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

The Expedition of Father Hennepin


Two days before La Salle set out from Crevecoeur, on his adventurous journey, through the wilderness, to Fort Frontenac, he despatched Father Louis Hennepin to explore the Mississippi River from the mouth of the Illinois to its source. So little was then known of this continent that La Salle had strong hopes that near the source of the Mississippi, another stream might be found, flowing toward the west, which, by a short voyage, would conduct one to the Pacific Ocean. In this way he hoped that the long-sought-for northwest passage to the Pacific might be discovered.

On the morning of the 29th of February, 1680, Father Hennepin, with but two companions, entered his birch canoe, to prosecute his grand and perilous enterprise. They were to explore unknown realms, crowded with savage tribes. They had their guns, not for attack or defence, but for taking game, with a good supply of ammunition, and with several hundred dollars worth of goods, to conciliate the savages by presents, and to exchange with them for provisions.

With the early dawn they commenced their voyage. The day was fine, the river placid in its gentle flow, and the scenery, on both sides of the stream, of undulating hills, majestic forests, and wide-spread prairies, upon which herds of wild cattle were grazing, was picturesque and alluring in the extreme. As they rapidly descended the river, they met several parties of Illinois Indians, returning to their village at the head of the lake. Their canoes were laden with the game they had taken. The Frenchmen and the Indians exchanged friendly greetings.

The kind-hearted savages endeavored to dissuade them from their perilous voyage, assuring them, with all the wildest exaggerations of Indian superstition, that they would encounter birds as large as buffaloes, who would carry them in their talons as an eagle seizes a rabbit; that there were enormous beasts in the river, doubtless referring to the alligators, who would dash their canoe to pieces, and devour a man at a mouthful; then there were rapids and whirlpools from which they could not escape, and in which they would be surely engulfed; and that if by any possibility they escaped, all these perils, they would fall into the hands of ferocious tribes, who would enslave them, torture them, cook them, and eat them. They entreated the Frenchmen to go back with them to their village, where they could live in safety and in abundance.

The two boatmen, Anthony Auguelle and Michael Ako, were alarmed by these representations, and were strongly inclined to return. But Father Hennepin constrained them to press onward. As they descended the Illinois, they found the river deep and broad, much resembling the Seine at Paris. It would, at times, expand to nearly a mile in breadth. Large trees crowned many of the gentle eminences which lined the stream. Upon ascending the hills, as they landed for their night's encampment, they gazed, with delight in the gorgeous sunset, upon the magnificent prairies spread out before them as far as the eye could reach.

There is nothing which earth has ever presented more beautiful than those Eden-like landscape resembling the ocean in expanse, which were thus for the first time, unveiled to the view of civilized men. Here and there groups of trees appeared, in small groves, as if planted by the exquisite taste of a landscape gardener. Herds of buffaloes, antelopes, and deer, grazed the herbage in countless numbers. Birds of every variety of song and plumage found here their paradise. And in these fair realms the children of Adam might have experienced joys hardly surpassed by those of their first parents in Eden, were it not for that inhumanity of man to man which has caused countless millions to mourn. To redeem this world from the curse of sin, Jesus the Son of God has suffered and died. And there can be no possible true happiness for the human family until the result of his mission shall be accomplished.

Our voyagers, on the seventh day of their journey, having passed down the windings of the river, about two hundred miles, as they judged, came to a pleasant Indian village of about two hundred wigwams. These Indians had an eye for beauty. Their little cluster of homes was picturesquely situated upon a green plain, gently ascending from the banks of the river, which commanded a view of the water for some distance above and below. The prairie, in its grandeur, spread far and wide around. The village was about six miles above the entrance of the Illinois into the Mississippi River. The tribe was called the Maraos. The hospitable savages, who without any difficulty could have killed the Frenchmen and have taken possession of all their goods, treated the strangers as brothers, and urged them to visit their houses. In these hospitable rites we see beautiful vestiges of the character of man before the fall. But alas! we can never meet the children of Adam anywhere, or under any circumstances, without soon seeing the evidence of that fall when sin entered Eden,

"Earth felt the wound; and nature from her seat,

Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe

That all was lost."

