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René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle facts for kids

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René-Robert Cavelier
Cavelier de la salle.jpg
A 19th-century engraving of Cavelier de La Salle
Born (1643-11-22)November 22, 1643
Died March 19, 1687(1687-03-19) (aged 43)
present day Huntsville, Texas
Nationality French
Occupation explorer
Known for exploring the Great Lakes,
Mississippi River,
and the Gulf of Mexico
De La Salle Signature.svg

René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (/ləˈsæl/; November 22, 1643 – March 19, 1687), was a 17th-century French explorer and fur trader in North America. He explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, and the Mississippi River. He is best known for an early 1682 expedition in which he canoed the lower Mississippi River from the mouth of the Illinois River to the Gulf of Mexico; there, on 9 April 1682, he claimed the Mississippi River basin for France after giving it the name La Louisiane. One source states that "he acquired for France the most fertile half of the North American continent".

La Salle is sometimes credited with being the first European to traverse the Ohio River, and sometimes the Mississippi as well. Although Joliet and Marquette preceded him on the upper Mississippi in their journey of 1673–74, La Salle extended exploration, and France's claims, all the way to the river's mouth, while the existing historical evidence does not indicate that La Salle ever reached the Ohio/Allegheny Valley.

Early life

Coat of Arms of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle
Coat of arms of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

Robert Cavelier was born on November 22, 1643, into a comfortably well-off family in Rouen, France, in the parish Saint-Herbland. His parents were Jean Cavelier and Catherine Geest. His older brother, Jean Cavelier, became a Sulpician priest. When Robert was young, he enjoyed science and nature. In his teens, he studied with the Jesuit religious order and became a member after taking initial vows in 1660.

Required to reject his father's legacy when he joined the Jesuits, La Salle was nearly destitute when he traveled as a prospective colonist to North America. He sailed for New France in the spring of 1666. His brother Jean, had moved there the year before. At La Salle's request on March 27, 1667, after he was in Canada, he was released from the Society of Jesus after citing "moral weaknesses".

La Salle was granted a seigneurie on land at the western end of the Island of Montreal, which became known as Lachine. La Salle immediately began to issue land grants, set up a village and learn the languages of the Native people, several tribes of Iroquois in this area.

Sieur de La Salle

Sieur de La Salle is a French title roughly translating to "Lord of the manor". Sieur is a French title of nobility, similar to the English "Sir," but under the French seigneurial system, the title is purchased rather than earned, and does not imply military duty. Robert Cavelier took the title with his seigneurial purchase of Lachine from the Sulpician order at Ville Marie around 1667. It refers to the name of a family estate near Rouen. However, the phrase La Salle has become iconic, and associated with the person as if it were his name; he is therefore often called Robert La Salle, or simply "La Salle".


"Ohio" expedition

The Seneca told La Salle of a great river, called the Ohio, which flowed into the sea, the "Vermilion Sea". He began to plan for expeditions to find a western passage to China. He sought and received permission from Governor Daniel Courcelle and Intendant Jean Talon to embark on the enterprise. He sold his interests in Lachine to finance the venture.

La Salle left Lachine by the St. Lawrence on July 6, 1669, with a flotilla of nine canoes and 24 men, an unknown number of Seneca guides: himself and 14 hired men in four canoes, the two Sulpicians Dollier de Casson and Abbé René de Bréhan de Galinée with seven new recruits in three canoes, and two canoes of Natives. Having travelled up the St. Lawrence and across Lake Ontario for 35 days, they arrived at what is called today Irondequoit Bay on the southern shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of Irondequoit Creek, a place now commemorated as La Salle's Landing.

There they were greeted by a party of Natives, who escorted them starting the next day to a village some leagues distant, a journey of a few days. At the village, the Seneca vehemently attempted to dissuade the party from proceeding into the lands of their enemies, the Algonquins, telling of the dire fate awaiting them. The necessity of securing guides for the further part of the journey, and the refusal of the Seneca to provide them, delayed the expedition a month. A fortuitous capture by the Natives in the lands to the south of a Dutchman who spoke Iroquois well but French ill, and was to be burned at the stake for transgressions unknown, provided an opportunity to obtain a guide. The Dutchman's freedom was purchased by the party in exchange for wampum.

