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

Sea Voyage to the Gulf of Mexico


Father Membre's journal abruptly terminates with the arrival of the party at Fort Miami. We have no detailed account of the adventures of La Salle during the next eight or ten months. We learn incidentally, that Father Membre was sent to Quebec, and thence to France, to convey to the court the tidings of the great discovery, and of the annexation of truly imperial realms to the kingdom of Louis XIV. On the 8th of October, Father Membre left Fort Miami for Quebec. Thence he sailed with Governor Frontenac for France, where he arrived before the close of the year. La Salle remained with the Miami and the Illinois Indians, probably retrieving his fallen fortunes by extensive traffic in furs, of which he had, at the time, a monopoly conferred upon him by the king.

At length, in the autumn of 1683, he also returned to Quebec, and sailed for France, landing at Rochelle on the 13th of December. No man can, in this world, accomplish great results without exposing himself to malignant attacks. Bitter enemies assailed La Salle with venomous hostility. Their hostility was excited by the monopoly of the fur trade, which he enjoyed over all the vast regions he had explored. They despatched atrocious charges against him to the government, denouncing him as a robber, and denying the discoveries which he professed to have made. But Governor Frontenac and Father Membre were both at Versailles, and La Salle's cause was not seriously injured by these malignant charges.

It was the chevalier's object, in this his return to France, to organize a colony to form a settlement in the earthly paradise which he thought that he had discovered on the banks of the Mississippi. He designed to arrange an expedition of such magnitude as would enable him to establish several permanent settlements, and also to explore more extensively the newly discovered country.

The king and the court entered eagerly into plans, which promised to redound greatly to the glory of France. The reputation of La Salle, the grandeur of the undertaking, and a natural curiosity to visit scenes so full of novelty and wonders, induced several gentlemen of distinction and intelligence to embark in the enterprise. Among them was a younger brother of La Salle, with an ecclesiastic called M. Cavalier, and also a nephew. The king conferred a new commission upon La Salle, investing him with the powers almost of viceroyalty. The whole valley of the Mississippi, from Lake Michigan to the Gulf, was called Louisiana, in honor of the then reigning king. The sway of La Salle embraced the whole of this almost limitless region. Seven missionaries accompanied the expedition, under the general supervision of Father Membre, whose virtues and eminent qualification for the station all alike recognized.

Four vessels were equipped for the expedition. The first, called the Joli, was a man-of-war armed with thirty-six guns. The second was a frigate called the Belle. The king made a present of this vessel to La Salle. He had furnished it with a very complete outfit, and with an armament of six guns. The third, called the Aimable, was a merchant-ship of about three hundred tons. It was heavily laden with all those implements and goods which it was deemed would be most useful in the establishment of a colony. The fourth was a light, swift-sailing yacht, called the St. Francis, of but thirty tons. This vessel was also laden with munitions, supplies, and goods for traffic with the Indians. The whole number who embarked, including one hundred soldiers and seven or eight families of women and children, amounted to two hundred and eighty. Care was taken to select good mechanics for the various trades. But, unfortunately, soldiers and seamen were engaged without apparently any reference to character. Thus some of the worst vagabonds of earth were gathered from the seaports of France to colonize the New World.

Nothing with the quarrelsome race of man ever goes smoothly for any considerable length of time. Captain Beaujeu, a Norman seaman of great valor and extensive experience, was commander of the man-of-war, and, as such, was intrusted with the general direction and supervision of the vessels. He was a proud man, accustomed to authority, and he regarded La Salle and his party as passengers, whom he was conveying to their destination, and who, while on board his vessels, were to be subservient to his will.

On the other hand, La Salle regarded Beaujeu as one of his officers, who was to be implicitly obedient to his directions. The idea never occurred to him that Beaujeu was to be taken into partnership, or consulted even, in regard to any of his measures, any farther than La Salle might deem it expedient to consult him or any other of his subordinates. With views so different, a speedy quarrel was inevitable. Beaujeu is represented as a man full of conceit, of narrow mind, and very irritable. La Salle was reserved, self-reliant, keeping his own counsel. Scarcely had the two men met, before they found themselves in antagonism. Before the vessels sailed, Beaujeu wrote to the king's minister as follows:

"You have ordered me, sir, to afford this enterprise every facility in my power. I shall do so. But permit me to say that I take great credit to myself for consenting to obey the orders of La Salle. I believe him to be a worthy man, but he has never served in war except against savages, and has no military rank. I, on the contrary, have been thirteen years captain of a vessel, and have served thirty years by sea and land.

