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

The Voyage Along the Lakes


On the 7th of August, 1679, the Griffin spread her sails for her adventurous voyage into the vast unknown. Her armament consisted of five small cannon, two of which were of brass, and three clumsy guns called arquebuses. The vessel was of but sixty tons burden. Most of the men had muskets for taking game. The current in the river, where the vessel was moored, was very rapid. But by aid of a fair wind, and twelve men pulling by a rope on the shore, all difficulties were overcome, and the Griffin entered triumphantly the broad expanse of Lake Erie.

As the anchor was raised and the canvas spread, a simultaneous salute was fired from the five cannon, the three arquebuses, and all the muskets. Such an uproar was never before heard in those silent wilds. An immense number of Indians crowded the shore. They gazed with astonishment, awe, and indefinable dread upon the novel spectacle. The whole company of Frenchmen embarked, being thirty-four in number. None were left at Erie. But at Niagara, as the magazine at Queenstown was called, Father Melethon remained, with one or two laborers, to receive such supplies as might be forwarded to that place.

Three missionaries accompanied the expedition, Fathers Hennepin, Zenobe, and Ribourde. They were venerable and good men, ready at any moment to lay down their lives in advocacy of the Christian faith. Lake Erie is about two hundred and sixty miles long, and from ten to sixty broad. They ran along the northern shore of this majestic inland sea, and on the third day reached its western bounds, where they cautiously entered the mouth of the strait through which flows the waters of all the upper lakes. It was about twenty-eight miles long, and one mile broad. As canoes alone had thus far passed over its surface, it was necessary for them to feel their way with much care. La Salle gave the strait the name of Detroit. Soon entering another lake, twenty-four miles long by thirty broad, he gave it the name of St. Clair, in honor of the saint whose name appears in the calendar of the church for that day.

Passing safely over the shallow waters, the Griffin entered another strait, about thirty miles long, to which La Salle gave the name of St. Clair River. The current was strong, and the navigation perilous. Gigantic steamers now run through from Lake Erie to Lake Huron in a few hours. It required thirteen days for the Griffin to accomplish the passage. The whole distance is about ninety miles.

Lake Huron opened magnificently before them. The route along the shore of the lake to its head, where it receives the waters of Michigan and Superior, is about three hundred and sixty miles. Its greatest breadth is one hundred and sixty miles. The progress of the voyagers was slow. They were impeded by calms and head winds. It was often necessary to cast the lead and to watch for rocks and sand-bars. They had but just entered upon Lake Huron when they encountered one of the severest tempests which ever swept that stormy lake. The whole ship's company were devout Catholics.

In those dark days both the fathers and the crew were alike disposed to call upon the Virgin Mary and the saints to aid them, rather than upon God. Father Hennepin tells us that the stout soul of La Salle quailed before the horrible tumult which threatened to engulf him. They all alike fell upon their knees and addressed their prayers and their cries to St. Anthony of Padua. They solemnly vowed that if he would intercede with God and obtain their rescue, they would, in the newly-discovered countries, erect a chapel in his name. St. Anthony was called the patron of mariners, and therefore his aid was especially invoked.

Greatly was their confidence in the saint's intercession increased, as the wind lulled, the clouds dispersed, the sun shone forth in all its autumnal glory, and with a fair wind pressing their sails they glided along over a smooth sea, skirting the southern shore of the lake, past mountains and valleys, prairies and forest, which presented every variety of picturesque beauty.

At the extreme northwestern extremity of Lake Huron, near the point where the lake receives the waters of Lakes Michigan and Superior, there was a large island, whose swelling hills were crowned with a dense forest. This island was called by the Indians, from its peculiar form, Mackinac, or the Turtle, sometimes Michilimackinac, or the big Turtle. On the 27th of August, 1679, the Griffin ran into a beautiful little bay in this island. It was a lovely summer's day, serene, sunny, and cloudless. The waters of the bay, fringed with forest-crowned hills, were as placid as a mirror. There was quite a village there of wigwams. Naked children were sporting upon the beach. Buoyant birch canoes, driven by the paddles of gayly-dressed men and women, were gliding swiftly in all directions. The scene opened before the eyes of the voyagers like a vision of enchantment.

