La Salle’s Expeditions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

La Salle led expeditions to explore the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, built forts and started colonies, and took possession of the entire Mississippi Valley for France. Despite misfortunes, attacks by envious enemies, and the failure of his last voyage, La Salle gave France control of half of the North American continent and challenged Spanish control of the Gulf Coast.

Summary of Event

During his first sojourn in Canada (1666-1669), the sieur de La Salle discovered the Ohio River and learned that the Mississippi River flowed south to the Gulf of Mexico. He saw the opportunity for France to control the Mississippi, monopolize the western fur trade, and challenge Spanish control of the Gulf Coast. Hence, in 1677, La Salle returned to France to seek royal support as an explorer. On May 12, 1678, King Louis XIV Louis XIV;New France and granted him a patent of nobility, a seigneurial grant of Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario), and permission to explore the Mississippi Mississippi River, exploration of to the Gulf of Mexico and claim the territory for France. La Salle was granted a monopoly on trade in buffalo hides and ownership of lands and islands around any forts he built. He completed his task within the five-year limit of the patent but failed on his last voyage to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. Trade;furs Furs, trade in [kw]La Salle’s Expeditions (Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687) [kw]Expeditions, La Salle’s (Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687) Exploration and discovery;Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687: La Salle’s Expeditions[2670] Expansion and land acquisition;Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687: La Salle’s Expeditions[2670] Colonization;Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687: La Salle’s Expeditions[2670] Canada;Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687: La Salle’s Expeditions[2670] American Colonies;Dec., 1678-Mar. 19, 1687: La Salle’s Expeditions[2670] La Salle, sieur de Exploration;France of the Mississippi River Mississippi River;French exploration of

La Salle and his lieutenant, Henri de Tonty, Tonty, Henri de arrived in Canadian New France on September 15, 1678, and organized a plan of exploration. La Salle quickly learned that his patent had evoked the enmity of the Jesuits Jesuits;North America North America;Jesuits and the French fur traders and merchants, who saw in La Salle a dangerous rival for control of the Great West. These enemies conspired to prevent his success and even to kill him on several occasions, but La Salle persisted in his plan.

In December, 1678, after engaging shipbuilders and supplies for two boats, La Salle, Tonty, and Friar Louis Hennepin Hennepin, Louis left Quebec. They ascended the Saint Lawrence River to Fort Frontenac. La Salle sent Tonty ahead to build a fort at Niagara Falls. La Salle followed with boats and supplies, arriving on January 22, 1679, at Cayuga Creek, above Niagara Falls. There, La Salle began building the Griffon, the first large sailing vessel on the Great Lakes.

On January 29, 1679, La Salle joined Tonty below the falls on the shore of Lake Erie. There he built Fort Niagara, whence they would launch their expedition to the Illinois River. Learning that the boat bringing supplies had wrecked, La Salle left Tonty in charge at the fort while he returned to Frontenac to buy new boats and supplies. Tonty completed the Griffon and towed it upriver to await La Salle’s return. On August 7, 1679, La Salle and Tonty launched the Griffon on Lake Erie. Passing through the Strait of Detroit, they loaded the Griffon with furs then sailed across Lake Huron and down the coast of Lake Michigan to Michillimackinac (Mackinac Island), the Jesuit center and headquarters of the lawless couriers de bois. From there, La Salle sent the Griffon on to Fort Frontenac, loaded with enough furs to pay off his debts.

In September, La Salle and fourteen men embarked on Lake Michigan to return to Fort Niagara. Due to storms on the lake, they did not reach the Saint Joseph River until November 1, 1679. There, La Salle built Fort Miami and waited for Tonty, who arrived on November 21. On December 3, 1679, they ascended the Saint Joseph River toward modern South Bend, Indiana, where a five-mile portage would lead them to the Illinois River. Down the Illinois River, La Salle negotiated an alliance with the Illinois Indians Illinis , built Fort Crevecoeur, Crevecoeur, Fort and began constructing a 40-ton (36,000-kilogram) boat for exploring the Mississippi. On March 1, 1680, La Salle left for Fort Frontenac to get supplies and equipment for the new boat, leaving Tonty and fifteen men at Fort Crevecoeur. Before leaving, La Salle sent Michel Accau, Accau, Michel Antoine du Gay, Gay, Antoine du and Friar Hennepin out to explore the Illinois River and the Upper Mississippi River, which they did. They were held captive for two months by the Dakota Sioux Sioux;Dakota and barely escaped death.