"He tells me that, in case of his death, the command devolves on Chevalier de Tonti. This is certainly hard for me to bear. Though I am not now acquainted with the country, I must be a dull scholar not to obtain an adequate knowledge of it in a month after my arrival. I beg you therefore to give me a share in the command, so that no military operation may be undertaken without consulting me. Should we be attacked by the Spaniards, I am persuaded that men who have never commanded in war could not resist them, as another could do, who had been taught by experience."

Three weeks later, he wrote: "The Joli is prepared for sea. I hope to sail down the river to-morrow. It remains for M. La Salle to sail when he is ready. He has said nothing to me of his designs. As he is constantly changing his plans, I know not whether the provisions will be enough for the enterprise. He is so jealous, and so fearful that some one may penetrate his secrets, that I have refrained from asking him any questions.

"I have already informed you how disagreeable it was for me to be under the orders of M. de la Salle, who has no military rank. I shall however obey him, without repugnance, if you send me orders to that effect. But I beg that they may be such that he can impute no fault to me should he fail to execute what he has undertaken. I am induced to say this because he has intimated that it was my design to thwart his plans. I wish you would inform me what is to be done in regard to the soldiers. He pretends that, on our arrival, they are to be put under his charge. My instructions do not authorize this pretence. I am to afford all the aid in my power, without endangering the safety of the vessels."

The ministry paid no attention to these complaints. They probably decided to leave the commanders to settle such questions among themselves. The four vessels sailed from Rochelle on the 24th of July, 1684. They had advanced but about one hundred and fifty miles when a violent tempest overtook them. The Joli lost her bowsprit. Consequently the little squadron returned to Rochefort. Having repaired damages, the fleet again set sail, on the 1st of August.

La Salle and his suite, if we may so speak of his chosen companions, were on board the Joli, which Captain Beaujeu commanded. On the 8th of August the fleet passed Cape Finisterre, the extreme northwestern point of Spain. On the 20th they reached the island of Madeira. Captain Beaujeu wished to land here, to take in a fresh supply of provisions. La Salle said, emphatically, "No!"

"We have," he said, "an ample supply of both food and water. To anchor there will cause us a delay of six or eight days. It will reveal our enterprise to the Spaniards. It was not the intention of the king that we should touch at that point."

Beaujeu was compelled to submit. But he was very angry and sullen. His sub-officers and sailors were also angry. Time was nothing to them, and they were anticipating grand carousals in port. Sharp words were interchanged, and the quarrel became more bitter. On the 24th they reached the influence of the trade winds, which blow continually from east to west. On the 6th of September they reached the Tropic of Cancer. In crossing this line a custom had long prevailed of performing a rite called baptism upon all on shipboard who then crossed for the first time. The indignity was inflicted upon all alike, without any regard to character or rank. But, by giving the sailors a rich treat, one could secure for himself a little more moderation in the performance of the revolting ceremony.

A very stout sailor, generally the most gigantic man of the crew, grotesquely dressed to represent Father Neptune, would come up over the bows of the vessel and seize his victim. First he would catechize him very closely respecting his object in crossing the line; then he would exact an oath that he would never permit any one, when he was present, to enter the tropics without subjecting him to baptism. Then he would dash several bucketsful of salt water upon his head. This was the mildest form of performing the rite. If the subject for the baptism were, for any reason, obnoxious to the sailors, his treatment was much more severe. He was greased and tarred and shampooed, and shaved with an iron hoop, and treated, in all respects, very roughly.

On board this fleet, the passengers, including one hundred well-armed soldiers, greatly exceeded the number of sailors. La Salle, learning that the sailors were making great preparations for this baptism, resolved that he would not submit to such an indignity, and that his companions and followers should not be subjected to it. He therefore issued orders prohibiting the ceremony. This exasperated the sailors. Beaujeu openly advocated their cause. The seamen were compelled to submit. The antagonism between the two commanders was embittered.

On the 11th of September they reached the latitude of St. Domingo. A dead calm soon ensued. The ships floated as upon a sea of glass. One of the soldiers died. After imposing religious rites, his body was consigned to its ocean sepulchre. The calm was succeeded by a storm. In the darkness and tumult of this tropical tempest the vessels lost sight of each other. Gradually the storm abated. The change of climate had caused much sickness. Fifty were in hospital on board the Joli, including La Salle and both of the surgeons. On the 20th, the grand mountains of St. Helena hove in sight, and the majestic bay of Samana opened before them.

