Portrait of the Sieur de la Salle, explorer of the Mississippi

September 10, 2012

René Robert Cavelier de La Salle, 1643-1687, French explorer, who claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France. He explored the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Thus in the vigor of his manhood, at the age of forty-three, died Robert Cavelier de la Salle, “one of the greatest men,” writes Tonty, “of this age;” without question one of the most remarkable explorers whose names live in history….

Painting by Theodore Gudin

Robert de la Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684. The ship on the left is La Belle, in the middle is Le Joly, and L'Aimable, which has run aground, is to the far right. The ships are at the entrance to Matagorda Bay.

Serious in all things, incapable of the lighter pleasures, incapable of repose, finding no joy but in the pursuit of great designs, too shy for society and too reserved for popularity, often unsympathetic and always seeming so, smothering emotions which he could not utter, schooled to universal distrust, stern to his followers and pitiless to himself, bearing the brunt of every hardship and every danger, demanding of others an equal constancy joined to an implicit deference, heeding no counsel but his own, attempting the impossible and grasping at what was too vast to hold,—he contained in his own complex and painful nature the chief springs of his triumphs, his failures, and his death.

La Salle claiming mouth of Mississippi for France

It is easy to reckon up his defects, but it is not easy to hide from sight the Roman virtues that redeemed them. Beset by a throng of enemies, he stands, like the King of Israel, head and shoulders above them all. He was a tower of adamant, against whose impregnable front hardship and danger, the rage of man and of the elements, the southern sun, the northern blast, fatigue, famine, disease, delay, disappointment, and deferred hope emptied their quivers in vain. That very pride which, Coriolanus-like, declared itself most sternly in the thickest press of foes, has in it something to challenge admiration. Never, under the impenetrable mail of paladin or crusader, beat a heart of more intrepid mettle than within the stoic panoply that armed the breast of La Salle. To estimate aright the marvels of his patient fortitude, one must follow on his track through the vast scene of his interminable journeyings,— those thousands of weary miles of forest, marsh, and river, where, again and again, in the bitterness of baffled striving, the untiring pilgrim pushed onward towards the goal which he was never to attain. America owes him an enduring memory; for in this masculine figure she sees the pioneer who guided her to the possession of her richest heritage.

Francis Parkman, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1897), Vol. II, pp. 174-176.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 211


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