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

The Last Days of la Salle


La Salle was now fully convinced that he was west of the Mississippi River. He resolved to set out on a journey across the country to Canada, a distance of probably not less than two thousand miles. His design was to send tidings to France of his disasters, and thus to secure aid to be sent thence to his suffering and expiring colony.

By pursuing his route toward the northeast, he was sure of eventually striking the Mississippi. He would then feel quite at home. Following up that stream and the Illinois, he could easily pass over to the lakes, and then reach Canada through regions with which he was quite familiar. More than two months were spent in strengthening the defences of the settlement, and in laying in stores of provisions for those who were to be left behind.

At midnight of the 7th of January, 1687, the whole company met in the little chapel for a solemn religious service, to implore God's blessing upon the enterprise. The scene was very affecting. Nearly all were in tears. There were but few chances that those then bidding each other adieu would ever meet again. Those who left, and those who remained, were alike exposed. La Salle selected twenty men to accompany him. Among those, were his brother, his ever-faithful Indian attendant, M. Douay, to whose pen we are indebted for the record of the last expedition, and M. Joutel, who kept a daily journal of the events of this journey. M. Douay wrote also quite a minute account of the expedition. Both of their narratives now lie before me. We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of either. There were but twenty French left behind, including seven women and children. La Salle gave them a parting address. Father Douay writes:

"He made an address full of eloquence, with that engaging way so natural to him. The whole colony was present, and were all moved to tears. They were alike persuaded of the necessity of his voyage and the uprightness of his intentions."

The property left with the colonists consisted of seventy pigs, large and small, twenty hens and chickens, a few barrels of corn, which was carefully kept for the sick, a considerable quantity of powder and lead, and eight cannons, but without balls.

The heroic and devout Father Membre remained as the spiritual guide. M. Barbier was left with the secular command. La Salle drew up very minute directions for the administration of affairs during his absence.

"We parted," writes M. Joutel, "in a manner so tender, so sorrowful, that it would seem that we had a secret presentiment that we should never again see each other. Father Membre was deeply affected. He said to me that never before had he experienced a parting so painful."

It was the 12th of January, 1689, when this truly forlorn hope set out upon its long journey. They took with them the five horses, bearing some articles of food and such things as they would need for their night's encampment. The second day of their journey they came to a plain about six miles wide, which seemed to be covered with buffaloes, deer, flocks of wild turkeys, and every variety of game. Beyond the plain there was a splendid growth of trees. Upon entering the grove, they found that it fringed a small river. Concealed by these trees, they succeeded in shooting five buffaloes which had come to the river to drink. They crossed the river on a raft, and camped a mile and a half beyond, in a drenching rain. The skins and meat of these animals were packed upon the horses. The skins, easily tanned, were of immense value in their subsequent lodgings.

The next morning, the 14th, the sun rose in a cloudless sky. The prairie seemed spread out for leagues before them, covered with herds of buffaloes and deer, while immense flocks of turkeys and other birds of the prairie rose before them. About noon they saw, in the distance, an immense herd of buffaloes rushing over the plains as if mad. They conjectured at once that some Indian hunters were pursuing them. Their conjecture proved correct.

Soon they saw a savage, on the full run, and very flat-footed, pursuing the herd. Hastily the load was thrown from one of the horses, a man was mounted upon him, and galloping over the plain soon overtook the Indian, and led him back to the company. When the poor man saw himself surrounded by a group of white men, such as he had seen before, he was greatly terrified. And he had cause to be frightened. La Salle's associates infamously urged that he should be put to death, in revenge for the murder of their companions by some unknown Indian band. The humane, magnanimous leader found it necessary to present to his reckless followers such motives as they could appreciate. He said to them:

"We are but few in number. We have before us a journey of hundreds of miles through a region crowded with Indian tribes. If we rouse the vengeance of the savages, we shall all be cut off. Let us treat them with kindness, and thus we shall secure for ourselves kind treatment in return."

The cordial smiles and friendly signs of this truly good man soon dispelled apparently the great alarm of the stranger. A fire was built. After abundantly feeding their hungry guest, and smoking with him the friendly pipe, La Salle, assuring him of his desire to do harm to none, but good to all, dismissed him with presents which to the savage must have seemed almost like celestial gifts. Still the cautious Indian, accustomed to treachery, was evidently uncertain as to the fate which awaited him. As he withdrew, he cast anxious glances around, until he had attained the distance of a few rods, when he took to flight, with almost the rapidity of a deer.

The travellers continued their route, and after an hour or two, overtook another Indian hunter. They caught him, and lavished upon him the same acts of kindness. As evening was approaching, they saw a large band of savages in the distance. Their attitude was somewhat menacing. When they caught sight of the little cluster of strangers, they separated into two parties, and advanced on the right and left, as if to surround them. When the two bands had come within musket-shot, La Salle ordered a halt. The savages halted also. For a few moments they attentively regarded each other, no movement being made on either side.

