The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter I
LaSalle

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton

 

LA SALLE.

After Marquette, the greatest name among the explorers of the Great lakes region is that of Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle. He was a native of that Normandy which in early days bore William the Conqueror. Born at Rouen in 1643, he came to Canada about the time Marquette first visited Lake Superior. He had been educated by the Jesuits, with the intention of becoming a priest in that order. But his tastes led him into business, and the discoveries of Marquette and Joliet filled his mind with visions of wealth to be acquired in the regions of the West. La Salle, like the rest, was deluded with the idea of reaching China and the south Sea by way of the Great Lakes. The point on the St. Lawrence where he held lands, named by him La chine, commemorates this infatuation. La Chine was to be his base of operations. While making great plans for the immediate future in the prosecution of the fur trade, he studied the Indian languages and made journeys into the wilderness. In 1669 he sold out his interests at La chine and made the first of his great expeditions westward.

Just ten years from that time occurred an event that is specially noteworthy in the career of La Salle--the voyage of the "Griffin," a boat built under orders of la Salle by Henri de Tonti, and the first that ever sailed the waters of the Great Lakes,. On August 7, 1679, this little vessel, of forty-five tons burden, set sail from the mouth of Cayuga creek, just above Niagara Falls, and after a stormy voyage of about a month, during which it encountered heavy storms on Lake Huron, anchored in a sheltered bay at Pointe St. Ignace. A glimpse of the scene on her arrival is thus given by the historian Parkman: "And now her port was won, and she found her rest behind the point of St. Ignace of Michilimackinac, floating in that tranquil cove where crystal waters cover, but cannot hide, the pebbly depths beneath. Before her rose the house and chapel of the Jesuits, enclosed with palisades; on the right the Huron village, with its bark cabins and its fence of tall pickets; on the left the square, compact houses of the French traders; and, not far off, the clustered wigwams of an Ottawa village."

Presently La Salle proceeded to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where an advance party of his men had collected a large store of furs. The "floating fort," as the Mackinac Indians called the "Griffin," was here loaded with furs, and on September 18 she set out, homeward bound, with her cargo. Whether she again encountered storms, like those she had met on Saginaw bay coming north, or whether she met her fate through some foul play of her crew, or of the Indians, no one knows. She was never heard of more. Thus perished the pioneer of the unnumbered thousands of gallant barks that, ere two centuries should roll away, were to whiten with the sails of a peaceful commerce all these mighty inland seas.

Varied and interesting were the adventures of La Salle after he left the "Griffin." The one that concerns us most is his famous "cross country" trip through southern Michigan, the first time, so far as the records show, that the southern peninsula of Michigan was ever crossed by Europeans.

La Salle had gone south from Green bay, exploring the Wisconsin shore of lake Michigan around past the site of Chicago to the mouth of the St. Joseph river, in what is now Berrien county. There he and his men built a fort, which was the first post to be established within the limits of the lower peninsula. From there they ascended the St. Joseph river, to the present site of the city of south Bend, Indiana. They visited the present La Salle county, in Illinois, then the principal center of the Illinois Indians. La Salle then proposed to navigate the Mississippi, and it was to fit out his vessel, which he built near the site of the present Peoria, that he made the overland trip to Canada which took him across Michigan. This was in the spring of 1680.

We have the account from La Salle's "Journal." He speaks of passing through great meadows covered with rank grass, which they burned in order to deceive the hostile savages who followed them, as to their route. No. doubt these meadows were the patches of beautiful prairie land so attractive to the early settlers of southwestern Michigan. Setting out from the mouth of the St. Joseph river, and taking a direct line for the Detroit river, La Salle and his men followed, as near as can be determined, the dividing ridge between the St. joseph and Kalamazoo rivers, passing through the southern parts of Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties, across Prairie Ronde and climax prairies, and thence through Jackson and Washtenaw counties, to the Huron river. Down this stream they floated to the borders of Wayne county, when, finding their way barred by fallen trees, they left their canoes and struck across the country directly tot he Detroit river. In due time La Salle reached the point from which the "Griffin' had first set sail. For sixty-five days he had plodded laboriously through a wilderness which today can be crossed in a few hours; but at that time, this first trip across southern Michigan was one of the most remarkable experiences in the history of the peninsula.

The story is well known how La Salle. Amid the gloomy forebodings of his men, the treachery of the savages, innumerable personal losses and humiliations, triumphed over almost insurmountable difficulties, explored the great valley of the Mississippi and at length reached its mouth on the gulf of Mexico. On April 9, 1682, amid great pomp and ceremony, the lilies of France were unfurled to the southern breezes beside the cross of the church, and in the name of his mighty sovereign, Louis XIV, La Salle took possession of the vast lands watered by the great river; to them,, in honor of his royal master, he gave the name of Louisiana. The pathetic story of the faithful Tonti, who clung to La Salle in all his wanderings, is one of the most stirring romances of any age or country; and the tragic story of La Salle's ending, basely done to death by friends whom he trusted, forms on of the saddest tales in the pioneer annals of the continent. Only forty-four years old at the time of his death in 1687, La Salle was one of the greatest men of his day. Michigan may well be proud to number him among the great souls connected with her early discovery and settlement.

 

History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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