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

La Salle's Second Exploring Tour


It will be remembered that late in February, 1680, La Salle left Crevecoeur for Frontenac, to obtain supplies. We have no record of the details of that wonderful journey of four hundred leagues through the wilderness. He reached the post after a long and exhausting journey. There he encountered tidings of disaster sufficient to crush the stoutest heart. The Griffin had foundered, when but a few days out from Green Bay. All on board perished; and the whole of La Salle's fortune, consisting of ten thousand dollars' worth of furs, had gone down into the bottom of the lake.

The rumor reached Frontenac that La Salle had perished in his vessel. He had sent quite a fleet of canoes, laden with articles for the Indian trade, to purchase all the furs they could along the northern and southern shores of Lake Ontario. The canoe men heard the rumor of the death of La Salle, and treacherously appropriated to themselves all the goods with which they had been intrusted. Before setting out on his first excursion, he had sent to France for more goods, to the amount of five thousand dollars; a very considerable sum in those days. The vessel laden with these articles, after having safely crossed the Atlantic, was driven upon one of the islands of St. Peter, and everything was lost. There was no insurance in those days; La Salle did indeed experience the truth of the adage that "sorrows come in troops."

Still the enterprise, energy, and noble character of the man was such that friends came to the rescue. The Governor was very desirous of continuing the exploration, to the mouth of the Mississippi, which La Salle had begun. It was his great ambition there to unfurl the banner of France, and there, in the name of his king, to take possession of the most majestic valley on this globe.

Another small fleet of canoes was soon prepared, freighted with such articles, for use and traffic, as he would need on the expedition. The canoes, eight or ten in number, were large and strong. The party consisted of twenty-three Frenchmen and thirty-one Indians; fifty-four, in all. The statement seems almost incredible that, of these Indians, ten were women, and three were children. But Father Zenobe, who accompanied the expedition, mentions that the Indians insisted upon taking the women, as servants, to cook their food, and to perform the drudgery at their several encampments. Some of these women had children whom they could not leave behind.

It was indeed an imposing spectacle, when, at an early hour of a still, sultry summer morning, this gayly decorated fleet of canoes pushed out from the little harbor at the fort, upon the mirrored surface of Lake Ontario. It was, to a considerable degree, a national expedition. The banners of France fluttered in the gentle breeze over all the battlements of the fort. The forests and the hills resounded with the roar of the salute from her heavy guns. Hundreds of Indians crowded the shore to witness the departure. The Frenchmen returned the salute by a discharge of their muskets and by three cheers. The canoes speedily disappeared behind a headland, as the voyagers, with their paddles, pressed forward upon one of the most extraordinary expeditions ever undertaken by man.

The voyage along the southern shore of the lake proved to be very stormy. Again and again the gale and the surging billows drove them ashore. To the Indians, and to the Canadian boatmen generally, there was no hardship in this. It was the customary life of these men; and to the Indians, the life to which they had been inured from infancy, and the only life they had ever known. Indeed the crew generally had no more thought of yesterday or tomorrow than the few dogs who accompanied them. The weight of responsibility rested only upon the minds of La Salle and his gentlemanly, highly educated ecclesiastical companions.

When landing, for an encampment at night, or forced to take shelter from the storm, they easily drew their canoes up upon the greensward; turned them over to protect the freight from the rain, entered a little distance, the dense, primeval forest, which from time immemorial had fringed the shores of the lake, and there speedily reared a shelter which, to them, presented all the comforts which the palatial mansion offers to its lord. They spread their mats upon the floor. They built their camp fires, whose brilliant blaze enlivened the scene. They cooked their suppers, of corn-bread and venison steaks, which health and hunger rendered luxurious. They sang songs, told stories, cracked jokes, and enjoyed perhaps as much as the mere animal man is capable of enjoying.

This is indeed the sunny side of such a life. But it is a real side. For such men it has a real charm; charms so great that they reluctantly relinquish them for all that civilization can offer. But it must be evident to every reader of these pages, that this wandering, homeless life, has also its shady side. They, like all other men, had often occasion to say in the beautiful verse of Longfellow:

"The day is cold, and dark, and dreary,

It rains, and the wind is never weary,

The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,

At every gust the dead leaves fall,

And the day is dark and dreary."