They heard fearful accounts of attacks by ferocious tribes rushing down upon them, plundering, burning, killing, scalping, with mercilessness which demons could not exceed. They were expecting soon another attack, and were then upon the point of abandoning their homes and emigrating to the other side of the Mississippi, to join, for their protection, another large and friendly tribe.

Soon after Father Hennepin resumed his voyage, the Indians, according to his narrative, had their suspicions excited that he was conveying hatchets and guns to their enemies, either intentionally, or which might fall into their hands. They therefore sent a band of their swift-footed warriors down the river, to a narrow pass, to intercept the canoe. This could hardly be considered contrary to the laws of warfare among civilized nations. The Indians had witnessed the lightnings and thunders of the white man's guns, and the terrible energies of their death dealing-bolts. They might surely consider the canoe as freighted with goods which were contraband of war.

We know not what reason Father Hennepin had for suspecting this movement of the Indians. He gives no proof of any such hostile design. It is not improbable that his suspicions were groundless. As he approached the narrow pass where he imagined the warriors to lie in ambush, he saw the smoke of the camp fires ascending from a grove which crowned one of the eminences. This certainly did not indicate any secret movement. He paddled close to the other side of the river, not only without being attacked, but without obtaining even a glimpse of his imagined foes.

On the 8th of March they reached the Mississippi River. The broad flood, a mile in width, swept majestically along, from unknown regions of the north, quite covered with floating ice. The vast masses, two or three feet in thickness, and which could not be eluded, would speedily tear their frail birch canoe into fragments. At the mouth of the Illinois there was a gentle elevation, covered with the stately forest, which commanded a fine view of both of the rivers and of the adjacent region.

Here the Frenchmen drew their canoe upon the shore, erected a camp, with open front, as a shelter from the cold north wind, built their fire, cooked their game, of which they found abundance all around, and waited patiently, four days, for the ice to run by.

In the middle of the Mississippi River, nearly opposite the mouth of the Illinois, there were three small islands, covered with large trees and a dense, tangled growth of brush and vines. The heads of these islands were clogged, for a long distance up the river, with the deformity of immense rafts of drift logs, stumps, and trees. They presented an exceedingly dreary aspect, swept by the freezing winds, with truly arctic masses of ice grinding by, and often ploughed up into great hillocks upon the sand-bars.

At a short distance back from the river a range of hills or bluffs was seen. Between the bluffs and the river the meadow or bottom lands were often treeless, and evidently fertile in the highest degree. On the morning of the 12th of March the Mississippi was sufficiently clear of ice for these intrepid voyagers to venture to launch their canoe upon its surface. Slowly and cautiously they paddled up the stream, keeping near the shore and taking advantage of every eddy which could be found. Through vistas opening between the hills and woods occasional glimpses were caught of prairie regions beyond, whose solitude and silence were only relieved by the spectacle of grazing herds, and thousands of birds upon the wing. There were no signs of human life. Apparently eternal silence reigned over those Eden-like solitudes, disturbed only by the lowing of the herds and the varied notes of bird songs.

As they continued their voyage they came upon many islands, whose thick growth of forest trees was so interlaced with vines and undergrowth as to render them almost impenetrable. Vigorously they plied their paddles, day after day, breasting the strong current of the river, encountering no incident of importance. Every night they landed, drew their canoe upon the grass, turned it over, so as to cover its contents from the rain and the dew, built their frail shelter for the night, kindled their camp fire, whose flame is ever as companionable as it is cheerful, cooked their supper, which they ate with the appetite and zest which labor gives, and then, having offered their vesper prayers and chanted their evening hymn, enjoyed that sweet sleep which is one of the greatest of all earthly blessings. At noon they always had a short religious exercise in their canoe.

They often had mild and beautiful mornings, when the whole wide-spread scene of crystal waters, forest, and prairie seemed illumined with almost celestial radiance. Bird songs filled the air. The prairies seemed crowded with all the varieties of animal life in peaceful enjoyment. No sights of violence or suffering met the eye. No discordant sound fell upon the ear. All was beauty, harmony, and joy. The landscape resembled our imaginings of the world before the fall, when it came fresh from its Maker's hands, and all the morning stars hailed its birth.

