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.

Robert Cavelier de La Salle and the Colony of New France

René Robert Cavelier was born in November 21, 1643, the son of the wealthy merchant Jean Cavelier in Rouen. The name “La Salle”, which he later adopted, came from a family estate near Rouen. René Robert received his education at the Jesuit College of Rouen and joined the Order as a novice. However, in 1666, at the age of 22, he left the Jesuit Order and travelled to the French colony of New France, later “Canada”, where his brother Jean, a priest of the Sulpizian Order, was staying. This order gave him a piece of land near Montreal. There he began to build a fortified settlement, was active in the fur trade and learned Indian languages. 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.[4]

Commissioned by Louis XIV

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). In 1677 La Salle travelled to France and was officially commissioned by Louis XIV to explore the west of New France and to build as many forts there as he deemed necessary. Despite the support of the crown, La Salle did not receive any money, which forced him to borrow large sums of money. Besides his debts, the hostility of the Jesuits continued to cause him difficulties. In 1678 La Salle returned to Canada. In 1679 he had the “Griffon” built on Lake Erie for trading purposes. This first sailing ship on the Great Lakes was intended to raise the necessary funds for an expedition along the Mississippi discovered by Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette in 1673. He had come to the conclusion that the Mississippi did not flow into the Pacific Ocean but into the Gulf of Mexico, and planned to dock a fortified harbour there, which was against Spanish and English competition. As a preparation, he also learned survival techniques from the Indians, with whose help he managed dangerous situations several times. His plans suffered severe setbacks when the “Griffon” shipwrecked and in 1680 a mutiny at Fort Crèvecœur on the Illinois River.

Depiction of La Salle inspecting the reconstruction of Fort Frontenac, 1675. Painting by John David Kelly.

Depiction of La Salle inspecting the reconstruction of Fort Frontenac, 1675. Painting by John David Kelly.

The Famous Expedition

With the help of the Crown, La Salle now organized an expedition in France with which he wanted to reach the mouth of the Mississippi by sea and establish a colony there. From there, the Spanish colonies in Mexico and in present-day Texas, with which France was at war, were to be attacked. From the beginning there were doubts about the feasibility of the plan, but Louis XIV supported it and provided ships. The expedition suffered difficulties from the beginning. The relationship between La Salle and the captains under his command was bad. In the Caribbean, a ship was lost to pirates. Further difficulties resulted from illnesses on board and navigation problems. The expedition missed the mouth of the Mississippi River and landed in Matagorda Bay in present-day Texas about 800 km away on 20 February 1685. La Salle had a fortified settlement called Fort St. Louis built for the 200 colonists. With the sinking of the flagship “L’ Aimable” and in 1686 of the last remaining ship “La Belle“, important material and the connection to the outside world were lost. From Fort St. Louis, La Salle undertook two expeditions to the west and east to determine its location. On a third expedition, with which he wanted to get help for the colony, he was murdered by members of his expedition on March 19, 1687. The remaining 20 colonists were killed when Indians attacked Fort St. Louis in the winter of 1688/1689. Some children were later freed by the Spaniards.

“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.”

A New Colony

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 Mississippi 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.

Significance and Legacy

Although La Salle was undoubtedly one of the most important pioneers of French colonization of North America and possessed vision and foresight as well as the ability to proceed systematically and according to plan, he failed. In addition to misfortunes, his character deficiencies – he was accused of arrogance, impatience and lack of sensitivity in dealing with his subordinates – seem to have played a decisive role in this. Nevertheless, his discoveries and travels were of great importance, as they determined the lines of development for the French colonies in North America. Since Spain, under the impression of the French colony, had so far only claimed, but started to develop undeveloped areas in the west of present-day Texas, La Salle’s expedition indirectly brought about the emergence of the present-day US state of Texas.

