River of Forgotten Days: A Journey Down the Mississippi in Search of La Salle

River of Forgotten Days: A Journey Down the Mississippi in Search of La Salle

by Daniel Spurr

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A poignant voyage of discovery down the great Mississippi.

Praised by such authors as John Barth, and George V. Higgins, Dan Spurr's gently powerful memoir, Steered by the Falling Stars, captured the hearts of readers with its story of death, rebirth, and redemption and its evocative description of life under sail. Now, Spurr takes us on another adventure, a voyage into not only the heartland of contemporary America but also back into the rough and ready days of exploration and discovery 250 years ago.

Following the trail of the enigmatic French explorer Rene de La Salle, Spurr takes his seven-year-old son Steve and his grown daughter Adriana down the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans in the rundown, underpowered Belle. Throughout the journey, the juxtaposition of modern America on the river's banks and the untamed wilds of La Salle's day, as revealed through journals and historical documents, illuminates the changes in the land and its people over the intervening centuries.

The inexorable flow of Spurr's clean and honest prose mirrors that of this greatest of American rivers. The voices of the river's denizens and the keen observations of the author's young and wide-eyed shipmates take us deep into the heart of an ever-changing American landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466893498
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Daniel Spurr is the editor of Practical Sailor magazine and was former senior editor of Cruising World. He is the author of Steered by the Falling Stars, as well as of two instructional sailing books, and lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

Daniel Spurr is the editor of Practical Sailor magazine and was former senior editor of Cruising World. He is the author of Steered by the Falling Stars, as well as of two instructional sailing books, and lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

Read an Excerpt

River of Forgotten Days

A Journey Down the Mississippi in Search of La Salle

By Daniel Spurr

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1998 Daniel Spurr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9349-8


An Idea of Pre-America

"Nothing exists but atoms and the void"— so wrote Democritus. And it is "void" that underlies the Eastern teachings — not emptiness or absence, but the Uncreated that preceded all creation, the beginningless potential of all things.

—Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

How it came upon me is not quite clear. But take ahold it did, many years ago, when every Friday at five I fled the fields of maize surrounding my southern Michigan home for the wilderness of Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. It was the unending stands of pine and fir, the granite and quartz of the Laurentian Shield that kept me coming back. That and the emptiness. What I wanted was a sense of the land before the roads and railways, way back, when the whites were first coming up the rivers looking for fur, copper, and the Northwest Passage.

My earliest recollection of Longfellow's "shining Big-Sea-Water" was on a now forgotten shore of Lake Michigan. That great oblong sweet-water sea that the French voyageurs called Lac des Illinois and the Indians Machihiganing. Age six. Family vacation. There was no sand on this particular stretch. Rather, the beach was covered with smooth rocks the size of baseballs and dinosaur eggs. Sometimes you could find a Petoskey stone. The gift shops sold them guised as paperweights and good-luck charms. Silvery driftwood littered the glacis between the trees and the water. The washed-up pieces were polished by the surf to a slippery smoothness, the points of the splinters and roots rounded over like amputated fingers. It gave them a melted, artistic look. Found objects. Gift shops sold these, too. Mother saw one she liked and gave it to Father, who took it home and from it made a lamp. Its triangular shape resembled a large angelfish, the fish's eye the hole where a knot had fallen out. A quiet-spoken forester, Father had an unusual affinity for wood. I remember him drilling into the lighter heartwood and inserting a brass pipe to route the electrical cord. For years the lamp sat on an end table in the living room. No one knows where the "fish lamp" is now. Somewhere along the way it was tossed or given away, disappeared from the family consciousness. All but mine.

The ocean, when I first stood at its edge, had a different effect than the lake. There was the same endless expanse, the same rhythmic succession of waves falling over themselves to my feet, but it smelled of rotting seaweed and tasted of salt — the primordial solution, the stuff of life, its ratio of salt to water the same as that of the fluid that fills the human body.

When I learned to sail, I dreamed of crossing oceans in small boats. I lamented that there were no longer uncharted rivers or lands to discover. There was only the Uncreated.

