Robert de La Salle was one of the most successful explorers in the New World. Most of his expeditions took place in the Great Lakes region, Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. He was the first European to make contact with many native tribes and due to his work the French were able to set up many trading posts along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. He had an untimely death, but his work set the stage for France and its new territorial gains for close to 100 years.
Robert de La Salle Facts: Early Life
La Salle was born on November 22, 1643 to a wealthy family in Rouen, France. He grew to like science and nature and spent much time studying them and later became involved with the Jesuit religion. He showed an interest in exploration and navigation. While he was exploring New France he left the Jesuit religion. La Salle never married and he did not have any children.
La Salle was no doubt influenced by previous French expeditions by Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain who forged what was known as New France. Their expeditions and discoveries set the stage for La Salle to explore the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.
Robert de La Salle Facts: Explorations
Robert de La Salle arrived in New France and quickly began issuing land grants. He set up a village and trade post where he learned to speak the native tongue of the Iroquois since he mostly dealt with the Mohawk tribe. Through this relationship he learned of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The Mississippi River connected North America with the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Learning how to navigate the great river would allow La Salle to set up many trading posts that he could navigate quickly and create a network that would enhance the wealth of France and himself.
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 famous explorer 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. 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.
Great Lake Expeditions
La Salle built Fort Conti at the mouth of the Niagara River. This allowed him to move his furs from Frontenac through shallow water with canoes or other small vessels to speed up their distribution. This also allowed him to bypass the rapids in the Niagara river that led to Niagara Falls.
He also built a seven cannon barque that he used to navigate throughout the Northwest. He explored present day Wisconsin and most of the coastal cities around the Great Lakes list him as the first European to set foot on their land. He established more forts around Lake Michigan and continued to build his network.
La Salle reassembled a party for another major expedition. In 1682 he departed Fort Crevecoeur with a group of Frenchmen and Indians and canoed down the Mississippi River. He named the Mississippi basin La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV and claimed it for France. At what later became the site of Memphis, Tennessee, he built the small Fort Prudhomme. On April 9, 1682, at the mouth of the Mississippi River near modern Venice, Louisiana, he buried an engraved plate and a cross, claiming the territory for France.
In 1683, on his return voyage, La Salle established Fort Saint Louis of Illinois, at Starved Rock on the Illinois River, to replace Fort Crevecoeur. He appointed Tonti to command the fort while he traveled to France for supplies. 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, hostile Indians, and poor navigation. One ship was lost to pirates in the West Indies, a second sank in the inlets of Matagorda Bay, and a third ran aground there. They founded Fort Saint Louis, on Garcitas Creek in present-day Victoria, Texas vicinity.
During his final attempt to locate the mouth of the Mississippi River, La Salle’s men mutinied and killed the great explorer. He was only 43 years old and had accomplished much. The network of forts he had built and his exploration of the Mississippi River gave France a significant foothold in the New World that they would keep until their loss of the French and Indian War.
Robert de La Salle Facts: Online Resources
- Wikipedia – Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle
- Mr. Nussbaum – Robert Sierra de La Salle Biography for kids
- The Encyclopedia of Arkansas
- The History Junkie’s Guide to Famous Explorers
- The History Junkie’s Guide to Colonial America
- The History Junkie’s Guide to American Revolutionary War Facts
- The History Junkie’s Guide to Louisiana Purchase Facts