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Document Number: AJ-122
Author:
Title: Relation of the Discoveries and Voyages of Cavelier de La Salle from 1679 to 1681: The Official Narrative
Source: La Salle, Robert Cavelier de. Relation of the Discoveries and Voyages of Cavelier de La Salle from 1679 to 1681: The Official Narrative. The Translation Done by Melville B. Anderson. (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1901).
Pages/Illustrations: 309 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-122/

Author Note

The name of the author of this “official report” has eluded historians for 150 years. It was obviously drafted in Paris in 1682, if not by Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (see also AJ-049, AJ-53, AJ-114, AJ-122, and AJ-124) himself then by someone using his letters and documents. Internal evidence suggests that portions may have been written by Father Zenobe Membre (1645?-1687?), who accompanied La Salle to Canada in 1675 and died at his abortive Texas colony (see AJ-121). Large portions of the manuscript also appear to be in the hand of Abbe Claude Bernou, one of the explorer’s allies at the French court.

Expeditions of La Salle, 1669-1687

Robert Rene Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was born in Rouen, Normandy, in 1643 to a prosperous family with investments in New France. His elder brother, Jean Cavelier, became a priest and went to Canada where twenty-three-year-old Robert joined him in 1666. In 1669 he accompanied the first expedition to the upper Great Lakes (see AJ-049) and may have wandered as far south as the Ohio River; proof is inconclusive. In 1673, the reports of Marquette and Joliet (AJ-051) convinced him that the Mississippi flowed not to the Pacific but to the Gulf of Mexico. Backed by Governor Frontenac and supported by the King, La Salle built Fort Frontenac at present-day Kingston, Ontario, as a base for colonizing the Mississippi Valley. He envisioned a chain of French forts stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf that would channel the lucrative fur trade of the interior to France.

Between 1675 and 1682 he consequently formed alliances with Indian nations from the upper Great Lakes to the central Mississippi Valley and constructed forts from Niagara Falls to Peoria, Illinois. In 1678 he led the first party of Europeans to see Niagara Falls (see AJ-124). In 1679 he constructed a sailing vessel at Fort Frontenac, the first on the Great Lakes, which took him and his associates from the vicinity of modern Buffalo, New York, to that of Chicago. Finally, in the spring of 1682, he journeyed down the Mississippi to its mouth where on April 7, 1682, he claimed the river and all the lands that it drained for France. He called it “La Louisiane,” or Louisiana, in honor of King Louis XIV.

He then returned to France (during which visit this document was prepared) and obtained support for establishing the southern cornerstone in his grand arc of fortified trading posts. With 180 colonists in four ships, La Salle sailed on July 24, 1684, for the Gulf of Mexico to plant a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi. He overshot his destination, however, and the expedition was shipwrecked on Matagordas Bay not far from modern Houston, Texas. From here the frustrated colonists reconnoitered much of Texas in a vain search for a route to the Mississippi until, on March 19, 1687, mutinous soldiers ambushed and killed La Salle (see AJ-114). Most of the colonists soon died from disease or were over-run by local Indians, but a handful led by Henri Joutel eventually made it to the Illinois country and so back to France (see AJ-121).

Document Note

This report describes La Salle’s career through the year 1681; for his activities later in the 1680s see the memoir by his friends Henri Tonti (AJ-053) and Henri Joutel (AJ-121). The original manuscript of this document is in the Archives du Service Hydrographique in Paris. It was first printed in volume one of Pierre Margry's Découvertes et Etablissements des Français dans l'Ouest et dans le Sud de l'Amérique Septentrionale, 1614-1754. Mémoires et documents inédits (Paris: D. Jouaust, 1876-1886), pages 435-544. The bilingual edition given here, one of only 227 copies, is the only English version.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

This is one of several documents concerning the career of La Salle (see also AJ-049, AJ-53, AJ-114, AJ-122, and AJ-124).

Portions of this text describing Indians are also available in digital form in the “Ohio ValleyGreat Lakes Ethnohistory Archive” at http://www.gbl.indiana.edu/archives/miamis2/M80-81_3a.html

A detailed timeline of LaSalle’s activities and travels 1643-1683 is included in the book A Jean Delanglez, S.J., Anthology: Selections Useful for Mississippi Valley and Trans-Mississippi American Indian Studies edited with an introduction by Mildred Mott Wedel. (N.Y.: Garland Pub., 1985)

The National Library of Canada has created “Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada” at http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/24/h24-220-e.html with a wealth of background information, images, and excerpts from primary sources on the country’s early history that will provide further biographical and historical information. Other contemporary primary documents can be found at the “Early Canadiana Online” project, www.canadiana.org

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