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

Lost in the Wilderness


The altercation between La Salle and Beaujeu still continued. The chevalier feared that the captain designed to abandon him and return to France. Parties were formed, and the dispute on board the vessels was bitter. La Salle was convinced that he had passed the Mississippi. Others argued that they had not reached it. In fact they were beyond Matagorda Bay, in the southwestern part of Texas, and were within a hundred miles of the Rio Grande. A dense fog prevented the landing of the boat's crew. La Salle insisting upon a return, the vessels coasted slowly along, a distance of about thirty miles, till they came to an inlet, which the fog had prevented them from seeing before, and which proved to be Matagorda Bay.

The expedition was now in serious trouble. Their provisions were nearly exhausted. They had thus far seen no settlement, on the American coast, from which they could obtain supplies. A large party was landed on the western entrance of the bay. They threw up a camp, and while some explored the prairie with their guns, others followed up the stream with their fishing rods. An ample supply of game, of great variety, was taken, and also an abundance of fish. All who could be spared from the ships hastened to the shore. The weather was delightful; the scenery enchanting; and the whole ship's company, after so long an imprisonment in the crowded vessels, revelled in feasting and joy.

"Uneasy lies the head which wears a crown." La Salle, feeling keenly his responsibility for the success of the expedition, was heavily oppressed by care. One of the boats was sent up the bay, seven or eight miles, in search of a river or brook; but their search was in vain. A few springs of tolerably good water were found, from which they replenished their empty barrels. Ducks and other water-fowl were met in great abundance.

The vessels were all anchored in the bay, near the shore, and for several days, in this sunny region, beneath cloudless skies, the voyagers generally enjoyed all the pleasures of the most delightful picnic party. La Salle saw increasing evidence that Beaujeu was intending to desert him. He was anxious to lay in supplies for a long voyage. La Salle wished to delay only to obtain provisions for fifteen days. He was satisfied that it would not take longer than that to return to the point where he now believed the mouth of the Mississippi to be.

In this emergence he decided to have the vessels coast along near the shore, while he sent a chosen party of one hundred and thirty men, to march along upon the land. The adventurous band commenced its journey in a fog so dense that those in the rear could not see those in front. M. Joutel, the historian of the expedition from the time it sailed from France until its close, led this party.

The march was commenced on the 5th of February. Each man carried his pack upon his own shoulders. They kept along as near as possible to the sea. The first night they encamped on a slight eminence, where a large fire was built to signalize to the vessels their position. For a week they thus journeyed along, through marsh and prairie and forest, building each night their signal fires. During all this time they caught no sight of their vessels. On the 13th they came to the banks of a wide creek or bayou, which they had no means of crossing.

The carpenters were immediately set to work in building a boat. The next day, while thus employed, the Joli and the Belle hove in sight. The short twilight of the tropics was then passing into night. A signal-fire was built, and seen by those on the ships. The next morning, the slow-sailing Aimable, which bore La Salle and his companions, appeared. La Salle landed and visited the encampment. Having sounded the creek, he decided to bring the three vessels in, and to send a boat to explore inland, hoping that the creek might prove to be the mouth of some river. The channel was carefully staked out for the entrance of the vessels, safe anchorage chosen, and orders were issued for the three to enter at the next high tide. La Salle would give the signal from the shore, when they were to move.

Captain Beaujeu sent back the insolent answer, "I can manage my own vessel without any instructions from Monsieur La Salle."

As this message arrived, a party of the ship's company, who had been at some distance from the camp, came running in, much alarmed, saying that quite an army of savages was approaching. La Salle instantly called all his force to arms, that he might be prepared for any emergence. Though earnestly desirous of peace, he yet deemed it important to show a bold front. In imposing military array, with muskets loaded, and the beating of drums, he led his band of about one hundred and fifty men, to meet the Indians.

Both parties halted and faced each other, neither knowing whether the other wished for peace or war. La Salle directed ten of his men to lay down their arms, and advance toward the Indians, making friendly signs, and endeavoring to invite an unarmed party to meet them. The whole body at once threw down their arms, consisting of bows and javelins, and ran forward joyously, caressing the Europeans, according to their custom, by rubbing their hands first over their own breasts and arms, and then over the breasts and arms of their newly found friends.

