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

The Return Voyage


There was no game to be taken in the vast swamps at the mouth of the river. The provisions of the voyagers were nearly exhausted. They, however, chanced to find an abandoned Indian camp, where there was a small quantity of strips of the flesh of some animal, dried in the sun. As they were eagerly eating it, the Indians who accompanied them informed them that it was human flesh. It is needless to say that they could eat no more; though the savages, who devoured it with much gusto, declared that it was exceedingly delicate and savory.

On the 10th of April, the next day after the ceremony of annexation, they commenced their toilsome ascent of the river on their voyage back. Enormous alligators were often met with, sunning themselves on the sand-bars. The sharp-shooters soon learned where the bullet would strike a vulnerable point. For several days they lived mainly on wild potatoes and the flesh of alligators. The country was so low, and so bordered with almost impenetrable canes, that they could not hunt without making long delays. At length they reached the blackened ruins and the mouldering dead of Tangibao. The desolation remained complete. None had returned.

It was a matter of the utmost importance, apparently of absolute necessity, that they should lay in a store of corn. There was so much uncertainty as to hunting, that they might be many days without food, and thus perish. But a pint of corn, pounded into meal and baked in the ashes, would afford a hungry man a very nutritious dinner. And if so successful as to take some game, this bread gave great additional zest to the repast.

On the thirteenth day, as they were slowly paddling against the stream, they saw, far away in the north, a great smoke, apparently from Indian fires. It was evidently not far from the region where the Quinnipissa Indians had so fiercely attacked them, but a few days before. Much apprehension was felt lest they should again be assailed. The passage against the rapid current was necessarily very slow. The Indians had large wooden boats, which they could fill with warriors, and being above them on the river, could completely cut off their retreat.

La Salle sent one of the canoes forward to reconnoitre. As his Indian boatmen were paddling cautiously along beneath the dense foliage of the banks, they caught sight of four women. Under the perilous circumstances, it was thought best to capture them, if possible, and hold them as hostages for the good behavior of the tribe. This was not doing evil that good might come, for the measure was fully justifiable, in view of the attack which had been made upon them, and as the only means of preventing the effusion of blood.

The men landed, and the swift runners caught the women and took them back to the fleet. It was then learned that the Quinnipissa Indians, a peculiarly warlike and ferocious race, had a large village but a little distance farther up the river. This village it was necessary to pass. There could be no doubt that the savages would fiercely assail them. As they could probably bring many hundred warriors into the conflict, and could make the attack not only from their capacious periaguas, but also from the shelter of the trees on the bank, the situation of the French seemed quite desperate.

La Salle, in this emergence, drew his canoes to the shore, a little below the village, and on the opposite bank. He hoped, by the aid of his captives, to open some communication with the foe. But the Indians had already learned of his approach. Again the hideous clamor of demoniac war was heard, as the noise of their rude drums and savage yells fell upon the ear.

It was early in the afternoon of a day of almost tropical warmth and serenity, when all the voices of nature seemed to invite man to love and help his brother. Soon quite a fleet of massive boats was seen, descending the river, each boat crowded with twenty or thirty warriors, plumed and painted, and armed with bows and arrows, javelins, and clubs. They were yelling like demons, as if expecting by noise to rouse their courage to the highest point.

La Salle himself, with two or three picked companions, pushed out in a canoe, and advanced to meet them. Though one or two guns were in the bottom of the canoe, to be used in case of absolute necessity, they appeared entirely unarmed—a single canoe advancing to meet a fleet. La Salle stood up and waved the calumet, the sacred emblem of peace and friendship. The savages, thirsty for blood, paid no heed to this appeal. They redoubled their yells, and like a band of desperate villains as they were, shot a volley of arrows toward the one canoe with its three or four unarmed occupants. With new vigor the savages plied their paddles, being now sure of the capture of the strangers.

