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Taking advantage of the profound peace which now blessed New France, M. Talon, the intendant, dispatched an experienced traveler, named Nicholas Perrot, to the distant northern and western tribes, for the purpose of inducing them to fix a meeting at some convenient place with a view of discussing the rights of the French crown. This bold adventurer penetrated among the nations dwelling by the great lakes, and with admirable address induced them all to send deputies to the Falls of St. Mary, where the waters of Lake Superior pour into Lake Huron. The Sieur de St. Lusson met the assembled Indian chiefs at this place in May, 1671; he persuaded them to acknowledge the sovereignty of his king, and erected a cross bearing the arms of France.

M. de Courcelles was succeeded by the able and chivalrous Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac. The new governor was a soldier of high rank, and a trusty follower of the great Henry of Navarre; his many high qualities were, however, obscured by a capricious and despotic temper. His plans for the advancement of the colony were bold and judicious, his representations to the government of France fearless and effectual, his personal conduct and piety unimpeachable, but he exhibited a bitterness and asperity to those who did not enter into his views little suited to the better points of his character, and it is said that ambition and the love of authority at times overcame his zeal for the public good.

M. Talon, the intendant, was at this time recalled by his own wish, but before he departed from the scenes of his useful labors he planned a scheme of exploration more extensive than any that had yet been accomplished in New France. From the rumors and traditions among the savages of the far West, with which the meeting at St. Mary’s had made the French acquainted, it was believed that to the southwest of New France there flowed a vast river, called by the natives Mechasepe, whose course was neither toward the great lakes to the north, nor the Atlantic to the east. It was therefore surmised that this unknown flood must pour its waters either into the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. The wise intendant was impressed with the importance of possessing a channel of navigation to the waters of the south and west, and before his departure from America made arrangements to have the course of the mysterious stream explored. He intrusted the arduous duty to Father Marquette, a pious priest, who was experienced in Indian travel, and an adventurous and able merchant of Quebec, named Jolyet. (1673.) The Comte de Frontenac gave hearty aid to this expedition, and in the mean time he himself extended the line of French settlement to the shores of Lake Ontario, built there the fort that still bears his name, and opened communication with the numerous tribes westward of the Allegany Mountains.

The exploring party, led by Marquette and Jolyet, consisted of only six men, in two little bark canoes: at the very outset the Indians of the lakes told them that great and terrible dangers would beset their path, and recounted strange tales of supernatural difficulties and perils for those who had ventured to explore the mysterious regions of the West. Hearkening carefully to whatever useful information the natives could bestow, but despising their timid warnings, these adventurous men hastened on over the great lakes to the northwestern extremity of the deep and stormy Michigan, now called Green Bay. Numerous Indian tribes wandered over the surrounding country; among others, the Miamis, the most civilized and intelligent of the native race that they had yet seen. Two hunters of this nation undertook to guide the expedition to one of the tributaries of the great river of which they were in search. The French were struck with wonder at the vast prairies that lay around their route on every side, monotonous, and apparently boundless as the ocean.

The Fox River was the stream to which the Miamis first led them. Although it was broad at its entrance into the lake the upper portion was divided by marshes into a labyrinth of narrow channels; as they passed up the river, the wild oats grew so thickly in the water that the adventurers appeared to row through fields of corn. After a portage of a mile and a half, they launched their canoes in the Wisconsin River, a tributary of the Mississippi, and the guides left them to find their way into the unknown solitudes of the West. Their voyage down the tributary was easy and prosperous, and at length, to their great joy, they reached the magnificent stream of the Mississippi. The banks were rich and beautiful, the trees the loftiest they had yet seen, and wild bulls and other animals roamed in vast herds over the flowery meadows.

For more than 200 miles Marquette and his companions continued their course through verdant and majestic solitudes, where no sign of human life appeared. At length the foot-prints of men rejoiced their sight, and, by following up the track, they arrived at a cluster of inhabited villages, where they were kindly and hospitably received. Their hosts called themselves Illinois, which means “men” in the native tongue, and is designed to express their supposed superiority over their neighbors. Marquette considered them the most civilized of the native American nations.

