The Father of Waters
"THE FOOL!" RENE-ROBERT CAVELIER DE LA SALLE SHOUTED as he stood helpless on the desolate shore and watched his flagship, L'Aimable, veer out of the buoyed channel toward what he knew was certain destruction.
Earlier, over the protests of L'Aimable's captain, Rene Aigron, La Salle had ordered the 300-ton French ship loaded with stores for a new colony to sail across the bar of Cavallo Pass into Matagorda Bay--a body of water that would become part of the state of Texas 157 years later.
Aigron stared menacingly, demanded La Salle draw up a document absolving him of any responsibility, and insisted the explorer sign it. La Salle, still recovering from an illness, was too weary to argue the point and reluctantly agreed to the terms. Fearing the worst, Aigron then transferred his personal possessions to a smaller ship, Joly, which had already crossed the bar and was safely anchored inside.
Now, with the sails unfurled and billowing from a following breeze, L'Aimable, to the horror of La Salle, was sailing into oblivion.
THE MAN who would claim the new world for France was born in Rouen, France, on November 22, 1643. After an unsuccessful attempt to become a Jesuit priest, he left France seeking a new life in New France, now known as Canada, then a French colony. After a few false starts, La Salle established a thriving fur-trading business, an endeavor that allowed him to develop his budding passion for exploration.
When Louis de Buade Comte de Frontenac became the new governor of Canada, La Salle nurtured a friendship with him. In time, the Canadian governor introduced La Salle to King Louis XIV, who granted the explorer a patent, or royal license, to explore the western regions of New France. In effect, La Salle now became France's approved explorer in the New World. La Salle, in debt, wasted little time before exploiting the honor.
Expanding his fur trade to the west and into Lake Michigan, La Salle set out to change the way the business was conducted. Most fur trappers headed into the wilds until they had secured sufficient pelts to load a birch-bark canoe, then they set off on a long journey to a major town where they could sell their bounty. La Salle saw that the Great Lakes needed larger vessels, so he built one. In August 1679, he launched Le Griffon, a rigged vessel of sixty tons mounting seven guns, into Lake Erie. Griffon amazed the Indians in the area, who had never seen a large ship. Unfortunately, the vessel was not long for this world.
In defiance of Louis XIV's order not to trade with the Indian tribes in the western regions, La Salle set out to do just that. After transporting people to Fort Michilimackinac, near where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, Griffon was sent across Lake Michigan to Green Bay. There the ship was loaded with furs and goods for the trip back to Fort Niagara at the eastern end of Lake Erie.
With no explanation, Griffon disappeared into the mists of history.
The loss of Griffon, and another ship loaded with supplies in the Saint Lawrence River, brought La Salle to the edge of financial ruin. To complicate matters, in 1680, just after the loss of the ships, the men assigned to La Salle's Fort Crevecoeur at the mouth of the Illinois River mutinied and destroyed the outpost. Never lucky, La Salle saw his world collapsing. Rather than admit defeat, he pressed on with his plans to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River. In February 1682, La Salle started down the upper waters of the Mississippi in an expedition consisting of twenty elm-bark canoes. By March, the expedition had reached present-day Arkansas and established contact with the Indians, who welcomed the French explorers. With the weather improving, the expedition pressed south, and on April 6 they finally reached the mouth of the great river.
Reprinted from The Sea Hunters II by Clive Cussler and Craig Durgo by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Clive Cussler and Craig Durgo. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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