THE TRIALS OF LA SALLE.
ROBERT CAVALIER DE LA SALLE is one of the loneliest characters of history. His life was a struggle between Will and Fate. He was a Frenchman, the descendant of a wealthy family of Rouen. While but a child his love of study, his dislike of amusements, his serious energy, caused his family to select for him a career in the Church. His education was carefully attended to by the great " Society of Jesus," of which he became a member. But while La Salle was at first attracted to the Jesuits by their marvelous discipline, their concentrated power, their unequaled organization, his strong nature, as he approached manhood, rebelled at the vast machine of which he was only a part. He found himself, not at the center, but at the circumference of power. He left them. By the laws of the order, the fortune left him by his father had become the property of the "Society." Impoverished, but ambitious, La Salle, a young man of twenty-three years, in 1666, turned his back on the splendors and achievements of France in the reign of Le Grand Monarque, to seek his fortune among the wildernesses of America.
His destination was Montreal. An association of priests called the Seminary of St. Sulpice, were the feudal proprietors of the entire region. The priests were granting out their lands on easy terms to any who would form a settlement. La Salle at once arranged for a large tract of land, eight miles above Montreal, at the place now called La Chine. The location was exposed and dangerous, but eligible for the fur trade. Here he marked out a palisaded village, platted the land within the palisade into lots containing a third of an acre each, and without the palisade into forty-acre fields. These tracts he rented out for a small, annual rent to tenants. He built a comfortable house for himself, and a small fort. The little settlement of which he was the feudal lord grew and flourished. At evening La Salle would look out over the tranquil waters of Lake St. Louis, and as his imagination dwelt on the lonely world stretching ever toward the sunset, the great purpose of its exploration took shape in his mind. The Indians who came to trade with him told him of a great river in the West, but of its destination they were ignorant. The dream of the age, a passage to the South Sea, was realized, if this river emptied into the Southern or Pacific Ocean. So the restless La Salle sold his seignory back to the priests of St. Sulpice, and with the money bought canoes and supplies for an expedition.
The Sulpitians were envious of their more famous rivals, the Jesuits. The latter had long excluded every rival from missionary labors among the Indians. They threaded forests, swam rivers, endured hunger, cold, and disease to follow the Indian to his wigwam. With deathless pertinacity, they learned hideous languages, lived on nauseous food, and dared the flames of torture, to tell the story of their religion. No sacrifice was too great, no enterprise too hazardous, no suffering too severe to deter them from their great object the conversion of the savages. Everywhere these heroic priests had preceded the march of civilization. Twenty years before the saintly Marquette floated down the Mississippi, a Jesuit establishment was located on its banks. When the Hurons, among which they labored so long, were driven from their homes by the resistless arms of the Five Nations, the priests shared their sufferings and exile. Long before any other white men, they had traversed the great lakes and unfurled the banner of the cross on their farthest shores.
For all this wasted heroism the rewards seem meager enough. Now and then a savage, attracted by some beads, would allow himself to be baptized; but, as one chronicler says, "an Indian would be baptized ten times a day for a pint of brandy." Sometimes the priests were edified by seeing a warrior throw a piece of tobacco at the foot of the cross as a symbol of worship. "I have been amply rewarded," says one of these fathers, after being fed by his hosts for six days on some nauseous, boiled lichen and a piece of old moccasin, "for all my sufferings. I have this day rescued from the burning a dying infant, to whom its mother allowed me to administer the sacred rites of baptism, and who is now, thank God, safe from that dreadful destiny which befalls those who die without the pale of our most holy Church."
The Sulpitians, envying the Jesuits, aided La Salle in his efforts, and also fitted out an expedition of their own to join him, hoping to find fields for their own missionary zeal. This double-headed expedition was ill-suited to the imperious will of La Salle. After weeks of travel the priests resolved to direct their course to Lake Superior. La Salle warned them that they would find the field preoccupied by the Jesuits. La Salle's goal was the Ohio, which his Indian friends had confounded with the Mississippi. The two expeditions separated. The priests traversed the great lakes, and met with many hardships, only to find La Salle's prediction true. One night a storm swept their baggage, containing their altar service, into the lake. This they took to be the work of the Devil, to prevent their having mass. Soon afterward they found a stone idol in the forest, which inspired their highest resentment. Hungry and petulant, they attacked the thing with fury, broke it up, and dumped the fragments in the lake. This pious exploit was, as they said, divinely rewarded by a bear and a deer, killed the same day. They returned to Montreal without having made a convert or a discovery.
