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La Salle Claims Land He Names “Louisiana”: April 9, 1682

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.

There were many differences between Louis Joliet and René de La Salle (ren•EH•duh•la•SAL). While Joliet was born in America and was the son of a poor wagon maker, La Salle was born in France and was the son of a nobleman. La Salle’s full name was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (which means René-Robert, Knight, Lord of La Salle), a very noble name, indeed. But Joliet had no other name except Louis. Yet, despite their differences, Joliet and La Salle were very similar. Both had been educated by Jesuits, and both had thought of entering the priesthood. Both, too, had abandoned the priesthood in favor of exploring the wilds of America.

René de La Salle first came to America in 1666. He received a grant of land outside the settlement of Montreal but soon found that the life of a farmer was not for him. Like so many other Frenchmen, he left the plow to become a fur trader, exploring the Great Lakes and the many rivers that flowed into them.

Joliet and Marquette’s and La Salle’s voyages in North America
Joliet and Marquette’s and La Salle’s voyages in North America

Around the time Joliet and Marquette were exploring the Mississippi, the governor of New France came up with a plan that included La Salle. The governor was afraid that the coming of the Dutch and the English to America would put New France in danger. To protect New France, he thought he would build forts and missions up and down the rivers of New France, including the newly discovered Mississippi. The governor sent La Salle to France to convince King Louis XIV of this plan. After two years, the king agreed. Not only that, but Louis said he wanted La Salle to explore the Mississippi all the way to its delta. In return, he would give La Salle control of all the lands he should discover, as well as control of the fur trade in those lands.

La Salle, with a party of 54 adventurers that included woodsmen and Indian guides as well as 10 Indian women and three children, set out in the winter of 1681–1682 to explore the Mississippi. The winter was bitterly cold, and the party dragged their canoes on sleds down the frozen waters of the Chicago and Illinois rivers. Except for the cold, La Salle’s exploring party suffered no mishaps on their journey. Because La Salle had a peace pipe, he was able to make friends with the Indians he met along the river. He might have benefited from the fact that the French had a very good reputation among the Indians. Unlike the Spanish, the French established few permanent settlements in the New World, and neither the fur trappers nor the missionaries threatened the Indian way of life.

La Salle claims the Mississippi Valley for France.
La Salle claims the Mississippi Valley for France.

La Salle’s party passed beyond the Arkansas River into lands where winter never came. Like De Soto’s men long before, the French explorers entered the swampy delta of the Mississippi. La Salle dreamed of building a city in the delta, on the spot where the Mississippi made a wide bend. This city, thought La Salle, would become the Paris of the New World.

On April 9, 1692, when La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi, where the great river poured into the Gulf of Mexico, he claimed the entire river and all the lands on either side for King Louis XIV of France. He also gave these lands a new name, in honor of the king; he called them Louisiana.

Though La Salle had no trouble from Indians on his journey, he soon found he had plenty of trouble from the French. New France had a new governor who did not like La Salle’s control over the great river. This governor was joined by several French merchants who were also jealous of La Salle. La Salle finally had to return to France to seek the king’s support against his enemies. Louis listened to La Salle, and once again named him governor of Louisiana.

La Salle takes possession of Louisiana.
La Salle takes possession of Louisiana.

La Salle had already erected some forts and trading posts on the Mississippi. Now, with the king’s blessing, he wished to return to the Mississippi delta to build his New World Paris. In 1684, with four ships and 400 men, La Salle set sail from France, bound for the Mississippi delta. Unfortunately, when his small fleet reached the West Indies, it was attacked by the Spanish. La Salle then fell sick and had to stay on a West Indian island until he recovered. By the time he recovered, most of his men had deserted him.

When La Salle was finally able to set sail again, only 180 of his men remained with him. More misfortunes were to come. Sailing north and west, La Salle completely missed the Mississippi delta. He ended up hundreds of miles to the west, in Matagorda Bay on the coast of Texas. La Salle knew he had missed the Mississippi, and he set out on an overland expedition to find out just where he was. When this first expedition failed, he set out on another, only to be killed by his own men in March 1687.

Though La Salle had failed to build his new Paris and establish a great empire for France in the Mississippi River valley, his work continued after his death. Under King Louis XIV, forts and missions, along with French settlements, were built all along the Mississippi. In 1717, the city of La Salle’s dreams was established on the very spot he had chosen for it. Called New Orleans, this city would become the most important trade and cultural center of the deep South. Even today it remains a center of French culture in the United States.

Music of the Old France of Louis XIV

While La Salle was braving the wilds of America, the “tragic and lyric” opera, Persée, premiered on April 18, 1682, at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris. The opera, with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), tells the story of the Greek hero, Persée (Perseus), of his slaying the Gorgon, Medusé (Medusa), and the rescue of Andromède (Andromeda) from a monster’s maw. In this excerpt from Act II, Andromède (daughter of the king of Ethiopia) and Mérope (the Ethiopian queen, Cassiope’s sister) confess that each is hopelessly in love with Persée—but that, for his love, they will not be rivals.

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