Six or seven accompanied a party of the French back to their encampment. La Salle, with the rest, accepted an invitation to visit the Indian village, which they represented as distant about five miles. Just as they were starting, La Salle turned his eyes toward the bay, when he saw, much to his consternation, that their store-ship the Aimable, which was left under the care of Captain Beaujeu, instead of following the channel marked out by the stakes, was paying no regard to them. He was greatly alarmed; but there was nothing which he could do to repel the danger.

He therefore, though in great perturbation, followed the savages to their village. It consisted of about fifty wigwams, erected upon an eminence but slightly elevated above the level prairie. The huts were built of mats or of the tanned skins of the buffalo. Just as they were entering the village, a cannon was fired from one of the ships. The savages were greatly terrified, and simultaneously threw themselves upon the ground, burying their faces in the grass. But La Salle reassured them, stating that it was merely a signal to him that one of his ships had come to anchor.

Though La Salle was very vigilant to guard against any treachery, still the hospitality manifested by the Indians seemed sincere and cordial. The Indians feasted them abundantly with fresh buffalo steaks, and jerked meat consisting of thin slices of flesh dried in the sun and smoked. Their village was near the creek, and La Salle counted forty large boats, made of logs hollowed out, such as he had seen on the Mississippi.

Upon returning to the camp, La Salle found his worst fears realized. The Aimable was driven aground, and under circumstances which rendered it almost certain that it had been done through the treachery of Captain Beaujeu. La Salle had marked out the channel by stakes, had sent the vessel a pilot, whom Beaujeu had refused to receive, and had stationed a man at the mast-head, who had given a loud warning, but whose cry was entirely disregarded.

"Those who witnessed the manoeuvre," writes Joutel, "were convinced, by irresistible evidence, that the vessel was wrecked by design, which was one of the blackest and most detestable crimes which can enter into the human heart."

The vessel was run upon the shore at the highest tide. All efforts to float her again were unavailing. The calamity was irretrievable. The Aimable contained all the ammunition, the mechanic tools, and the farming and household utensils. But La Salle, ever rising superior to the blows of misfortune, still retained his firmness. Diligently he engaged in removing the stores from the wrecked ship. One of the shallops had been, as it was believed, treacherously destroyed.

With the one shallop which remained, he succeeded, that afternoon, in removing from the ship to an encampment on the shore, the ammunition, a considerable portion of the mechanic tools, the farming and domestic utensils, and a few barrels of provisions. During the night a storm arose. The vessel was dashed to pieces. In the morning the bay was covered with barrels, chests, bales, and other debris of the wreck. While affairs were in this deplorable state, the savages, about one hundred and twenty in number, made another visit to the camp. The shores were strewed with articles of inestimable value to these poor Indians. Sentinels were stationed to prevent any robbery; but the Indians manifested no disposition to perpetrate any acts of violence.

La Salle was in great want of more boats. The Indians had some, which were dug out from immense trunks of trees, of graceful form and rich carving, capable of carrying twenty or thirty men. As all the work on these boats had been performed with stone hatchets, almost an infinity of labor had been expended upon them, and they were deemed very valuable.

La Salle sent two trusty men to the village of the Indians, to purchase, if they could, two of the boats. When they entered the wigwams, they found that a bale of blankets, which had drifted along the bay, had been picked up by the Indians, and divided among them. They made no attempt at concealment. Not having any clear views of the rights of property, they had no thought that they had done anything wrong in taking goods which they had found drifting in the water. The officers returned to La Salle with this report.

Suffering from shipwreck and great destitution, it was necessary for him to economize, as much as possible, in his expenditures. He therefore decided to send some men to the Indians, to endeavor to obtain two boats in exchange for the blankets and a few other articles which they had picked up. M. Hamel, one of Beaujeu's officers, volunteered to go on this mission, with a boat's crew, in the shallop of the Joli. He was an impetuous young fellow, with more bravery than prudence. Assuming that the Indians had stolen the blankets, and that they were to be browbeaten and forced to make restitution by the surrender of two of their boats, he advanced, upon his landing, in such menacing military array as to frighten the Indians. Most of them fled into the woods.