La Salle's men had mostly deserted him, and returning to his old settlement, called it La Chine in derision of his phantom idea of a passage to China. With one companion, he pushed on to the south, discovered the Ohio River, and descended it to the falls at Louisville, Kentucky. Here his guide deserted him, and La Salle made his way back to Montreal alone. In the following year he made a similar trip to Lake Michigan, and discovered the Illinois River.
The information gained on these trips and from the Indians, together with vague rumors among the Jesuits, gradually created a belief by La Salle, that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. His fertile mind mapped out the vast scheme of discovery and conquest, to the accomplishment of which he devoted the remainder of his life. History has no parallel for his labors. His idea was to explore the Mississippi, build a chain of French forts from the Lakes to the Gulf, command the mouth of the Mississippi with a fortress which should be the key to the continent. The great river should be open only to the navies of France. The vast interior domain of the continent should become a new empire for Louis XIV to govern.
England should be confined to the strip of sea coast east of the Alleghanies; Spain to Florida, Mexico, and South America. The trade with Indians for furs and hides, opened up through the whole interior of the continent, from the base line of the Mississippi and the chain of forts, would enrich France beyond the scope of the imagination; and this was but the prelude to the great empire which La Salle foresaw was destined to flourish between the Alleghanies and the Rockies, the Lakes and the Gulf. The Jesuits might hold undisputed sway in frozen Canada. It was for him to discover and control the rich and beautiful Mississippi valley.
In 1672 the Count de Frontenac became governor of New France. He was a bold and ambitious man, with many points of resemblance to La Salle. The latter, nursing his mighty dream in the secrecy of his own brain, saw that Canada must be the basis for the fabric. From there he must start, from there receive supplies and men. Nor could he stir without the permission of the government. Frontenac became the friend of the youthful, but stern, and self-poised adventurer.
A plan was formed between them, to build a fort at the spot now occupied by Kingston, near the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The ostensible reason was defense against the Iroquois. But Frontenac saw in it a monopoly of trade and La Salle regarded it as the first link in the chain which was to bind America to the throne of France. The location chosen was the territory of the Iroquois, the dreaded Five Nations. This league of Indians, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, embraced the most intelligent, powerful, and warlike races on the continent. Originally occupying about what is now New York State, they had extended their all-conquering arms over Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, and much of Canada. A thousand miles from their council fires were brave but subjugated peoples, who held their lands at the pleasure of their conquerors, paid annual tribute, and prostrated themselves before embassies of Iroquois, who called them dogs and spat in the faces of their proudest chieftains.
The Iroquois hated the French, who had helped their Canadian neighbors to defend themselves from the scourge. Moreover, the English and Dutch furnished them arms, and made them a sort of police over other tribes. Many a party of Indians from the Lake Superior region, with its fleet of fur-laden canoes, was waylaid by the Iroquois on the way to Montreal, and either plundered or forced to trade with the English and Dutch.
La Salle was dispatched to Onondaga, where the council-house of the confederacy was located, to invite them to a conference at the site of the proposed fort. On the appointed day, Frontenac, in glittering armor, with a brilliant and formidable force of French soldiery met the assembled hosts of the Iroquois. By means of alternate threats, persuasions, and presents, he obtained their consent to build the fort, which was named in honor of himself.
The next step in La Salle's course was to erect a fort at the month of the Niagara River. But it was indispensable to obtain the sanction of the French Government. Fort Frontenac had been built without any authority. Already strong influences were at work to have Louis XIV order it to be torn down. First, was the political party in Canada, who had supported the former governor, and who became the mortal enemies of Frontenac when he supplanted his predecessor. The political animosities of Frenchmen are the most bitter and far reaching of any people. When they hate, they hate. Another group of formidable enemies were the merchants of Montreal and Quebec. They saw that Frontenac and La Salle, with their fort so much nearer the lakes, the great avenue of Indian traffic, would have a practical monopoly of the fur trade. The last, but by no means least, of the enemies of the governor and the dauntless La Salle, were the Jesuits. La Salle was a zealous Catholic, but he despised the Jesuits. The latter, who had long had a monopoly of New France, were already losing it in Lower Canada. They therefore watched their western missions with the greatest jealousy, and resented every movement which tended to open up the great lakes to their rivals.
