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La Salle, Robert Cavelier, sieur de

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Summary Article: LA SALLE, RENÉ-ROBERT CAVELIER DE SIEUR (1643-1687) from France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

La Salle explored many areas of North America, including the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers, claiming for France the lands that he named Louisiana.

Born in Rouen in November 1643, René-Robert de La Salle was the son of a wealthy merchant. He was educated at a Jesuit College in Rouen and later entered the Society of Jesus, but soon realized he was cut out not for a religious life but for one that was filled with adventure. In 1666, La Salle sailed for Canada, where he was granted lands near the La Chine rapids, above Montreal. Full of ambition, La Salle established a fortified village, acquired a substantial interest in the fur trade, and started to learn the local indigenous languages. He dreamed of finding a passage to the East and the riches of the mythical city of Cathay. Conversations with the indigenous people led La Salle to hear about the mighty rivers in the area, and keen to explore the region, he sold his holdings in 1669 and set off on his first voyage, which led to discoveries of both the Ohio and Illinois rivers. It was at this point that his men deserted him, behavior that was to be repeated throughout his career, forcing him to stop short of the Mississippi. Thus, claims that La Salle was the first European to discover the Mississippi River are false, that honor instead going to his fellow Frenchman, Louis Joliet.

Robert La Salle, late seventeenth-century French explorer and founder of Louisiana. (Library of Congress)

La Salle, however, was not deterred and traveled to France in 1674 and 1677, where he was granted a patent to establish a fort on Lake Ontario (Fort Frontenac) and explore the surrounding area. The fort was not only a profitable venture but more importantly represented the first step of his main scheme—to traverse the mighty Mississippi to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Setting off in 1682, La Salle traversed the Illinois River to the Mississippi, reaching its mouth in April 1682. It was here that he claimed the lands surrounding the Mississippi for France, naming them Louisiana, after the French king Louis XIV. These lands were much vaster than present-day Louisiana, stretching from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the southern shores of Lake Erie. His discoveries were therefore a major victory for France. Returning to France once more, La Salle was granted the patent to explore the mouth of the Mississippi further, this time approaching it from the sea. The voyage left La Rochelle in July 1684, but failed in its attempts to locate the Mississippi, instead landing much further west. In the face of this failure, La Salle attempted to make his way back to New France, but the journey was beset with dangers. His followers became so dissatisfied with the hardships they faced that La Salle was murdered in 1687.

See also:

Fur Trade; Illinois Country; Jesuits; Joliet, Louis; La Rochelle; Louisiana; Mississippi River; Montreal; Ohio.

  • Hennepin, Louis. A Description of Louisiana. Trans. John G. Shea. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1880 and 1996.
  • Parkman, Francis. France and England in North America. Vol. 3, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West. New York: Ungar, 1965.
  • Terrell, John Upton. La Salle: The Life and Times of an Explorer. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968.
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