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Sieur de La Salle

the man who claimed the entire Mississippi River drainage basin for France

Sieur de La Salle

René-Robert Cavelier was born in Rouen, France, on November 22, 1643. He took the name La Salle from the name of his family's estate. He was educated at Jesuit schools and studied for the priesthood, but left religious training in 1665 to seek adventure. He sailed to New France (Canada) the following year, obtained some land near Montreal, and became a prosperous fur trader. He did much of his trading with Indians, who told him of two great rivers to the southwest that the Indians believed flowed into the sea. La Salle thought that at least one of these rivers might be a route through North America to the Pacific Ocean, something for which explorers had been searching since the New World had been discovered. In 1669 he sold his land and set out in search of the rivers.

First Expedition

From 1669 to 1673, La Salle wandered through the vast interior of North America. Although the exact route he took is unknown, it is believed he generally followed the Ohio River and made it as far as what is now Ohio. By the end of this journey, he was convinced that the Ohio River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Second Expedition

La Salle returned to France in 1674, and King Louis XIV gave him land that included Fort Frontenac, on the site of the present city of Kingston, Ontario. La Salle established a fur trading post at the fort and soon became one of the most powerful persons in New France. In 1677, he again sailed to France, where he obtained permission to explore the Mississippi River.

In 1679, La Salle launched an expedition to give France control of the Great Lakes region. The following year, he founded the first European settlement in what is now Illinois, which he called Fort Crèvecoeur (Fort Hearbreak). It stood on the Illinois River, near present-day Peoria, Illinois. After building this fort, he went back to Canada for supplies.

Third Expedition

By the time La Salle returned to the Illinois region in late 1681 Indians had destroyed Fort Crèvecoeur, but La Salle pushed on. He led a party of about 20 Frenchmen and 30 Indians down the Illinois River in canoes to the Mississippi. The expedition started down the Mississippi on February 13, 1682, and reached the Gulf of Mexico on April 9. Near the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle erected a cross and a column bearing the French coat of arms, and then claimed all the land drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France. He named the region Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. He could not, of course, have known just how extensive an area he had just claimed, for the Mississippi River drains a region that extends from the Appalachian Mountains on the east to the Rocky Mountains on the west, and from the Great Lakes on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south.

La Salle claiming the Mississippi River
La Salle claiming the Mississippi River

Later in 1682, after the expedition had returned from the Gulf of Mexico, La Salle built Fort Saint Louis on a bluff along the Illinois River. This bluff is now in Starved Rock State Park.

La Salle wanted to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, so in late 1683 he left for France to pick up supplies and settlers for such a colony.

Last Expedition

In 1684, La Salle sailed from France for the Gulf of Mexico with 4 ships and more than 300 colonists, but sailed past the mouth of the Mississippi River by mistake. In 1685, he set up a colony, also called Fort Saint Louis, near Matagorda Bay, about 80 miles east of the present site of Corpus Christi, Texas. Indians threatened the new settlement, and many colonists died from disease. By 1687, the colony desperately needed help, so La Salle and several men set out on an overland march to find the Mississippi, which they planned to follow to New France. But they could not find the river. Some of the men rebelled and, on March 19, they killed La Salle and his nephew.

map of La Salle's expeditions

Richards Topical Encyclopedia New York:The Richards Company, Inc., 1961
The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979


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This page was last updated on 11/21/2017.