of a large canoe descending rapidly upon them, containing eleven warriors. They proved to be the chief Aquipaguetin, and ten of his braves. This savage chieftain had been very unwilling that his adopted son should leave the tribe for this voyage, though the other Indians had given their consent. There was a frown on his brow, and severity in his tones, as he asked whether they had yet found the Frenchmen, who were to bring the goods. They all landed and ate together. Then the chief and his party started off, leaving Father Hennepin behind, and with vigorous paddling drove their canoe rapidly down the stream. Rather menacingly the chief said that he would go to the Wisconsin River, and that if the Frenchmen were there, he would take charge of their goods.

After three days' absence, he again appeared, with his canoe of warriors, on his return. He had been to the mouth of the river. There were no signs of the Frenchmen there. He came back in a very unamiable mood. Father Hennepin had landed, and was alone in a frail cabin which he had reared as a shelter from the hot sun. Anthony had gone into the prairie for food. Father Hennepin writes:

"Aquipaguetin, seeing me alone, came up tomahawk in hand. I seized two pocket pistols, which we had regained from the Indians, and a knife. I had no intention of killing my pretended father, but only wished to frighten him, and to prevent his killing me, in case he had that intention."

Probably the savage had no such murderous designs. He informed his adopted son that there were no Frenchmen at the Wisconsin, and none had been there, and therefore urged his return up the river. There was no alternative. But Father Hennepin and Anthony could not keep pace with the eleven-oared, or rather paddled, canoe of the savages. They crept along slowly after them. They thus paddled up the swift current of the Mississippi two hundred miles, running the risk, Hennepin says, of perishing of hunger.

They had but ten charges of powder left. These they divided into twenty, and succeeded in killing some wild pigeons. At one time, for two days, they had no food whatever, though they landed and searched for game. They found a fish whose flesh was almost putrid, dropped by an eagle. With bits of this they baited two hooks, which they floated from the stern of the canoe. Father Hennepin then fell upon his knees and prayed to St. Anthony that he would come to his relief. While praying, they perceived a strain upon the lines, and running to the canoe, drew in two fishes, so large that they could with difficulty take them from the water. They broiled pieces upon the coals, and the starving men made an abundant repast.

The next morning they met the remainder of the Indians whom they had left above the Falls of St. Anthony. They were descending the river, in search of more southern hunting grounds. Michael Ako was with them. He had developed want of courage and energy which excited the contempt of the savages. There was a large number of canoes, composing this fleet, crowded with a motley group of men, women, and children. They had encountered herds of buffaloes, and were well supplied with food.

Father Hennepin and Anthony again joined them, and accompanied them back down the river, as he says, about eighty leagues. But as we have before remarked, we cannot place much reliance upon his estimate of distances. The discomforts of this voyage must have been innumerable. The crowded canoes, the loathsome personal habits of the savages, elevated but little above the beasts, the blistering midday sun, the drenching storms and showers, the cheerless encampments, often upon the open prairie with no protection whatever from wind and rain, and the food often scanty, consisting of nothing but flesh, without any seasoning, boiled in earthen pots, or broiled upon the coals, must have rendered the excursion irksome in the extreme to civilized men accustomed to the comforts of European life.

In our last chapter we left the Indians, several hundred in number, in a fleet of canoes descending the upper waters of the Mississippi, in search of game. The three Frenchmen were with them. They were somewhere near the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Conscious that they were trespassing upon hunting grounds which other tribes claimed, they practised the utmost caution to elude their enemies. There were two hundred and fifty warriors, thoroughly armed with all the weapons of savage warfare, who composed the guard of the tribe.

Whenever they landed, they selected a spot where they could hide their canoes in the tangled brush which often fringed the banks of the river. Some warriors were sent to the tops of the adjacent eminences to see if there were any indications of hostile parties in the vicinity. They then pushed back twenty or thirty miles into the prairie land, where they almost invariably found herds of buffaloes grazing. Without horses to aid in the pursuit, and with only arrows and javelins as weapons, the killing of a buffalo was indeed an arduous task. Still, in the course of a few weeks, a hundred and twenty were slaughtered. They jerked the meat; that is, they cut it into very thin strips and hung them in the sun over a smouldering fire, so that it was both smoked and dried at the same time.

