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La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West

La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West

3.2 5
by Francis Parkman

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This book, based on the eleventh edition of Parkman's classic study The Discovery of the Great West, reflects the author's access to new materials relating to La Salle's explorations.


This book, based on the eleventh edition of Parkman's classic study The Discovery of the Great West, reflects the author's access to new materials relating to La Salle's explorations.

Product Details

Corner House Historical Publications
Publication date:
France and England in North America Series

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The Youth of La Salle · His Connection with the Jesuits · He goes to Canada · His Character · His Schemes · His Seigniory at La Chine · His Expedition in Search of a Western Passage to India

Among the burghers of Rouen was the old and rich family of the Caveliers. Though citizens and not nobles, some of their connections held high diplomatic posts and honorable employments at Court. They were destined to find a better claim to distinction. In 1643 was born at Rouen Robert Cavelier, better known by the designation of La Salle.1 His father Jean and his uncle Henri were wealthy merchants, living more like nobles than like burghers; and the boy received an education answering to the marked traits of intellect and character which he soon began to display. He showed an inclination for the exact sciences, and especially for the mathematics, in which he made great proficiency. At an early age, it is said, he became connected with the Jesuits; and, though doubt has been expressed of the statement, it is probably true.1

La Salle was always an earnest Catholic; and yet, judging by the qualities which his after life evinced, he was not very liable to religious enthusiasm. It is nevertheless clear that the Society of Jesus may have had a powerful attraction for his youthful imagination. This great organization, so complicated yet so harmonious, a mighty machine moved from the centre by a single hand, was an image of regulated power, full of fascination for a mind like his. But, if it was likely that he would be drawn into it, it was no less likely that he would soon wish to escape. To find himself not at the centre of power,but at the circumference; not the mover, but the moved; the passive instrument of another's will, taught to walk in prescribed paths, to renounce his individuality and become a component atom of a vast whole,--would have been intolerable to him. Nature had shaped him for other uses than to teach a class of boys on the benches of a Jesuit school. Nor, on his part, was he likely to please his directors; for, self-controlled and self-contained as he was, he was far too intractable a subject to serve their turn. A youth whose calm exterior hid an inexhaustible fund of pride; whose inflexible purposes, nursed in secret, the confessional and the "manifestation of conscience" could hardly drag to the light; whose strong personality would not yield to the shaping hand; and who, by a necessity of his nature, could obey no initiative but his own,--was not after the model that Loyola had commended to his followers.

La Salle left the Jesuits, parting with them, it is said, on good terms, and with a reputation of excellent acquirements and unimpeachable morals. This last is very credible. The cravings of a deep ambition, the hunger of an insatiable intellect, the intense longing for action and achievement, subdued in him all other passions; and in his faults the love of pleasure had no part. He had an elder brother in Canada, the Abbé Jean Cavelier, a priest of St. Sulpice. Apparently, it was this that shaped his destinies. His connection with the Jesuits had deprived him, under the French law, of the inheritance of his father, who had died not long before. An allowance was made to him of three or, as is elsewhere stated, four hundred livres a year, the capital of which was paid over to him; and with this pittance he sailed for Canada, to seek his fortune, in the spring of 1666.1

Next, we find him at Montreal. In another volume, we have seen how an association of enthusiastic devotees had made a settlement at this place.2 Having in some measure accomplished its work, it was now dissolved; and the corporation of priests, styled the Seminary of St. Sulpice, which had taken a prominent part in the enterprise, and, indeed, had been created with a view to it, was now the proprietor and the feudal lord of Montreal. It was destined to retain its seigniorial rights until the abolition of the feudal tenures of Canada in our own day, and it still holds vast possessions in the city and island. These worthy ecclesiastics, models of a discreet and sober conservatism, were holding a post with which a band of veteran soldiers or warlike frontiersmen would have been better matched. Montreal was perhaps the most dangerous place in Canada. In time of war, which might have been called the normal condition of the colony, it was exposed by its position to incessant inroads of the Iroquois, or Five Nations, of New York; and no man could venture into the forests or the fields without bearing his life in his hand. The savage confederates had just received a sharp chastisement at the hands of Courcelle, the governor; and the result was a treaty of peace, which might at any moment be broken, but which was an inexpressible relief while it lasted.