Nearly ten years before, Father Marquette, inspired by apostolic zeal, had traversed this whole distance in a birch canoe. Several Indians accompanied him as boatmen and interpreters. Upon the main land, across a narrow strait, he had established a mission-post among the Hurons. The Indians at Mackinac thus knew something of the white men. With wonder they gazed upon the "great wooden canoe." They crowded on board the Griffin with every testimonial of confidence and friendship, and when one of the cannon was fired, and its roar reverberated through the forest, they were astonished, but not frightened.

Though this remote village seemed so peaceful and happy, the strong palisades which surrounded it proved that the voyagers had not yet got beyond the vestiges of Adam's fall. Those defences spoke of midnight assaults, of savage yells, of tomahawks, scalps, blood, misery, and death. La Salle, aware of the influence of outward appearance upon the minds of men, dressed himself in a very rich scarlet cloak fringed with gold lace. With a plumed military cap upon his head, a long sword at his side, and an imposing escort of well-dressed and well-armed men, he was rowed ashore, to make a visit of ceremony to the chief. His reception was as hospitable and friendly as those untutored men were capable of giving.

La Salle had sent forward several canoes of men, to collect all the furs they could on their way, and store them at Mackinac. These furs, upon his arrival, La Salle would transfer to the Griffin and send them back to Fort Frontenac, to be thence transported to Europe. But these men had bitterly disappointed him. Some of them had run away and joined the Indians, attracted by the apparently careless, easy life which the wigwam presented. Others had been bribed, by higher wages, to join rival trading parties. One of the canoes of deserters had pushed on to the Falls of St. Mary. These falls, quite renowned in the early explorations of these remote regions, were situated on the strait which connects Lake Superior with Huron.

After a short tarry at Mackinac, the sails of the Griffin were again spread, and passing through the strait between Mackinac and the main land, they entered the head of Lake Michigan. They coasted along its northern border in beautiful summer weather, and within pleasant view of the shore, until they came to an island where there was a pleasant, sheltered cove, at the mouth of Green Bay, a sheet of water which, through a broad entrance studded with islands, spread out on the west of Michigan, a hundred miles in length, by about twenty in breadth.

A tribe of Indians, called Pottawatomies, inhabited this island. Here it was La Salle's good fortune to find one of his large canoes, well freighted with furs. He had also laid in a large store at Mackinac. As he was soon to leave the Griffin, to cross the land by portages, and paddle in birch canoes down distant and unknown rivers, he decided to send back the Griffin to Erie, with her rich freight of furs. At Erie they would be carried on men's shoulders around the falls to Niagara, thence reshipped to Frontenac, and thence sent to Europe. He remained at the island a fortnight, freighting his ship. She commenced her return voyage with a pilot and five mariners. The value of the cargo was such as to make La Salle a rich man. Notwithstanding all his discouragements, his voyage had thus far been a success. Cheered with hope, he now prepared to resume his adventurous explorations in birch canoes.

La Salle, having despatched the richly freighted Griffin from the mouth of Green Bay to his abandoned ship-yard at Erie, resumed his voyage in four heavily laden birch canoes. The company remaining with him consisted of seventeen men. His freight consisted of a blacksmith's forge, mechanic tools, household utensils, merchandise, arms, and ammunition. A very skilful and intelligent Indian accompanied the party as interpreter and hunter. They paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan, landing every night to build their camp, kindle their fire, and cook their supper. Immediately upon landing, the Indian, with his musket on his shoulder, disappeared in the forest, and almost invariably soon returned with an ample supply of game.