The seven oceans, I figured, were the last frontier. But I lived in the Midwest and for many years the great freshwater lakes were my surrogate seas. Still, I was disappointed that there were no sharks, giant squids, whales, anemones, lionfish, or starfish. Just dead alewives, a few sturgeon and pike, and restocked coho salmon. The lakes seemed second-rate, so I looked for reasons to elevate these inland seas, to make them wondrous, more dangerous, more worthy of my own life.

Witness: When a storm sweeps down from Canada, the waters turn treacherous. Ships go down. The Edmund Fitzgerald, its bow on one wave and stern on another, folded in the middle and sank to the bottom of Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior, Hiawatha's Gitche Gumee.

Always the lakes are cold. On a changeable day in the last century, a mailman took the morning ferry from Wisconsin's Bruce Peninsula to Washington Island and returned that evening by horse and sleigh.

To transform the lakes, the trick, for me, was to go back in time, peel away the layers of civilization, and create wilderness in my own imagination. What I called pre-America, a place of lakes and rivers and virgin forests where there were no marinas, no navigation buoys, no 911 emergency telephone numbers, no 7-Elevens, nothing save clear water and, all around it, an endless field of green treetops.

* * *

From Giovanni Caboto's (John Cabot's) reconnaissance of the East Coast in 1497 and extending 409 years to Roald Amundsen's first navigation by a European of the Northwest Passage, the New World was to the great world powers an obstacle between oceans.

The Spanish, well established in Mexico, had during the sixteenth century reconnoitered Florida and much of the South: Juan, Ponce de León, who in 1513 was the first to land on the prominent peninsula, and later Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, Pánfilo de Narváez, and Hernando de Soto, who in 1541 was the first European to cross the Mississippi above its mouth and whose charts and accounts of the river would stand unchanged for 141 years. The English held the East Coast. They came first to Roanoke Island, Virginia, where the first European in America was born: Virginia Dare, who later disappeared with all the other inhabitants. No trace ever found. In 1607 Captain John Smith led a group to Jamestown, Virginia, and later, of course, in 1620, the Pilgrims sailed into Plymouth, Massachusetts, spreading themselves coastwise north and south. In 1524 the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano saw from his ship New York harbor; in 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name; and in 1624 the merchant Dutch settled on the island of Manhattan. The French, too, were competitors in the transatlantic race to explore the New World: Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1534, and in 1562 Jean Ribault settled at Port Royal, just north of St. Augustine, Florida. Samuel de Champlain began his exploration of Canada in 1603 and became lieutenant governor in 1612. A year later it was he who, for the historical record, was the first white to behold the great water-filled cavities of the Great Lakes, gouged from the earth ten thousand years earlier by fingers of ice clawing the northward retreat. And it was the coureurs de bois and voyageurs — back country trappers — who first heard of and became intrigued by Native American stories of the Mississippi. But where it began, where it flowed, and where it entered, no white knew. (I have used "white" as a reminder that the New World's "discovery" was a European context; the Amerinds, who had lived here since the Pleistocene geologic era, knew all along where the Mississippi discharged itself.)

Of all the explorers of North America, the one I became fixed on, quite by chance, was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. There were in him four notable qualities that explain my interest: first, the doggedness that enabled him to walk thousands of miles back and forth across the North American wilderness; second, certain mysteries surrounding his discoveries that to this day beg for resolution (for example, was he, and not Louis Jolliet, the discoverer of the northern Mississippi?); third, the elements of a Greek tragedy in which the protagonist's fatal flaw unmakes his heroic acts (La Salle was murdered in Texas by his own men); and last, my own feelings of injustice that La Salle's achievements have been overlooked and undercredited (he was the first European to travel the Mississippi from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and his discovery led eventually to the Spanish settlement of Texas and the French ownership of Louisiana). Indeed, he planned to build a string of forts on the Mississippi, and even considered a military attack on the Spanish silver mines in Mexico.

La Salle was not a sailor but, rather, a paddler of canoes, a slogger of swamps. The pen-and-ink drawings of him, mostly by artists who lived much later, are at such variance as to offer little clue to his true appearance, and one begins to suspect that the real picture is unattainable. Much as one cannot trust depictions of Christ with brown flowing tresses, blue eyes, and a beatific countenance (the sort of offense that one imagines inspired Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew).