The priests of St. Sulpice were granting out their lands, on very easy terms, to settlers. They wished to extend a thin line of settlements along the front of their island, to form a sort of outpost, from which an alarm could be given on any descent of the Iroquois. La Salle was the man for such a purpose. Had the priests understood him,--which they evidently did not, for some of them suspected him of levity, the last foible with which he could be charged,--had they understood him, they would have seen in him a young man in whom the fire of youth glowed not the less ardently for the veil of reserve that covered it; who would shrink from no danger, but would not court it in bravado; and who would cling with an invincible tenacity of gripe to any purpose which he might espouse. There is good reason to think that he had come to Canada with purposes already conceived, and that he was ready to avail himself of any stepping-stone which might help to realize them. Queylus, Superior of the Seminary, made him a generous offer; and he accepted it. This was the gratuitous grant of a large tract of land at the place now called La Chine, above the great rapids of the same name, and eight or nine miles from Montreal. On one hand, the place was greatly exposed to attack; and, on the other, it was favorably situated for the fur-trade. La Salle and his successors became its feudal proprietors, on the sole condition of delivering to the Seminary, on every change of ownership, a medal of fine silver, weighing one mark.1 He entered on the improvement of his new domain with what means he could command, and began to grant out his land to such settlers as would join him.

Approaching the shore where the city of Montreal now stands, one would have seen a row of small compact dwellings, extending along a narrow street, parallel to the river, and then, as now, called St. Paul Street. On a hill at the right stood the windmill of the seigniors, built of stone, and pierced with loopholes to serve, in time of need, as a place of defence. On the left, in an angle formed by the junction of a rivulet with the St. Lawrence, was a square bastioned fort of stone. Here lived the military governor, appointed by the Seminary, and commanding a few soldiers of the regiment of Carignan. In front, on the line of the street, were the enclosure and buildings of the Seminary, and, nearly adjoining them, those of the Hôtel-Dieu, or Hospital, both provided for defence in case of an Indian attack. In the hospital enclosure was a small church, opening on the street, and, in the absence of any other, serving for the whole settlement.1

Landing, passing the fort, and walking southward along the shore, one would soon have left the rough clearings, and entered the primeval forest. Here, mile after mile, he would have journeyed on in solitude, when the hoarse roar of the rapids, foaming in fury on his left, would have reached his listening ear; and at length, after a walk of some three hours, he would have found the rude beginnings of a settlement. It was where the St. Lawrence widens into the broad expanse called the Lake of St. Louis. Here, La Salle had traced out the circuit of a palisaded village, and assigned to each settler half an arpent, or about the third of an acre, within the enclosure, for which he was to render to the young seignior a yearly acknowledgment of three capons, besides six deniers--that is, half a sou--in money. To each was assigned, moreover, sixty arpents of land beyond the limits of the village, with the perpetual rent of half a sou for each arpent. He also set apart a common, two hundred arpents in extent, for the use of the settlers, on condition of the payment by each of five sous a year. He reserved four hundred and twenty arpents for his own personal domain, and on this he began to clear the ground and erect buildings. Similar to this were the beginnings of all the Canadian seigniories formed at this troubled period.2

That La Salle came to Canada with objects distinctly in view, is probable from the fact that he at once began to study the Indian languages, and with such success that he is said, within two or three years, to have mastered the Iroquois and seven or eight other languages and dialects.3 From the shore of his seigniory, he could gaze westward over the broad breast of the Lake of St. Louis, bounded by the dim forests of Chateauguay and Beauharnois; but his thoughts flew far beyond, cross the wild and lonely world that stretched towards the sunset. Like Champlain, and all the early explorers, he dreamed of a passage to the South Sea, and a new road for commerce to the riches of China and Japan. Indians often came to his secluded settlement; and, on one occasion, he was visited by a band of the Seneca Iroquois, not long before the scourge of the colony, but now, in virtue of the treaty, wearing the semblance of friendship. The visitors spent the winter with him, and told him of a river called the Ohio, rising in their country, and flowing into the sea, but at such a distance that its mouth could only be reached after a journey of eight or nine months. Evidently, the Ohio and the Mississippi are here merged into one.1 In accordance with geographical views then prevalent, he conceived that this great river must needs flow into the "Vermilion Sea;" that is, the Gulf of California. If so, it would give him what he sought, a western passage to China; while, in any case, the populous Indian tribes said to inhabit its banks might be made a source of great commercial profit.

What People are Saying About This

John Keegan
Parkman was…perhaps the first great historian the United States produced, certainly still one of [the] most notable. The vividness of his narrative breathes the excitement he felt…in penetrating the Great American Wilderness.
—(John Keegan
Edmund Morris
Parkman was a scholar who combined faultless research and the narrative powers of a novelist.