He entered the deserted cabins, picked up all the blankets he could find, stole a number of very nicely tanned deer skins, and then, seizing two of the best boats, put men on board of each, and commenced his return to the ship. He was quite elated with his performance, thinking it a heroic achievement. As they were paddling slowly down the bay, the wind rose strongly against them. Night came on cold and dark. It became necessary to land and wait for the morning.

They built a large fire. Wrapped in blankets, they threw themselves upon the grass around, with their feet toward the glowing coals, and soon all fell asleep. Sentinels had been stationed at a short distance from the fire, but they slept also.

The Indians returned to their wigwams. They found their treasures gone and two of their best boats stolen. As night came, they saw in the distance the light of a camp fire, and understood full well what it signified. With silent tread, and breathing vengeance, they crept through the forest upon their sleeping foes. At a given signal, the forest resounded with the dreadful war-whoop, and a shower of arrows fell upon the sleepers. Two were killed outright; two were severely wounded. The rest sprung to their arms, while some fled in terror.

The Indians, aware of the terrible power of the white man's musket, did not wait for a battle. Having inflicted this deed of revenge, they suddenly disappeared. One of the men, M. Moranget, a nephew of La Salle, succeeded in reaching the encampment of his friends, though faint and bleeding. One arrow had inflicted a terrible wound, almost cutting its way through his shoulder. Another had cut a deep gash along his bosom.

La Salle immediately sent an armed party to the spot. He was exceedingly chagrined by the cruel blunder perpetrated by his envoy. Though he could not blame the Indians, he knew full well that, their vengeance being thus aroused, they would, if they could, doom all to indiscriminate slaughter. It was necessary for him therefore to take the most decisive action in self-defence. The dead were buried. One man, helplessly wounded, was brought back to the camp. The others returned unharmed. This disaster took place in the night of the 5th of March, 1685.

These calamities operated fearfully against La Salle. Beaujeu took advantage of them, and lost no opportunity of proclaiming them as evidence that La Salle was utterly incompetent to conduct such an enterprise as that in which he was engaged. Quite a number, who had formerly been friends of La Salle, ranged themselves on the side of Beaujeu, who now openly proclaimed his intention of abandoning the enterprise and returning to France. Still he continued to do everything in his power to embarrass the operations of La Salle. There were several pieces of cannon on board the Belle. But nearly all the cannon balls were in the hold of the Joli. Beaujeu, on the eve of his departure, refused to give them up, saying that it was inconvenient for him to get at them.

About the 14th of March, Captain Beaujeu spread the sails of the Joli, and disappeared over the horizon of the sea, on his voyage to France. He took with him sixty or seventy of the company, and many stores which were deemed essential in the establishment of a colony. La Salle was left with about two hundred men, encamped upon the banks of an unknown inlet, and with one single small vessel, the Belle, anchored in the bay. To add to the gloom of his situation, the Indians were justly exasperated against him.

The first thing to be done was to build a fort for defence. Thinking it not impossible that the broad creek he had entered might prove to be one of the mouths of the Mississippi, he decided to set out on an exploring tour up the river for some distance into the interior. Five boats, containing a well-armed party of about fifty persons, embarked upon this enterprise. La Salle himself took the command. About one hundred and forty persons were left behind in the fort, under the control of M. Joutel. Those who were left in garrison, were to employ their time in strengthening the fort, and in building a large boat on the European plan.

The savages came frequently around the encampment at night, barking like dogs and howling like wolves. They did not venture upon any attack. Upon one occasion, however, a few men were at work at a little distance from the encampment, when they saw a large band of savages approaching. The workmen fled to the fort, leaving all their tools behind them. The savages gathered them up and retired. It was not safe to wander far for game. But fish was taken in great abundance from the bay.

Early in April, the garrison was alarmed by the sight of a distant sail. It was feared that it was a war-ship of the hostile Spaniards, coming to destroy them. The vessel, however, passed by, without apparently seeing the encampment. Several tragic incidents ensued. One man was bitten by a rattlesnake. After suffering dreadful agonies he died. Another, who was fishing, was swept away by the current and was drowned. Fortunately, beds of excellent salt were found, formed by the evaporation of salt water in basins on the land.