Neither fear for the future nor the enjoyment of present comfort could damp the ardor of the French adventurers; they soon again launched their little canoes on the Father of Waters, and followed the course of the stream. They passed a number of bold rocks that rose straight up from the water’s edge; on one of these, strange monsters were curiously painted in brilliant colors. Soon after they came to the place where the great Missouri pours its turbid and noisy flood into the Mississippi; and next they reached a lofty range of cliffs, that stretched nearly across from bank to bank, breasting the mighty stream. With great difficulty and danger they guided their little canoes through these turbulent waters. They passed the entrance of the Ohio, and were again astonished at the vast size of the tributaries which fed the flood of the mysterious river. The inhabitants of the villages on the banks accepted the calumet of peace, and held friendly intercourse with the adventurers; and although, after passing the mouth of the Arkansas River, a proposition was made in the council of one tribe to slay and rob them, the chief indignantly overruled the cruel suggestion, and presented them with the sacred pipe.

At the village where they were threatened with this great danger they were inaccurately informed that the sea was only distant five days’ voyage. From this the travelers concluded that the waters of the Mississippi poured into the Gulf of Mexico, and not, as they had fondly hoped, into the Pacific Ocean. Fearing, therefore, that by venturing further they might fall into the hands of the Spaniards, and lose all the fruits of their toils and dangers, they determined to re-ascend the stream and return to Canada. After a long and dreary voyage, they reached Chicago, on Lake Michigan, where the adventurers separated. Father Marquette remained among the friendly Miamis, and Jolyet hastened to Quebec to announce their discoveries. Unfortunately, their enlightened patron, M. Talon, had already departed for France.

There chanced, however, to be at Quebec at that time a young Frenchman, of some birth and fortune, named Robert Cavalier, sieur de la Salle, ambitious, brave, and energetic. He had emigrated to America with a hope of gaining fame and wealth in the untrodden paths of a new world. The first project that occupied his active mind was the discovery of a route to China and Japan, by the unexplored regions of the west of Canada. The information brought by Jolyet to Quebec excited his sanguine expectations. Impressed with the strange idea that the Missouri would lead to the Northern Ocean, he determined to explore its course, and having gained the sanction of the governor, sailed for France to seek the means of fitting out an expedition. In this he succeeded by the favor of the Prince of Conti. The Chevalier de Tonti, a brave officer, who had lost an arm in the Sicilian wars, was associated with him in the enterprise.

On the 14th of July, 1678, La Salle and Tonti embarked at Rochelle with thirty men, and in two months arrived at Quebec. They took Father Hennepin with them, and hastened on to the great lakes, where they spent two years in raising forts and building vessels of forty or fifty tons burden, and carrying on the fur trade with the natives. The party then pushed forward to the extremity of Michigan. Their friendly relations with the Indians were here interrupted by a party of the Outagamis having robbed them of a coat. The French held a council to devise means of deterring the savages from such depredations, and it was somewhat hastily determined to demand restitution of the coat under the threat of putting the offending chief to death. The Outagamis, having divided the stolen garment into a number of small pieces for general distribution, found it impossible to comply with this requisition, and thinking that no resource remained, presented themselves to the French in battle array. However, through the wise mediation of Father Hennepin, the quarrel was arranged, and a good understanding restored.

La Salle now set out with a party of forty-four men and three Récollets, to pursue his cherished object of exploring the course of the Mississippi. He descended the stream of the Illinois, and was charmed with the beauty and fertility of the banks: large villages rose on each side; the first, containing 500 wooden huts, they found deserted, but in descending the river they suddenly perceived that two large bodies of Indians were assembled on opposite banks, in order of battle. After a parley, however, the Indians presented the calumet of peace, and entertained the strangers at a great feast.

The discontents among his own followers proved far more dangerous to La Salle than the caprice or hostility of the savages. They murmured at being led into unknown regions, among barbarous tribes, to gratify the ambition of an adventurer, and determined to destroy him and return to France. They were base enough to tell the natives that La Salle was a spy of the Iroquois, their ancient enemies, and it required all his genius and courage to remove this idea from the minds of the ignorant savages. Failing in this scheme, they endeavored to poison him and all his faithful adherents at a Christmas dinner; by the use of timely remedies, however, the intended victims recovered, and the villains, having fled, were in vain pursued over the trackless deserts.