It was the 19th of September, 1679, when the canoes left the mouth of Green Bay. The stormy days of autumn were approaching, when these northern lakes were often ploughed by fierce gales. The island from which they set out was several leagues from the main land. They had no sails. Their boats were propelled only by the paddle. The first night, before they reached the main land, dense clouds seemed hurrying through the skies and thickening over their heads. The wind increased into a gale. The blackened waters of the lake were lashed into foam-crested billows. The sun went down, and gloomy darkness curtained the sky and enveloped the sea. The spray dashed over them. Occasionally a wave would break into the canoes. At length they discerned the dim outline of the shore. It was a long sandy beach, with no cove, no indentation, into which they could run their boats. The surges, driven by the northeast storm, struck the shore so furiously that it seemed impossible to effect a landing; and yet every moment they were threatened with destruction. In the darkness they kept as near together as they could, to help one another in case of disaster. Thus hour after hour passed; as our voyagers, weary, hungry, cold, and drenched, struggled against the waves. A little after midnight the wind lulled. Watching their opportunity they ran their canoes upon the shore, and leaping into the water, carefully dragged them above the waves. The rain still fell. They unloaded each canoe, and so packed the precious contents that they could protect them from the rain by covering them with the canoes turned upside down. With their axes they soon constructed a frail camp. With the flash of powder they with difficulty kindled a fire, for everything was dripping with moisture, and every log was soaked.

They threw themselves down to sleep upon the wet ground, and in their drenched garments, but with, their feet toward roaring fires. Accustomed as they were to exposure, these hardships must have caused severe suffering. The lurid morning revealed to them but a raging sea and a bleak and barren expanse, where no game could be found. Here, in their cheerless camp, they were detained by the wind and the rain four days. The only game their Indian hunter brought in, was a single porcupine. They found its flesh savory, though it afforded scarcely a mouthful for each man.

The storm at length ceased. Again they launched their fragile canoes, and paddled along the placid waters. Soon another storm arose suddenly, and so severe, that they were glad to take shelter upon the lee side of a rocky island. There was no growth of timber with which they could build a camp, and scarcely sufficient fuel for a fire. Here, like shipwrecked mariners, they remained for two days, wrapped in their blankets, and huddled for shelter in the cavities of the rocks. Mercilessly they were pelted with rain mingled with snow.

But again the clouds were dispelled; the sun shone brightly. The mirrored waves of the lake invited them to its surface. Though sobered by their sufferings, they paddled rapidly along, hoping that a long calm was to succeed the storm. Their voyage was cheered by one bright and sunny day, when the angry clouds again began to gather to do them battle. The tempest rose so suddenly that they had no time to seek a harbor, but had to run their canoes through the surf on the shore. All had to leap into the waves to save the frail boats from being broken on the stony beach. This, their third landing, was near the point where the River Milwaukie enters the lake.

They had not taken a large supply of provisions with them in their canoes, for they had hoped to find a supply of game by the way. Nearly all their store of corn and vegetables was now exhausted. Two or three Indians were seen in the distance; but they did not venture to approach so formidable a looking band. Three men were sent, with the calumet of peace, to search for their villages and obtain food. They came to a cluster of deserted wigwams, where the sagacity of their Indian guide showed them an abundance of corn, concealed from the ravages of wild beasts, in cells under ground. These honest or politic men took all they wanted, and left behind them ample payment.

In the evening twilight, as the boatmen were gathered around their camp fire, quite a group of Indians was seen cautiously approaching. La Salle advanced to meet them, with the calumet uplifted in his hands. As soon as the Indians saw this emblem of peace, all their fears were dispelled. They rushed forward like a joyous band of children, singing and dancing. They had been to their wigwams, found the treasures which had been left there, and their joy was inexpressible. They returned late in the evening to their homes; but in the morning the grateful creatures returned, bearing an abundant supply of game and corn. La Salle richly rewarded them.

Nature seemed in sympathy with these blessings of peace, for the sun, emerging from the clouds, shone down serenely upon these children of a common Father, and the weary voyagers, greatly cheered, again launched their canoes upon the solitary lake.

Thus they continued, day after day, paddling along the apparently interminable journey to the South. They passed the spot where the majestic city of Chicago now stands. It was two hundred years ago. Not even an Indian wigwam was seen to break the expanded and dreary solitude. A constant succession of storms was encountered until they reached the foot of the lake. Any one who has witnessed the grandeur with which the ocean-like billows of Lake Michigan often break upon the western shore, will wonder how it was possible for those frail canoes to ride over such surges. Every night it was necessary to land, and often the storm detained them for many hours.

