Robert La Salle

Robert La Salle

(1643-1687)

Robert Cavelier,Sieur de La Salle was the second son of a wealthy merchant family of Rouen, France. He studied at a Jesuit college and entered the seminary, but he left abruptly after his father died.

La Salle crossed the Atlantic to the town of Quebec in 1666. He received a grant of land on the western side of the island of Montreal, and worked for a time as a gentleman farmer.

In 1669, wanderlust led La Salle west with a group of priests. He met Louis Jolliet (see no. 48) and searched in vain for the Ohio River. This first adventure apparently whetted his appetite for more travel, but historians do not know what experiences he had between 1669 and 1673.

In 1673, La Salle became acquainted with the new governor of Canada, Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac (see no. 45). Frontenac sent the younger man to France to obtain a monopoly on the fur trade. On his return to Quebec, La Salle received command of Fort Frontenac, at the mouth of Lake Ontario. Following three years at the post, he went again to France, where he was awarded a title of nobility.

La Salle returned to Canada in 1678. In 1682, La Salle took a party of men and began a journey down the Mississippi River. The Frenchmen reached the mouth of the river, where, on April 9, 1682, La Salle claimed all the lands on either side of the river for King Louis XTV and France. It was a grand moment, perhaps the pinnacle of French explorations in North America.

After La Salle returned to Quebec, he went directly from there to France, where he boasted of his successes. La Salle was hailed at the French court at Versailles. He persuaded the king to sponsor an expedition to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River, via the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1684, La Salle sailed from France with four ships and around 200 colonists. He quarreled with the ship captains and the navigators, and he failed to locate the mouth of the Mississippi. They sailed past its entrances, which were obscured by logs and dirt that looked like rocks from a distance.

Believing they had found the Mississippi delta, La Salle finally landed on the coast of what is now Texas. Two of the ships were wrecked; the other one returned to France. Finally realizing that the river must lie to the east, La Salle began an overland march. However, in 1687 his men mutinied, and killed him on the Brazos River. It was a tragic end for the great explorer.