Meet the Author

Francis Parkman, whose epic seven-volume study, France and England in North America, established him as one of this country's greatest historians, was born in Boston on September 16, 1823. His father was a prominent minister and the son of a wealthy merchant; his mother was descended from Reverend John Cotton, the famous New England Congregationalist. Frail health compelled Parkman to spend his early childhood on a farm in neighboring Medford, where he came to love outdoor life. After attending the Chauncy Hall School in Boston he entered Harvard in 1840. Under the influence of Jared Sparks, the college's first professor of modern history, the eighteen-year-old sophomore initially envisioned his monumental account of the conquest of North America. "My theme fascinated me, and I was haunted with wilderness images day and night," recalled Parkman, who visited many of the battlefields of the French and Indian Wars during summer holidays. Though illness forced him to temporarily abandon his studies, he earned an undergraduate degree in 1844, with highest honors in history as well as election to Phi Beta Kappa, and completed Harvard Law School two years later.

In the spring of 1846 Parkman set out with his cousin Quincy Adams Shaw on a strenuous five-month expedition to the Far West. Shortly after returning to Boston he suffered a complete nervous and physical collapse and remained a partial invalid for the remainder of his life. While recuperating he dictated The California and Oregon Trail (1849), a gripping account of his wilderness adventures. Subsequently reissued as The Oregon Trail, the perennially popular travelogue was praised by Herman Melville and later hailed by Bernard DeVoto as "one of the exuberant masterpieces of American literature." Still battling severe headaches and partial blindness, Parkman finished History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851), a prelude to his epic lifework. Over the next decade recurring neurological problems impeded progress on France and England in North America, but he managed to write Vassall Morton (1856), a semiautobiographical novel, and The Book of Roses (1866), a study of horticulture.

Pioneers of France in the New World, the first volume of Parkman's monumental account of the struggle between England and France for dominance of North America, was published in 1865. "Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts," wrote Parkman in his Preface to Pioneers. "The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time." He expanded his dramatic "history of the American forest" with The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (1867), The Discovery of the Great West (1869), The Old Régime in Canada (1874), and Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV (1877). "Like fellow historians of the Romantic school, Parkman believed that the re-creation of the past demanded imaginative and literary art," observed historian C. Vann Woodward. "He looked to such writers as Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron more than to historians for inspiration in his narrative style."

Fearing he might not live to complete his vast work, Parkman next wrote Montcalm and Wolfe (1884), the climactic final volume of France and England in North America. "I suppose that every American who cares at all for the history of his own country feels a certain personal pride in your work," Theodore Roosevelt wrote Parkman. Henry Adams said Montcalm and Wolfe put Parkman "in the front rank of living English historians," and Henry James called it "truly a noble book [that] has fascinated me from the first page to the last." Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., stated: "Montcalm and Wolfe--the tale of how half the continent changed hands on the Plains of Abraham before Quebec--is romantic history at its most vivid and compelling." A Half-Century of Conflict, the sixth volume in the series, appeared in 1892, a year before Francis Parkman's death in Boston on November 8, 1893. Two works culled from his papers were published posthumously: The Journals of Francis Parkman (1947) and Letters of Francis Parkman (1960).

"In the tradition of Gibbon and Prescott, Parkman's achievement was seeing the human and the personal in the great movements of history," wrote Daniel J. Boorstin. "Just as Gibbon had been engaged by the spectacle of Roman grandeur in decline, and Prescott by a new Spanish empire in creation, Parkman was entranced by the wilderness struggles of France and England in North America in the making of a new freer world." And Edmund Wilson observed: "The genius of Parkman is shown not only in his disciplined, dynamic prose but in his avoidance of generalizations, his economizing of abstract analysis, his sticking to concrete events. Each incident, each episode is different, each is particularized, each is presented, when possible, in sharply realistic detail, no matter how absurd or how homely, in terms of its human participants, its local background, and its seasonal conditions.... He had a special sensitivity to landscape and terrain, a kind of genius unequalled, so far as I know, on the part of any other important historian, without which such a story could hardly have been told.... The clarity, the momentum, and the color of the first volumes of Parkman's narrative are among the most brilliant achievements of the writing of history as an art."

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La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
bthibo3 More than 1 year ago
This was a pretty easy read with a detailed account of La Salle and his contemporaries. I've read another book by Parkman that was very choppy, inconsistent, and annoying to read due to its constant grammatical errors. Because of that book, I was a little reticent to buy this one, but it turned out to be well worth it. It's difficult to find good and detailed accounts of early explorers because the historical evidence is lacking. Parkman does a great job with La Salle and I strongly suggest to anybody that's interested in this topic to purchase this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like American frontier history, you will find this book interesting. However, you will have to work for it because of the thousands of copy errors (due to electroning scanning, I guess). Inserted (incorrect ) letters, inserted capital letters, woerd spacing, inability to separate footnotes from the text, etc. all make this a challenge to read. OK, it was free, but you DO pay in terms of frustration. All that said, I read it all and it was worth it. Interesting look at the early French frontier in America.
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