Having reached the foot of the lake, they turned to the eastward. Here they found a milder clime and more tranquil waters. Deer and wild turkeys were very abundant, and their Indian hunter kept them supplied with game. The trees were festooned with grape-vines, which were laden with the richest clusters of the delicious fruit. They found a spot at the foot of the lake so attractive in its landscape beauty, so abounding in fruit and game, that, weary as they were with their arduous voyage, they drew their canoes on shore for a few days of rest.

The labor of one or two hours constructed a comfortable cabin for the accommodation of all. Fuel was abundant for the cheering camp fire. The lake furnished the choicest fish, and the forest supplied them with venison and every variety of game. Having feasted upon the most delicious of hunters' fare, they wrapped themselves in their blankets, and enjoyed that rich sleep which is one of the greatest blessings of the worn and the weary.

Moccasined footprints had been seen on the sands of the beach, indicating that there were Indians near. One of the men out hunting at a little distance from the camp, came upon a large black bear, which had climbed a high tree, and was feeding upon the luscious grapes. Taking deliberate aim he sent a bullet through the head of the bear, and the huge animal tumbled lifeless to the ground. It so happened that there was a large party of Indian hunters not far off, who heard the report of the gun. It was to them a very unusual sound; for they were armed only with bows and arrows. Carefully concealing themselves, they followed the man as he dragged the carcass to the camp. It was evening. A brilliant fire illuminated the whole scene. They examined the encampment, counted the number of men, and saw at some distance on the beach, piles of precious goods, screened from rain by the canoes which were turned bottom upward over them.

In the darkness of the night, two or three of them crept noiselessly to the unguarded canoes, and stole several articles of value. A wakeful eye chanced to catch a glimpse of the shadowy form of an Indian stealing through the forest, and gave the alarm. All sprang to arms. La Salle had, as we have said, an Indian guide and hunter with him, from Green Bay. The Indian band proved to be from that vicinity. They soon entered into a conference with La Salle's guide. The savages assumed great frankness and friendliness. One of the chiefs said:

"We heard the gun and feared that a party of our enemies was approaching. We crept near your camp to ascertain whether you were friends or foes. But now that we know that we are among Frenchmen, we are with our brothers. We love Frenchmen, and wish to smoke with them the pipe of peace."

La Salle was cautious. He replied, "Let four of your men, and four only, come in the morning to our camp." In the meantime he kept a careful watch. Four venerable men came in the morning, smoked their pipes and proffered friendship. Mutual pledges were exchanged, and they departed. It was not until after they had left, that the discovery was made that several valuable articles had been stolen. This entirely changed the aspect of affairs. La Salle, as energetic as he was conciliatory, resolved to have satisfaction.

Fearing that if the affront were unavenged he would be exposed to new insults, he took several well-armed men, penetrated the woods and captured two Indians. Having led them as prisoners to his camp, he liberated one, and sent him to the chiefs of the band to say, that if the stolen goods were not immediately restored, the other captive would be put to death.

The Indians, who seemed to have set a high value upon life, were appalled. They could not restore the goods. Many of them had been destroyed. The chiefs returned this reply. As the Indians greatly outnumbered the Frenchmen, they resolved to attempt to rescue the captive by force. In strong military array they advanced to the attack. La Salle marshalled his little force upon a mound, surrounded by a sandy plain, where there was neither tree, rock, nor shrub, to protect the assailants. The bullet could be thrown much farther than the arrow. The hostile forces stood gazing at each other for some time. The chiefs saw that an attack was hopeless, and that advance was certain death. La Salle had no wish to redden his hands with their blood.

In this emergence Father Hennepin in the peaceful garb of a priest went forward with the Indian interpreter and solicited a conference. Two old men advanced to meet him. With unexpected intelligence they proposed that the goods which could be restored, should be sent back, and that the rest should be amply paid for. This brought peace. Rich presents were interchanged, the Indians giving several beaver-skin robes. There were feasting and dancing and speech-making. All hearts were happy.

Again the canoes were put afloat. Coasting up the eastern shore of the lake fifty or sixty miles they reached the mouth of St. Joseph's River, then called the River of the Miamis. This is the second river in importance in the State of Michigan. It has a good harbor at its mouth, flows through an expanse of two hundred and fifty miles, and affords boat navigation for a distance of one hundred and thirty miles. Here the weary travellers found a port, after a voyage of forty days from Green Bay.