Exploring History Lunch Lecture: The LaSalle Expedition & Conservation of Artifacts (Jim Jobling), [8]

References and Further Reading:


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  • This article includes a large number of factual errors, both committed and omitted. Since the 1492 discovery of America by Columbus, Europeans searched for a Northwest Passage to China. This included the 1493 voyage of John Cabot, the 1532 and 1534 voyages of Jacques Cartier, and the 1609 voyage of Henry Hudson. Ever since Cartier’s ships were stopped by the rapids at Montreal, those rapids were derisively called La Chine. And France did not try to develop a colony in Canada until 1608, when Samuel de Champlain came to America. La Salle did not name the rapids, nor did he call his seigniory La Chine. Seneca braves told him that a river called Ohio traveled SW for months before spilling into the sea. La Salle’s interest in using that information to find a passage to the Pacific did not make him a boiling cauldron of ambition; it merely meant that he, more than others, was willing to act on the information.
    Whether he spoke Iroquois or Algonquin or even claimed to speak those languages is purely speculative. His alleged claim to do so, that he was part of a Sulpician expedition rather than leader of an expedition that Sulpicians were directed to take part in, and that he announced he would return to Montreal due to poor health are ALL among allegations made in an account of the trip made after the fact by Sulpician deacon René de Brehant de Galinée and clearly doctored by another hand to indict La Salle and cover up the fact that the Sulpicians abandoned the expedition and La Salle, who had just come down with the same illness that had flattened Sulpician Fr. Dollier for a month. The clerics took most of the members of the expedition with them. These are the men who, led by Dollier, abandoned La Salle, who continued on to the Forks of the Ohio at present-day Pittsburgh, though not, as is often stated, to the rapids at Louisville.
    La Salle NEVER claimed that he had discovered the Mississippi River, though Bernou did so out of ignorance before he ever met La Salle. In fact, the important people in Canada knew, when Jolliet (2 T’s) finally returned in the summer of 1674 that the Mississippi River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. Even after La Salle found the mouth of the Ohio at the Mississippi, he wrote, “I have never been down it.”
    Your article fails to mention that, having found the Ohio under letters patent from Gov. Remy de Courcelles, La Salle was further commissioned in 1670 by Jean Talon, first intendant of New France, to explore the Iroquois country south of the Great Lakes. La Salle had been trained by the Jesuits in math, languages, and cartography, and he was trusted by the top officials in Canada to deliver intelligence about the land and its people. Most accounts tend to overlook this. La Salle helped prevent war from breaking out in the summer of 1671 when Courcelles took a contingent of 50 soldiers up the St. Lawrence to demonstrate French military ability to conquer the rapids. La Salle appeared in a court in Albany with his men and an Iroquois friend to persuade the English that there was no attempt to invade either Iroquois lands or New England. La Salle was still away on this assignment when Talon directed the newly arrived Frontenac to send Jolliet to find the Mississippi.
    When La Salle returned soon after Jolliet had left, he told Frontenac about Iroquois efforts to combine with the Ottawas to bypass New France with their furs and take them to New England. Using La Salle’s reports and maps, Frontenac, who had no working knowledge of the land or its people, asked La Salle to bring Iroquois sachems to a council where Frontenac – not La Salle – built the fort that bears his name. La Salle was the first commandant of the fort, but the fur trade there was initially given to Le Ber and Jacques Bazire, agent for a wealthy merchant named La Chesnaye, who had purchased the taxable fur trade of New France. But Le Ber and Bazire could not make the franchise repay Frontenac for his costs in building the fort. In the meantime, the fur traders and Jesuit missionaries encouraged Jolliet to apply for a fur trading post in Illinois. The government, protecting the river as a state secret, shut him down in 1674. Only then did Frontenac send La Salle with a petition to the king to protect, once again, the flow of furs to New England, this time south of the Great Lakes, by establishing posts at Niagara and southern Lake Michigan – hundreds of miles from the Mississippi. The government and the king shifted La Salle to achieve their priorities, which included a seaport settlement on the lower river from which to base French warships and challenge Spain in the New World. This is clearly illustrated in the primary documents, despite the secret nature of La Salle’s commission “to explore the western part of New France.”
    All explorers were required to pay their own way, but the Crown always provided a financial lever to enable the explorer to recoup the money advanced by investors. And in this case, La Salle was granted a bison hide monopoly. Until recently, no one has ever examined La Salle’s letters closely enough to see that he himself valued this franchise at an annual revenue of 2.5 MILLION LIVRES – several times the value of the entire Canadian fur trade. And Jean Baptiste Colbert, the minister of finance, marine and colonies for Louis XIV, the man who had designed La Salle’s enterprise, did not leave this financial arrangement to chance. Colbert intended to control the transatlantic trade that France had just acquired by defeating the Dutch on the West African coast and at Tobago in the Caribbean. This included the slave trade, which was addressed when Colbert’s son, the Marquis de Seignelay, during negotiations with La Salle, gave a 40-gun frigate and 250 soldiers to the Company of Senegal to seize assets on the hump of Africa.