The first attack of these dangerous enemies on La Salle was an attempt to secure the destruction of Fort Frontenac. La Salle was arranging to return to France in the fall of 1674, in order to lay his projects before the king, and resist these intrigues, when his ambition received a powerful stimulus from the report of Joliet, who in the spring of 1673 had set out with Father Marquette, and five boatmen, to explore the Mississippi, and carry the Gospel to the countless tribes along its banks.
Marquette was the child of an illustrious family of the French nobility. Inspired solely by a sense of religious duty, he had bidden farewell to the splendors of the baronial castle in which he was born, to dwell among the Indians. Slowly the little party made their way through the lakes, up Green Bay and Fox River, thence by many weary portages on to the Mississippi. The simple and inoffensive savages, perhaps drawn more by the gentle and saint-like spirit of Marquette than by his explanations of the atonement, received the strangers kindly, pressed on them their best hospitality, and after many solicitations for them to remain, helped them on their weary way. At the village of the Illinois the two unarmed Frenchmen were treated to a great feast. The first course was Indian meal, boiled in grease; which their host fed them with a spoon. This was followed by a vast platter of fish. The host carefully picked the bones from each mouthful, cooled it by blowing, and tucked it in their mouths with his fingers. This excessive politeness seemed to destroy the Frenchmen's appetites, either from embarrassment or other causes, as the remaining courses of baked dog and buffalo were hardly tasted.
Day after day the voyagers floated down the majestic river, into the ever-opening landscape. Now their eye swept over boundless prairies; now they peered into the perennial gloom of mighty forests; now they shuddered with alarm at the imaginary dangers of red and green dragons and scaly monsters, painted by some Indian artist on the dark background of the overhanging bluffs; now they struggled with a more real danger in the mighty torrent from the Missouri River, which hurled its masses of mud and uprooted trees far out into the transparent depths of the Mississippi. As they proceeded southward the sun became warmer, the vegetation denser, the flowers more luxuriant. Every evening, after hauling their canoes ashore, Marquette, with clasped hands, would kneel before the "Father of Waters," and pour out his soul in prayer to the Infinite. As he prayed, a mild supernatural radiance would illumine his delicate and scholarly features. The spoken words would often cease, but still the slender black-gowned figure, with hands lifted, and face turned toward the crimson glories of the dying day, continued kneeling till the black bannered armies of night darkened all the air.
Seven hundred miles from the mouth of the Mississippi the voyagers commenced to retrace their lonely way. After weeks of toil, they made their way back to the Green Bay mission. here Marquette, sick and exhausted from the toils of the expedition, was compelled to stop, while Joliet carried to Montreal the news of the discovery, and of their firm belief that the Mississippi flowed, not into the Pacific Ocean, but the Gulf of Mexico.
Marquette, though feeble in health, after a long repose, determined to return to the Illinois Indians, among whom he had promised to found a mission. Taking two boatmen, Pierre and Jaques, he started on the slow journey. Overtaken by winter and renewed sickness, the gentle father was compelled to pass the winter in a rude hut on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some branches from the trees formed his bed, a log his pillow. His earthly companions were filthy savages, but he had constantly present with him a divine Companion. Urged on by love and pity, he set out amid the sleet and rain of early spring toward his destination. He was received by the Illinois at their great village, near the site of the present town of Utica, La Salle County, Illinois. Here, every morning, in a vast wigwam, he told his breathless auditors the story of the cross.
At last his failing health forced him to leave his sorrowful Indian friends. Slowly and wearily, he set out with his two faithful boatmen on the return trip. During the day he reclined on a rude pallet in the canoe, his face turned toward the skies he was so soon to inhabit. At night his two companions would hastily build a shelter, gently lift and carry him from the boat, and then prepare the rough dish of Indian meal, so ill suited to the sufferer. One evening Marquette pointed to a lonely eminence on the lake shore: "That is the spot for my last repose. The encampment was made earlier than usual. It was well. In the darkness of the night, with a crucifix in his hand and a prayer on his lips, the gentle spirit of Marquette exhaled to the skies, amid the sobs of his heartbroken companions. There in the wilderness they laid him to rest. Though always called Father Marquette, he was just thirty-eight years old.