While at the Native village in September 1669, La Salle was seized with a violent fever and expressed the intention of returning to Ville Marie.

At this juncture, he parted from his company and the narrative of the Jesuits, who continued on to upper Lake Erie. The missionaries continued on to the upper lakes, to the land of the Potawatomies. Other accounts have it that some of La Salle's men soon returned to New Holland or Ville Marie.

Further evidence

Beyond that, the factual record of La Salle's first expedition ends, and what prevails is obscurity and fabrication. It is likely that he spent the winter in Ville Marie. The next confirmed sighting of La Salle was by Nicolas Perrot on the Ottawa River near the Rapide des Chats in early summer, 1670, hunting with a party of Iroquois. That would be 700 miles as the crow flies from the Falls of the Ohio, the point supposed by some that he reached on the Ohio River.

La Salle's own journal of the expedition was lost in 1756. Two indirect historical accounts exist. The one, Récit d’un ami de l’abbé de Galliné, purported to be a recitation by La Salle himself to an unknown writer during his visit to Paris in 1678, and the other Mémoire sur le projet du sieur de la Salle pour la descouverte de la partie occidentale de l’Amérique septentrionale entre la Nouvelle-France, la Floride et le Mexique. A letter from Madeleine Cavelier, his now elderly niece, written in 1746, commenting on the journal of La Salle in her possession may also shed some light on the issue.

La Salle himself never claimed to have discovered the Ohio River. In a letter to the intendent Talon in 1677, he claimed "discovery" of a river, the Baudrane, flowing southwesterly with its mouth on Lake Erie and emptying into the Saint Louis (i.e. the Mississippi), a hydrography which was non-existent. In those days, maps as well as descriptions were based part on observation and part on hearsay, of necessity. This confounded courses, mouths and confluences among the rivers. At various times, La Salle invented such rivers as the Chucagoa, Baudrane, Louisiane (Anglicized "Saint Louis"), and Ouabanchi-Aramoni.

Confounding fact with fiction started with publication in 1876 of Pierre Margry's Découvertes et Établissements des Français. Margry was a French archivist and partisan who had private access to the French archives. He came to be the agent of the American historian Francis Parkman. Margry's work, a massive nine volumes, encompassed an assemblage of documents some previously published, but many not. In it, he sometimes published a reproduction of the whole document, and sometimes only an extract, or summary, not distinguishing the one from the other.

He also used in some cases one or another copies of original documents previously edited, extracted or altered by others, without specifying which transcriptions were original, and which were copies, or whether the copy was dated earlier or later. Reproductions were scattered in fragments across chapters, so that it was impossible to ascertain the integrity of the document from its fragments. Chapter headings were oblique and sensational, so as to obfuscate the content therein. English and American scholars were immediately skeptical of the work, since full and faithful publication of some of the original documents had previously existed. The situation was so fraught with doubt, that the United States Congress appropriated $10,000 in 1873, which Margry wanted as an advance, to have the original documents photostated, witnessed by uninvolved parties as to veracity.

Great Lakes forts

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

On July 12, 1673, the Governor of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, arrived at the mouth of the Cataraqui River to meet with leaders of the Five Nations of the Iroquois to encourage them to trade with the French. While the groups met and exchanged gifts, Frontenac's men, led by La Salle, hastily constructed a rough wooden palisade on a point of land by a shallow, sheltered bay. Originally the fort was named Fort Cataraqui but was later renamed Fort Frontenac by La Salle in honor of his patron. The purpose of Fort Frontenac was to control the lucrative fur trade in the Great Lakes Basin to the west. The fort was also meant to be a bulwark against the English and Dutch, who were competing with the French for control of the fur trade. La Salle was left in command of the fort in 1673.

