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Document Number: AJ-053
Author: Tonti, Henri de, died 1704
Title: Memoir on La Salle¿s Discoveries, 1678-1690
Source: Kellogg, Louise P. (editor). Early Narratives of the Northwest, 1634-1699. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917). Pages 283-322.
Pages/Illustrations: 42 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-053/

Author Note

Henri de Tonti (d. 1704), or Tonty as it is sometimes spelled, was born in Naples, Italy, in 1650, moved to Paris as a child, and joined the French army when he was eighteen years old. In 1677, he lost his right hand in battle and thereafter, wore an iron hand inside a glove. In 1678, he was recommended to La Salle, and served as the explorer’s devoted lieutenant for the next decade. He sailed to Canada with La Salle in 1678, superintended construction of the Griffon, the first ship built on the Great Lakes in 1679, helped build Fort Crevecoeur at the Illinois Indian village, and accompanied La Salle on his path-breaking expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1682. Nearly every state from Texas to Illinois attributes some role in its founding to him. When La Salle’s attempt to colonize Louisiana failed in 1687, Tonti led an unsuccessful search down the Mississippi to find him. After La Salle’s murder, he spent the 1690s as a trader in the Illinois country, aiding French colonization. In 1700, he joined New Orleans founder, Pierre Le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville, until his death in New Orleans in 1704.

Robert Cavelier de la Salle, born in Rouen, France, in 1643, trained as a Jesuit but resigned the elite order and went to Canada in 1667. He served the Sulpitian order in 1669 during Casson and Galinée’s failed attempt to explore the Mississippi. La Salle received royal approval to develop the region near what is now Kingston, Ontario, but he soon grew bored. In 1678, he received royal approval to explore and claim the entire Mississippi River and thereby wrest northern Mexico from the Spaniards.

With his loyal lieutenant Tonti, La Salle first built the ship Griffon on Lake Erie, sailed to the Sault, then established Fort Crevecoeur near modern-day Peoria, Illinois. In 1681, he and Tonti completed their royal mission by sailing to the mouth of the Mississippi and claiming the entire river for France. On their return upriver, they established Fort St. Louis in present-day Missouri. A change in colonial governors forced La Salle’s return to France to reinvigorate his Royal orders for conquest.

In 1684, La Salle set off to conquer the Gulf of Mexico. He built Fort St. Louis on Matagorda Bay, and easily swayed some local Indians tribes against the Spaniards. When disease incapacitated his crew near present-day Houston in 1687, La Salle was murdered by a disgruntled crewmember. The Matagorda Bay colony soon succumbed to a surprise Indian attack and only a handful of French colonists ever returned to France, only because their capture by Spanish soldiers allowed them to be returned home.

La Salle’s Expeditions

Tonti arrived on Quebec in September 1678, and joining with Robert de la Salle, he traveled first to Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario) and then to Niagara Falls by Christmas that year to find a place above the falls to build a ship. By late spring 1679, they had completed the construction of the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, the Griffon. They sailed across Lake Erie to Detroit and then to Michilimackinac, where La Salle left Tonti in charge of the post. La Salle took canoes south to spend time among the Illinois Indians. He dispatched a crew to sail the Griffon back to Niagara to retrieve materials, but the ship was never seen again. La Salle and Tonti spent the winter among the Illinois and during their stay, a group of men tried to poison them and then deserted.

Document Note

Tonti wrote a short and a long account of his years with La Salle, the longer one as a report to Count de Ponchartrain, French minister for colonies, in 1693. This longer one was plagiarized in 1697 in a work called Dernieres decouvertes dans l'Amerique Septentrionale de m. de La Sale mises au jour par m. le chevalier Tonti, gouverneur du Fort Saint Louis, aux Islinois (Paris: J. Guignard, 1697), that Tonti publicly denied writing.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

A more complete biography of Tonti and list of the major works about him can be found in the Handbook of Texas Online at
http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fto19

Biographical information as well as expedition maps can also be found at the Virtual Museum of New France, at
http://www.civilization.ca/vmnf/vmnfe.asp

Many other contemporary primary sources are available at Early Canadiana Online at http://www.canadiana.org/eco/english/

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