La Salle. The name is scattered across maps of North America, yet the man it belonged to didn’t actually use it until he was more than 30 years old.
René-Robert Cavelier was born in Rouen, France, on Nov.21, 1643. As a young man, he sailed to the French settlement at Ville-Marie (now Montreal, Canada) and obtained a grant of land. But he did not stay put for long.
By the mid-1600’s, Europeans were generally aware of what lay along the eastern coast of North America. French explorers had traveled up the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes. Spain was colonizing Mexico. But much of the interior of what are now Canada and the United States remained a mystery. Europeans still hoped to find a Northwest Passage—a northerly water route to China that would save the long trip around South America or Africa. The settlers in New France had heard from American Indians about large rivers to the south and west. Might one of the rivers flow to the Pacific?
René-Robert Cavelier became obsessed with the idea of discovering where those rivers ran. In 1669, he sold his land and began to explore, trapping and selling furs to pay his way. In 1674, he returned to France, where King Louis XIV gave him charge of a fort on Lake Ontario and awarded him letters of nobility. Adopting the name of an estate in France owned by his family, he became René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
La Salle developed a successful fur trading post at the fort on Lake Ontario and then obtained royal approval to build a string of forts and to explore the Mississippi River. An earlier French expedition had followed the Mississippi south to the Arkansas River. In 1682, La Salle led a canoe expedition from the Illinois River down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. There, on April 9, he formally claimed for France all the land drained by the Mississippi River. This included (though nobody knew it yet) territory from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
La Salle traveled thousands of miles in his explorations, mostly by canoe. American Indians had taught the French to build sturdy canoes with cedar frames and birchbark hulls. The type of canoe probably used by La Salle was about 24 feet (7 meters) long. Heading downstream and powered by up to eight paddlers, such canoes could cover 100 miles (160 kilometers) in a day. However, major obstacles—including rapids and Niagara Falls on the St. Lawrence—required unpacking cargo and carrying it overland.
In 1684, La Salle sailed from France with over 300 colonists to start a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi. The ships overshot their destination and landed on the coast of Texas. There, the settlers met with disease, Indian attacks, and disaster. In 1687, on an overland trek to finally find the Mississippi and head upstream to New France for help, some men mutinied and killed La Salle.
Today, counties and towns named in honor of La Salle can be found in locations as widespread as Ontario, Quebec, Illinois, and Texas. Louisiana has a La Salle Parish, and downtown Chicago has a La Salle Street. Those points on the map reflect the enormous reach of La Salle’s explorations.