Robert Cavelier de La Salle and his Mississippi Expedition

 La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana

Painting by Theodore Gudin titled La Salle’s Expedition to Louisiana in 1684

On April 7, 1682, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi river at the end of his great expedition, claiming the region watered by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France, and naming it Louisiana after King Louis XIV. His last expedition was to invade and conquer part of the Spanish province of Mexico, which failed and cost La Salle his life.

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was born in November 21, 1643 and studied with the Jesuit religious order. He traveled to North America as a prospective colonist in 1666. La Salle was granted a seigneurie on land at the western end of the Island of Montreal. It is believed that La Salle began almost immediately to issue land grants and set up a village. However, by July, 1669, he was ready to search for the Pacific Ocean and hoped to reach it by way of the Ohio River. However, La Salle spoke no Algonquian and no Iroquoian and by November, he already announced to return home because , as he said, of his poor health. La Salle managed to return to the colony at the end of the summer 1670, claiming that he discovered the Mississippi ahead of Jolliet and Marquette.

Three years later, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, back then the Govenor of New France, sent La Salle as his emissary to Lake Ontario. He was granted permission to build a fort (Fort Frotenac). However, by 1678 he already had the next goal and managed to receive the exclusive right to explore the area between Florida and Mexico, which was later extended so that La Salle was also allowed to build forts.

The famous expedition which set out from Fort Crèvecoeur in January, 1682, comprised twenty-three Frenchmen and eighteen Amerindians. The group made their way southwards by the Chicagou (Chicago), Renard (Fox) and Illinois rivers. The expedition reached the Mississippi river approximately in February near present day Memphis. After their arrival, La Salle ordered the building of a small fort, Fort Prud’homme. In early April, the expedition caught sight of the mouth of the Mississippi and La Salle proceded to hold a ceremony, in which he dressed up in a gold-laced red cloak. The official report of the ceremony records the words proclaimed by the explorer who had just extended New France as far as the confines of the Spanish Empire: “I, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, by virtue of His Majesty’s commission, which I hold in my hands, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken and do now take, in the name of His Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of the country of Louisiana, the seas, harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all the nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams and rivers, within the extent of the said Louisana.” In 1683, on his return voyage, La Salle established Fort Saint Louis of Illinois, at Starved Rock on the Illinois River.

In 1684, Louis XIV commissioned La Salle to establish a French colony in Louisiana and more than 200 recruits set sail from La Rochelle aboard four ships. It is believed that they were not exactly sure where they were going, but the objective was to find the Mississipi by way of the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle’s party was reduced soon due to the shortage of supplies and drinking water. Also, one of the vessels was lost and it is believed that in the end, La Salle alienated even those who had remained faithful to him to the end. He died in the land that is now Texas, shot dead at point blank range on March 19, 1687.

At yovisto, you can learn more about ‘Independence‘ in a lecture by Professor Joanne Freeman at Yale University.

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