, , , , ,

René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

Besides achieving many “firsts,” Ren√©-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was one of Michigan’s most controversial early explorers. His biographers offer contrasting views of a man who explored much of North America. One author claims that La Salle was a man “whose energy and single-minded ambition made him one of the greatest explorers of his time.” A different historian believes that most of La Salle’s projects and plans were failures “due to his own defects.”

Born in France in 1643, La Salle arrived in New France in 1666. Having a “desire for exploration,” he got permission from the governor of New France to explore the Ohio Valley.

A few years later, La Salle wanted to expand the French fur trade by building forts at important places between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. He founded one of these forts at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. La Salle called the settlement Fort Miami after the Indians who lived in the area. Fort Miami was the first European settlement in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. La Salle also built the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes, the Griffon. (The Griffon was designed to move furs, but sank on its maiden voyage.)

In March 1680, La Salle was at Fort Miami. He wanted to return east, so he planned to walk across the Lower Peninsula. On March 25, La Salle and five companions left Fort Miami. There were no roads to follow and the Frenchmen avoided trails to prevent being noticed by the Native Americans. At the present-day city of Dexter, La Salle’s men built a dugout canoe. They paddled it down the Huron River to the Detroit River south of Grosse Ile and rafted across the Detroit River. One month after leaving Fort Miami, La Salle reached Niagara. He had become the first European to walk across the interior of Michigan.

In 1682, La Salle became the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi River. Two years later, he led an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico to search for the mouth of the Mississippi River. After spending almost three years wandering around the coast of the future states of Texas and Louisiana, La Salle’s men mutinied and murdered him.