One day an Indian ran a splinter far into his foot, inflicting a very serious wound. Father Hennepin made a deep incision in the sole, to draw out the wood. He was performing the painful operation when an alarm was given, that foes were approaching the camp. The wounded Indian immediately sprang upon his feet, seized his arms and rushed to meet the enemy, regardless of his swollen, throbbing foot. The alarm proved a false one. A herd of eighty stags in the distance had been imagined to be hostile warriors. The excitement being over, it was with very great difficulty the crippled savage could hobble his way back to the camp.

When Father Hennepin and Anthony Auguelle rejoined the Indians, they were again separated, and each was taken into the family by which he had been adopted. In their voyaging, as they passed from point to point in the river, there was assigned to the father the duty of conveying in his small canoe, a shrivelled Indian woman, eighty years of age, and three little children. These long years had not sweetened the woman's disposition. She was a terrible scold, and often threatened to beat the children with her paddle.

Thus they wandered about in this successful buffalo hunt, until the close of July, when they were returning to their village far up the St. Francis River. They were here not very far west of the western end of Lake Superior. As they were returning, two wandering members of the tribe came in, and stated that they had been to Lake Superior, that they found there five Frenchmen, and that when they told them that there were three of their countrymen with the Issati tribe, the Frenchmen were very anxious to come to them, as they could not imagine by what roundabout way they had reached those distant regions.

Soon after, they met on the Mississippi River M. de Luth, with five French soldiers, descending the stream in a canoe. There is some confusion in Father Hennepin's narrative here, so that it is impossible to ascertain at what point of the river the two parties of Frenchmen met. On the 14th of August they all reached the villages of the Issati. As they were ascending the river they passed the grave of an Indian warrior. Many of the savages cast upon it some valuable article, in token of regard for the departed. Father Hennepin, who understood the Indians thoroughly, spread upon it a blanket. M. Luth contributed nothing. The generous act of Hennepin was exceedingly gratifying to the Indians.

Soon after their return, they had a great feast, Father Hennepin and M. Luth were both present. In the midst of the entertainment one of the chiefs, who was a relative of the deceased warrior, brought in a large buffalo robe, very softly dressed, one side being brilliantly embroidered with variously colored porcupines' quills, while the curly wool remained upon the other. This robe was neatly folded, and upon it was placed a birch-bark dish filled with food. On this, as a tea-tray, he presented the dish to the father. After he had eaten the meat, the chief spread the robe over his shoulders, saying:

"He whose body thou didst cover, now covers thine. He has carried tidings of thee to the land of spirits. Brave was thy act in his regard. All the nation praises thee for it."

He then reproached M. Luth for not having paid any tribute of respect to the remains of the dead. M. Luth replied that he covered the bodies only of those who were chiefs, of the same rank with himself. The chief replied:

"Pere Louis is a greater captain than thou art; for his robe is more beautiful than thine. We have sent his robe to our allies who are distant more than three moons' journey from our country."

By his robe the chief meant the rich dress, embroidered with silver lace, which the ecclesiastic wore at mass, and which he called his "brocade chasuble." This garment had so dazzled the eyes of the Indians, that they had appropriated it to themselves as of supernatural splendor.

Toward the end of September, Father Hennepin informed the Indians that it was his wish and that of his two companions, to return with the five other Frenchmen to their own country; and that then they would fit out expeditions laden with goods to trade with these distant tribes. The Indians gave their consent. The length of the journey to Montreal by the route they must take, they estimated at twenty-four hundred miles.

The eight Frenchmen set out in two canoes. They paddled down the St. Francis, and the Mississippi to the mouth of the Wisconsin. On their way they met a fleet of one hundred and forty canoes, filled with about two hundred and fifty warriors. The chiefs visited the Frenchmen, and treated them with greatest kindness.

