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

A Trip Toward Mexico


Though La Salle was now more than four hundred miles west of the Mississippi River, he was still under the impression that he was east of that point. He therefore, in his blind search, directed his steps toward the setting sun. Father Douay, who accompanied this expedition, has given a detailed account of its adventures.

After religious ceremonies in the chapel of the fort, the party, consisting of twenty persons, set out, on the 22nd of April, 1686. They took, for the journey, four pounds of powder, four pounds of lead, two axes, two dozen knives, two kettles, and a few awls and beads.

On the third day out they entered one of the most beautiful prairies they had ever seen. To their astonishment they saw, on the plain, a large number of people, some on foot and some on horseback. Several of these came galloping toward them, booted and spurred, and seated on saddles. They were Indians who were in a high state of civilization, having long held intimate relations with the Spaniards. They gave the Frenchmen an earnest invitation to visit them, in their village, which was about twenty miles distant. But as this would take them quite out of their course, the invitation was declined. Continuing their tour, they encamped at night, being careful to throw up around them entrenchments which would protect them from attack. The next two days they continued their journey over the prairie, until they reached a river, which La Salle named Robek. The amount of wild cattle seen was prodigious. Many of the herds numbered thousands. In a few moments they shot ten. The meat they cut into very thin slices, and dried in the blazing sun, over the smoke of a smouldering fire. Thus they were provided with nutritious food for four or five days.

Crossing the Robek in a hastily constructed raft, after marching about five miles they came to another very beautiful river, wider and deeper than the Seine at Paris. It was skirted by a magnificent forest, with no underbrush, presenting a park such as the hand of man never planted. In this Eden-like grove there were many trees laden with rich fruit.

This river, which La Salle named La Maligne, they also crossed upon a raft. Passing through the forest beyond, they entered upon another extensive prairie. Continuing their tour through a country which they describe as full of enchantments, with blooming plains skirted with vines, fruit trees, and groves, they came to a river which they called Hiens, from one of their party, a German, who, in endeavoring to ford it, got stuck fast in the mud. Two men swam across with axes on their backs. They then cut down the largest trees, on each side, so that their branches met in the middle. By this bridge the party crossed. More than thirty times, during this trip, they resorted to this measure for crossing streams.

"After several days' march," writes Father Douay, "in a pretty fine country, we entered a delightful territory, where we found a numerous tribe, who received us with all possible friendship; even the women coming to embrace our men. They made us sit down on well-made mats, at the upper end of the wigwam, near the chiefs, who presented us with the calumet, adorned with feathers of every hue, which we had to smoke in turn."

The Indians feasted them abundantly, with the best of their fare, and presented them with some excellently tanned buffalo skins, for moccasins. La Salle gave them, in return, some beads, with which they seemed to be greatly delighted. Father Douay writes:

"During our stay, Chevalier La Salle so won them by his manners, and insinuated so much of the glory of our king, telling them that he was greater and higher than the sun, that they were all ravished with astonishment."

Continuing their journey, they crossed several rivers, until they came to a large Indian village of three hundred cabins. Just as they were approaching the village they came upon a herd of deer and shot one. The Indians, who heard the report and saw the deer fall dead, were terror-stricken. In a mass they fled to the neighboring forest. La Salle, to avoid surprise, entered the village in military array.

Entering the largest cabin, which proved to be that of the chief, they found a very aged woman, the wife of the chief, who, from her infirmities, was unable to fly. La Salle treated the terrified woman with the greatest kindness, and by signs assured her that he intended no harm. Three grown-up sons of the chief, who were watching the progress of events with great solicitude, seeing no indication of hostile measures, cautiously returned. La Salle met there with friendly signs, and accepted the presented calumet. The young chiefs then called to their people in the distance, and all returned. The evening was passed in feasting, dancing, and all kinds of semi-barbarian festivities.

Still La Salle did not venture to sleep in the wigwams, where his party would be entirely in the power of those who might prove treacherous. He returned to encamp in a dense cane-brake, where no foe could approach without giving warning. In the night, some thought they heard approaching footsteps. But La Salle made it manifest that they were all on the alert, and the foe, if there were any foe approaching, drew off.

The alarm was doubtless groundless. The next morning there was a repetition of all the tokens of friendship which were manifested the evening before. Continuing their route about thirty miles, they came to another Indian village. The savages seemed to have no suspicions whatever of the strangers. A party, seeing them approaching in the distance, came out to meet them as if they were old friends. They seemed to be quite gentlemanly men in their courteous and polished demeanor. They gave the strangers an earnest invitation to visit their village.

These Indians had heard of the Spaniards, and of the atrocities of which they were guilty farther west. They were quite overjoyed when told that the French were at war with the Spaniards; and were quite eager to raise an army and march with the French to attack them. La Salle entered into a cordial alliance with these Indians, who were called the Kironas. He promised that he would eventually, if it were in his power, return with more numerous troops.