La Salle was obliged to return to the forts for aid, on account of the desertion of so many of his followers; but he sent Father Hennepin, with Dacan and three other Frenchmen, to explore the sources of the Mississippi, and left Tonti in the command of a small fort, erected on the Illinois, which he, however, was soon obliged to desert, in consequence of the hostility of the Iroquois. La Salle collected twenty men, with the necessary arms and provisions, and, unshaken by accumulated disasters, determined at once to make his way to the Gulf of Mexico down the course of the Mississippi. He passed the entrance of the swollen and muddy Missouri, and the beautiful Ohio, and, still descending, traversed countries where dwelt the numerous and friendly Chickasaw and Arkansaw Indians. Next he came to the Taencas, a people far advanced beyond their savage neighbors in civilization, and obeying an absolute prince. Farther on, the Natchez received him with hospitality; but the Quinipissas, who inhabited the shores more to the south, assailed him with showers of arrows. He wisely pursued his important journey without seeking to avenge the insult. Tangibao, still lower down the stream, had just been desolated by one of the terrible irruptions of savage war: the bodies of the dead lay piled in heaps among the ruins of their former habitations. For leagues beyond, the channel began to widen, and at length became so vast that one shore was no longer visible from the other. The water was now brackish, and beautiful sea-shells were seen strewn along the shore. They had reached the mouth of the Mississippi, the Father of Rivers.

La Salle celebrated the successful end of his adventurous voyage with great rejoicings. Te Deum was sung, a cross was suspended from the top of a lofty tree, and a shield, bearing the arms of France, was erected close at hand. They attempted to determine the latitude by an observation of the sun, but the result was altogether erroneous.

The country immediately around the outlet of this vast stream was desolate and uninteresting. Far as the eye could teach, swampy flats and inundated morasses filled the dreary prospect. Under the ardent rays of the tropical sun, noisome vapors exhaled from the rank soil and sluggish waters, poisoning the breezes from the southern seas, and corrupting them into the breath of pestilence. Masses of floating trees, whose large branches were scathed by months of alternate immersion and exposure, during hundreds of leagues of travel, choked up many of the numerous outlets of the river, and, cemented together by the alluvial deposits of the muddy stream, gradually became fixed and solid, throwing up a rank vegetation. Above this dreary delta, however, the country was rich and beautiful, and graceful undulations succeeded to the monotonous level of the lower banks.

After a brief repose, La Salle proceeded to re-ascend the river toward Canada, eager to carry the important tidings of his success to France. His journey was beset with difficulties and dangers. The course of the stream, though not rapid, perpetually impeded his progress. Provisions began to fail, and dire necessity drove him to perilous measures for obtaining supplies. Having met with four women of the hostile tribe of the Quinipissas, he treated them with great kindness, loading them with such gifts as might most win their favor. The chief of the savages then came forward and invited the French to his village, offering them the much-needed refreshments which they sought. But a cruel treachery lurked under this friendly seeming, and the adventurers were only saved from destruction by the careful vigilance of their leader. At daybreak the following morning, the Indians made a sudden attack upon their guests; the French, however, being thoroughly on the alert, repulsed the assailants, and slew several of the bravest warriors. Infuriated by the treachery of the savages, the victors followed the customs of Indian warfare, and scalped those of the enemy who fell into their power.

As they ascended the river they were again endangered by the secret hostility of the Natchez, from the effects of which a constant front of preparation alone preserved them. After several months of unceasing toil and watchfulness, with many strange and romantic adventures, but no other serious obstruction, the hardy travelers at length joyfully beheld the headland of Quebec.

Immediately after his arrival, La Salle hastened to France to announce his great discovery, and reap the distinction justly due to his eminent merits. (1682.) He was received with every honor, and all his plans and suggestions were approved by the court. Under his direction and command, an expedition was fitted out, consisting of four vessels and 280 men, for the purpose of forming a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi, and thence establishing a regular communication with Canada, along the course of the Great River. At the same time, he received the commission of governor over the whole of the vast country extending between the lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The little squadron sailed from La Rochelle on the 24th of July, 1684, along with the West India fleet, and having touched at St. Domingo and Cuba by the way, arrived in safety on the coast of Florida.