Entering the Wisconsin, they paddled up its lone and silent banks one hundred and twenty miles, as they supposed. They followed the same route which Father Marquette had previously pursued going in an opposite direction. They carried their canoes and their effects on their shoulders, across a portage of a mile and a half to Fox River. Here they reembarked, following a river of wonderful windings, and through a series of magnificent and beautiful lakes, and through a country which they described as charming in the extreme, until they entered the magnificent expanse of Green Bay, at its southern extremity. They had accomplished, as they judged, about twelve hundred miles of their journey. Father Hennepin writes:

"I had not celebrated mass for over nine months, for want of wine. I had still some hosts. We remained two days to rest, sing the Te Deum, high mass, and preach. All our Frenchmen went to confession and communion, to thank God for having preserved us amid so many wanderings and perils."

They purchased for a gun, a canoe, large enough to contain them all. With this they paddled a hundred leagues, until they reached Mackinac. The blasts of approaching winter were beginning to sweep these cold regions. Here they spent the winter.

At this point they found, as they expected, an important military and trading post. Many Indians, even from remote tribes, were continually coming and going. Father Hennepin engaged very earnestly in preaching to the French, and in trying to teach the Indians the Gospel of Christ. They were deeply impressed with the heroism he had exhibited in his long and perilous journey. They said that the father must have been protected by the Great Spirit, for had any of the Indians attempted to go so far they would certainly have been put to death by these distant tribes.

Early in April, 1681, the father, with a few boatmen, set out on his long voyage to Fort Frontenac, at the extreme end of Lake Ontario. A broad belt of thick ice still fringed the shores of these northern lakes. For thirty miles they dragged their canoes over the ice of Lake Huron; and then, as they came to thin ice, launched them upon this fresh water sea. They sailed along the lake a "hundred leagues," closely following the shore, landing every night, and living mainly upon white-fish, which were caught in abundance, in twenty fathoms water. They passed "The Strait" and Lake St. Clair for "thirty leagues." In the still waters of Lake St. Clair they killed with an axe, thirty sturgeons which had come to the shallow waters of the banks to spawn. Near this place they came upon an Ottowa Indian chief, wan and woe-stricken, who told him that he had been unsuccessful in hunting, and his wife and five children had all starved to death.

Emerging from "The Strait," they entered Lake Erie, and paddled along its shores a hundred and twenty leagues. Carrying their canoes and effects upon their backs, they passed the great Falls of Niagara, and again took to the water, coasting along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. After a voyage of about ninety miles, they reached a large village of Seneca Indians, on the southern shore of the lake. It was the middle of May. These Indians had constant intercourse with the French in Canada, and were in cordial alliance with them. Father Hennepin attended a council of the chiefs, accusing them of having enslaved, as he had learned by the way, several Indians of the Ottawa tribe, who were also allies of the French. The chiefs made many apologies; said that the deed had been perpetrated by some mad young warriors, and that the captives should be restored to their tribe.

One of the chiefs, named Teganeot, speaking in the name of all assembled in the council, presented Father Hennepin with several rich furs, which were valued at about twenty-five dollars. The father accepted the gift, but immediately passed it over to the son of the chief, saying:

"I give it to you, that you may purchase such things as you need of the French traders. I cannot accept any presents. But I will report your kind feelings to the French Governor."

Reembarking, they continued their voyage forty leagues, when they reached Fort Frontenac. Father Hennepin was received with great rejoicing, as one risen from the dead. After a short tarry, they again entered their canoes, and descending the rapids of the St. Lawrence, in two days reached Montreal, sixty miles distant from the fort. Here Count Frontenac resided. He was Governor of all the French possessions in the New World.

"This governor," Father Hennepin writes, "received me as well as a man of his probity can receive a missionary. As he believed me killed by the Indians, he was for a time thunderstruck. He beheld me wasted, without a cloak, with a garment patched with pieces of buffalo skin. He took me with him, twelve days, to recover, and himself gave me the meat I was to eat, for fear I should eat too much, after so long a diet. I rendered to him an exact account of my voyage, and represented to him the advantages of our discovery."