We turn abruptly from this angelic nature to the iron figure of La Salle. When Joliet arrived at Montreal with the news of his discovery, La Salle found all of his beliefs as to the course of the Mississippi confirmed. He at once sailed for France, it being the fall of 1674. His tireless energy and address secured him an audience with the great French monarch himself. In strong, clear statements he explained the necessity of the forts. His effort was successful. The king granted him the fort and a large tract of land. He was to pay back what the fort had cost the king, and rebuild it in stone. His friends, anxious to share his prosperity, loaned him money to pay the king.
La Salle returned to Canada with his grant in his pocket. From this moment he was encircled by enemies who shadowed him to his grave. The merchants and traders of Canada organized into a league to oppose him. The country became a hornet-nest for him. Every weapon which malice could wield or ingenuity invent was employed to strike him. The Jesuits procured an order from France forbidding his traders to go out among the Indians. La Salle formed an Iroquois settlement around his fort, so that the Indians thereafter came to him. When he was at Quebec, the wife of his host undertook to play the part of Potiphar's wife. La Salle quickly left the room to find the hall filled with spies, who had expected to catch him in the baited trap. Reports were sent to his brother, the Abbé Cavalier, a Sulpitian priest, to the effect that La Salle had seduced a young girl, and was living in gross immorality. His excommunication might have taken place, had not his brother visited him, only to find him presiding over a most exemplary household. A servant was hired to put poison in his food. La Salle ate of the dish, and was taken dangerously ill, but finally recovered. Emissaries were sent out among the bloody Iroquois, telling them that the fort was designed to aid in making war on them. On the other hand, word was sent through many channels to La Salle that the Iroquois intended a massacre, and Frontenac was urged to raise a force and attack them. It was with great difficulty that the Indians were quieted.
In spite of these villainous machinations, La Salle's inflexible will was victorious. By the help of Indians, Fort Frontenac was rebuilt of stone. Within its walls were substantial barracks, a guard house, an officer's house, a forge, a well, a mill, and a bakery. Nine small cannon peeped through the walls. A dozen soldiers formed the garrison, and three times as many laborers and canoe men were also inhabitants of the fort. Outside were a French settlement, an Iroquois village, a chapel and priest's house, a hundred acres of cleared land, and a comfortable lot of live stock. Four forty-ton vessels and a fleet of canoes were built for navigating the lakes.
Here in this solitude, a week's journey from the nearest settlement, La Salle reigned with absolute power and rapidly increasing wealth. But La Salle's ambition was not gain, but glory. In the autumn of 1677 he again sailed for France. His enemies, growing more numerous and bitter all the time, were ahead of him, and denounced him to the government as a fool and madman. This was embarrassing. The scheme he was about to propose was so vast as to inspire distrust of his sanity. In his memorial to the king, La Salle recited his discoveries, described the great Mississippi valley, predicted its future, unfolded its immense value to France, enumerated the enormous difficulties which would attend its conquest, pointed out the anxiety of the English to possess it, outlined the plan of securing it by a vast chain of forts, artfully hinted at a chance to wrest Mexico from Spain, declared that it was as a basis for this enterprise that he had built Fort Frontenac, and asked similar privileges for another fort at the mouth of the Niagara--the key to Lake Erie. The statesmen of France gave La Salle an attentive audience. They granted him a royal patent allowing him to build as many forts as he chose on the same terms as Fort Frontenac, gave him a monopoly of the trade in buffalo hides, and as a crumb of comfort for the Jesuits, forbade him to trade in Upper Canada or the great lakes. This patent says nothing of colonies. Louis XIV was always opposed to them. But a military dominion over the wilderness, and a path for the invasion of Mexico, suited him well. For the accomplishment of this Titanic lab~ he gave La Salle five years!
La Salle's imperative need was money. This he borrowed in large sums at ruinous interest. These creditors lived to change from wealthy friends to bankrupted enemies. The exploration of America cost untold fortunes, thousands of heroic lives, and centuries of unrequited toil and hardships. Our debt to the past is beyond computation. La Salle was joined by the valued and trusted Henri de Tonty, a son of an Italian banker, who invented Tontine insurance. Tonty had lost a hand in battle. He was the only one of all his followers in whom La Salle could place complete confidence.