    La Salle wrote a letter of nearly 70 pages from wilderness America to “an investor named Thouret,” who expressed concern about rumors he had heard in Paris. La Salle answered every one of these before offering several alternative arrangements for his principal financier, including turning over the entire Mississippi venture to Thouret for a virtual song as long as La Salle could be governor of Louisiana – a term first used by Bernou, not La Salle. No one seems to have asked who Thouret was. He was a major shipowner and the holder of the French slave trade monopoly in 1675. He would be a director of the reorganized Company of Senegal in 1679 when Colbert made the company’s slave trade monopoly official.
    Le Griffon was never built for trading purposes or to “raise necessary funds for the exploration of the Mississippi River” (see above). In fact, La Salle was prohibited as part of his commission from trading for furs with the Ottawas of the western Great Lakes. Nor could the ship have navigated ANY of the rivers down which La Salle needed to travel to get to the Mississippi River. Le Griffon was always intended to carry equipment and workers to southern Lake Michigan to build a second ship for such purposes on the Illinois River (where it did not freeze over during winter) and to map the Gulf Coast. Tonti, who had training as a marine and military engineer, was the man who supervised construction of both vessels and the forts along the way – at Niagara, at the St. Joseph River in southern Michigan, Fort Crèvecoeur at Beardstown, Illinois (NOT Peoria) and later, at Fort St. Louis at Starved Rock.
    La Salle did not reach the conclusion that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. That was Jolliet’s conclusion, and it was not shared with the leaders of New France until July 1674, not 1673 (again, see above). La Salle learned this when everyone else did, and he did not act on this information for another three years, when it became clear that furs, the life blood of the Canadian economy, were being channeled away from New France.
    It is a stretch to say Le Griffon was shipwrecked. It simply vanished. Yes, there was a storm, but few traces were ever found. In fact, there are enough pieces of evidence to consider that the six-man crew scuttled the ship before making their way to the Francis Xavier Mission in Green Bay and then to Sioux country, where fur trader Duluth was known to be living at the time. Neither the crew nor the Jesuit missionaries ever tried to alert La Salle to the crew’s survival or the loss of the ship, requiring La Salle to travel 1,500 miles across dangerous wilderness in early spring to Fort Frontenac to seek word of his missing ship. The 1680 mutiny likewise involved the active support of Jesuit missionary Claude Allouez, who led the mutineers toward New France, said they would be safe, and blessed their bullets in making their escape.
    When authorities seized La Salle’s property and forts on a pretext, he returned to France at the end of 1683 for the king’s support in continuing the commission he was given in 1678. He had signaled their intention on at least three occasions after Le Griffon had been lost. Believing that the Mississippi did not, as was widely believed, empty into the Bay du St. Esprit but near Mexico’s silver mines, La Salle offered an optional plan to invade Mexico with 50 buccaneers, 200 Frenchmen (including the soldiers under his command), and 4,000 (NOT 15,000) Indigenous warriors. There was NEVER ANY DOUBT that the king agreed to give La Salle his support, both for the seaport AND the invasion, provided a state of war continued with Spain. And the king granted these things WITHIN WEEKS OF LA SALLE’S ARRIVAL IN FRANCE.
    There is far more to the story, including the last-minute replacement of the frigate captain escorting La Salle to America. That maneuver was done in the midst of a counterintelligence effort to disguise La Salle’s return by indicating it would be through Canada – an impossibility of which the king, Seignelay (Colbert had died) and La Salle himself were aware. The replacement was engineered by a courtier close to the throne, behind the back of Seignelay, and despite the recommendation of the highest officials in the navy. And the captain, Tanguy le Gallois de Beaujeu, immediately began a clandestine correspondence with the same courtier, violating every order he was given and trying daily to pry loose “the secret” of La Salle’s course back to America.
    I am happy to discuss these details, which have been accepted for publication or actually published in peer-reviewed journals across five states since April 2020.

  • Corrections and clarification:
    The spelling of Jolliet requires 2 L’s, not 2 T’s as I stated. (The Illinois town of Joliet was not named for Louis Jolliet but was originally called Juliet, paired with another town, Romeoville, but changed to reflect the Frenchman, though without the added L.) The word “protect” should be changed to “prevent,” regarding the flow of furs to New England in 1678. The word “their” should be “this” in regard to La Salle’s intention to return to France for royal support of the Mississippi enterprise in 1684. The rest should stand as is.


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