Monday, April 9, 2012

People: The Man Who Would Build Empires

On this day in 1682, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the Mississippi basin for France and named it La Louisiane in honor of King Louis XIV. This story has been told and retold to the point where much of the truth has been lost and Cavelier now is framed as a hero. In fact he was an obstreperous, power-mad individual whose personal strength was sometimes all that got him through.

Born to a comfortable bourgeois family in November of 1643, Cavelier grew up in Rouen at his parents’ estate which was named La Salle. The family was not of the nobility, but Cavelier would eventually be granted a minor peerage that made him the seigneur of a small estate on Montreal Island in modern day Canada.

Initially, Cavelier felt a calling to the priesthood. He entered the novitiate with the Society of Jesus in 1658 and took vows as a Jesuit priest in 1660. His hope was to be assigned to a mission in New France but his superiors thought better of such a plan. Cavelier was particularly accused of “inquietus”, unsteadiness and lack off good judgment, according to his biographer Celine Dupre (find her excellent discussion of Cavelier, to which I am much indebted, here). The Jesuits were not about to send someone with such an unsettled spirit out into the wild. As it turns out, they knew whereof they spoke.

By 1667, Cavelier had had enough of the priesthood. On March 28th he left the Jesuits behind and later in the same year sailed for Canada. He arrived in Montreal before November and attached himself to the missionary order of Sulpicians. It was this order that would grant him his siegneury.

Certain that he could be the one to locate the Ohio River and with it the fabled Northwest passage, Cavelier embarked on a hastily put together expedition into the wilds beyond Montreal (then called Ville-Marie) in July of 1669. Deacon Brehant de Galinee, who was along on the expedition as cartographer, would later write:

M. de La Salle, who said that he understood the Iroquois perfectly, and had learned all these things from them as a result of the perfect knowledge that he had of their language, did not know it at all, and was undertaking this voyage almost blindly, without knowing where he was going.

That single sentence presciently summed up all of Cavelier’s future undertakings, in the wilderness and back home in France. He groped his way around the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes, building forts and ships as he went, travelling by canoe, horse and on foot as necessary to satisfy his almost megalomaniacal goal to be the one explorer who could claim discovery of both the origin of the Ohio River and the end point of the Mississippi. In the process, he would abuse and even kill men who did not follow his express orders, start wars between Native tribes and enrage both the clergy and the French crown. His commitment to his own righteousness knew no bounds and he slogged on through weather, disease, starvation and loss to finally dawn his trademark scarlet coat and claim La Louisiane for France.

Called back to the mother country to account for his adventuring, Cavelier, with a straight face, fictionalized the location of the Mississippi delta. The map he had drawn up moved the outlet of the river some 250 leagues to the west, making it appear to dump into the Gulf of Mexico not far from the modern city of Galveston, Texas. As d’Irberville, who would later found the city of New Orleans, noted dismissively, “M. de la Salle [was] a man who passed for being clever…”

Louis XIV, believing Cavelier’s nonsense and wanting to make inroads into the vast territories accumulated by Spain, sent Cavelier back to America to found a city at the imaginary mouth of the Mississippi. With three ships, including the now famous La Belle, Cavelier set out for the coast of Texas, finally dropping anchor in Matagorda Bay in February of 1685. With him were a number of colonists, women and children included, who immediately knew deprivation thanks to the disastrous foundering of their provision ship, Aimable.

Unphased by the setback, Cavelier immediately put his people to hard labor building Fort Saint-Louis. Several men died during the construction, and grumbling among the settlers at the ineptitude of Cavelier grew louder when La Belle – their only way out of an increasingly horrible situation – sank in Matagorda Bay.

Meanwhile, Cavelier took a party of men and set off to try to find a branch of the Mississippi, which he was still convinced must be nearby. When the party lost their canoes they continued on foot through torrential rains that made exploration and even making a fire next to impossible. Fed up with the insults Cavelier heaped on them at every turn, a small group used a dispute over the meat of a bison to take down their leader. As Cavelier approached the group, who had just chopped up his priest, servant and Native guide with an axe, they shot him through the head. Unsatisfied with so easy a death evidently, the men stripped Cavelier’s body and left it exposed. On their way back to Fort Saint-Louis, the men would turn on one another, killing each other one by one. Needless to say, Cavelier’s Fort Saint-Louis failed.

The Sieur de La Salle’s legacy, as the explorer who mapped out – however erroneously – the Mississippi basin remains to this day. As Dupre notes, “few historical personages are more difficult to judge than La Salle.” He was both physically capable and closed minded to anyone else’s wants or needs. His striving for empire building eventually got him killed, and who knows what might have become of him otherwise.

Header: Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sounds like a singularly unpleasant individual...

Pauline said...

I was surprised at his lack of redeeming qualities given that, pretty much all my life, I've thought of La Salle as a "great explorer". Not so much, as it turns out.

He was a tough individual, though, surviving several fevers, wounds and a nasty hernia at various points. Gotta give him that.