La Salle left Fort Frontenac on the 23rd of July, 1680, about two months before the abandonment of Crevecoeur by Tonti. In consequence of the series of storms, he was nearly three weeks in reaching the western extremity of Lake Ontario. The canoes and the goods were then carried around the falls, to the station called Fort Conti, which had been established at the head of Niagara River. He did not reach this station until about the middle of August.

Fort Conti had become quite a resort of the neighboring Indian tribes for trade. Here La Salle intended to lay in fresh supplies of corn. The season had been an unfavorable one. The small crop annually raised by the thoughtless, indolent savages, was still smaller than usual, affording but a scant supply for the winter. The Indians were not disposed to sell. Many days passed away, and but little had been brought in. La Salle had quite a store of French brandy. He offered to exchange brandy for corn. The poor Indians, who would sell the clothes from their backs for intoxicating liquors, brought the corn in so abundantly, that the canoes were immediately filled. In one day sixty sacks were urged upon him.

On the 28th of August, 1680, the voyagers reembarked in their canoes, and beneath sunny skies and with a smooth expanse of water before them, paddled joyously along the northern shores of Lake Erie, ascended the Detroit River, crossed Lake St. Clair, passed through the Straits of St. Clair, and coasted along the eastern and northern shores of Lake Huron, a distance of two or three hundred miles, until they reached the station at Mackinac, the latter part of September.

The voyage from the head of Niagara River had occupied nearly a month. When the little fleet of birch canoes entered the harbor at Mackinac, Lieutenant Tonti had just abandoned his dilapidated birch canoe on the Illinois River, in his retirement from the fort, and, with his few companions, was struggling on foot through the wilderness west of Lake Michigan, seeking also the same refuge.

La Salle, entirely unconscious of the disasters which had overtaken his garrison at Crevecoeur, reembarked, on the 4th of October. Following the same course he had pursued before, he paddled down the eastern coast of Lake Michigan, to the River St. Joseph. At the head of which river, it will be remembered, he had erected Fort Miami, on territory inhabited by the Miami Indians. It was a long voyage, with many obstructions from the autumnal storms, which seemed to be incessantly sweeping that bleak and harborless lake. After the tempestuous voyage of a month, he reached Fort Miami on the 3rd of November.

Eleven months before, on the 3rd of December, 1679, he had left that station, on his route to the Illinois River. Le Clercq says that four men were left in charge there. This is not sustained by other accounts. It is not probable that so small a number would have been left in a position so greatly exposed. But, however this may be, he found the Miami village in ashes, and all who dwelt in it dispersed. His log fort was also in utter ruin. It was a melancholy scene which met his eye; another indication of man's inhumanity to man.

The St. Joseph's River takes its rise in Indiana. For nearly a hundred miles before it empties its flood into Lake Michigan, it flows in a course of narrow windings, almost directly from the south. By paddling up this stream, in a canoe voyage of three or four days, or about seventy miles of our measurement, they came to a portage, five or six miles in length, by which they could reach the Kankakee River.

This was an important tributary of the Illinois River. It will be remembered that it was by this stream that La Salle and his party, more than a year before, prosecuted their voyage to Lake Peoria. It was then, for much of its distance, rather a dismal stream, sluggishly winding through marshes lined with alders. Rapidly they paddled on, day after day, through a country of silence and solitude, until they entered the broader, deeper waters of Illinois River.

Still, as they descended this beautiful stream, which presented as attractive situations for happy homes as perhaps earth could afford, they passed no Indian villages, no solitary wigwam, no sign whatever of human life. They came to the site where the Indian village had formerly stood in its picturesque beauty, with six or eight thousand inhabitants swarming around, in the various costumes, and engaged in the diversified employments of savage life. Naught remained but smouldering ruins and trampled harvests. Man bitterest foe, his brother man, had been there, and had left behind but the traces of desolation, blood and woe. Neither wolf nor bear could have been more merciless, or could have left behind them ravages so dreadful.

The dispersion of the garrison, and the destruction of all the works commenced and the stores deposited at Crevecoeur, was another blow upon the head and the heart of La Salle, apparently frustrating all his plans. He must have experienced emotions of the keenest anguish. But this remarkable man, invincible by the reverses of fortune, presented to his companions only a smiling aspect, and addressed them only with cheerful words. Having lost everything which he had expected to find at Crevecoeur, it became necessary for him to return to Mackinac. This required a journey by river, forest, prairie, and lake, of nearly five hundred miles.