Then La Salle, laying aside his arms, walked slowly forward toward the party where the head chief seemed to be, making signs for the chief to come and meet him. The chief was a tall man of powerful frame, and richly decorated. He came cautiously forward, while the rest of his party followed slowly at a little distance behind. As soon as it was seen that the two chiefs met cordially, all came running together in the interchange of caresses and every mark of friendly greeting.

Fires were built, food was cooked, pipes were smoked. There was feasting and dancing and shouting. It was a marvellous spectacle which was then and there presented of semi-civilized and full barbarian jollification.

The savages were evidently delighted with their reception. They examined their presents with astonishment. With unfeigned joy they learned that La Salle intended to return and settle in their country; and that he would bring an abundance of his treasures, which he would exchange with them for such articles as they had to part with. It was now the hour of evening twilight. The two parties separated, each going its own way. About a mile and a half in advance, there was a beautiful grove and a running stream. La Salle encamped there. With his customary prudence he threw up intrenchments, and established sentinels as if he were in the enemy's country.

They had but just established their camp, when they saw six savages approaching, following each other in single file. They came forward without any hesitation, as if visiting old friends. By signs they said that they had heard of the kind treatment their fellow countrymen had met with, and that they were brothers, not enemies. After a short and pleasant visit they retired, and the camp was left to undisturbed repose.

In the morning, at an early hour, the march was resumed. There was before them a stream too deep to be forded. Not wishing to lose time in constructing a raft, they followed up the west bank of the stream for several miles. Their route led through an enchanting region of lawn-like prairies and park-like groves. The river was fringed with trees of every variety, without any underbrush. There were many pretty little creeks to be crossed, which ran into the main stream. The water was pure, sweet, and clear as crystal. Occasionally they came to a cane-brake, through which they cut their way with axes. Their appetites were fed with abundance of game.

The next day, the 19th, they made but a short journey, and experienced great fatigue in fording streams and cutting their way through cane-brakes. They came across a few deserted cabins of the Indians. During the slow progress of the day, their skilful Indian hunter Nika killed eight buffaloes. The most tender cuts were taken from them, and they there crossed the river by a ford.

After traversing a few leagues, they came to another river, flowing through a low plain, elevated but slightly above the stream. A dense fog set in, accompanied by a deluging rain. Here they encamped in the woods which bordered the river. They passed a comfortless night, and the storm detained them all the next day.

On the 19th the rain ceased, but the fog continued. Their path led through marshy ground thoroughly soaked with rain, so that they often sank to their knees in the mire. Their feet were shod with moccasins made of the hide of buffaloes. These being alternately wet and dried, became stiff, and blistered their feet cruelly. Fortunately, they struck upon one of the "streets" made by the buffaloes, as in thousands they followed one after the other, crushing their way through the cane-brakes. These animals were, by instinct, good engineers, and invariably selected the most favorable routes. Still the voyagers were often compelled to wade through deep mire, and their sufferings were at times severe.

On the night of the 19th, they fortunately came upon a ridge, where they could enjoy a dry encampment. They built a roaring fire, cooked a savory supper, nursed their blistered feet, and during a few hours of refreshing sleep forgot their toils. As they awoke the next morning the river was again falling. Still they pressed on, entering upon another vast prairie covered with herds of buffaloes. At night they encamped upon the banks of a river too deep to be forded. On the 21st they ascended the banks of the stream, hoping to find a shallow spot where they could cross. Instead of this, they came to a place where the river flowed through a narrow and deep channel, with large trees on each side. They cut down two of these trees, so that their branches met in the middle, crossed on this bridge, and swam their horses over.

On the other side, a beautiful country, of elevated, undulating prairie, opened before them. As they were preparing to encamp in the shelter of a grove, they heard voices, and soon beheld fifteen Indians approaching. The savages manifested no alarm, but in token of peace laid aside their bows and arrows, and came into the camp. They ate, smoked, exchanged presents, and went on their way rejoicing, promising to visit the camp again.

The horses, as well as the men, were quite exhausted. They therefore remained, for a day of rest, on their very pleasant camping ground. During the day a band of twenty-two Indians came to them. They had shields impervious to arrows, made of the hide of buffaloes. They were at war with another tribe. They said that there were other white men, at the distance of ten days' journey on the west, doubtless referring to the Spaniards. The interview was mutually pleasant, and La Salle obtained some important information in reference to the continuance of his route.