It must be confessed that the savages manifested much of a Christian disposition. They frequently came near the fort, and made signs indicative of their desire that friendly relations might be restored. But La Salle, fearing treachery, and not having full confidence in the prudence of those he left behind, gave orders that no intercourse should be opened with the savages until his return.

Early in May, quite a large party of Indians appeared near the fort. Three of them, laying aside their weapons, came forward and made signs that they wished for a conference. M. Joutel, instead of sending three unarmed men to meet them, invited them to come into the fort. Though they thus placed themselves entirely in his power, they, without the slightest hesitation, entered the enclosure. They quietly sat down, and, by signs, said that hunters from the fort had often been near them, so that they could easily have killed them. But they refrained from doing them any injury. M. Moranget, who had been so severely wounded, urged that they should be terribly punished, in revenge for the attack upon the camp. This infamous proposal M. Joutel rejected.

But his conduct was inexcusable. He gave them a very unfriendly reception; and soon ordered them to depart. They had scarcely left the entrance gate, when he ordered several muskets to be fired, as if at them. They thought that they were treacherously fired upon, and fled precipitately. He then ordered several cannon-shot to be thrown to the eminence, where the large party was peacefully assembled. This scattered them. Such was the response to the Indians' appeal for friendship. Thus insanely did the garrison establish open hostilities between the two parties, when it was evident that the Indians desired friendship.

La Salle, in ascending the river, found a prairie region far more rich and beautiful than that occupied by the encampment at the mouth of the creek. He sent back two boats, with directions that about thirty of the most able-bodied men should remain to garrison the fort, while the rest, including all the women and children, were to embark, under M. Moranget, for the new location. Early in July another messenger came with instructions for all the remaining garrison to embark, with all the stores they could carry, in the Belle, and ascend the river many leagues, to join their companions in the new settlement, and to bury, in careful concealment, all the goods which could not be removed.

But sorrows and troubles without number came. The blazing sun of summer withered them. Many were sick. All were languid, discontented, disheartened. The wood to build their huts had to be drawn three miles by hand. There was no heart for the work. Discontented men always quarrel. Even La Salle lost hope, and no longer displayed his customary energy and sagacity. Those who had professed to be good house-carpenters, were found to be totally ignorant of their business. Food became scarce. More than thirty in a few weeks died. These funeral scenes spread gloom over the whole encampment, and all wished themselves back in France.

La Salle could intrust weighty responsibilities to no one. He was compelled to superintend everything, and even to devote himself to the minutest details.

La Salle called this river La Vache, or Cow River, in consequence of the vast number of buffalo cows in which he saw grazing upon the banks. The spot chosen for the village or encampment, if we can judge from the description of M. Joutel, must have been quite enchanting. There was an elevated expanse, smooth and fertile, raised many feet above the level of the stream. An undulating prairie, covered with waving grass and flowers, spread far away for leagues toward the north and the west, bordered, in the distance, by forest-covered hills. The river flowed placidly upon the east, entering into the long and wide bay upon the south. Nothing could exceed the beauty of the prairie, waving in the richest bloom of flowers of every variety of tint.

A large cellar was dug, that the ammunition and other valuables might be stored beneath the ground, as a protection against fire. La Salle, with a few companions, made several excursions of fifteen or twenty miles into the country, hoping to find the Mississippi, or some Indians who could give him information upon that point. Failing in all these, he decided upon a more extensive exploration.

The property at the settlement now consisted of only two hundred muskets, two hundred swords, one hundred kegs of powder, three thousand pounds of bullets, three hundred pounds of lead, several bars of steel and of iron to be hammered into nails, and a tolerable supply of farming and mechanic tools. They had no ploughs, horses, or oxen. Without these, farming could be carried on only upon a very limited scale. They had, however, twenty barrels of flour, a puncheon and a half of wine, a few gallons of brandy, one or two swine, and one cock and hen.

The exploring party of fifty set out in two bands, in October, from the bay, which he had named St. Louis. M. Joutel was left in command at the settlement, with the strictest injunctions to have no intercourse with the Indians. One band ascended the river in boats. The other followed along upon the shore. Having ascended the river many leagues, and being fully convinced that it was not a branch of the Mississippi, they drew their boats upon the eastern shore, and all commenced their march, over the boundless prairies, with packs upon their backs, toward the rising sun.