Immediately he reembarked his whole force, in his canoes, and commenced the laborious ascent of the stream he had just descended so pleasantly, borne along by the aid of the current. When they reached the mouth of the Kankakee, instead of following up that stream, they struck across the country, by a portage directly north, until they reached the Chicago River. Here they again launched their canoes and followed down the windings of the stream until they came to its entrance into Lake Michigan, where Chicago now stands.

At this port La Salle found fragments of many war-scathed tribes, in a half-starving condition. They informed him that the terrible Iroquois; composed of five united savage nations, and whose central power was in the vast territory south of Lake Ontario, had in overwhelming numbers invaded the valley of the Illinois. Many of their warriors were armed with guns purchased from the French. The feeble tribes fled in terror before them. The ferocious bands wandered in all directions. By day and by night the hideous war-whoop resounded. Villages were burned, captives were seized, women and children were slaughtered, and thousands of fugitives, war-bereaved, woe-stricken, fled to the western side of the Mississippi to seek protection by being incorporated into friendly tribes in those apparently limitless realms.

Around the lovely shores of Lake Peoria there had been seventeen flourishing Indian villages. These were all destroyed, in awful scenes of conflagration and massacre. The survivors fled beyond the Mississippi, six hundred miles from their desolated homes. And even to these regions the ferocious Iroquois pursued them, thirsting for blood and scalps.

La Salle was a Christian. He was interested in the religious welfare of the poor Indians, as the only instrumentality by which they could secure for themselves pleasant homes on earth, and happy homes in heaven. He agreed with the missionaries, that if they wished to establish missions in those parts, with any hope of seeing Christianity make progress among the natives, they must secure them immunity from the horrors of war. This could only be done by uniting the remaining tribes in a firm union for a common defence.

At the mouth of the Chicago River, La Salle was, as he thought, by the route he had taken, about one hundred and twenty miles from Lake Peoria. He reached this point probably some time in January 1681. The lake, for some distance from the shore, was encumbered with ice. Fierce wintry storms swept the bleak prairies, and piled the snow in drifts. It was almost impossible to journey, either by land or water. La Salle and his party went into encampment upon the banks of the Chicago River, to wait a few weeks until the severity of winter was over. At the same time, though he knew not of it, the few remaining members of the garrison which he had left at Crevecoeur were seeking shelter from these piercing blasts, about a hundred miles north, in the wigwams of the friendly Pottawattomies.

La Salle and his ecclesiastical companions improved these few weeks of leisure in seeking interviews with the chiefs of the various tribes in the vicinity, and in endeavoring to unite them in a strong confederacy. He assured them that if they would thus be true to themselves, the French would become their allies and send them efficient aid. It was not until the 22nd of May that he was able to launch his canoes upon the lake. There was then a voyage of about two hundred and sixty miles before him.

About the middle of June his fleet of canoes was seen, coming around a point of land, as the boatmen rapidly paddled into the harbor at Michilimackinac. Here La Salle met Lieutenant Tonti, Father Membre, and their associates, as we have mentioned in the last chapter. The good Father Membre writes:

"I leave you to conceive our mutual joy, damped though it was by the narrative he made us of all his misfortunes, and of that we made him of our tragical adventures. Though La Salle related to us all his calamities, yet never did I remark in him the least alteration. He always maintained his ordinary coolness and self-possession. Any other person would have abandoned the enterprise. But La Salle, by a firmness of mind and constancy almost unequalled, was more resolute than ever to carry out his discovery. We therefore left, to return to Fort Frontenac with his whole party, to adopt new measures, to resume and complete our course, with the help of heaven, in which we put all our trust."

We have no detailed account of the long voyage back to Frontenac, or of the return voyage to the mouth of the Chicago River. In the meagre narratives which have descended to us, there are slight discrepancies which it is impossible to reconcile. Entering Lake Michigan at its northern extremity through the Straits of Mackinac, they paddled down the eastern coast, passed the mouth of St. Joseph's River, rounded the southern curvature of the lake, and reached the mouth of the Chicago River on the 4th of January, 1682. The winter in that region was short, but very severe. The Chicago River presented a solid surface of ice.

Sledges were constructed, upon which the canoes were placed, and dragged by the men over the ice of the river. This journey in mid-winter, over a bleak and often treeless expanse, was slow and toilsome. Having reached the point where the portage commenced, they dragged their sledges, laden with the canoes, baggage, and provisions, across the portage to the Illinois River. They reached this point on the 29th of the month, having spent twenty-three days in the exhausting journey. They were, at that point, according to Father Membre's estimate, two hundred and forty miles from the mouth of the Illinois where it enters into the Mississippi.