It still required a sail of five days before they reached the Port de Paix, on the northwestern extremity of the island. Here there was a very fine harbor, and here the French governor of the neighboring isle of Tortue had his residence. La Salle had letters to this governor, M. de Cussy, directing him to supply the fleet with everything it might need, and which it was in his power to give. For some unexplained reason Beaujeu silently declined obeying these orders. In the night he sailed directly by the Port de Paix, and doubling Cape St. Nicholas, a hundred miles distant at the western extremity of the island, circled around to the southern shore, and on the 27th cast anchor in a small harbor called the Petit Guave. The voyage thus far, from Rochelle, had occupied fifty-eight days.

This unaccountable change of place for the rendezvous of the scattered vessels caused much embarrassment. We do not know what were the remonstrances of La Salle, or what was the defence of Beaujeu. The Joli had scarcely cast anchor in this remote and silent bay, when a large sail-boat, containing twenty men, who had caught sight of the ship, entered the port, and informed La Salle that not only Governor Cussy was at the Port de Paix, but also the Marquis of Laurent, who was governor-general of all the French West India Islands. This greatly increased the chagrin of La Salle for an interview with them would have greatly facilitated his operations.

Religious ceremonies were, in a remarkable degree, blended with all these explorations. The next day after the Joli cast anchor, all the ship's company was assembled for divine worship, to return thanks to God for their prosperous voyage. La Salle, being convalescent, went ashore with a boat's crew to obtain some refreshments, and to send intelligence across the island, to the governor, of his arrival at Port de Paix. In this message he expressed intense regret that he had not been able to stop at Port de Paix, and entreated the governor, if it were in his power, to visit his ship at Guave.

In consequence of the number of sick on board, they were all landed, shelters were reared for them, and they were refreshed with fresh vegetables, fruit, and exercise in the open air. La Salle was still very feeble. A slow fever was consuming him. The conduct of Beaujeu caused him the greatest embarrassment. We should infer from the narrative of M. Joutel that there was no European settlement at the spot, and but very few native inhabitants, though all the natives were friendly.

In a few days two of the vessels which had been separated from the Joli by the storm, entered the bay, having probably learned from the natives, as they coasted along the shore, where the ship was. The whole of the eastern portion of the island was then held by Spain. As the three vessels were sailing along, two large boats, filled with armed Spaniards, pushed out from the shore and seized the smallest of the vessels—the St. Francis—and carried it off as a prize, with all its crew. This was a very heavy loss, as it deprived the expedition of supplies of which it stood greatly in need. The chagrin of La Salle was increased by the reflection that had Beaujeu obeyed orders and entered Port de Paix, the fleet would have rendezvoused there in perfect safety. The governor very loudly expressed his indignation, in view of the conduct of Captain Beaujeu.

The state of mind of the captain may be inferred from the following extracts from a letter to the French minister, which he wrote at that place:

"Were it not the sickness of Chevalier La Salle, I should have no occasion to write to you, as I am charged only with the navigation and he with the secret. We have arrived here almost all sick. La Salle has been attacked by a violent fever, which affects not more his body than his mind. His brother requested me to take charge of his affairs. I excused myself because I know that when restored to health he would not approve of what I had done.

"It is said that the Spaniards have, in these seas, six men-of-war, each carrying sixty guns. It is true that if the Chevalier de la Salle should not recover, I shall pursue different measures from those which he has adopted, which I do not approve. I cannot comprehend how a man should dream of settling a country surrounded by Spaniards and Indians, with a company of workmen and women, without soldiers.

"If you will permit me to express my opinion, the Chevalier de la Salle should have contented himself with the discovery of his river, without attempting to conduct three vessels and troops across the ocean through seas utterly unknown to him. He is a man of great learning, who has read much, and has some knowledge of navigation. But there is a great difference between theory and practice. The ability to transport canoes through lakes and rivers is very different from that which is required to conduct vessels and troops over remote seas."

After a short delay in this lonely harbor, the fleet, now consisting of but three vessels, again spread its sails. It was agreed to direct their course to Cape St. Antoine, about nine hundred miles distant, at the extreme western point of the island of Cuba. Should the vessels be separated by a storm, they were to rendevous at that place.