Ere long they saw in the distance an Indian village, consisting of a cluster of thirty or forty wigwams. It was delightfully situated. The Indians, in locating their villages, ever had a keen sense of landscape beauty. It is difficult to account for the fact that, under the leadership of La Salle, there should have been a battle. But it was so. We have no explanation of the circumstances. After a brief conflict, the savages fled, many being wounded and probably some killed, for they were accustomed to carry their dead with them on a retreat.

La Salle and his party entered the abandoned village. They found, cowering in one of the wigwams, a woman who had been struck by a bullet in the neck, and who was dying. A young girl was with her. Just after this, La Salle sent a party of six men to explore a stream. After a toilsome day the party encamped for the night. They built their fire, cooked their supper, and, without establishing any watch, wrapped themselves in their blankets for sleep.

The next day they did not return. La Salle's anxieties were roused. He set out in search of them. The dead bodies of the six were found, pierced with arrows, scalped, and half devoured by wolves. The details of this midnight tragedy were never known. Saddened by this calamity, yet striving to maintain cheerful spirits, the party pressed on their way. After many days' march they came to another large river, which proved to be that which is now known as the Colorado, which empties into Matagorda Bay, more than four hundred miles west of the mouths of the Mississippi.

As they were journeying along, one of the men, with blistered feet, stopped to adjust his shoes. When he resumed his march, he found that the party was out of sight, and he could not overtake them. The grass of the prairie was higher than the men's heads, and there were many tracks through it which were called buffalo streets. It was impossible for him to tell which path the men had taken. He was hopelessly lost. To follow either one of them might lead him farther and farther from his companions, where he would perish miserably.

Night came. He fired his gun several times, but could get no response. He threw himself upon the grass. In the intensity of his anxiety, he could not sleep. All the next day and the next night, he remained upon the spot, hoping that his companions might come back in search for him. They did not return. He had been reprimanded the preceding day for some misconduct, and it was supposed that he had deserted.

Almost in despair he retraced his steps, travelling mostly by night, through fear that he might encounter the savages. After a month of toil and suffering, ragged and emaciate he at midnight reached the settlement. Many weeks passed away, and no tidings whatever were heard of the exploring party. One morning early in March, M. Joutel chanced to be upon the roof of a hut, when he saw far away on the prairie, eight men approaching. He immediately took a well-armed party and advanced to meet them. They proved to be a portion of the exploring band. They said that others were returning by another route. They were all in a deplorable condition. Their clothes were in tatters. Most of them were without hats. Their shirts were entirely worn out.

All were rejoiced to see La Salle again. But he had no tidings to give of the long-sought-for river. The situation in which the colonists, with their greatly diminished numbers, now found themselves was appalling. They were utterly lost in the boundless wilderness of this new world. All communication with their friends in France was cut off. There was no hope that any French vessel would ever search for them; or could find them, even if such search were undertaken. The Indians were hostile. Death would gradually diminish their numbers, and finally the remnant would either be exterminated or carried into captivity by the savages.

To add to the affliction of La Salle, the Belle, the only vessel remaining to him, was wrecked and utterly lost. Several of the sailors were drowned; and stores of inestimable value were destroyed. Father Le Clercq, in describing this untoward event, writes:

"We leave the reader to imagine the grief and the affliction felt by the Chevalier La Salle, at an accident which completely ruined all his measures. His great courage even could not have borne him up, had not God aided his virtue by the help of extraordinary grace."

Until the loss of the Belle, he had been sustained by the hope that, in the last extremity, the remnant of his company might find their way back to St. Domingo, and thence to France. This hope was now extinguished.

Under these circumstances La Salle resolved to undertake another exploring tour. Having refreshed himself and his men, and obtained new articles of clothing, mainly by distributing the garments of the dead among the living, early in May, 1686, the party again set forth. Those who remained behind employed themselves in strengthening the fortifications; in unsuccessfully cultivating the soil, for most of the seeds would not sprout, and in the chase, laying in a store of jerked meat. They had several hostile rencontres with the Indians, in which the savages were invariably beaten, in consequence of the superiority of the weapons of the Europeans.

But there was no harmony in the settlement. Loud murmurs ascended continually. Some denounced La Salle. Some defended him. The antagonistic parties were almost ready to draw their swords against each other.