Birth Date: November 21, 1643
Death Date: March 1687
French military officer, explorer of North America, and diplomat. Born on November 21, 1643, in Rouen, Normandy, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was educated by the Jesuits. In 1662 he arrived in Montreal, New France, where he received a grant of land along the Saint Lawrence River.
La Salle's great passion was exploration. In 1669 and 1680 he explored areas south of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. In 1674 he returned to France as the representative of the governor of New France, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, to explain why Frontenac had taken the initiative in constructing Fort Frontenac at the site of present-day Kingston, Ontario, and to petition for command of the fort, in which La Salle was successful. La Salle returned to France again in 1677 to seek permission to explore and expand the fur trade to the west, and King Louis XIV awarded him a monopoly on trade in the Mississippi Valley.
In 1679 members of La Salle's expedition sailed in the Griffin, the first commercial ship on Lake Erie, through Lake Huron to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan, where the Griffin was loaded with furs that La Salle hoped would help settle his sizable debts in Montreal. However, the Griffin succumbed to a storm in Lake Michigan in 1679. Unaware of this, La Salle continued down the western shore of Lake Michigan, building first Fort Miami on the St. Joseph River and then Fort Crèvecoeur near Lake Peoria in present-day Illinois in order to protect his men from the elements and hostile Native Americans. La Salle then returned with some of his party to Fort Frontenac to secure supplies for the trip down the Mississippi. He returned to discover that in March 1680, Fort Crèvecoeur had been abandoned.
Undeterred, La Salle again traveled to Fort Frontenac. Meanwhile a number of his men, who had been captured by Native Americans, found their way to Green Bay. The expedition resumed with additional men and supplies, and descending the Mississippi, La Salle finally reached the mouth of the river and the Gulf of Mexico on April 9, 1682. He claimed the Mississippi River and all territory watered by it and its tributaries for France, naming it Louisiana after King Louis XIV.
La Salle returned to the north to establish Fort St. Louis on the Illinois River in December 1682. He hoped to free himself from the control of French authorities in Canada and establish himself as governor of an independent French colony. La Salle's merchant rivals carried on a campaign against him, obliging him to return to France, where his appeals met with royal favor. The French government saw control of the mouth of the Mississippi as essential to its interests in the imperial rivalry with Spain, with which France was then at war, and La Salle received the governorship of all of Louisiana.
Ordered to establish a settlement near the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle sailed for Louisiana in 1684 with four ships and about 400 men. The French naval commander, however, refused to follow La Salle's orders, resulting in the Spanish capture of the expedition's principal supply ship. In the West Indies, La Salle fell ill with a fever, with the result that the expedition fell into total disorder. Recovering his health, La Salle continued on with only about 180 men in the remaining three ships but sailed too far west in the Gulf of Mexico, landing near present-day Matagorda Bay, Texas. La Salle assumed that this was the westernmost outlet of the Mississippi, but explorations on land soon convinced him of his mistake. Meanwhile two of his remaining three ships had been wrecked, and the third returned to France.
Down to only 45 men, the expedition's situation was desperate, and La Salle set out in January 1687 with a small party to try to reach Canada and secure aid. Along the way his men mutinied, and La Salle was murdered in March 1687 near the Trinity River. Some of his party did reach Fort St. Louis on the Illinois River, but Native Americans killed most of the colonists who remained. While La Salle failed to realize his personal ambitions, his labors gave France a vast new colonial empire and altered the history of North America.
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