La Salle was a pompous man given to ego, and the ceremony on April 9 reflected this. Standing next to a towering live oak and dressed in scarlet robes, La Salle had the men sing hymns while standing in front of a cross that had been carved from a large pine tree. Then he claimed all the land lining the Mississippi River for France.
In honor of the king he served, he called the land Louisiana.
Without a war and with hardly a single shot fired, La Salle made a claim to an area that doubled the size of New France. From the Appalachian Mountains to the east, south to the territories claimed by Spain, the land comprised some 909,000 square miles.
Now he needed to establish a base far to the south so he could exploit his discovery for profit: a base far away from his growing list of enemies in New France and far from his creditors. La Salle's friend Frontenac had been replaced as governor of New France by Antoine Levebre Sieur de La Barre, who, like most, cared little for the arrogant La Salle. His last chance was to return to France and convince King Louis XIV to support his efforts to colonize the southern end of the Mississippi River Valley. In this, he was successful.
On July 24, 1684, La Salle left France with four ships and four hundred colonists.
RENE-ROBERT Cavelier de La Salle never would have won a popularity contest.
On the lee side of Hispaniola Island in the country of Santa Domingo at the port of Petit Goave, the commander of the French thirty-six-gun warship Joly, Captain Andre Beaujeu, was airing his grievances about La Salle to Captain Rene Aigron of the supply ship L'Aimable. Aigron, whose ship was anchored off Port-de-Paix, was separated from the other ships of the fleet by a mix-up in orders. He had traveled by donkey to the other side of the island for the conference.
"La Salle is touched," Beaujeu said. "First he refuses permission for us to stop in Madeira, then he bans the sailors from baptizing the passengers as we cross the line into the tropics. Those two rituals are time-honored nautical traditions."
Aigron was a short man, just over five feet in height and weighing 120 pounds. Pursing his lips, he puffed on a long thin pipe. The bowl of the mahogany pipe had been carved into the shape of a jellyfish. Waving away the smoke, he pointed to a crude chart on the table in Joly's captain's quarters.
"I'm more than a little concerned," Aigron noted. "Nowhere on this crude chart do I see where La Salle has marked the great river running into the Gulf of Mexico."
"I asked him before we left La Rochelle," Beaujeu said as he sipped from a silver flute of wine, "what exactly was our intended course. Then as now, he refused to disclose the route."
Aigron nodded and waited for Beaujeu to continue.
"Honestly, I don't believe La Salle knows where we are going," Beaujeu concluded.
Aigron stared at Beaujeu. His fellow captain was not a handsome man. His left cheek sported a dark red birthmark that was roughly the shape of the British Isles. Half his front teeth were missing, and the rest were stained from the wine Beaujeu habitually drank.
"I agree with you, Captain," Aigron said. "I believe La Salle is bluffing. Even though he claims to have traveled to the mouth of the river by land, I don't think he has a chance of finding it from sea. Navigating on land is much easier than over water."
"It will become extremely dangerous once we enter into the gulf," Beaujeu noted. "From there on, we'll be sailing under the Spanish death sentence."
For the last hundred years, the Spanish Crown had made it known that any foreign vessels found in the Gulf of Mexico would be impounded and their crews killed. That was the primary reason no navigational charts were available. The Spanish alone had charts, and they were not about to share them with another country.
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