Onward they pressed, day after day, with alternate sunshine and storm, through marsh and forest, over prairies and across rivers, without encountering any adventure of much importance until the 1st of February. That day they discovered, at a distance, an Indian village. La Salle, leaving M. Joutel in charge of the camp, took his brother and seven men, and set out to reconnoitre. They came to a village of twenty-five wigwams, very pleasantly situated. Each wigwam contained four or five men, besides quite a number of women and children. The Indians received their guests very hospitably, conducted them to the dwelling of their chief, and seated them upon mats of buffalo skins. A great crowd gathered within and around the cabin. The chief, after feeding them abundantly upon buffalo steaks, informed them that he had been expecting their arrival. Other Indians had told him that they were in the country, and that they were on a route which would lead them near his village.

Perfect harmony prevailed. Presents were exchanged. The Indians were eager to give a nicely tanned buffalo robe for a knife or almost any trinket in the hands of the white men. But La Salle had no means of transporting the robes, which would prove so valuable in European markets. They continued their journey, often meeting with Indians, who were always friendly. At times a brotherly band would accompany them during the march of a whole day. By the aid of the Indians, the very light frame of a canoe was constructed, which was easily packed and carried. By stretching over it the skin of a buffalo, from which the hair had been removed, they were furnished with a very buoyant boat, with which to cross the rivers. The horses could easily swim the streams.

On the 10th of February, they saw before them a vast plain which had been swept by the flames. Thinking that they might not find game there, they made a halt of two days, to lay in a store of jerked meat. Resuming their journey, they soon passed the scathed region and entered again upon a country of bloom and verdure. On the evening of the 15th, they camped on the borders of a stream, where they saw evidences that a band of savages had recently passed that way.

The next morning La Salle took his brother and seven men, and followed a well-trodden Indian trail in search of a village. After a short walk, they came upon a cluster of fifty or sixty cabins. His reception was, as usual, cordial in the extreme. The leading men of the village were courteous in their bearing and intelligent in reference to matters relating to their own country. They gave the names of twenty tribes or nations, through whose territories La Salle had already passed from his settlement, which he called St. Louis. On the 17th, one of the horses fell, and sprained his shoulder, so that he had to be left behind.

For several days the journey was somewhat monotonous. They made about twenty or twenty-five miles a day. Indian hunters were continually met with, and Indian villages entered with essentially the same rites of friendship and hospitality. From some of these Indians they heard tidings of those Frenchmen who had deserted. They were living in a very friendly manner among the Indians. On the 1st of March they came to an immense marsh, partially submerged in water. The intricate passage across it was very difficult to find, and required the services of a guide. Several of the Indians volunteered, and with great tenderness led them safely across.

Passing the morass caused a delay of four or five days, as it could not be undertaken in a drenching rain which chanced then to be falling. On the 15th they emerged from this gloomy region and entered a country which, from the contrast, appeared to them remarkably beautiful. Here they encamped for a brief rest. Nika brought in word that he had killed two buffaloes, and wished to have a couple of horses sent to bring in the meat. A party of five was sent out, led by M. Moranget, who was a rash and irritable man. There were three men who had accompanied the hunter, and who were cutting up and drying the meat, in preparation for transporting it to the camp. At the same time they were cooking for themselves some of the choicest pieces.

When Moranget reached the place and found the men feasting, as he thought, rather than jerking the meat, he reprimanded them, in his accustomed tones of severity. The men chanced to be the very worst and most desperate in the camp. Moranget accompanied his denunciations with still more irritating actions. He took from them the delicious morsels which they cooked. Four men, for another had joined them, greatly enraged, sullenly abandoned their work, and retiring a short distance agreed to avenge themselves by killing Moranget, and also by killing Nika and another man who was the valet of La Salle. Both of these men were friends and supporters of Moranget.

They waited till night. All took their supper together. It was the night of the 17th of March. Though in that genial climate the weather was serene and mild, a rousing fire was found very grateful in protecting them from the chill of the night air. With the fading twilight the stars shone down brightly upon them, and, surrounded by the silence and solemnity of the prairie and the forest, they were soon apparently all asleep.

One of the murderers, Liotot, cautiously arose as by agreement, and with a hatchet in his hand, creeping toward Moranget, with one desperate blow split open his skull from crown to chin. The deed was effectually done. And yet with sinewy arm blow followed blow, till the head was one mass of clotted gore. The other two were despatched in the same way. The three remaining conspirators stood, with their guns cocked and primed, to shoot down either of the victims who might succeed in making any resistance. There is some slight discrepancy in the detail of these murders. It is said that Moranget, upon receiving the first blow, made a convulsive movement, as if to rise; but that the valet and the Indian did not stir.

One crime always leads to another. The conspirators, having perpetrated these murders, now consulted together as to what was next to be done. Moranget was the nephew of La Salle. The valet and the Indian were his devoted friends. Their death could not be concealed. It was certain that La Salle would not allow it to go unavenged. Though punishment might be postponed until they should emerge from their long and perilous journey through the wilderness, there could be no doubt that as soon as they should reach a French military post they would all die upon the scaffold.

