Nine years after Marquette and Joliet’s expedition, Chevalier de La Salle came from France, accompanied by Henry de Tonti, an Italian, filled with great schemes of empire in the new western world; it is charged, by some historians of that day, with no less ambition than securing the whole western portion of the continent and wresting Mexico from the Spaniards. When Canada was reached, La Salle was joined by Louis Hennepin, an ambitious, unscrupulous and daring Franciscan monk. It was evidently La Salle’s idea to found a military government in the new world, reaching with a line of forts and military possession from Quebec, Canada, to at least the Gulf, if not, as some have supposed, extending through Mexico. He explored the country lying between the Northern lakes and the Ohio River. He raised a force in Canada and sailed through Green Bay, and, sending back his boat laden with furs, proceeded with his party to the head waters of the Illinois River and built Fort Creve Coeur. He detached Hennepin with one companion and sent him to hunt the source of the Mississippi. He placed Tonti in command of Creve Coeur, with five men, and himself returned to Canada in the latter part of 1681, where he organized a new party with canoes, and went to Chicago; crossing the long portage from there to the Illinois River, he floated down that stream to the Mississippi and on to the Gulf of Mexico, discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River April 5, 1682, and three days after, with becoming pomp and ceremony, took possession, in the name of France, of the territory, and named it Louisiana, in honor of his king, Louis XIV. The vast region thus acquired by France was not, as it could not be, well defined, but it was intended to embrace, in addition to much east of the Mississippi River, all the continent west of that current.
After this expedition La Salle returned to France, fitted out another expedition and set sail, ostensibly to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River and pass up that stream. He failed to find the river, and landed his fleet at Metagordo Bay, Texas, where he remained two years, when with a part of his force he started to reach Canada via Fort St. Louis, but was assassinated by one of his men near the Trinity River, Texas, March 19, 1687, and his body, together with that of his nephew, was left on the Texas prairie to the beasts and buzzards. La Salle was a born commander of men, a great explorer, with vast projects of empire far beyond the comprehension of his wretched king, or the appreciation of his countrymen. Had he been supported by a wise and strong government, France would never, perhaps, have been dispossessed of the greatest inter-continental colonial empire on earth – from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains. This was, in fact, the measure of the territory that La Salle’ s expedition and military possession gave to France. The two great ranges of mountains, the north pole and South America, were really the boundary lines of Louisiana, of which permanent ownership belonged forever to France, save for the weakness and inefficiency of that bete noire of poor, beautiful, sunny France – Louis XIV. In the irony of fate the historian of today may well write down the appellation of his toadies and parasites, as the grand monarque. La Salle may justly be reckoned one of the greatest founders of empire in the world, and had poor France had a real king instead of this weak and pompous imbecile, her tricolors would have floated upon every breeze from the Alleghenies to the Pacific Ocean, and over the islands of more than half of the waters of the globe.
The immensity of the Louisiana Territory has been but little understood by historians. It was the largest and richest province ever acquired, and the world’s history since its establishment has been intimately connected with and shaped by its influence. Thus the account of the Territory of Louisiana is one of the most interesting chapters in American history.
Thirteen years after the death of La Salle, 1700, his trusty lieutenant, Tonti, descended the Mississippi River from the Illinois, with a band of twenty French Illinois people, and upon reaching Arkansas Post, established a station. This was but carrying out La Salle’ s idea of a military possession by a line of Canadian forts and American colonial forts. It may be called the first actual and intended permanent possession of Arkansas. In the meantime, Natchez had become the oldest settled point in the Territory, south of Illinois, and the conduct of the commandant of the canton, Chopart, was laying the foundations for the ultimate bloody massacre of that place, in November, 1729. The Jesuit, Du Poisson, was the missionary among the Arkansans. He had made his way up the Mississippi and passed along the Arkansas River till he reached the prairies of the Dakotahs.