It would appear that La Salle was now convinced that he would not find the Mississippi by journeying further west; for he turned his steps toward the northeast. There was a large river near the village, across which the hospitable Indians paddled them in their boats. As they were crossing a beautiful prairie, their Indian companion, whose name was Nika, called out suddenly, "I am dead! I am dead."

A venomous snake had bitten him, and the limb began instantly to throb and swell. In rude surgery, they, with their pocket-knives, cut out the flesh around. Deep gashes were cut near the wound hoping that the poison would be carried away in the free flowing of the blood. They applied poultices of herbs, which they had been told were available in such cases. After much suffering, which the Indian bore with wonderful stoicism, he recovered from the perilous wound.

Journeying on, day after day, they at length reached a broad river, whose current was so rapid that they saw, at once, that it would be very difficult to effect a passage. This was probably the Colorado, many miles above the point where they had touched it in one of their previous excursions. They made a raft. Most of the company were afraid to attempt to cross upon it. La Salle, with his brother Cavalier and one or two others, got on. As soon as they pushed out from the shore, into the middle of the stream, the swiftly rushing torrent seized them, whirled the raft around, and swept it down the stream with resistless velocity. In a few moments it disappeared, as the foaming flood bore it around a bend in the stream.

"It was a moment," writes Father Douay, "of extreme anguish for us all. We despaired of ever again seeing our guardian angel the Chevalier de la Salle." Several hours passed away. The men left upon the bank were in utter bewilderment. They knew not what to do. "The day was spent," it is written, "in tears and weeping."

Just before nightfall, to their great joy, they saw La Salle and his party on the opposite side of the river. It subsequently appeared that the raft struck a large tree, which had been torn from the banks, and was almost stationary in the middle of the stream; its roots, heavy with earth and stone, dragging on the bottom. By seizing the branches they dragged themselves out of the current, and by grasping the branches of other trees, overhanging the water, they at length, through a thousand perils, succeeded in gaining the eastern bank, several miles below the point where they had constructed the raft. One of the men was swept from the raft and swam ashore.

The party was now divided, with the foaming and apparently impassable torrent rushing between them. On both sides the night was spent in great anxiety. Many were the plans suggested and abandoned, to form a reunion. In the morning, La Salle shouted to them across the river, that they must build two light rafts, of the very buoyant canes, and cross on them, promising them that he would send several strong swimmers into the river to aid them.

One such raft was constructed. With fear and trembling five men ventured upon it. The raft was so light that it barely supported its burden. With long poles they succeeded in reaching the centre of the stream. Then two men from the opposite side swam out, and by their aid, with vigorous paddling, they safely reached the land, after drifting far down the stream.

The most timid ones were left behind. They dared not venture the passage. La Salle, seeing their hesitation, ordered his men to pack up and continue their march, leaving them behind. The greater peril overcame the less. To be abandoned there they deemed sure destruction. They shouted across the river, begging for delay. Inspired by the energies of almost despair, they vigorously built their raft, and by noon all were happily reassembled to press on their way.

For two days they moved slowly and laboriously along, cutting their way, with the two axes, through an immense forest of cane-brakes. On the third day an incident occurred which peculiarly illustrates the sagacity and endurance of the Indians. Their Indian hunter, Nika, who, as we have said, accompanied La Salle from Canada, left the party the day before they reached the river, in search of game. They had heard nothing from him since. It was in vain to search for him, and the party could not delay its march to wait for his return.

On the evening of the fourth day after his absence, as the men were gathered around the camp fire, little expecting to see Nika again, he came quietly into the camp as composed as if nothing unusual had occurred. He had on his shoulders a large amount of the choicest cuts of venison, which he had dried in the sun, and nearly the whole of a deer which he had just killed. He had probably swum the stream, floating the venison across on a log by his side. And all this he had done, notwithstanding his wound from the bite of a snake and all the cruel surgery he had undergone. La Salle was so overjoyed to see again his faithful attendant and friend, that he ordered several guns to be fired in salute of his safe return.

"Still marching east," writes Father Douay, "we entered countries more beautiful than any we yet had passed. Here we found native tribes who had nothing barbarous about them but the name. Among others we met a very honest Indian returning from the chase with his wife and family. He presented Chevalier de la Salle with one of his horses, and some meat. He also invited all our party to his cabin. To induce us to visit him, he left his wife, children, and game with us as pledges, and galloped off to his village to announce our coming and to secure for us a cordial welcome."

Nika, and another of the attendants of La Salle, accompanied him. The village was at some distance, so that two days passed before their return. The hospitable Indian came back with two horses laden with provisions. Several chiefs and warriors came back with him on horseback. They were all neatly and even beautifully dressed, in softly tanned deer-skins, tastefully fringed, and with head-dresses of waving plumes. In picturesque beauty their attire would favorably compare with the court dresses of most of the European monarchies.