As the Aimable, a heavily laden merchantman, was the slowest sailer, it was decided that she should take the lead, the other two following. La Salle, with his brother, Father Membre, and some others, transferred their quarters from the Joli to the Aimable. This movement was also probably influenced by La Salle's desire to escape from the uncongenial companionship of Captain Beaujeu. It was on the 25th of November, 1684, that the voyage was resumed.

Two days' sail brought the fleet within sight of the magnificent island of Cuba. They ran along its southern shore, generally in sight of its towering mountains and its luxuriant foliage, but having the enchanting scenery occasionally veiled from their view by dense fogs. On the 1st of December they caught sight, far away in the south, of the grand island of Cayman. On the 4th of December, they cast anchor in a sheltered bay of the beautiful Island of Pines, but a few miles south of the Cuban coast.

La Salle, with his companions, took a boat and went on shore. Several of the ship's crew rowed the boat. As they approached the sandy beach, they saw an immense crocodile, apparently asleep, enjoying the blaze of a tropical sun. The boatmen drew near as noiselessly as they could. La Salle took deliberate aim and fired. Fortunately the bullet struck a vulnerable point. The monster, after a few convulsive struggles, was dead. The sailors, eager for a taste of fresh meat, kindled a fire and roasted the flesh, which they found tender and palatable. There were no inhabitants at that point. The party separated in small groups, and wandered in all directions, lured by the beauty of the region, and feasting upon the rich tropical fruits which grew in spontaneous abundance.

When about to reembark, two of the sailors were missing. Several guns were fired as signals for the lost men, but in vain. The boat returned to the ship. The next morning, at sunrise, a boat's crew of thirty men was sent to search for the wanderers. At length they were found, thoroughly frightened, having passed a very uncomfortable night. The beauty of this island charmed all who beheld it. They were lavish in their praises of its luxuriance, its fruits, its game, and its birds of brilliant plumage.

Again the fleet weighed anchor and, on the 11th, reached Cape Corrientes, one of the most prominent southwestern points of Cuba. Here again they ran into a solitary bay, which, in clustering fruits and vine-draped bowers, and birds on the wing, presented an aspect of almost Eden loveliness. They tarried but a day. Then, taking advantage of a breeze fresh and fair, they passed from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico They had proceeded but about fifteen miles when the wind changed, and became adverse. For two days, by beating, they worked their way slowly against it.

Captain Beaujeu took a boat, and came on board the Aimable, and insisted that the vessels should put back to Cape Antoine, and ride at anchor there until the wind should prove favorable. La Salle could not consider this measure judicious. But, weary of contention and anxious to agree with Beaujeu whenever he could, he reluctantly gave his consent. They ran back to the land, cast anchor, remained two days in a dead calm, when suddenly a tropical tempest arose, which was almost a tornado. The Belle dragged her anchor, and was driven violently against the Aimable, carrying away her bowsprit, and greatly injuring much of her rigging. The Aimable would have been sunk had she not cut her cable and escaped. The anchor was lost.

On the 18th, the wind became fair. Having repaired damages as far as was in their power, the fleet again set sail. It was ten o'clock in the morning of a very delightful day. Directing their course northwesterly, they sailed, with a gentle breeze and occasional calms, nine days' without seeing land or encountering any event of importance. On the 28th, land was discovered. It was but a few miles distant. It was evidently the continent of North America, and consisted of a long reach of low land, fringed with a dense forest, and elevated but a few feet above the level of the Gulf.

A shallop was speedily equipped, and La Salle, with a few of his chosen companions and a boat's crew, all well-armed, repaired to the shore to reconnoitre. Another boat, also similarly equipped, was ordered soon to follow. The Belle was directed to keep up careful soundings, and to range along the coast as near the shore as was safe.

La Salle's party soon reached the shore, and landed upon a very beautiful meadow. But they had no time for exploration. The freshening wind rolled in such a surf that there was great danger that their boat would be swamped. They were compelled hastily to reembark, and return to the ship. Slowly the vessels coasted along the uninviting shore, looking in vain for any inlet or any river's mouth.

On the 2nd of January, 1685, a dense fog settled down over the sea and the land, so enveloping the ships that no object could be seen at the distance of a few yards.

La Salle ordered cannon occasionally to be fired on board the Aimable, to let the other two vessels know where he was. As there was scarcely a breath of wind, there was no necessity that the fleet should be scattered. When the fog the next day was dissipated, the Joli was not in sight. Toward evening, however, the ship was again seen. In a few days they discovered an inlet, which La Salle carefully examined from the mast-head. He judged it to be the Bay of Appalachicola, then called Espiritu Santo, on the Florida coast. They therefore pressed on westerly, hoping soon to reach the Mississippi.