They decided to return to the camp, enlist a few others on their side, kill La Salle, and others of his prominent friends, when unsuspicious of danger; and thus involving all the rest in their own criminality, effectually prevent any witnesses from rising against them. Probably in some degree tortured by remorse, and trembling in view of the task which they had undertaken, they remained for two days, the 18th and 19th, where they were, ostensibly employed in jerking the meat.

La Salle, not knowing how to account for this long absence, became uneasy. He decided to go himself, taking a few others with him, to ascertain the cause. To his friends he expressed serious apprehensions that some great calamity had happened. M. Joutel was left in charge of the camp, and La Salle, with Father Douay and another companion, set out in search of the lost ones.

Father Douay gives the following account of the tragic scene which ensued:

"All the way La Salle conversed with me of matters of piety, grace, and predestination. He expatiated upon all his obligations to God, for having saved him from so many dangers during the last twenty years that he had traversed America. He seemed to me to be peculiarly penetrated with a grateful sense of God's kindness to him. Suddenly I saw him plunged into a deep melancholy, for which he himself could not account. He was so troubled that he no longer seemed like himself. As this was an unusual state of mind with him, I endeavored to rouse him from his lethargy.

"Two leagues after, we found the bloody cravat of his valet. He perceived two eagles flying over his head. At the same time he discerned some of his people on the edge of the river. He approached them, asking what had become of his nephew. They answered incoherently, pointing to a spot where they said we should find him. We proceeded some steps along the bank, to the fatal spot where two of his murderers were hidden in the grass, one on each side, with guns cocked. One missed Monsieur de la Salle. The one firing at the same time shot him in the head. He died an hour after, on the 19th of March 1687.

"I expected the same fate. But this danger did not occupy my thoughts, penetrated with grief at so cruel a spectacle. I saw him fall, a step from me, his face all full of blood. He had confessed and performed his devotions just before we started. During his last moments he manifested the spirit of a good Christian, especially in the act of pardoning his murderers.

"Thus died our wise commander, constant in adversity, intrepid, generous, engaging, dexterous, skilful, capable of everything. He, who for twenty years had softened the fierce temper of countless savage tribes, was massacred by the hands of his own domestics, whom he had loaded with caresses. He died in the prime of life, in the midst of his enterprises, without having seen their success. I could not leave the spot where he had expired, without having buried him as well as I could. After which I raised a cross over his grave."

In reference to the burial, Joutel gives a little different account. He says: "The shot which killed La Salle was the signal for the accomplices of the assassin to rush to the spot. With barbarous cruelty they stripped him of his clothing, even to his shirt. The poor dead body was treated with every indignity. The corpse was left, entirely naked, to the voracity of wild beasts."

Both of these accounts may be essentially true. The barbarities practised by the assassins may have preceded or followed the hasty burial of Douay. Father Douay, in his account, continues:

"Occupied with these thoughts, which La Salle had a thousand times suggested to us, while relating the events of the new discoveries, I unceasingly adored the inscrutable designs of God in this conduct of His Providence, uncertain still what fate He reserved for us, as our desperadoes plotted nothing less than our destruction. We at last entered the place where Monsieur Cavalier was. The assassins entered the cabin unceremoniously, and seized all that was there. I had arrived a moment before them. I had no need to speak; for as soon as Cavalier beheld my countenance, all bathed in tears, he exclaimed aloud:

"'Ah, my poor brother is dead.'

"This holy ecclesiastic, whose virtue has been so often tried in the apostolic labors of Canada, fell at once on his knees. I myself, and some others did the same, to prepare to die the same death. But the murderers, touched by some sentiment of compassion at the sight of the venerable old man, and besides half-penitent for the murders they had committed, resolved to spare us, on condition that we should never return to France. But as they were still undecided, and many of them wished to go home to France, we heard them often say to one another, that they must get rid of us; that otherwise we should accuse them before the tribunals, if we once had them in the kingdom.

"The leader of these desperadoes, a wretch by the name of Duhaut, at once assumed the supreme command. The company now consisted of but seventeen. The timid ones, trembling for their lives, feigned entire devotion to the cause of the assassins. Duhaut ruled with an iron hand. It was manifest that the least indication of an insubordinate spirit would lead to instant death. Some of the best men were for organizing a conspiracy to assassinate the assassins. But the priest Cavalier continually said no, repeating the words, 'Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.'"

It is impossible to determine the precise spot where the murder of La Salle and his companions took place. We know that it was several days' journey west of the Cenis Indians, whose territory extended along the banks of Trinity River, which empties into Galveston Bay. It is therefore conjectured that it must have been near one of the streams flowing into the Brazos, in the heart of Texas, probably not far from where Washington now is.