But again clouds, like marshalling armies, hurried through and darkened the sky. The tempest rose with its dirge-like wailing. The surface of the river was lashed into surges which threatened to devour them. The rain drenched them. The sleet cut their faces. Hastily they sought the shores. Frequently they had to paddle a great distance along the precipitous banks before they could find any place where they could land. Reaching at length the shore, they first covered their goods with the upturned canoe.

Black night would already envelop them. Groping through the darkness, drenched with rain, and numbed with sleet, they would, with great difficulty, raise some frail protection against the storm. No fire could be kindled. No change of clothing was possible. Throwing themselves upon the wet sod, hungry, shivering, and sleepless, they would anxiously await the dawn. The cry of the lone night-bird, and the howling of wolves, would be added to the discord of the angry elements. In such hours this globe did indeed seem to be a sin-blighted world, upon which had fallen the frown of its Maker.

Amid such changes and toils as these, Father Hennepin and his companions, in their frail birch canoe, paddled along against the strong current of the Mississippi. They breakfasted with the earliest dawn, and continued their voyage through ever-varying scenes of sublimity and beauty, until late in the afternoon. Then they began to look eagerly for some sheltered nook suitable for their night's encampment. The silence and solitude through which they passed, at times seemed pleasing, and again almost awful.

For weary leagues, not a village, not a wigwam, not a solitary Indian, appeared. They seemed to be exploring an uninhabited world. The mouths of many rivers were passed, whose names were unknown to them. With feelings akin to awe, they looked up the long reaches of streams, now known by the names of the Des Moines, the Iowa, the Rock River, and the Wisconsin. They wondered what scenes were transpiring far away upon the banks of these apparently solitary waters.

They had ascended the Mississippi several hundred miles, when, about two o'clock in the afternoon of the 11th of April, they were startled by seeing suddenly coming round a near headland, thirty large bark canoes, crowded with Indians, plumed, painted, and armed for battle. It was a gorgeous as well as an appalling spectacle. The blades of their paddles sparkled in the sunlight. The savages were dressed in the highest style of barbaric splendor. Their brilliantly colored feathers, fringed garments, and highly decorated bows, war-clubs and javelins, surpassed, in picturesque beauty, any of the ordinary military trapping of civilized life.

The moment the savages caught sight of the Frenchmen's boat, they simultaneously raised a shout or yell, which reverberated along the banks of the river and struck the hearts of the voyagers with dread. Escape was impossible. Resistance was not to be thought of. The little fleet of canoes, descending the river by the aid both of the current and their paddles, approached with great rapidity. Father Hennepin stood up in his boat and in his hands extended toward the savages, the calumet of peace. Speedily he was surrounded, the calumet was snatched from him, and his canoe was taken to the shore, while all the others followed. During all the time the savages were raising frightful cries and yells, the signification of which, whether welcoming or threatening, could not be understood. It was probably near the mouth of the Wisconsin River that this capture took place.

Father Hennepin had been so long among the Indians, visiting various tribes, and had so long been accustomed to contemplate his violent death as an event which might any day take place, that he was far more tranquil in mind than most persons could have been under these circumstances. Speedily his well-trained eye recognized the chief of the savages. He presented him some tobacco, and then endeavored by signs to enter into conversation with him.

The two head chiefs conferred together. They declined smoking the peace calumet, and were by no means cordial in their reception of the strangers. There was evidently a diversity of opinion among them, as to the disposition they should make of their captives. Three blows of the tomahawk would silence them all in death. Their bodies could be thrown into the stream, and their canoe, with all its freight, of such priceless value to the savages, would be in their possession. Probably some of them had visited the French forts, and knew how to use the musket, and appreciated its death-dealing power. Already they had examined every article in the canoe. They had inspected the rifles, and counted the store of bullets and powder. Such an acquisition would aid them inestimably in the war-path upon which they had entered.

The young men clamored for this decision of the question. In the mind of an untutored savage, who has never enjoyed the light of revealed religion, the dividing line between right and wrong must necessarily be faint. With these men, the pride of life consisted in the numbers of enemies they had slain. Inspired by this desire, they were now on the way to attack a neighboring tribe, to burn their homes, destroy their property, kill and scalp men, women, and children, and to take back some of the leading warriors, that they, their wives, and their children might enjoy the delight of seeing them put to death by diabolical torture. Why should they hesitate to tomahawk three white men who had crossed their path? Why not rob and murder them, when by doing so they could acquire possessions of the greatest value?