Gloomy clouds of trouble now darkened around. His men, weary of their hardships, became mutinous. They remonstrated against continuing their journey into the depths of the unexplored wilderness, peopled by they knew not what hostile tribes. La Salle had ordered Lieutenant Tonti, with twenty men, to cross the head of the lake and meet him at that point by a much shorter route. The lieutenant had not arrived. It was feared that he was lost. At length he came. But he brought no tidings of the Griffin. Two months had elapsed since that vessel sailed from Green Bay. Her orders were, after discharging her freight at Niagara, to return immediately to St. Joseph's, for another cargo of furs. La Salle had embarked more than all his fortune in that vessel. There was no insurance in those days. He was deeply in debt to the traders in Quebec and Montreal.

Fearful were his apprehensions that the vessel was lost. If so he was ruined, a hopeless bankrupt. The vessel was lost. No tidings of her ever reached any human ears. In some dreadful tragedy, witnessed only by God, the vessel and its crew sunk in the depths of the waters. While thus harassed with anxiety, the cold blasts of approaching winter swept the bleak plains. The rivers would soon be closed with ice. His provisions were exhausted, so that his party was entirely dependent for food upon such game as could be taken. Under these adverse circumstances the resolution of this indomitable man remained unshaken. Gathering his murmuring companions around him, he said:

"I have set out to explore the Mississippi. If you abandon me I cannot proceed. But I shall remain here with the missionaries. You may find your way back as you can, or disperse through the forest as you please."

The men continued to murmur. But for their own protection they worked diligently upon the fort. From this point La Salle intended to establish communication with his depot at Niagara. The boatmen also, who were earnestly devoted to the ritualism of the church, under the direction of the missionaries built a log chapel, where religious services were daily held. A numerous tribe of Indians, the Miamis, but to which the missionaries gave the name of St. Joseph's band, had a flourishing village here. There were very friendly. From the fine boat harbor they could fish upon the lake, or, in pursuit of game, could paddle hundreds of miles up the forest-crowned river and its numerous tributaries. Day after day La Salle watched the horizon of the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sails of the returning Griffin, bringing him supplies, and the tidings that his precious furs were safe and his fortune secure. Night after night he placed his head upon his pillow, the victim of that hope deferred which maketh the heart sick.

Thirty-three days of anxiety and toil thus passed away. The boatmen, who had come with Lieutenant Tonti, increased his number to over thirty men. At the point of land where the river entered the lake, there was a bluff, of considerable elevation and of triangular form, containing an acre or more of pretty level land. It was at that time covered with trees. This commanding position was chosen for the fort. Two sides were bounded by water. On the third or land side of the triangle there was a deep ravine. A breastwork of hewn logs was raised several feet high, enclosing a space eighty feet long by forty feet broad. And this all was surrounded by stout palisades.

The fortress was artistically constructed, and could bid defiance to any attack by the Indians. It was also admirably selected to give the French command of the region, against any encroachments of the English.

Through the whole month of November the men toiled upon these works, fed only upon the flesh of turkeys, deer, and bears, which their Indian hunter brought in. It was learned that the Griffin, which, it will be remembered, sailed from Green Bay, bound first to Mackinac, did not reach that port. The vessel must have foundered somewhere by the way. The natives on the coast had heard nothing of the vessel. Seventy days had now elapsed since she sailed, and all hopes of ever hearing from her again were relinquished.

On the 3rd of December the whole party of thirty-three persons, in eight canoes, left Fort Miami, as La Salle called his works, and paddled up the river, a distance of seventy miles, toward the south. Considerable time was lost in the endeavor to find the trail or portage which led across, westerly from the St. Joseph's River, to the head waters of the Kankakee, which is the eastern branch of the Illinois River.