Drawing their sledges upon the ice, they day after day followed down the lonely and silent stream, whose banks war had desolated. They passed the smouldering sites of many former villages, where only melancholy scenes of devastation met the eye. They reached Crevecoeur about the 1st of February. It would seem that La Salle, on his previous visit, had repaired the ruins there, so as to provide a temporary home for his party upon its arrival. He found all things as he had left them.

The river below Crevecoeur was free from ice. Having rested for about a week, in the enjoyment of warm fires, in their log-cabins, they launched their canoes into the Illinois River, and on the 6th of February reached the mouth of the river. They found the swollen flood of the Mississippi full of vast masses of ice, pouring down from the distant regions of the north. This detained them till the 13th of the month. They encamped at the same point where Father Hennepin had tarried. A short voyage of a day bore them to the mouth of turbid and turbulent Missouri.

Here they landed at an Indian village, where they seem to have been very kindly received. It will be remembered that La Salle was still intent upon finding some short passage across the continent, of whose width he knew nothing, to the Pacific Ocean. He was much excited by the strange tidings he heard from the Indians here. They assured him that by ascending the river ten or twelve days he would come to a range of mountains where the river took its rise; that numerous and populous Indian villages were scattered all the way along the banks of the river; that by ascending one of the mountain eminences, he would have a view of the vast and boundless sea where great ships were sailing. We cannot now tell whether this was the mere fabrication of some imaginative savage, or whether such was the general opinion of the tribe.

The next day, after a sail of about thirty miles, they reached another Indian village on the bank of the river. Here again they landed peacefully, and warmed the hearts of the savages by a few presents which were to them of priceless value. They journeyed slowly. They could not, in their crowded canoes, carry a large amount of provisions. Consequently they were under the necessity of making frequent stops to catch fish or to hunt for game. Not long after this visit of La Salle, a mission was established in this little village, which was called Marou. It is said that most of them were converted to, at least, nominal Christianity.

Continuing their voyage one hundred and twenty miles down the river, they came to the mouth of the Ohio. Here they made another stop to lay in fresh supplies. The friendly Indians there informed them they could find no suitable camping ground for a distance of nearly one hundred and fifty miles, the banks were so low and so encumbered with rushes and dense brush.

The voyagers remained at the mouth of the Ohio ten days, sending out parties in various directions. One of the Frenchmen, Peter Prudhomme, wandering from his companions, did not return. There were many fears that he had been captured by the Indians, as some of the party had seen fresh Indian trails. The heroic La Salle was not disposed to abandon the man. He threw up some entrenchments for the protection of his company, and despatched several well-armed Frenchmen, with Indian guides, to follow vigorously the trail of the savages, for the recovery of the captive if he had been taken by them. For four days La Salle tarried in his encampment at the mouth of the Ohio.

On the 1st of March the detachment, sent in pursuit of the lost one, returned. They had seen and heard nothing of Peter. Five Indians, however, had been seen, two of whom were caught and brought into the camp. They knew nothing of the lost man. Receiving only friendly treatment, they seemed quite anxious that La Salle should visit their village, which they falsely assured La Salle was distant but a day and a half's journey from the point where they then were. These Indians belonged to the Chickasaw tribe, which subsequently became quite prominent in the history of our land.

With the Indians a day's journey was about thirty miles. La Salle and Father Membre set out to visit the village, guided by the Indians. They do not appear to have had any hesitation in thus placing themselves entirely in the hands of the savages. But after having travelled day and a half through a country diversified with forest, prairie, and mountain, they became satisfied that the Indians were deceiving them, and charged them with it.

They confessed the deception, made some lame apologies for it, and confessed that their village was still at the distance of three days' journey. Without any apparent reluctance they accompanied La Salle and Membre back to the camp. La Salle then sent one of the Indians to the Chickasaw village, with several presents, and to invite the chiefs to meet him, some hundred miles below, as he descended in his canoes. The other Indian consented to remain, and accompany his party down the river.

