"Twenty years of travel in America" - Fur Trade, New France and the Sieur de La Salle

19 March 1687, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was assassinated by disappointed members of his last expedition near Navasota, Texas.
“The three proceeded on their way,—La Salle, the friar, and the Indian. "All the way," writes the friar, "he spoke to me of nothing but matters of piety, grace, and predestination; enlarging on the debt he owed to God, who had saved him from so many perils during more than twenty years of travel in America. Suddenly, I saw him overwhelmed with a profound sadness, for which he himself could not account. He was so much moved that I scarcely knew him." He soon recovered his usual calmness; and they walked on till they approached the camp of Duhaut, which was on the farther side of a small river. Looking about him with the eye of a woodsman, La Salle saw two eagles circling in the air nearly over him, as if attracted by carcasses of beasts or men. He fired his gun and his pistol, as a summons to any of his followers who might be within hearing. The shots reached the ears of the conspirators. Rightly conjecturing by whom they were fired, several of them, led by Duhaut, crossed the river at a little distance above, where trees or other intervening objects hid them from sight. Duhaut and the surgeon crouched like Indians in the long, dry, reed-like grass of the last summer's growth, while L'Archevêque stood in sight near the bank. La Salle, continuing to advance, soon saw him, and, calling to him, demanded where was Moranget. The man, without lifting his hat, or any show of respect, replied in an agitated and broken voice, but with a tone of studied insolence, that Moranget was strolling about somewhere. La Salle rebuked and menaced him. He rejoined with increased insolence, drawing back, as he spoke, towards the ambuscade, while the incensed commander advanced to chastise him. At that moment a shot was fired from the grass, instantly followed by another; and, pierced through the brain, La Salle dropped dead.“ (Francis Parkman: “La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West”)

Théodore de Gudin: "La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684" (1844)

Famously, there is a somewhat large land mass barring a direct western trade route across the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and East Asia. The only way to the riches of the East is sailing around the Horn on the southern tip of South America, a dangerous and time-consuming undertaking and dreams of finding a Northwest Passage into the Pacific Ocean were dreamed since the 1500s. However, the European powers pretty soon discovered that the yet unexplored lands in their way had lots of intrinsic value to be exploited, such as, for instance, furs. Back home in Europe, a trivial seeming thing like hat fashion led, through an increasing demand of beaver pelts, to an immense increase in appreciation of wilds close to the Arctic Circle. The Swedes, during the 1600s a major power employing some of the best soldiery of their time who wore wide-brimmed hats made of beaver fur, set the ball rolling and soon every self-respecting European male wanted to be seen in such a headdress. Much to the dismay of the large furry rodents, though, endangered since the end of Middle Ages by drainage and river regulations anyway. Around the 1650s, the populations of European beavers were virtually wiped out and not even Siberia could produce enough fur to satisfy Western demands. Jacques Cartier, a 16th century French explorer, had anticipatory established fur trade relations with the indigenous locals in what was to become Canada and was then known as New France. And soon, the trading posts with melodious names like Quebec and Montreal at the back of an underpopulated beyond began to skyrocket in importance analogous to the decline of Old World beavers. The other two seafaring European nations involved in empire-building in North America, the English and the Dutch, began to cast covetous glances on the fur trade of New France. Proxy wars erupted between the local indigenous factions, mainly the Iroquois Confederation who sought to control the middle ground between the rich fur territories of the western Great Lakes region and the Europeans, supported by the English and armed by the Dutch, and the traditional allies of the French, the Algonquian-speaking nations, the Algonquin people themselves, the Erie, Huron, Illinois, Shawnee and what not. It was a conflict later known as the Beaver Wars and it was fought ruthlessly and bloody for decades. And still, the dream of a Northwest Passage was dreamed and maybe the great rivers south and west of the Great Lakes flew towards the Pacific Ocean and China, who knew? But if so, New France would become the jewel in France’s colonial crown and one explorer decided to discover the lay of the land for certain, for France and for Louis XIV, his king: Robert de La Salle.