La Salle’s winter journey to Frontenac was delayed by snow, rain, frozen lakes and rivers, and sickness. La Salle arrived at Frontenac on May 6, 1680, having traveled 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers) in 65 days. On the way, La Salle learned that the Griffon and another ship from France loaded with his goods had been wrecked at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. A letter from Tonty arrived on July 22, informing him that the men at Fort Crevecoeur had deserted, destroying the fort and all stores they could not carry. Another message said the deserters had recruited more men and were on their way to kill La Salle. La Salle set an ambush, killed two, and arrested the other mutineers.

His fortune gone, La Salle’s future now depended upon his finding the Mississippi River. Over the next year, he formed a defense alliance with the tribes of the west against the Iroquois, rebuilt his forts, and enlarged the colony in the Illinois Valley. In October, 1681, La Salle and Tonty returned to Fort Miami and prepared to depart on the Mississippi expedition on December 21, 1681.

Finding all streams frozen, they sledded down the Illinois River and arrived at the Mississippi River on February 6, 1682. As soon as the ice cleared, they embarked again to follow the river to its mouth. On the afternoon of February 13, they reached the confluence of the muddy Missouri River coming from the West. Three days later, they passed the mouth of the Ohio River on the east. On February 24, they encamped for hunting at Third Chickasaw Bluffs before they proceeded southward.

La Salle planted the King’s Arms at stops along the way and visited the towns of the Arkansas, Taensas, Natchez, and Caroas Indians. By April 7, 1682, La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 9, he formally claimed for France all territory drained by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. He named the territory La Louisiane (Louisiana Louisiana colony ) in honor of the French King, Louis XIV.

On the return journey, La Salle was stopped for forty days by severe illness. He sent Tonty ahead to build a fort at Starved Rock, a natural fortress, and to begin assembling the colony and Indian settlements. When he was able, La Salle joined Tonty, and they completed storehouses, dwellings, and a surrounding palisade for Fort Saint Louis. The western Indians saw La Salle as their protector against the Iroquois and gathered around the Fort—twenty thousand of them, including four thousand warriors.

On May 12, 1683, La Salle’s patent expired. His patron, Count Frontenac, had been replaced by Le Febvre de La Barre La Barre, Le Febvre de , an enemy who sent false reports about La Salle to the king. King Louis XIV ordered French troops to occupy Fort Saint Louis. Tonty remained at the fort, and La Salle sailed for France. Upon his arrival in France in 1683, he sought the king’s support for a voyage to the Mississippi River through the Gulf of Mexico, aimed at establishing a colony and two forts at the river’s mouth to defend France’s claims against the Spaniards.

La Salle’s final voyage to North America proved fatal. The voyage began at La Rochelle, France, on July 24, 1684. Numerous misfortunes and an ongoing quarrel between La Salle, who wanted sole command, and the Marquis de Beaujeu, Beaujeu, marquis de who had authority over the ships, kept the crews and colonists upset. Due to faulty maps and a dense fog, La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi River and landed his colonists on the Texas coast at Matagorda Bay on February 20, 1685. From his fort in Texas, he made several attempts to locate the Mississippi River. On his last excursion, La Salle was murdered by Pierre Duhaut, Duhaut, Pierre a companion, on March 19, 1687, in East Texas.


Although La Salle’s last expedition was a failure, his discovery of the Mississippi River gave France half a continent, territory stretching from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Alleghenies westward to the Rocky Mountains—the future Louisiana Purchase territory of the United States of America. His colony in Texas allowed the United States to claim Texas as part of the Louisiana Purchase (1803), until the U.S.-Spanish boundary dispute was settled by the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abbott, John S. C. American Pioneers and Patriots: The Adventures of the Chevalier de Salle and His Companions. Vol. 1. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1875. Recounts LaSalle’s journeys and relations with Native Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chesnel, Paul. History of Cavalier de La Salle, 1643-1687: Explorations in the Valleys of the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi. New York: Putnam, 1932. Based on La Salle’s letters, reports to King Louis XIV, and other documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Isaac Joslin, ed. The Journeys of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Vol. 1. Austin, Tex.: Pemberton Press, 1968. Edited reprint of the memoirs of Henri de Tonty, the Franciscan friars, and Jean Cavalier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Isaac Joslin. The Journeys of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Vol. 2. Austin, Tex.: Pemberton Press, 1968. An edited version of Joutel’s Historical Journal of Monsieur de La Salle’s Last Voyage to Discover the River Mississippi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parkman, Francis. La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West. Vol. 1 in France and England in North America. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983. Updated version of the 1869 edition. Copious notes, maps, index, and annotated bibliography.
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