On his arrival in Canada, although it was in the dead of winter, La Salle pushed forward his enterprise. Father Hennepin, a Ricollet friar, and La Motte, another ally, who had joined La Salle in France, with sixteen men were dispatched from Fort Frontenac across the chopping waves of Erie as an advance party. After breasting the fierce December storms, they disembarked in the snow at the mouth of the Niagara River, and commenced to erect a fortified house. The ground was thawed with hot water. Little progress was made before it became evident that the consent of the Iroquois must be obtained. La Motte failed in this, but La Salle, following with supplies and re-enforcements, appeared before the solemn council of the Five Nations. Forty-two stately chiefs, arrayed in robes of black squirrel skin, listened to him and received his presents. "The senators of Venice," wrote Hennepin, "do not look more grave or speak more deliberately than the counselors of the Iroquois." La Salle's dexterity won their permission to erect a fortified warehouse at the mouth of the Niagara River and to build a ship above the Falls. This was a triumph over the Jesuits, two of whom he found at the Iroquois capital, who spared no effort to thwart his proceeding.
But La Salle's enemies were just beginning to show their hand. He made his way to the camp on the Niagara River, only to find that the pilot, to whom he had intrusted the navigation of his vessel, laden with costly supplies, tools, and materials for building the ship above the Falls, had wrecked her on the rocks, and of all her precious cargo nothing but the anchors and cables for the new vessel had been saved. This disaster was appalling and irreparable, and, as Hennepin says, "would have made any one but La Salle give up the enterprise." It became evident, too, that others of his party, besides the pilot, had been tampered with. They were a motley crew of French, Flemings, and Italians, quarrelsome, discontented, and insubordinate.
La Salle, inflexible and silent, ordered an advance. Formed in single file, every man heavily burdened with materials and supplies for the new ship, the priest, Hennepin, with his altar on his back, the procession stumbled through the deep snow, and up the steep heights above Lewiston. Six miles above the Falls, in spite of the terrible cold, the ship was begun. Food was scarce. The Iroquois acted suspiciously. A squaw told the French that they intended to burn the vessel on the stocks. No corn could be bought. Leaving the energetic Tonty in command, La Salle returned to the mouth of the river, marked out the foundations for the new fort, and then set out on foot, with two companions, for Fort Frontenac, two hundred and fifty miles away, a trip made necessary by the loss of his supply vessel. It was a bitter February. His path lay through the country of the treacherous Iroquois, among whom the Jesuits were intriguing for his destruction. For food he had a small bag of parched corn. Though a long way from the fort, the bag was growing very light. Their rations were reduced one-half. This did not suffice. They again reduced them one-half. One night they ate the last handful. Then they did without eating.
La Salle arrived at the fort to find himself ruined. His enemies had circulated reports that he was gone on a harebrained adventure. Though his property at Fort Frontenac was ample security for his Canada creditors, they had seized all his property of furs, ships, and corn, wherever found. The blow was terrific and beyond remedy. La Salle simply hardened himself to the shock. If any thing, his step was more haughty, and his mouth more stern. But he could not allow his foes to triumph by giving up his enterprise.
In August he reappeared on the Niagara River. He had contrived to get a few supplies in spite of the vigilance of his creditors, and he brought three more friars. Though he hated Jesuitism, he was zealous for the faith. Tonty had long since completed the Griffin as the new ship was called. It swung easily at anchor, so near the shore that Hennepin preached from its deck to the Indians.
On the seventh day of August, 1679, amid the chant of Te Deums and the booming of cannon, the Griffin spread her snowy canvas, and sped out over the blue depths of Lake Erie. The first few days were lovely. The rippling water sparkled in the sunlight; the distant shore seemed like a delicate blue penciling upon the cloudless horizon; the bulwarks of the Griffin were decorated with splendid game. On up the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair into Lake Huron, which spread before them like a sea, the voyagers held their way. Suddenly a terrific storm arose. The vessel shook like a leaf before the fury of the billows. La Salle and his company cried aloud to all the saints, some one of whom it is presumed heard their cries, as the storm passed away and the vessel found refuge behind Point St. Ignace. La Salle lingered here at the Jesuit mission to find his ever present enemies still bent on his destruction. He had expected to have the expedition proceed from this point in canoes, while he returned in the Griffin with a cargo of furs to appease his creditors. Such signs of disloyalty appeared that he sent the Griffin back without him. It proved to be a most disastrous determination.