But God seems to have implanted in every human heart some sense of right and wrong, some conviction of responsibility to a Superior Being. So far as Father Hennepin could understand their sign language, the chiefs informed him that they were going down the Mississippi to attack a village of the Miamis on the Illinois River. The war party consisted of but one hundred and twenty braves. They intended to attack the village by surprise at night. In an hour they would accomplish their fiend-like deed of murder, scalping, and conflagration. Then, with their gory trophies and their prisoners, they would take to their boats and be far away up the river before there could be any rallying of the tribes in pursuit.

Father Hennepin told them that the Miamis had been informed of their intended attack; that they had abandoned their village, had fled across the Mississippi, and having joined another powerful tribe were watching for their approach. The savages on the shore surrounded their captives, and for some unknown reason frequently gave simultaneous utterance to the most unearthly yells.

Father Hennepin affected great composure, assuming that he was among friends. He presented to the chiefs two large fat turkeys which he had shot coming up the river. Then, with his two companions, he built a fire, hung his iron kettle, and commenced boiling some venison. The Indians looked quietly on for a few minutes, and then all gathered in a group to hold a council. Father Hennepin secretly watched their proceedings with the utmost anxiety. Their speeches were accompanied with very much action. The debate was prolonged and vehement. He sufficiently understood the language of signs to perceive that they were divided in opinion, that while a part were in favor of putting them to death, others were urging that their lives should be spared.

With one of his men he went to the canoe, took six axes, fifteen knives, and a quantity of tobacco, and advancing into the midst of the council presented them to the chiefs. He then took an axe, and bowing his head, made signs that the Indians might kill him if they wished to do so. This chivalric deed touched whatever there was of chivalry in the savage bosom. There was a general murmur of applause. Some of them had been roasting, at a fire near by, some beaver's flesh. One of the savages ran, cut a piece of the smoking meat, and bringing it, on a plate of birch bark, with a sharpened stick for a fork, put three morsels into the mouth of Father Hennepin and his companions. As the food was very hot, the savage blew upon it to cool it. He then set the plate before them, to eat at their pleasure.

Still there was a degree of restraint on the part of the Indians, which indicated that there was by no means perfect reconciliation. There was much talking apart, and it was evident that the fate of the prisoners was not yet decided. The representations, however, which Father Hennepin had made, induced them to relinquish their contemplated enterprise, and to turn back from the war-path upon which they had entered. Just before night, one of the chiefs silently returned to Father Hennepin his peace calumet. This greatly increased their anxiety, as it was inferred that it was an act renouncing friendship.

Savages and Frenchmen all slept alike on the ground and in the open air, by the side of their camp fires. There was no watch kept, and the captives had no indication that they were abridged of their freedom. Still they had many fears that they were to be assassinated before the morning. The two boatmen, Auguelle and Ako, slept with their guns and swords by their sides. They declared that if attacked they would sell their lives as dearly as possible. But Father Hennepin said to them, "I shall allow myself to be killed without any resistance. I came to announce to the savages a God, who for the world's redemption allowed Himself to be falsely accused, unjustly condemned, and cruelly crucified, without showing the least enmity to those who put Him to death. I shall imitate the example thus set me."

The night passed peacefully away, and the morning of the 12th of April dawned upon this scene so wild and picturesque.

As all were gathered around their camp fires, cooking their breakfasts, one of the chiefs, Narketoba by name—presenting a hideous aspect in his barbarian military trappings, his face and bare chest smeared with war paint—approached Father Hennepin and asked for the peace calumet. Receiving it, he filled the cup with tobacco, and having taken a few whiffs himself, presented it to one after another of the whole band. Each one smoked the pipe, though some with evident reluctance. The Frenchmen understood this to indicate that, for the present at least, their lives were to be spared. They were then informed that they must accompany the Indians up the river to their own country.

"I was not sorry," Father Hennepin writes, "in this conjuncture, to continue our discovery with this people."