The moment for prompt and decisive action had come. The guns were heavily loaded. One of the boats, larger and more richly ornamented than the rest, contained evidently the head chief. He was a man of herculean frame, dressed in the most gorgeous of barbaric attire. As he stood up in his boat, giving orders, he presented just the target, though at a great distance, to which a sharp-shooter might direct unerring aim. La Salle ordered one of his marksmen to strike him down. After a moment's pause, there was a flash, a slight puff of smoke, a loud report, and the invisible bullet pierced the heart of the chief. The blood gushed forth in a torrent, and the warrior dropped dead in the bottom of the boat.

The warriors were appalled, terrified. Never before had they heard the report of a gun. They knew not what had struck down their chief. No missile had been seen. None could be found. The savages were very superstitious. They thought this must be the work of witchcraft; that they were attacked by evil spirits, whose power was invincible. They had seen the lightning flash, and the rising, vanishing cloud. They had heard the thunder peal. Their chief had been struck dead by some resistless bolt, at twice the distance to which any arrow could be thrown. It was folly to contend against such a foe. The next instant every one might be stricken down. They were seized with a panic. Instantly, heading the bows of their boats up the river, they fled with the utmost precipitation.

La Salle returned to his companions, conscious that he had secured a truce only. He had still the village to pass; and the current was so strong that he must pass very slowly. It was probable that the Indians would so far recover from their consternation, that some of the boldest would again assail his boats, from behind sheltering rocks and trees. The frail canoes might easily be pierced by their missiles, and the inmates thrown into the water. The savages would soon become accustomed to the report of the guns. Finding that rocks and trees protected them from the invisible bolt, they would all be emboldened; and thus a general and prolonged attack, following them up the river, would cause their entire destruction.

The utmost wisdom was still requisite, to rescue the party from these perils. La Salle loaded one of the women with rich presents of axes, knives, and beads, and sent her across the river in one of his canoes. By signs he told her to inform her tribe that he wished for friendship with them; that if they would be friendly, and bring him in a supply of corn, he would liberate his three other captives, and pay liberally for the corn, in articles which would be of great value to the Indians.

The next morning a large number of Indian warriors were seen approaching the encampment, where the Frenchmen had thrown up defences which would enable them to sell their lives dearly, were the savages determined upon their destruction. La Salle, as bold as he was humane, advanced alone to meet them, presenting the calumet. The Indians assumed a friendly attitude, entered into a treaty of peace, and invited La Salle, with his party, to visit their village. They also brought him a considerable store of corn. Though their manner was such as to lead La Salle greatly to doubt their sincerity, he accepted their invitation, first exacting hostages to remain in the camp until his return. He took with him Father Membre, his invariable companion on such occasions. The mild, fearless, heroic missionary writes:

"We went up to the village where these Indians had prepared us a feast in their fashion. They had notified their allies and neighbors; so that when we went to enjoy the banquet, in a large square, we saw a confused mass of armed savages arrive, one after another. We were however welcomed by the chiefs; but, having ground for suspicion, each kept his gun ready, and the Indians, seeing it, durst not attack us."

Toward evening, La Salle and his companion returned to the camp, still apprehensive that the Indians meditated treachery. They released the three women, whom they made very happy, with rich presents. A careful watch was kept through the night. Before the dawn of the next morning the sentinels reported that they heard a noise, as if a multitude of men were stealthily gathering in a dense growth of canes, but a short distance from the encampment. All were instantly summoned to arms.

It was a gloomy morning, very dark, with moaning wind and gathering clouds and falling rain. The men had but just taken their stations, behind the intrenchments which had been so prudently raised, when the shrill war-whoop burst from apparently hundreds of savage lips; and from the impenetrable darkness a shower of arrows came whizzing through the air. They all fell harmless in and around the spot where the men stood, behind their ramparts, with muskets loaded and primed.