The fleet of deep-laden canoes were soon caught in another storm. With great difficulty and danger the explorers reached the shore, where they remained a week, drenched by incessant sleet and rain. As the tempest raged on the lake, La Salle trembled for the Griffin. Though sorely pressed for food, he dared not camp near Indians, for fear some of his men would steal his goods and desert to them. The hardships were intolerable. Overhead great rain clouds swept across the sky; beneath raged an angry turmoil of tossing waves. At night the heavy canoes had to be dragged by the exhausted and hungry men through the breakers and up the steep shores. One morning footprints were seen in the soft mud and a coat was missing. La Salle knew that the theft must be punished. A stray Indian was made prisoner, and La Salle went to his people and told them he would be killed unless the coat was returned. This was embarrassing. The coat had been cut up and divided among the Indians. It was a fight or a compromise. The latter was effected by paying for the coat in corn.
La Salle made his way to the mouth of the St. Joseph River. Here he was to meet Tonty, coming along the east shore of the lake from Michillimackinac. The spot was wrapped in its primeval solitude. To wait for Tonty was dangerous. Winter was setting in; the men were restless; yet La Salle said he would wait, if it was by himself. In three weeks Tonty arrived. One of his canoes with guns, baggage and provisions had been swamped. Part of his men had deserted. For many days their only food had been acorns. It was time for the Griffin to have made her trip to Niagara and back again. Day after day La Salle scanned the horizon, with anxious eye. No sail appeared. To delay longer was impossible. Two men were sent to meet it, while the remainder, thirty-three in all, began to force their canoes up the St. Joseph River. They looked eagerly for the trail which led to the great village of the Illinois. Nowhere could it be found. La Salle went ashore to search for it. Night came with thick falling snow, but La Salle returned not. The suspense of the party was intolerable. It was four o'clock the next day before he came in sight. He had lost his way. In the night he saw the gleam of a fire through the forest. Hastening to it, he found, not his camp, but a spot warm from the body of a man who had evidently fled. Calling loudly and getting no answer, La Salle coolly lay down and slept till morning. On his return he was greatly exhausted from his exposure, and slept in a hut close to the campfire. During the night the hut caught fire, and he narrowly escaped the flames.
When at last the Illinois trail was found, the party shouldered canoes and baggage for the tramp. One of the men, enraged at his hardships, raised his gun to shoot La Salle through the back, but was prevented from doing so. The great Indian town of five hundred enormous lodges was reached, but every wigwam was silent and empty; and the ashes of every campfire cold. The people were absent on their great hunt. Abundant stores of corn were found, but it was a terrible offense to touch it. La Salle felt that he must have the friendship of the Indians at any cost. The Jesuit emissaries were busy among the Iroquois, inciting them to make war on the distant Illinois, hoping by this means that La Salle and his forlorn companions might be massacred, or at least forced to abandon their enterprise. One morning, as the little flotilla of canoes drifted down the Illinois River, the Indians of the deserted village came in sight. They received the strangers as friends, providing food, and rubbing their feet with bear's grease. La Salle made them a speech, told them he came to protect them against the Iroquois, and intended to build a great wooden canoe with which to descend the Mississippi and bring them the merchandise they so much wanted.
One would think that La Salle, in this wilderness, far remote from the dwellings of men, would have been free from the pursuit of his enemies. Not so. Hate, like love, laughs at distance and difficulties. That very night a Jesuit emissary reached the Indian camp. A secret nocturnal council was held. The stranger warned the Illinois that La Salle was their enemy, an Iroquois spy, soon to be followed by the Iroquois themselves in all their blood-thirstiness. After this speech he disappeared in the forest. In the morning La Salle noticed the change in his hosts. Distrust and malignity were depicted on every savage face. Adroitly learning the facts from an Indian to whom he had given a hatchet, he made a bold speech, denying the slander, and challenging them to set him face to face with his traducer. The speech restored general confidence. If oratory is the art of persuading men and swaying an audience, La Salle was a great orator.
One morning, La Salle found six of his men, including two of his best shipbuilders, had deserted. It cut him to the quick. But this was not all. A treacherous hand again placed poison in his food. His life hung in the balance for hours, but an antidote given by the faithful Tonty turned the wavering scale. Worse than all, it was evident that the Griffin, the main stay of the whole enterprise, was lost. Nothing was ever heard of her again. Two men sent to search for her, reported that they had made the circuit of the lakes and found her not. La Salle afterwards found evidence of her having been deliberately sunk by the pilot, at the instance of his enemies. The loss of the Griffin was the severest blow yet. She carried anchors, cables, and equipment for the new boat he was to build on the Mississippi, as well as costly supplies. The mountain of disasters was enough to break a heart of stone.