In one portrait La Salle appears boyish, with twinkling eyes and a smirky grin that is much too playful for his serious nature. He has a long nose and long hair. A pencil-thin moustache curls upward at the corner of his mouth. In the wilderness, a crimson coat was his trademark and much impressed the Indians. It was worn only on special occasions, not the least of which were negotiations with Indians. But mostly La Salle's dress was appropriate to the conditions: linen shirt, knee breeches, leather leggings, and headband. More recent artists sometimes show his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, his build average, his visage trail-hardened, the eyes critical and dark.

The son of a Rouen merchant, La Salle studied with the Jesuits for ten years before deciding against a life of subservience and devotion. He was eager to travel, but his superiors dismissed his various requests to perform missionary work in China or teach mathematics in Portugal. Impatient, he left the Society of Jesus and for the rest of his life would regard it with suspicion, if not downright enmity. Exactly why is part of his enigma, for he remained a pious man. Returning home, he discovered that he was no more disposed to the life of a Norman bourgeois than of a religious. Given a small annuity by his brothers and sisters, in the summer of 1667 he sailed for Quebec.

There is little existing evidence in the way of letters or journals from which to clarify his motivations, but one can guess that he found the political and social structures of Europe too confining, probably even distasteful, and the picture of the North American wilderness too promising of adventure and glory for him to stay in France. Though much was generally known of La Salle's immediate destination — Quebec, Montreal, and their surrounds — much remained to be learned of the lands and lakes, rivers, and peoples that lay beyond these settlements. Quite possibly, the mystery of that darkness appealed to his religious sense: the possibility of his shedding light on the land as well as learning of God's purpose for him.

Just what his initial plans were are unclear as well, though the surest means of making money was in the fur trade, which supplied European hatmakers with pelts. Buying furs from the Indians and selling them to European markets satisfied his twofold aim of gaining income and learning about the out-country. This interest in the western reaches of New France presupposes at least a curious nature, and as his time in New France passed and his ideas coalesced, it also furnishes an important clue to his ambitions: Monetary wealth did not seem to stir him, but was a means to an end. It is evident that La Salle had a high opinion of himself, and perhaps the wilderness was for him the historical tabula rasa upon which he saw the quickest means of writing his name — not as a trader, but as leader of a new colony.

La Salle, like virtually every explorer of the Americas since Christopher Columbus, believed that somewhere to the west was a route to another sea. Though he had studied navigation, in particular the means of determining latitude and longitude by measuring the angles of heavenly bodies, only latitude was possible to determine with any degree of accuracy. (Not until 1761 could longitude be accurately calculated, by measuring the difference in time between a given meridian and the Prime Meridian in Greenwich; in that year the Englishman John Harrison invented the chronometer, a timepiece accurate to half a minute a year.) So handicapped, sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century cartographers had only the vaguest notion of North America's breadth. Early maps show the continent much compressed, which accounts for the conjecture that the Mississippi might empty into the Gulf of California. The inability to accurately determine longitude misled many of the early explorers, including La Salle, who ultimately would die for wont of it.

Consider, for instance, Jean Nicolet. On canoeing across Green Bay in 1635, he was so convinced that China lay on the western shore and that on landing he would be met by mandarins, he dressed in a stunning coat of Chinese damask embroidered with birds and flowers and carried a pistol in each hand, only to be confronted by dumbfounded Winnebagos. They good-naturedly threw a party in his honor, roasting for the occasion 120 beavers.

The elusive Northwest Passage to China and India was an idea driven by commerce, of course, because money is at the root of discovery. In this instance, a sea route to Asia would make rich the purveyors of spice and tea and silk. For a time, the English were content to keep a coastwise mentality regarding the Appalachian Mountains as the natural border of the colonies. The French, on the other hand, pressed westward up the St. Lawrence and into the lakes, never in large numbers but rather in small parties of voyageurs, coureurs de bois, and "black robes," as the Indians loosely called the missionary friars. Their business was animal skins, mostly beaver, for the making of hats. Even the Jesuits, whose aim was to Christianize the savages and also to establish a sovereign religious state west of New France (essentially the present-day provinces of Quebec and Ontario), were in it for money. To this end they traded with Indians and schemed to undermine their white competitors, including La Salle. Willing to martyr themselves, they advanced fearlessly into the unknown, looking for the fabled route to the Pacific.

