RenÃ©-Robert Cavelier de La Salle
Another explorer with a mixed success rate, RenÃ©-Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643-87) was born to wealthy mercantile parents in Rouen, Northern France. Aged 15, RenÃ©-Robert joined the Jesuit order, which required him to give up his inheritance, and took orders as a Jesuit Priest in 1660. In 1666, RenÃ©-Robert managed to persuade the Jesuits to send him to New France (modern Canada) as a missionary, but after a year in Canada he asked to leave the Jesuit order, citing âmoral weaknesses’. He was granted land in the western part of Montreal, and immediately set about learning the natives’ languages.
Conversing with the local Mohawk tribes, RenÃ©-Robert learned of the existence of a great river which flowed into another great body of water. The Mohawk actually meant the Ohio flowing into the Mississippi, but RenÃ©-Robert assumed they were talking about a river flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, and he immediately organised an expedition. This led him to discover large parts of the Great Lakes as well as the Mississippi, where he set up forts to control the lucrative fur trade. These forts were later vital in protecting the French Colonies, too. RenÃ©-Robert prospered, but it was not to last.
After naming the area around the Mississippi Basin âLouisiana’ in honour of the French King Louis XIV, RenÃ©-Robert perhaps just overreached. Receiving royal permission to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, he led 300 colonists and 4 ships on an expedition. The voyage was beset by pirates, hostile natives, and RenÃ©-Robert’s poor navigation. One of the ships was captured by pirates, one sank, another simply went back to France, and the other was run aground by a drunken captain. RenÃ©-Robert then failed to find the mouth of the Mississippi on foot.
The beached ship had ended up 500 miles from its intended destination, and a mixture of disquiet about the conditions of the voyage and RenÃ©-Robert’s tyrannical rule led to a mutiny breaking out amongst the surviving men. The mutineers murdered the former Jesuit in 1687. The single colony that RenÃ©-Robert had succeeded in setting up, Fort Saint Louis, survived only a year after his death, when its 20 inhabitants were murdered by Native Americans. Today, RenÃ©-Robert is seen as a hero for the great discoveries he made, but few remember the level of ineptitude he demonstrated on his final expedition.