Did La Salle give up? No! He mocked at despair, and instead of yielding, built a strong permanent fort, which he called Fort Crévecoeur, or "Broken-hearted," in very irony at his misfortunes. He also commenced the great task of building a forty-ton ship for the river. Trees had to be felled and laboriously sawed into plank by hand. Yet in six weeks the hull was completed by men who were not carpenters. La Salle induced Father Hennepin to give up his preaching, and render some reluctant service by exploring the Illinois River to its mouth. Hennepin, who was a great boaster but poor worker, tried to shirk the enterprise, but at last, with two companions and a canoe well filled with hatchets, beads, and other presents for the Indians, supplied at La Salle's own cost, started on his trip. He descended the Illinois to its mouth, and then ascended the Mississippi, was taken prisoner by the Sioux, and after many adventures made his way back to Montreal, and thence to Europe. He at once published an account of his travels, laying no claim to having discovered the mouth of the Mississippi. Fifteen years later, La Salle being long since dead, Hennepin rivaled our friend Captain John Smith by publishing a new story of his travels, in which he claims to have traversed the entire Mississippi, and thus anticipated La Salle in his chief work. The falsehoods and exaggerations of the book have long since been exposed.
La Salle's exploration could advance no farther until the precious articles for the new ship, lost in the Griffin, could be replaced. The expedition was eating itself up with expense. Its chief determined to make his way on foot through the vast and gloomy wildernesses which lay between him and Montreal, in one last effort to replace the loss. It was equal to one of the labors of Hercules--a journey of twelve hundred miles, through a country which was the perpetual battleground of hostile and cruel savages, without food, sleeping on the open ground, watching by night and marching by day, carrying a heavy load of blanket, gun, ammunition, hatchet, kettle, and a sack of parched corn. Sometimes pushing through thickets, sometimes climbing rocks covered with ice and snow, with clothing constantly wet from swimming a dozen rivers a day, and wading for hours at a time waist or even neck deep in marshes, exposed continually to attack from ravenous beasts, and to a thousand other hardships, toils, and dangers. In all the journey there was not a gleam of light from a single cabin window to welcome the weary travelers at night-fall, not a white man's face to cheer them amid the frightful and gloomy solitudes of unending forests.
La Salle's companions were a Mohegan hunter, who had followed him with ceaseless fidelity, and four Frenchmen. Two of the latter left the party at the point nearest Michillimackinac. The terrible exposures impaired the health of the party. The Mohegan and one Frenchmen were taken ill, and were spitting blood. This left La Salle and one man in health. They had to provide for the additional burden of the sick men.
But we may not linger over the tragic story. After sixty-five days of unparalleled sufferings, the stone bastions of Fort Frontenac rose before their weary eyes. The unconquerable will and iron frame of La Salle, who had been reared in delicate luxury, a scholar, whose career had been marked out to be that of a gentle parish priest for some rural flock in France, had achieved the impossible.
Poor La Salle had reached his goal, but his long journey had but brought him to new grief. It is almost too cruel to record. Within a week he had, by extraordinary effort, in spite of his bankruptcy and misfortunes, collected the needed supplies. He was on the point of setting out on the return trip to his forlorn colony on the Illinois, when two messengers from Fort Crévecoeur arrived with a letter from Tonty. He reported to his stricken chief that, after his departure, the men had mutinied, blown up the fort, plundered its stores, throwing into the river all they could not carry off, and then deserted. All was lost. His mighty effort was spent. Yet he gave not an hour to his grief. Whatever was the inward conflict, no human eye could pierce beneath the iron mask of his features. He chose nine trusty and well-armed men and went to meet the mutineers. Two canoes surrendered at once. The third showed fight. Two of the villains were killed. The remainder were safely lodged in the dungeon of the fort, to await the coming of Count Frontenac. La Salle's enemies used the killing of the two mutineers as a basis for a charge of murder.
After all his toil, the mighty dream of the interior empire seemed wrecked forever. But La Salle was incapable of retreat. He seemed impelled by an inward force, as resistless as his fate was remorseless. On the 10th of August, 1680, be embarked again with his succor for Tonty. If the latter could keep his foothold on the Illinois, success might yet be wrested from adversity. Through Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan, up the St. Joseph River, and down the Kankakee, he once more took his way. At every step he found the Indians prejudiced against him by the Jesuits.
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Retyped and reformatted by Ray and Kathy Leigh