From the Indians word filtered to the whites of a great river to the west that flowed to the sea. The Algonquian speakers' name for it is variously translated as the Big River, Big Water, or Father of Waters. Messipi. This, the whites believed, must be the Northwest Passage.

By the time La Salle arrived in New France, most European settlers accepted the idea of the Mississippi's existence, but few whites had ever seen it. And what was known of its course in the North was not necessarily connected with what was known of its course in the South. Hence, no one knew whether the northern river discharged its mighty flow into the Vermilion Sea (Gulf of California), the Sea of Virginia (Chesapeake Bay), or the Spanish Sea (Gulf of Mexico). It is unlikely that La Salle was aware of such issues prior to his arrival, but he soon became acquainted with the mysterious river via the Indians whom he invited to winter at his seigneury (an estate) outside Montreal, where the St. Lawrence widens into Lake St. Louis. He extended his hospitality with the express purpose of gaining knowledge — of the Indians' language and customs, the nature of the woodland animals, and, most important, the lay of the land.

At some point, La Salle would imperfectly connect the Messipi to the large southern river discovered by Soto, who had crossed the river in 1541 near present-day Lundell, Arkansas. The conquistador had won a fortune for himself by helping Pizarro sack Peru, but found no luck in the wilderness of pre-America. Wealthy and famous, he was not content to while away the years as a favorite at the court of Charles V. Time still for more looting and killing. He sought and was granted appointment as governor of Cuba and Florida. His instructions, honoring his desire, were to explore the peninsula and gulf coastline that had earlier repelled Pineda and Narváez. In 1539, after a year gathering his expedition in Cuba, he landed on the Florida peninsula, so beginning a three-year march through the southern states. It was to be the antithesis of his successes in Peru. The cavalry mired in swamp. The Southeast Indians did not stand and fight like the Peruvians, but rather shot their arrows and fell back into the forest — aboriginal guerrillas. Some modern artists imagine Soto in armor, his beautiful horse strutting, his men attentive and strong. In reality, they all were dirty and hungry, their clothes torn or gone, many forced to wear buckskins or grass kilts. Worse, the gold the conquistadors sought did not exist. Still, Soto pressed on, north through Florida into Georgia, then west across Alabama and Mississippi. Unconstrained by levees, the river then was nearly two miles wide, seeping over the land. The significance of his discovery was lost on him, for he saw it only as an obstacle between himself and the minerals that must surely lie across the next plain. Unlike his successors, who thought the fabled Mississippi might be the route to Asia. On site, Soto obviously knew better — that it was just a river of mud going nowhere near the Orient.

La Salle, without Soto's knowledge, was so taken by his nascent vision of establishing France in the continent's middle land, that he became obsessed with being the first to find a route to China, so much so that his seigneury came to be known as La Chine (now spelled Lachine). The way out, whether to the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Gulf of Mexico, was the big river. The Messipi. To succeed, he was compelled to find its mouth.


Excerpted from River of Forgotten Days by Daniel Spurr. Copyright © 1998 Daniel Spurr. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Chapter 1: An Idea of Pre-America,
Chapter 2: The Place of the Griffon,
Chapter 3: Oma Kuna,
Chapter 4: Westward,
Chapter 5: Starved Rock,
Chapter 6: Dwellers on the Threshold,
Chapter 7: Broken Hearts,
Chapter 8: The Wreck of the Griffon,
Chapter 9: The Keeper of the Stone,
Chapter 10: The Great River,
Chapter 11: To the River Calmer Than Air,
Chapter 12: Surrendering to the Stream,
Chapter 13: Death of the Pilot's Mother,
Chapter 14: The Fires of the Natchez,
Chapter 15: Deliverance,
Chapter 16: Homeward,

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