Just as the voyagers were reembarking, the missing man appeared. He had been lost in the forest and for nine days had wandered in the unavailing search for his companions. Fortunately, the weather was mild, game abundant, and, as he had his gun with him, he did not want for food. Cheered by his return, they rejoicingly entered their canoes, and, with cloudless skies overarching them, pushed out into the rapid current, to be swept along through realms to them entirely unknown, and to a point they knew not where.

It was a singular and a beautiful spectacle, which was presented by this flock of large birch canoes, eight or ten in number, filled with Indians, and Frenchmen in Indian costume, gliding down the broad, swift current of the river. The paddles glistened with the reflected rays of the sun. All were in health. There was no toil. New scenes of marvellous desolation, or beauty, or grandeur, were continually opening before them. They were well fed. The mind was kept in a state of delightful excitement. The French are proverbially good-natured and mirthful. Each night's encampment presented a scene of feasting, bonfires and innocent joyous revel. These were indeed sunny days, and this was the poetry of travelling.

The 3rd of March, 1682, came. They had then descended the river, as they judged, about one hundred and twenty miles below the mouth of the Ohio. They were approaching, though they knew it not, a large village of the Arkansas Indians, situated on the western banks of the Mississippi. It was concealed from them by a bluff, and by a turn in the stream. An Indian, upon the lookout on the bluff, caught sight of the formidable looking fleet, far up the river, and, supposing it to be filled with hostile savages on the war-path, gave the alarm.

The whole village was instantly thrown into a state of great excitement. The women and children fled back into the forest. The warriors grasped their arms and rallied for battle. As the fleet drew near, all unconscious of the commotion it had excited, the voyagers, not seeing a single Indian, were surprised to hear, on the other side of the bluff, the yells of apparently hundreds of savages. Their piercing war-whoops were blended with the loud beatings of a kind of drum which they had fabricated.

Warned by these hostile demonstrations, La Salle guided his canoes to the other side of the river, which was here about a mile in width. He landed in direct view of the village. With his customary caution, he immediately threw up some intrenchments, behind which his men, with their guns, could beat off almost any number of savages. He knew not but that hundreds of warriors would cross the river in their canoes, to make an impetuous assault upon him.

Having thus guarded against surprise, and afforded the Indians a little time to recover from their first alarm, he then, unarmed, advanced to the water's edge, and by friendly signs endeavored to invite some of the chiefs to come over to meet him.

Several of the chiefs entered a large boat, called a periagua. It was made of the trunk of an immense tree, hollowed out, and carved and decorated with immense labor. Such a wooden canoe was capable of holding a large number of warriors. The chiefs crossed the river until they came to within a quarter of a mile of the shore, and then they stopped, and beckoned the strangers to come and meet them.

La Salle sent one Frenchman, we infer from the narrative that it must have been Father Membre, in a canoe, to meet them. Two of his Indians paddled the boat, until they came alongside of the periagua of the natives. Father Membre, familiar as he was with several Indian dialects, could not speak their language. He however held out to them the calumet of peace, which at once won their confidence; and he found no difficulty in communicating with them by signs. He invited the chiefs to accompany him back to the encampment. They were six in number. Retaining him with them, in the large periagua, they speedily paddled ashore, followed by Membre's canoe, with the two Indian boatmen.

Without any hesitancy, the six Indian chiefs entered into the redoubt which La Salle had thrown up. They appeared frank, unsuspicious, and cordial, and were made very happy by several presents which La Salle placed in their hands. They invited the whole party to cross the river to their village. The canoes were launched, and all crossed the stream, led by the chieftains in their wooden boat. The whole adult male population of the village crowded the banks to receive them; and with every demonstration of friendship. But the timid women and children kept cautiously in the distance.

Eight or ten large birch canoes, from which more than fifty persons landed upon the beach, presented a very imposing appearance. They were nearly all armed with guns, not for aggressive warfare, but for hunting and protection.

The natives crowded around the strangers, conducted them up to their wigwams, which were very pleasantly situated on a rich and tolerably well cultivated plain extending back from the river. The guests were regaled with the greatest profusion of barbarian hospitality. These Indians had attained a very considerable degree of civilization. They had quite a large number of slaves, whom they had captured from tribes with whom they were at war. The fertile fields around were quite well cultivated with corn, beans, melons, and a variety of fruits. Peaches were abundant. Large flocks of turkeys and other domestic fowls crowded their doors. They were a very handsome race; and it was observed that, while the northern Indians were generally moody and taciturn, these savages, beneath more sunny skies, were frank, generous, and gay in the extreme.