Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSallee

By Ruth Ehman

LaSalle Along the Huron

La Salle Robert Cavelier,
Sieur de LaSalle

European influence in the New World was well established by the time Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle was born in Rouens, France in November 1643. The second son of a wealthy merchant family, young Robert came of age in an era of rapidly growing trade with the North American colonies. An era that encouraged expansionism and amply rewarded those intrepid enough to venture ever further into the unmapped regions newly claimed by the crowned heads of England, France, and Spain.

LaSalle came to New France (present day Canada) in 1666 at the age of 23 where he soon became involved with expeditions exploring the regions of the Great Lakes and southward along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The goal of these explorations was to establish additional forts and settlements to strengthen France’s claim on surrounding territories and create new trade routes to feed the burgeoning fur trade. Beaver hats and coats were the rage in Europe and demand far exceeded supply giving incentive to those hardy souls who reached ever deeper into the wilds to trade with the Indians and white trappers. The territory that would one day become the state of Michigan provided perfect beaver habitat with its numerous waterways and deciduous forests and beckoned to those seeking to make their fortune in the fur trade.

But our story is not concerned with LaSalle’s trips down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, not with his founding of numerous forts and settlements, nor with his prolific charting of what would become the Louisiana Territory claimed for France. Here we are interested in LaSalle’s presence in Michigan where it intersects with our history of the Huron River watershed.

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle is credited with captaining the first European sailing vessel on the Great Lakes. Launched in early August 1679 and christened Le Griffon, this sailing ship made her maiden, and only, voyage from Niagara through Lake Erie, Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac to the port of Green Bay in present day Wisconsin. Here she was loaded with furs and sent back the way she had come to Niagara. LaSalle stayed behind with the intention of continuing south by canoe along the west shore of Lake Michigan to the present day location of St. Joseph. A fort was to be established in this location; it would be dubbed Fort Miami and serve as a launching site for further exploration of the Mississippi River system. Another sailing ship was to be built to advance this continuing exploration southward into the Louisiana Territory; to this end Le Griffon was to make a return voyage to Fort Miami after her return to Niagara. The load of furs was to be traded for the necessary gear and fittings to complete the new sailing vessel for an expedition down the Mississippi. Le Griffon would then continue her days as an improved shuttle for trade goods between the western Great Lakes and the established trade centers of New France.

But Le Griffon never made it back to Niagara, her crew was never heard from again, and to this day no trace has been found of her remains. These facts were revealed to LaSalle when he returned to Fort Miami from additional area explorations at the time of Le Griffon’s scheduled return from Niagara. Traders recently arrived from the east through a southerly Ohio valley route informed LaSalle that Le Griffon had never made port in Niagara. LaSalle was forced to acknowledge his ship was not returning. No returning ship meant no supplies and gear to continue explorations; he would have to return east to negotiate alternative funding. LaSalle made plans for a journey cross country to Lake Erie

Across Lower Michigan

This journey would take LaSalle and his small group of intrepid companions on a slightly northward arc from Fort Miami to the Detroit region; this is how he came to travel through the Huron River watershed. A southerly, more direct route was already established between these two points; a route marked with well trodden Indian paths through relatively open forest and grasslands following rivers and streams. Why did LaSalle opt instead for a route that would take him through icy flooded swamps, thick bramble choked valleys, and along debris choked un-navigable waterways?

The answer is politics. By the time LaSalle needed to make his cross country trip the area now comprising southern Michigan was all but devoid of historically local Indian inhabitants. The tribes that had made this area their home – the Mohawk, Chippewa, Fox and others, had fled the region before advancing armies of Iroquois bent on monopolizing the fur trade with the French. French and Iroquois affiliations were well established from dealings in the eastern territories comprising New France; as the French expanded their reach westward the Iroquois followed suit to maintain their control of the fur trade. Marauding Iroquois war parties and retaliatory local warriors made travel on the traditionally known routes a dangerous undertaking. So LaSalle headed in a more northerly, less known direction to avoid coming into contact with battle eager tribes; he chose extreme physical difficulty over the risk of deadly conflict. With little to go on beyond a compass for determining direction and an astrolabe for calculating latitude, his plan was to skirt the easy traffic route with its attendant probability of militant Indians for the relative safety of the unknown, rarely traveled cross country wilds.

Thus LaSalle eventually found himself on the Huron River. After traveling through the northern reaches of what today are Kalamazoo, Calhoun and Jackson counties he arrived in present day Washtenaw County. Mid way through this region he struck the Huron River in an area believed to be just south and east of present day Island Lake in Lyndon Township, somewhere in the triangle formed by present day Dexter, Chelsea and Pinckney.

Records from LaSalle himself show he built a rough Elm bark canoe upon attaining the Huron, hoping to speed his way down the river to Detroit. However this proved fruitless as, in LaSalle’s words:

“The river was almost everywhere encumbered by heaps of wood, which the swollen waters carry down or cast into its bed. The masses of wood prevented the canoe from passing; moreover the river made enormous bends and we observed after 5 days of rowing we had made less progress than we usually made in one day’s march”.

The canoe was abandoned and the journey continued on foot.

LaSalle and his companions embarked on this epic crossing of southern Michigan on March 25th, 1680. By the few existing records it is estimated they arrived at the Huron River in mid-April; scholars guess they then reached Detroit a few days later. In all they walked 1000 miles of rough wilderness in the process becoming the first Europeans to cross the lower peninsula of Michigan on foot. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle led his men across the state, down the Huron River, and onto another page of the history books.