Though the savages kept up an incessant yell, and threw their arrows almost at random into the narrow enclosure, they were so concealed by the darkness and the thick cane-brake, that not one was to be seen. The French kept perfect silence. Not a loud word was spoken. Not a musket was fired. It was very important that every bullet should accomplish its mission and lay a warrior dead in his blood. The Indians were to be taught that every flash and peal was the sure precursor of the death or the serious wound of one of their number.

Soon the day began to dawn. With the increasing light the savages were revealed, as they dodged from point to point. There was no random firing of the guns. Deliberate aim was taken. The savages were very cautious in exposing themselves. The Frenchmen were perfectly protected from their arrows by the rampart of logs. For two hours this strange battle raged—twenty Frenchmen against hundreds of savages. Ten Indians were shot dead. Many others were dreadfully wounded with shattered bones. It is probable that every bullet hit its mark. Not an arrow of the savage had drawn blood.

As the sun rose, revealing the deadly fire of the guns and the utter impotence of the missiles of the Indians, the savages were again thrown into a panic, and fled precipitately. La Salle, with nearly all his force, pursued them up to the village, where, with axes, he speedily demolished all their boats, so that they could not pursue, as he should continue his voyage. His men urged him to burn the village of his treacherous foes. But he refused, saying that he would inflict no farther injury upon them than was absolutely necessary in self-defence.

At the close of this day of gloom, battle, and blood, another night came, of darkness and rain. Enveloped in the shades of night, the French reembarked. Silently they passed the village. Not a savage "opened his mouth or peeped." The storm passed away. And when the sun of another lovely morning shone down upon them, the voyagers were far beyond the reach of their cruel foes. Father Membre returned thanks to God that He had borne them, unharmed, through such great peril, and had restrained them from the exercise of any unchristian revenge. It was the morning of the 19th of April.

For twelve days they continued breasting the current of the stream, as they laboriously paddled their way upward. Anxious to return to Quebec as soon as possible, with the tidings of their glorious achievement, they made no tarry at the many villages which were scattered along the banks. They often saw assemblages of Indians, who seemed to assume a hostile attitude. No attack was, however, made upon them.

In descending the river they had a good supply of corn, and stored away quite a quantity in a cache. They found it, on their return, in good condition, and it furnished them with a very opportune supply. They were surprised to see how rapidly the corn in the fields matured. Fields were passed on the 29th of March, where the tender blades were just sprouting from the ground. And now, in less than four weeks, the corn was fit to roast. They were told that, in fifty days from planting, it often ripened.

A short tarry was made at the friendly village of the Taensa Indians, where they were again very hospitably entertained. On the 1st of May they resumed their slow and laborious voyage, and reached the Arkansas Indians about the 15th of the month. On the 16th La Salle took two light canoes, propelled by sturdy Indian rowers, and pushed on in advance of the rest of the party. He gave directions for the other canoes to follow as fast as they could. But he was taken dangerously sick on the way.

A birch canoe, in which one is exposed to the rays of the noonday sun, to the chill dews of morning and evening, to drenching showers and dreary days of clouds and rain, presents but few comforts to a man in sickness and suffering. He, however, succeeded, after a toilsome voyage of about ten days, in reaching his old encampment, which he had named Prudhomme, near the mouth of the Ohio River.

Here his malady grew so alarming that he could go no farther. His party landed, drew their canoes up upon the grass of the prairie, repaired their camp, so as to make it an effectual protection from sun and rain, spread mats upon the ground, and made the sick man, who they feared was soon to die, as comfortable as possible.

In such cases a camp was generally built in the form of a shed, with the front entirely open. This camp was on the eastern side of the river, facing the majestic stream and the splendors of the setting sun. La Salle had no physician, no medicine, no tender nursing, no delicate food to tempt a failing appetite. He could only lie patiently upon his mat, and await the progress of the disease, whether it were for life or for death. The silence and solitude of the river, the prairie, and the forest surrounded him.