Thanks to his powerful protector, the discoverer managed, during a voyage to France in 1674–75, to secure for himself the grant of Fort Cataraqui and acquired letters of nobility for himself and his descendants. With Frontenac's support, he received not only a fur trade concession, with permission to establish frontier forts, but also a title of nobility. He returned and rebuilt Frontenac in stone. An Ontario Heritage Trust plaque describes La Salle at Cataraqui as "[a] major figure in the expansion of the French fur trade into the Lake Ontario region, Using the fort as a base, he undertook expeditions to the west and southwest in the interest of developing a vast fur-trading empire." Henri de Tonti joined his explorations as his lieutenant.

After leaving Lower Canada in 1678, de La Salle and Henri de Tonti travelled to Fort Frontenac (now in Kingston, Ontario) and then to Niagara where, in December 1678, they were the first Europeans to view Niagara Falls; they built Fort Conti at the mouth of the Niagara River.

There they loaded supplies into smaller boats (canoes or bateaux), so they could continue up the shallow and swiftly flowing lower Niagara River to what is now the location of Lewiston, New York.

There the Iroquois had a well-established portage route which bypassed the rapids and the cataract later known as Niagara Falls.

The first ship built by La Salle, called the Frontenac, a 10-ton single-decked brigantine or barque, was lost in Lake Ontario, on January 8, 1679. Afterward, La Salle built Le Griffon, a seven-cannon, 45-ton barque, on the upper Niagara River at or near Cayuga Creek. She was launched on August 7, 1679.

La Salle sailed in Le Griffon up Lake Erie to Lake Huron, then up Huron to Michilimackinac and on to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. Le Griffon left for Niagara with a load of furs, but was never seen again. He continued with his men in canoes down the western shore of Lake Michigan, rounding the southern end to the mouth of the Miami River (now St. Joseph River), where they built a stockade in January 1680. They called it Fort Miami (now known as St. Joseph, Michigan). There they waited for Tonti and his party, who had crossed the Lower Michigan peninsula on foot.

Mississippi expedition

Lasalle au Mississippi
Color reproduction of Taking possession of Louisiana and the River Mississippi, in the name of Louis XIVth by Jean-Adolphe Bocquin.

On 3 December 1679, with a group of 40, La Salle and Henri de Tonti headed south from Fort Conti in Niagara. They canoed up the St. Joseph and followed it to a portage at present-day South Bend, Indiana. They crossed to the Kankakee River and followed it to the Illinois River. In January 1680, they reached an area that is near the current city of Peoria, Illinois. In order to help the local Peoria tribe defend themselves against the Iroquois, La Salle and his group built a stockade and named it Fort Crèvecoeur.

La Salle set off on foot for Fort Frontenac for supplies. While he was gone, the soldiers at Ft. Crevecoeur, led by Martin Chartier, mutinied, destroyed the fort, and exiled Tonti, whom he had left in charge.

The group later travelled along the Illinois River and arrived at the Mississippi River in February 1682; they built canoes here. The exploration reached an area that is now Memphis, Tennessee, where La Salle built a small fort, named Fort Prudhomme. Fort Prudhomme was the first structure built by the French in Tennessee.

In April 1682, the expedition reached the Gulf of Mexico. There, La Salle named the Mississippi basin La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV and claimed it for France.

During 1682–83, La Salle, with Henry de Tonti, established Fort Saint-Louis of Illinois at Starved Rock on the Illinois River to protect and hold the region for France. La Salle then returned to Montreal and later, to France.

Texas expedition and death

Painting by Theodore Gudin titled La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684. The ship on the left is La Belle, in the middle is Le Joly, and L'Aimable is to the right. They are at the entrance to Matagorda Bay

On July 24, 1684, he departed France and returned to America with a large expedition designed to establish a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. They had four ships and 300 colonists. The expedition was plagued by pirates, Natives defending their land, and poor navigation. One ship was lost to pirates in the West Indies, a second sank in the inlets of Matagorda Bay. They founded a settlement, near the bay which they called the Bay of Saint Louis, on Garcitas Creek in the vicinity of present-day Victoria, Texas. La Salle led a group eastward on foot on three occasions to try to locate the mouth of the Mississippi. In the meantime, the flagship La Belle, the only remaining ship, ran aground and sank into the mud, stranding the colony on the Texas coast.

During a final search for the Mississippi River in 1687, La Salle got lost and for "two years he wandered, without maps, in the marshes of the Mississippi delta".