La Salle, imprudently exploring alone, became lost in the forest. The darkness of a stormy night, with falling snow, overtook him. He fired his gun as a signal of distress; but silence was the only answer. Soon he espied, in the distance, the light of a fire. It was the encampment of a solitary Indian, who had formed for himself a soft bed of leaves. Alarmed by the report of the gun, he had fled. La Salle appropriated to himself the cheerless quarters and slept soundly until morning. All the forenoon of the next day he wandered, and it was not until the afternoon that he rejoined his companions. He came in with two opossums hanging at his belt, which he had killed.

At length their Indian hunter found the trail. They had gone too far up the river. The men took the canoes and the freight upon their shoulders, and carried them over the portage, of five or six miles, which the Indians had traversed for countless ages. Dreary in the extreme was the wintry landscape which now opened before them. The ground was frozen hard. Ice fringed the stream, and the flat marshy expanse was whitened with snow. For nearly a hundred miles the sluggish Kankakee flowed through a morass, which afforded growth to but little more than rushes and alders. Their provisions were nearly exhausted. No game could be found. They were hungry. Each night they landed, built their fires, and with scarcely any shelter wrapped themselves in their blankets for almost comfortless sleep.

At length the river emerged from these dreary marshes and entered upon a large undulating prairie, treeless, but whose fertility was attested by the tall, yet withered grass. The scene became far more cheering. Though most of the herds, which in summer grazed these rich fields, had wandered far away to the south, their indefatigable hunter succeeded in shooting two deer and a stray buffalo, which was found mired. He also took several fat turkeys and swans.

Thus, with revived spirits, the party, having paddled three hundred miles down the infinite windings of the Kankakee, entered the more majestic and beautiful river Illinois. The length of the stream from this point to its entrance into the Mississippi is two hundred and sixty miles, exclusive of its windings. As they were swept down by the current, they came to a large Indian village on the right bank of the river, near the present town of Ottawa. There were four or five hundred cabins, very substantially built, and covered with thick mats very ingeniously woven from rushes. Extensive corn-fields were near the village, but the harvest had been gathered in.

Silence and solitude reigned there. Not a living being was to be seen. The inhabitants had all migrated, according to their custom, to spend the winter in more southern hunting-grounds. Large quantities of corn were stored away for summer use in dry cellars. La Salle removed fifty bushels to his canoes, hoping to find the owners farther south and amply repay them. It would have been of no avail to have left payment, for it would be carried away by any band of Indians who chanced to be passing by. The hunger of his men, in his judgment rendered the taking of the corn a necessity. This spot was probably near the site of Rock Fort, in La Salle county, Illinois.

For four days they continued their course without coming in sight of any human being or any habitation. Yet they passed through scenery often very charming, presenting a wide-spread ocean of undulating land, with groves and lawns and parks smiling so peacefully in the bright sunshine.

The morning of the 1st of January, 1680, came. All gathered around the missionaries to commemorate the opening of the new year by religious services. Prayers were offered, hymns were chanted, sins were confessed, and the blessing of God was invoked upon their enterprise. At the conclusion of these devotions the canoes were again pushed out into the stream. On the fourth of the month they entered an expansion of the river where the breadth of water assumed the dimension of a lake. This sheet of water, now called Peoria Lake, was twenty miles long and three broad.

At its foot they came upon a very large Indian encampment. La Salle presented the calumet of peace, and fraternal relations were immediately established. At this point he decided to build a large boat to sail down the river. The loss of the Griffin, thus depriving him of his supplies, had frustrated all his plans. He built a strong fort, which he called, from his own grief, "Crevecoeur," or the Broken Hearted. Here this extraordinary man left most of his company, and with five men, in mid-winter, set out to cross the pathless wilderness on foot, a distance of twelve hundred miles, along the southern shores of Erie and Ontario to Fort Frontenac. The wonderful journey, through storms of snow and rain, across bleak plains and morasses and unbridged rivers, was safely accomplished in about seventy days. He obtained the needful supplies, freighted several canoes, engaged new voyagers, and after innumerable perils again reached the head waters of the Illinois. Here he learned that his garrison at Crevecoeur was dispersed and the fort destroyed. This ended his hopes. He went back to Frontenac a disappointed but indomitable man, and the enterprise was for the time relinquished.

Here we must leave La Salle for a time, while we give an account of the expedition from Crevecoeur, up the Mississippi, and of the destruction of the colony.