La Salle was involved in great perplexity by ignorance of the longitude of the river’s mouth. Not having descended so far in his former expedition as to be able to judge of its appearance from the sea, he passed the main entrance of the Mississippi unawares, and proceeded 200 miles to the westward, where he found himself in a bay, since called St. Bernard’s. Attracted by the favorable appearance of the surrounding country, La Salle here founded the fort which was to be the basis of his future establishment. But difficulties and misfortunes crowded upon him; the vessel containing his stores and utensils was sunk through the negligence or treachery of her commander, and a great portion of the cargo lost or seized by the Indians. The violent measures he adopted to compel restitution of the plundered goods kindled a deep resentment in the minds of this fierce and haughty tribe, the Clamcoets by name. They made a sudden midnight attack upon the settlement, slew two of the French, and wounded several, and whenever opportunity offered afterward, repeated their assaults. The tropical climate, however, proved a far deadlier foe than even the savage, and at length the spirit of the colonists gave way under accumulated difficulties.

Meanwhile Tonti, who had descended the Mississippi to join La Salle, sought him in vain at the mouth of the river, and along the coast for twenty leagues at either side. Having found no trace or tidings of the expedition, he relinquished the search in despair, and sailed upward again to the Canadian Lakes.

La Salle bore up with noble courage and energy against the difficulties that surrounded him. His subordinates thwarted him on every occasion, and at length broke out into a violent mutiny, which he, however, vigorously suppressed. But when he discovered that the settlement founded and sustained by his unceasing labors was not, as he had fondly supposed, at the mouth of the Great River, he experienced the bitterest disappointment. The surrounding country, though fertile, offered no brilliant prospect of sudden wealth or hopes of future commerce. He determined, therefore, once again to explore the vast streams of the Mississippi and Illinois, and to endeavor to gain a greater knowledge of the interior of the continent. He took with him on this expedition his nephew, a worthy but impetuous youth, named Moranger, and about twenty men. This young man’s haughty spirit excited a savage thirst of vengeance in the minds of his uncle’s lawless followers; they watched their opportunity, and in a remote and dreary solitude in the depths of the new continent, La Salle and Moranger were both slain by their murderous hands. Thus sadly perished, in a nameless wilderness, one of the most daring and gifted among those wonderful men to whom the discovery of the New World had opened a field of glory. His temper was, doubtless, at times, violent and overbearing, but he was dearly loved by his friends, respected by his dependents, and fondly revered by those among the Indians who came within his influence. His greatest difficulties arose from those who were placed under his command, abandoned and ungovernable men, the very refuse of society, and amenable to no laws, human or divine.

It has been already mentioned that La Salle had sent Dacan and Father Hennepin to explore the Mississippi, on his first return from the Illinois to Lake Michigan. They descended that great river almost to the sea; but their followers, becoming alarmed at the idea of falling into the hands of the Spaniards, compelled them to return without having perfected their expedition. They re-ascended the stream, and passed the mouths of the Illinois and Wisconsin, and even reached beyond those magnificent falls to which the adventurous priest has given the name of St. Anthony. Continual danger threatened these travelers, from the caprice or hostility of the Indians; they were held for a long time in a cruel captivity, forced to accompany their captors through the most difficult countries, at a pace of almost incredible rapidity, till, with their feet and limbs cut and bleeding, they were well-nigh incapable of moving any further. After some time Hennepin was adopted by a chief as his son, and treated with much kindness; when winter came on, however, and a great scarcity of provisions arose, the Indians, being unable any longer to support their captives, allowed them to depart. The father and his companions used this liberty to continue their explorations down the Mississippi. After many other perils and adventures, they at length met the Sieur de Luth, who commanded a party sent in search of them, and with further instructions to form a settlement on the Great River. Hennepin at first turned back with the sieur, but found so many obstacles and difficulties that he determined for the present to return to Canada.

The disasters attending the expeditions of La Salle and Hennepin for some time deterred others from venturing to explore the dangerous regions of the West, and the government totally neglected to occupy the splendid field which the adventure of those men had opened to French enterprise. It was left to the love of gain or glory, or the religious zeal of individuals, to continue the explorations of this savage but magnificent country. The Baron la Hontan was one of the first and most conspicuous of these dauntless travelers. He had gone to Canada in early life with a view of retrieving the broken fortunes of his ancient family, and had obtained employment upon the lakes under the French government. While thus occupied, he became intimately acquainted with the life and customs of the savages, and, from his intercourse with them, formed the idea of penetrating into the interior of their country, where the white man’s foot had never before trodden. His actual discoveries were probably not very important, and his record of them is confused and imperfect; but he was the first to learn the existence of the Rocky Mountains, and of that vast ocean which separates the western coast of North America from the continent of Asia.