Strange must have been his reflections in those solemn hours, when he was anticipating the speedy approach of death, upon the banks of that wonderful stream which his enterprise had caused to be explored from its sources to its mouth. As in languor and suffering he reclined upon his couch, all the beauty and bloom of May, in a delightful clime, were spread around him. The silent flood swept by, rushing down a distance of countless leagues in the north, until, after a serpentine course of more than a thousand miles, through the most wonderful scenes of nature, and fringed with the villages of innumerable savage tribes, it was lost in the great Mexican gulf. The Indians moved about in silence, seldom exchanging a word with each other. They brought in game, and were continually cooking and eating at the fire, which was kept in a constant blaze in front of the camp.

Two days and nights were thus passed, when, on the 2nd of June, the remaining canoes of the fleet were seen in the distance, approaching the encampment. They soon landed; and the whole party, over fifty in number, presented to the eye a new scene of bustle and activity. La Salle was sinking, in the ever-increasing languor of something like typhoid fever. It was manifest that many days must elapse before he could leave that spot, and it was probable, in his own judgment as well as in that of all his companions, that he would there sink into that last sleep from which there is no earthly waking.

In these trying hours, his serenity and trust in God did not forsake him. He called Lieutenant Tonti to the side of his couch, and directed him to take several canoes, with the larger part of the company, and make his way, as vigorously as possible, up the river three hundred miles to the mouth of the Illinois River. Then, ascending that, and its upper branch, the Kaskaskias, he was to cross by the portage to a tributary of the St. Joseph's, and paddle down those streams to Fort Miami, where the St. Joseph empties into Lake Michigan. Thence by the lake he was to make his way to Mackinac. This required a journey of over a thousand miles. M. Tonti was furnished with documents addressed to Count Frontenac, Governor of Canada, giving a detailed account of the explorations and discoveries which La Salle had so successfully accomplished. Father Membre, with several others of the party, remained with the sick man.

For more than a month the burning fever raged, and La Salle was brought to the verge of the grave. The fever then left him. For some time it was doubtful whether there was sufficient strength remaining for him to recover. Slowly he gained. After a detention of forty days, they placed him carefully upon mats, in the bottom of a canoe, and, by short stages, resumed their voyage. They left Fort Prudhomme, and, following the same track which Tonti had pursued, did not reach Fort Miami, at the mouth of the St. Joseph's River, until the end of September. But July and August were months of delightful weather. The scenery, rich with forest grandeur and prairie flowers, was varied and enchanting. Game was abundant. Ripe fruit hung on many boughs. Hospitable villages were scattered along the way, where the general voyagers were invariably received with kindness truly fraternal.

The motion of the canoe, as the Indians, with brawny arms, paddled over the mirrored surface of the stream, was soothing and grateful to the languid, yet convalescent patient. In the cool of the beautiful mornings they could glide along the stream for a few leagues, then shelter themselves in some shady grove from the rays of the noonday sun, and in the cool of the serene evenings, resume their voyage till the deepening twilight admonished them to seek their night's encampment.

Thus pleasantly journeying, La Salle rapidly regained strength; and when he reached Fort Miami he was restored to almost his customary vigor. He found the habitation called Fort Miami quite renovated by Lieutenant Tonti, and a few men left in garrison to receive him upon his arrival. Quite a cluster of Indian wigwams had also been reared there, giving a very animated and cheerful aspect to the spot. Father Membre, in describing the scenery through which they passed, in this ascent of the Mississippi and the Illinois, writes:

"The banks of the Mississippi, for twenty or thirty leagues from its mouth, are covered with a dense growth of canes, except in fifteen or twenty places where there are very pretty hills and spacious, convenient landing-places. Behind this fringe of marshy land you see the finest country in the world.

"Our hunters, both French and Indian, were delighted with it. For an extent of six hundred miles in length, and as much in breadth, we were told there are vast fields of excellent land, diversified with pleasing hills, lofty woods, groves through which you might ride on horseback, so clear and unobstructed are the paths.