To make it sure that he should not pass the mouth of the river, which, flowing through very low and marshy soil, was designated by no landmark, La Salle desired to send a party of thirty men ashore to follow along the coast. But the wind rose, and the surf dashed so violently upon the muddy banks, that a landing could not be effected. Slowly the fleet moved along until the 13th, when it was found necessary to land to take in water. A shallop was sent ashore, with five or six seamen, well-armed. There was no inlet, and no creek to afford any protection, and the surf still rolled in heavily.

Though the dense forest spread its gloom far and wide around, there opened before them a small meadow of but a few acres, green, treeless and smooth as a floor. The boat was directed toward that spot. When within a gun-shot of the land, a troop of about a dozen savages, tall, stalwart men, entirely naked, emerged from the forest, and came down to the water's edge. The surf was so high that there was much danger that the boat would be swamped in an attempt to land. The seamen therefore cast anchor, to consider what was to be done.

When the savages saw that they were at a standstill, they made friendly signs, inviting the strangers to land. They waded out into the surf and beckoned to them. Apparently the boat could not pass safely through the surf. There was a large amount of drift-wood lining the shore. Several of the savages selected a large smooth log. This they pushed through the surf. Ranging themselves on each side, they clung to the log with one arm, while, with the other, they paddled. Without any hesitancy, unarmed and helpless, they clambered into the boat.

When five were in, the seamen motioned to the others to go to another boat which was then approaching, and which conveyed La Salle. The savages seemed not to entertain the slightest suspicion of danger. La Salle was very glad to receive them. He hoped that they could give him some information respecting the river he sought. But all his efforts were in vain. Though he spoke several Indian languages, he could not make them understand him. They were all taken on board the vessel. With much curiosity they examined its wonders. They were feasted, and seemed quite at home in smoking the pipe of fragrant tobacco. The sheep, the swine, and the poultry, they had evidently never seen before. But when they were shown the skin of a cow, which had recently been killed, they seemed much delighted, and indicated that they had seen such animals before, doubtless referring to the buffaloes.

Having received many presents, a boat was sent to carry them as near the shore as it was safe to go. The savages bound their presents upon their heads, and letting themselves gently down into the water, swam to the land. Marvellous must have been the stories which they narrated that night, in their wigwams, to admiring crowds. Quite a large group of Indians was seen gathered upon the shore to greet them, as they came back.

La Salle had found it impossible to understand their signs. But his apprehensions were somewhat excited by the thought that they might have endeavored to indicate to him that he had already passed the mouth of the Mississippi.

That evening the wind rose fresh and fair. Raising their anchors, and keeping near the shore, with frequent soundings, they pressed on toward the southwest. The next day came a dead calm. Each vessel floated on the glassy sea, "like a painted ship on a painted ocean." Thus they moved along, day after day, encountering calms, when not a ripple was to be seen on the mirrored expanse, and fresh breezes, which tossed the ocean in billowy foam, and storms which threatened to tear the masts from the hulls.

On the 14th of January they attempted again to effect a landing in the boats. But the surf prevented. They saw, however, upon a beautiful prairie, extending with its waving grass and gorgeous flowers as far as the eye could reach, vast herds of wild horses and buffaloes. All on board the vessels were greatly excited by this spectacle. They were eager to land, that they might enjoy the pleasure of an encampment and the excitement of hunting and the chase.

The land was now found trending more and more to the south. They had reached a latitude considerably below that of the mouth of the Mississippi, as ascertained by La Salle, upon his first visit. The whole aspect of the country seemed changed. There were immense treeless prairies continually opening before them, crowded with game, and especially with immense herds of horses and buffaloes.

At length they came to apparently the mouth of a small river. A boat was sent on shore, with orders to kindle a fire, as a signal, should they find a good place for landing. La Salle stood upon the deck of the Aimable, eagerly watching. Soon he saw the smoke curling up through the clear air of the prairie. Just as La Salle was entering his boat for the shore, the wind freshened and tumbled in such billows from the open sea that the boat, which had already landed, was compelled precipitately to return. The next morning the wind abated La Salle felt himself lost. He resolved to land, with a strong party, and make a thorough exploration of the region, that he might, by observation or by communication with such inhabitants as he might discover, find out where he was. He had many apprehensions that he had passed the mouth of the Mississippi, and that he was far in the west, skirting the coast of Mexico.