The principal chief rode forward, bearing conspicuously the plumed calumet of peace. La Salle had been slowly advancing, and the two parties met about nine miles from the village. After cordial greetings, the united band continued its march. When but a short distance from the cluster of native dwellings, an immense concourse of people was seen flocking out to meet the strangers. The young men were quite imposingly marshalled in military array. But the reception was so cordial, and the indications of sincerity so unquestionable, that no one entertained the slightest apprehension of treachery.

La Salle and his party remained three days, enjoying the good cheer of this truly hospitable people. This very prudent commander encamped three or four miles outside of the village. He had no fear of the natives, but he had not full confidence in his own men. Any impropriety of the members of his party toward the females of the village, might suddenly turn their friendly relations into bitter hostility. There were apparently many pleasant families. The young maidens were generally of pleasing features, and graceful as sylphs in form. La Salle purchased several horses, which proved to be of inestimable value to him.

The region which the explorers had reached was probably not far from Austin County, in the present State of Texas. It was a more highly civilized and more densely inhabited country than any they had hitherto passed through, in any portion of the continent. For a distance of sixty miles they found a continuous series of villages, but a few miles apart, all prosperous, harmonious, and happy.

Their cabins were large and commodious, frequently forty or fifty feet high, with dome-like roofs, in the shape of the old-fashioned bee-hives. They were made by planting very tall saplings in the ground, in the form of a circle. Their tops were bent down and bound together. This whole framework was very neatly and effectually thatched with the long grass of the prairie. The beds, consisting of soft mats, were ranged around the cabin, raised about three feet from the ground. The fire, seldom needed except for cooking, in that warm latitude, was in the middle. Each cabin usually accommodated two families.

These Indians were called the Coenis nation. It was very evident that they had held some intercourse with the Spaniards. La Salle found among them silver coins, silver spoons, and various kinds of European clothes. Horses were abundant. A horse was readily exchanged for an axe. La Salle could only converse with them by signs. They said no Spaniards had ever yet visited them, though there was a settlement of them at the distance of about six days' journey west. Several of their most intelligent men drew a map of the country upon some bark. They delineated a large river many days journey to the east, which La Salle had no doubt was the Mississippi.

"The Chevalier La Salle," writes Father Douay, "who perfectly understood the art of gaining the Indians of all nations, filled these with admiration at every moment. He told them that the chief of the French was the greatest chief in the world; that he was as far above the Spaniards as the sun is above the earth. On his recounting the victories of our monarch they burst into exclamations of astonishment. I found them very docile and tractable. They comprehended well enough what we told them of the truth of a God."

After the refreshment of this delightful visit, the explorers continued their journey. After travelling about thirty miles, four of the men, during a night's encampment, deserted and went back to cast in their lot for life with the Indians. They were houseless and homeless adventurers, with no ties to bind them to the cares, toils, and restraints of civilized life. It is not surprising that they should have been charmed with the ease, abundance, and freedom of life in the wigwam. They probably became incorporated in the tribes, took Indian wives, and were heard of no more.

At this encampment La Salle and his nephew, M. Moranget, were both attacked with a violent fever. They had frequent relapses, so that two weary months passed before the march could be resumed. During this long delay they did not suffer for food, for there was abundance of game, and of great variety. Their powder, however, began to fail them. According to their estimate, they were about four hundred and fifty miles, in a straight line, from their settlement. It was resolved now to hasten back. Their horses, which found abundant pasturage on the rich prairies, did them good service, bearing the sick upon their backs and the burdens of all.

They came to a river which it was necessary to cross by a raft. Indeed every few leagues they encountered such a stream. They generally swam their horses over. In this case, La Salle, with one or two of his men, was upon a light raft of canes. Suddenly an enormous crocodile, twenty feet in length, raised his head out of the water, and with one snap of his horrid jaws grasped one of the men by the waist and drew him under. As the monster sank, there was one short, wild shriek from the victim, a slight crimson tinge of the waves, and a small circling whirlpool marking the spot where the huge beast had gone down. Thus, in an instant, as by the lightning's flash, another of the terrible tragedies of this tragic world had come and gone.

On the 17th of October this wearied and diminished party reached the camp, after an absence of six months. Of the twenty who left, but eight returned. The meeting was one of joy and of sadness. Both parties had narratives to give of disaster; and gloom impenetrable still hung over the feeble colony, so rapidly wasting away. In commenting upon this enterprise, Father Douay writes:

"It would be difficult to find in history, courage more intrepid or more invincible than that of the Chevalier de la Salle. In adversity he was never cast down. He always hoped, with the help of heaven, to succeed in his enterprises, despite all the obstacles that rose against it."