"These little forests also line the rivers which intersect the country in various places, and which abound in fish. The crocodiles are dangerous here; so much so, that, in some places, no one would venture to expose himself, or even to put his hand out of his canoe. The Indians told us that these animals often dragged in their people, where they could anywhere get hold of them.

"The fields are full of all kinds of game, wild cattle, does, deer, stags, bears, turkeys, partridges, parrots, quails, woodcock, wild pigeons, and ringdoves. There are also beaver, otters, and martens. The cattle of this country surpass ours in size. Their head is monstrous, and their look is frightful, on account of the long, black hair with which it is surrounded, and which hangs below the chin. The hair is fine, and scarce inferior to wool. The Indians wear their skins, which they dress very neatly. They assured us that, inland, toward the west, there are animals on which men ride, and which carry very heavy loads. They described them as horses, and showed two feet, which were actually hoofs of horses.

"We observed wood fit for every use. There were the most beautiful cedars in the world. There was one kind of tree which shed an abundance of gum, as pleasant to burn as the best French pastilles. We also saw fine hemlocks, and other large trees with white bark. The cotton-wood trees were very large. Of these, the Indians dug out canoes forty or fifty feet long. Sometimes there were fleets of a hundred and fifty at their villages. We saw every kind of tree fit for ship-building. There is also plenty of hemp for cordage, and tar could be made in abundance.

"Prairies are seen everywhere. Sometimes they are fifty or sixty miles in length on the river front, and many leagues in depth. They are very rich and fertile, without a stone or a tree to obstruct the plough. These prairies are capable of sustaining an immense population. Beans grow wild, and the stalks last several years, bearing fruit. The bean vines are thicker than a man's arm, and run to the top of the highest trees. Peach trees are abundant, and bear fruit equal to the best which can be found in France. They are often so loaded, in the gardens of the Indians, that they have to prop up the branches. There are whole forests of mulberries, whose ripened fruit we began to eat in the month of May. Plums are found in great variety, many of which are not known in Europe. Grapevines and pomegranates are common. Three or four crops of corn can be raised in a year.

"The Indian tribes, though savage, seem generally amiable, affable, and obliging. They have no true idea of religion by a regular worship. Tribes separated by not more than thirty miles, speak a different language. And yet they manage to understand each other. There is always some interpreter of one nation residing in another, when they are allies, and who acts as a kind of consul. They are very different from our Canada Indians, in their houses, dress, manners, inclinations, and customs. They have large public squares, games, assemblies. They seem mirthful and full of vivacity. Their chiefs have absolute authority. No one would dare to pass between the chief and the cane torch which burns in his cabin, and is carried before him when he goes out. All make a circuit around it with some ceremony.

"The chiefs have servants and officers, who follow them and wait upon them everywhere. The chiefs distribute their favors at will. In a word, we generally found them to be men. We saw none who knew the use of fire-arms. They had no iron or steel articles, using only stone knives and hatchets."

This wonderful expedition was accomplished without the loss of a single life, on the part of the voyagers. Not one was even wounded. Father Membre attributes this, next to God's goodness, to the tact and wisdom manifested by La Salle. As to the missionary fruits of this enterprise, the devoted ecclesiastic writes:

"I will say nothing here of conversions. Formerly the apostles had but to enter a country, when on the first publication of the Gospel, conversions were seen. I am but a miserable sinner, infinitely destitute of the merits of the apostles. We must acknowledge that these miraculous ways of grace are not attached to the exercise of our ministry. God employs an ordinary and common way, following which, I contented myself with announcing, as well as I could, the principal truths of Christianity to the nations I met. The Illinois language served me for about three hundred miles down the river. I made the rest understand by gestures, and some term in their dialect which I insensibly picked up. But I cannot say that my feeble efforts produced certain fruits. With regard to these people, perhaps some one, by a secret effect of grace, has profited, God only knows. All we have done has been to see the state of these tribes, and to open the way to the Gospel, and to missionaries."