After exploring the Mississippi River to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, and having claimed the entire Mississippi Basin for France in 1682, La Salle returned to New France and then set sail for France where he wished to finalize his personal affairs in order to leave France behind forever and to devote himself to exploring the New World.
Word reached King Louis XIV of la Salle's discoveries, but the King passed them off as utterly useless. Undaunted, la Salle put one more round of trickery and deception into action. He redrew all of his maps, placing the mouth of the Mississippi River 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) to the west near the Rio Grande and the wealthy Spanish Empire. With these maps, la Salle was able to convince King Louis XIV of the importance of securing the area for France in order to prevent Spanish incursion to the North.
In 1684, la Salle received a commission to sail to the Mississippi River and to take command of all the land from the Gulf of Mexico to Fort St. Louis in Illinois. In July, la Salle set sail from France with a convoy of 4 ships carrying at least 320 people. Included in the group were 100 soldiers, 8 officers, merchants, servants, valets, women and children, and 6 missionaries, including la Salle's brother, Suplician Jean Cavelier. Along for the ride, more out of interest and curiostiy, was la Salle's long-time friend and confident, Henri Joutel.
La Salle's incompetence quickly arose once more. He was to reach the Mississippi River via the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, but la Salle had no idea how to get there. Undaunted, he enforced his authority, but refused any advice offered to him. La Salle soon found himself in conflict with the officers and crew of the Joly, the ship on which la Salle sailed. Against extreme advice, la Salle refused to stop at Medeira (off the western coast of Africa) to resupply water for the long trip across the Atlantic. As a result, the passengers and crew were forced to endure the almost unbearable heat with very little water to sustain them. To make matters worse, the Saint-François, which was carrying supplies and food, was captured by the Spanish.
Somehow, la Salle managed to make it to Haiti where he finally restocked his 3 remaining ships. From Haiti, la Salle sailed along the southern shore of Cuba, entering the Gulf of Mexico in December. Once more acting against advice, la Salle insisted on sailing through night and fog, resulting in their missing the Mississippi Delta entirely. They finally reached Matagorda Bay, south-west of Houston, Texas. True to form, la Salle insisted that they were precisely where he expected to be and sent the ships Belle and Amiable into what he was certain was the Mississippi River. Soon afterwards, the Commander of the Joly reached the end of his contract and set sail for France, leaving la Salle and his companions on shore.
The Belle and Amiable returned with their reports and la Salle knew for certain that they were not on the Mississippi Delta. The 2 ships set out in search of the river, but the Amiable ran aground and could not be repaired. Native pillagers swamped the abandoned ship and la Salle was quick to take advantage. He stole the canoes, but lost several more men in an ensuing battle. What remained of the original band of adventurers set out once more on the Belle, now desperately searching for the Mississippi River.
By February of 1687, the original 320 people had been reduced to a mere 36. True to form, la Salle's haughtiness and ill-temper managed to alienate even those few who remained loyal to him. The Belle had also run aground, and, for 2 years, the group had been wandering around almost aimlessly, frantically searching for the Mississippi Delta. On March 19, 1687, Pierre Duhault and a companion lay in hiding in the long grass. As la Salle passed by, Duhault raised his musket, took aim, and shot la Salle in the head. Mortally wounded, la Salle stayed alive long enough to be humiliated by his 'friends'. He was stripped of all his clothing and jewelry and left to die where he fell, somewhere in Texas.
René-Robert Cavelier de la Salle died one hour later.
With the help of a group of Natives, la Salle's brother, Suplician Jean Cavelier, Henri Joutel and the few remaining adventurers reached the Mississippi River. They made their way safely north to New France where Cavelier reported to the authorities that his brother, la Salle, had reached the mouth of the Mississippi as commissioned by the King. It would not be until Joutel published his journals in 1713 that the truth of the failed expedition was finally made know to the world.
Considered mad by many, hated by most who knew him, the tempermental, haughty, reckless, self-serving René-Robert Cavelier de la Salle had, nonetheless, expanded the boundaries of New France from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. His chain of forts linking the interior to the St. Lawrence River served as trading posts for almost 100 years. Yet his value as an explorer remains underrated even today.
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle
The Early Years
Incompetence and Failure
The Mississippi River
* Deception and Murder *