Golden Age Genius Illustrator Howard Pyle's (1853 - 1911) imagination of
"La Salle Christening the Country Louisiana" (1900)

The king and the Company of New France, then the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main competitor, granted the young ex-Jesuit Robert land on the western end of the island of Montreal in 1667 and the locals promptly named it Lachine, China, tongue-in-cheek. Undaunted, the newly minted Sieur de La Salle canoed straight out into the wilderness to expand France’s fur-trading empire and find, en passant, the Northwest-Passage, up the St Lawrence River towards Lake Ontario, overland to Lake Erie, recently discovered by his compatriot Louis Jolliet, and, finally, to the Ohio. He and his men had become the first Europeans to see the great river, travelled it, intriguingly westward, as far as present-day Louisville in Kentucky and heard the tale that the Ohi:yó, the “Good River“ would flow into a far bigger one that would finally lead to the Great Sea. It might be a foreshadow of later events and casts a bit of a dim light on La Salle’s leadership skills, but at this point his men refused to go further into the west with him and abandoned the crestfallen explorer to find his own way back home to New France. Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette had forestalled the discovery of the big river’s headwaters in the meanwhile, the one de Soto called Río del Espíritu Santo, "River of the Holy Spirit", a century before far to the south, the Mississippi River. La Salle, in the meanwhile, busied himself with further explorations, establishing trade posts and forts, winning the trust and patronage of Governor Frontenac, launched the first sailing ship to traverse the waters of the Great Lakes, still in search of a possible passage to India and China, but to no avail. When he returned home to Lachine, his crew was, somewhat derisively, known les Chinois, the Chinese. Nevertheless, La Salle had become a rich man and was responsible for the establishment of New France’s foothold as far as the Ohio Valley and now, in 1682, he set forth to travel the Mighty Mississip to the sea, still hoping it would flow into the Pacific, and claiming all lands en route for King Louis of France. It was the birth of the territory known as Louisiana and on April 9 of the same year, La Salle’s expedition reached the mouth of the river not quite into the Pacific Ocean. But French America, at least in theory, now stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hudson Bay across the entire continent. 

Louis Bombled (1862 - 1927): "Assassinat de Cavelier de La Salle" (1900)

Even without a waterway to the west, there was still enough to do for La Salle, at least in terms of catching up with his patron Frontenac and turning Louisiana into a prosperous French colony. He departed for the mother country in 1684 to return with four ships and 300 colonists to establish a French settlement on the Gulf coast, but the return voyage to the New World turned into something of a disaster. Off Santo Domingo, his storeship “St Francois” was captured by Spanish privateers, despite the presence of his “Le Joly”, a man-of-war along the lines of something that would later be called a frigate. And then, quite peculiarly, the expedition was unable to locate the mouth of the Mississippi and finally ran aground in Matagorda Bay on the coast of Spanish Texas, some 400 miles to the west, losing his second storeship. La Salle decided to make the best of it and tried to establish his settlement there, still a wedge between the territories of New Spain and Spanish Florida. “Le Joly” returned to France and La Salle tried to reach the Mississippi on foot, exploring Texas, trying to find out the exact lay of Spanish America and the mines there and convincing the locals that the French were far more preferable as colonial masters than the Spanish while affairs in the settlement of St Louis went belly up. La Salle was finally faced with mutiny again during one of his forays and killed in an ambush. Texan St Louis, by then populated only by women, children and disabled men, some 20 souls, was finally rounded up by Karankawa-spealing locals, the adults were killed, the children taken into the tribe. Survivors of La Salle’s last foray finally reached France and reported the death of the explorer. The four children from La Salle’s Fort St Louis were later captured by the Spanish when they finally bothered to investigate the rumours of a French settlement in Texas. They felt a bit uneasy, by and large, and began to establish fortified outposts, events that culminated a century later in the Texan independence movement, while the long strip of French territories cutting through the whole of North America remained, secured by La Salle establishing a chain of forts and his efforts and explorations in the Great Lakes region, the Ohio Valley and on the shores of the Mississippi and it was by a hair’s breadth that France did not become the dominant colonial power on the continent.

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