Some of his men mutinied, near the site of present Navasota, Texas.

On March 19, 1687, La Salle was slain by Pierre Duhaut during an ambush while talking to Duhaut's decoy, Jean L'Archevêque. They were "six leagues" from the westernmost village of the Hasinai (Tejas) Indians. One source states that Duhaut was a "disenchanted follower". Duhaut was shot and killed by James Hiems to avenge La Salle. Over the following week, others were killed; confusion followed as to who killed whom.

The colony lasted only until 1688, when Karankawa-speaking Natives killed the 20 remaining adults and took five children as captives. Tonti sent out search missions in 1689 when he learned of the colonizers' fate, but failed to find survivors.

Personal life

La Salle never married, but has been linked to Madeleine de Roybon d'Allonne, an early colonizer of New France.


De la Salle
Statue of de La Salle located in Navasota, Texas
La Salle Plaque NY 1934
Bronze plaque honoring LA SALLE, at Old Fort Niagara, NY.
Memorial Plaque to de La Salle in Rouen

In addition to the forts, which also served as authorized agencies for the extensive fur trade, La Salle's visits to Illinois and other Natives cemented the French policy of alliance with Natives in the common causes of containing both Iroquois influence and Anglo-American colonization. He also gave the name Louisiana (La Louisiane) to the interior North American territory he claimed for France, which lives on in the name of a U.S. state.

The Encyclopædia Britannica provides this summary of La Salle's achievements: "His claim of Louisiana for France, though but a vain boast at the time, pointed the way to the French colonial empire that was eventually built by other men".

Pierre Berton wrote, "no other man had crammed so much adventure, so much excitement, so many triumphs, and so many heartbreaks into a single career. Though he died at the hands of some of his quarrelling followers in the mud of reeds of the Gulf of Mexico lowlands, he was essentially a man of the lakes, of Ontario and Erie, Huron and Michigan...."

A sculpture of de La Salle is located on the south facade of the Knute Rockne Memorial on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.


In 1995, La Salle's primary ship La Belle was discovered in the muck of Matagorda Bay. It has been the subject of archeological research. A search of the wreck and surrounding area during 1996 to 1997 yielded numerous artifacts from the 17th century. Through an international treaty, the artifacts excavated from La Belle are owned by France and held in trust by the Texas Historical Commission. The collection is held by the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. Artifacts from La Belle are shown at nine museums across Texas.

The wreckage of his ship L'Aimable has yet to be located. In 1998, The National Underwater and Marine Agency claimed that it had found the wreck in Matagorda Bay but the Texas Historical Commission stated that the wreck was much more recent. 

The possible remains of Le Griffon were found in 1898 by lighthouse keeper Albert Cullis, on a beach on the western edge of Manitoulin Island in northern Lake Huron. Results of testing some of the artifacts were disputed. Many of the recovered artifacts were lost and the wreck was washed away in 1942. A possible shipwreck of Le Griffon near Poverty Island at the entrance to Green Bay in northern Lake Michigan was located by Steve Libert of the Great Lakes Exploration Group in 2001. The organization prevailed in a lawsuit against the state of Michigan over ownership of artifacts in 2012, and in 2013 was issued a permit to excavate the wreck. Only one artifact, a wood pole, was recovered, and it is indeterminate whether it was from a shipwreck. In 2019, the Discovery Channel featured the story of the ship; divers who were involved in the investigation were convinced that Le Griffon sank in the Mississagi Strait

Historians debated the site of La Salle's "Fort St Louis" colony, which had been said to be near Lavaca Bay at Garcitas Creek, and was a significant part of the history of French colonization of Texas. A June 1996 dig at the site that was believed to be the correct location revealed eight French cannon. This led archeologists to excavate the Keeran Ranch site in the area, during 1996–2002; they concluded that the Spanish Presidio La Bahía fort "was built on the La Salle settlement". Some 10 percent of the artifacts recovered are believed to have originated in France. 

Place names

Many places, streets, parks, buildings and other things were named in La Salle's honor:

Counties and towns

Parks and streets

Buildings and other

See also

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