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- The French in the Heart of America - 10/57 -


other shore. I take space to speak in such detail of this voyage because it traces another important route into the valley.

About seventy miles up the stream there stands an old cedar-tree bearing, as it is believed by antiquarians, the blaze marks of the old French broadaxes and marking the beginning of another of those historic portage paths over the valley's low rim. I have visited this portage more than once, and when last there I dug away the sand and soil about the trunk of the tree till I could trace the scar left by the axe of the French. It is only about two miles from this tree at the bend of the St. Joseph to where a mere ditch in the midst of the prairie, a tributary of the Illinois, soon gathers enough eager water to carry a canoe toward the Gulf of Mexico.

I have read in the chronicles, with a regret as great as that of the hungry Hennepin, that the Illinois, from whom La Salle expected hospitality at their village farther down the Illinois River, which had been visited by Marquette twice, were off on their hunting expeditions. But I have satisfaction in knowing that he took needful food from their caches in my own county, now named La Salle.

Early in January they passed on to a village four days beyond--the site of the second largest city in the State of Illinois. There La Salle, detained by Indian suspicions of his alliance with the Iroquois, discouraged by the desertion of some of his own men and by the certainty that the _Griffin_ was lost beyond all question not only with its skins but with the materials for a vessel, which he purposed building for the Mississippi waters, stayed for the rest of the winter, building for shelter and protection a fort which he named Fort Crèvecoeur, not to memorialize his own disheartenments as some hint, but, as we are assured by other historians, to celebrate the demolition of Fort Crèvecoeur in the Netherlands by Louis XIV, in which Tonty had participated. The vessel for the Mississippi he bravely decides to build despite the desertion of his sawyers, who had fled to the embrace of barbarism and who, fortunately, did not return to prevent the employment of the unskilled hands of La Salle himself and some others of his men. And so the first settlement in Illinois begins.

On the last day of February Father Hennepin and two associates were sent down the Illinois River on a voyage of exploration, carrying abundant gifts with which to make addresses to the Indians along the way. We may not follow their tribulations and experiences, but we have reason to believe that they reached the upper waters of the Mississippi. There, taken by the Sioux, they were in humiliating and even perilous captivity till rescued by the aid of Du Lhut. We almost wish that the rumor that Hennepin had been hung by his own waist-cord had been true, if only we could have had his first book without the second.

On the next day La Salle, leaving Tonty in command, set out amid the drifting ice of the river with four or perhaps six [Footnote: Margry, 1:488.] men and a guide for Fort Frontenac, to replace at once the articles lost in the _Griffin_, else another year would be spent in vain. Having walked many, many miles along that particular river on those prairies, I can appreciate, as perhaps some readers cannot, what it means to enter upon a journey of a thousand miles when the "ground is oozy" and patches of snow lie about, and the ice is not strong enough to bear one's weight but thick enough to hinder one's progress. La Salle, moreover, was in constant danger of Indians of various tribes. In a letter to a friend he said that though he knew that they must suffer all the time from hunger, sleep on the open ground, and often without food, watch by night and march by day, loaded with baggage, sometimes pushing through thickets, sometimes wading whole days through marshes where the water was waist- deep; still he was resolved to go. Two of the men fell ill. A canoe was made for them and the journey continued. Two men were sent to Point St. Ignace to learn if any news had come of the _Griffin_. At Niagara, where he learned of further misfortune, he left the other two Frenchmen and the faithful Mohigan Indian as unfit for further travel and pushed on with three fresh men to Fort Frontenac, which he reached in sixty-five days from the day of his starting from Fort Crèvecoeur. This gives intimation and illustration of the will which possessed the body of this "man of thought, trained amid arts and letters." "In him," said the Puritan Parkman, "an unconquerable mind held at its service a frame of iron." And Fiske adds: "We may see here how the sustaining power of wide-ranging thoughts and a lofty purpose enabled the scholar, reared in luxury, to surpass in endurance the Indian guide and the hunter inured to the hardships of the forest." I have wondered how his petition to the king, if written after this journey, would have described this valley. But its attraction seems not to be less despite this experience, for he was setting forth again, when word came to him that his Fort Crèvecoeur had been destroyed, most of his men deserting and throwing into the river the stores and goods they could not carry away!

All has to be begun again. Less than nothing is left to him of all his capital. Nothing is left except his own inflexible spirit and the loyalty of his Tonty in the heart of the wilderness. Still undismayed, he turns his hand to the giant task again, only to find when he reaches the Illinois a dread foreboding of the crowning disaster. The Iroquois, the scourge of the east, had swept down the valley of the Illinois like hyenas of the prairies, leaving total desolation in their path. After a vain, anxious search for Tonty among the ruins and the dead, he makes his way back, finding at last at the junction of the two rivers that make the Illinois a bit of wood cut by a saw.

I fear to tire the reader with the monotony of the mere rehearsal of difficulty and discouragement and despairful circumstance which I feel it needful to present in order to give faithful background to the story of the valley. I have by no means told all: of continued malevolence where there should have been help; of the conspiracy of every possible untoward circumstance to block his way. But the telling of so much will be tolerated in the knowledge that, after all, his master spirit did triumph over every ill and obstacle. With Tonty, who, as he writes, is full of zeal, he confounded his enemies at home, gathered the tribes of the west into a confederacy against the Iroquois, as Champlain had done in the east, gave up for the present the building of the vessel, and in 1681, the river being frozen, set out on sledges at Chicago portage and made a prosperous journey down the Illinois to Fort Crèvecoeur. Re-embarking in his canoes, they paddled noiselessly past tenantless villages into the Mississippi. He went beyond the mouth of the Arkansas, reached by Joliet and Marquette; he was entertained by the Indians of whom Châteaubriand has written with such charm in his "Atala"; and at last, in April, 1682, fifteen years from the days that he looked longingly from his seigniory above the Lachine Rapids, he found the "brackish water changed to brine," the salt breath of the sea touched his face, and the "broad bosom of the great gulf opened on his sight--limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos, without a sail, without a sign of life."

His French companions and his great company of Indians about him, he repeated there, in the subtropical spring, the ceremony which ten years before had been performed two thousand miles and more by the water to the north, but in phrases which his inflexible purpose, valorously pursued, had given him a greater right to pronounce. "In the name of the most high, mighty, invincible and victorious prince, Louis the Great--I,--in virtue of the commission of his majesty which I hold in my hand, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken and do now take, in the name of his Majesty--possession of this country of Louisiana, the seas, harbors, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams, and rivers,--from the mouth of the great river St. Louis, otherwise called the Ohio,--as also along the river Colbert, or Mississippi, and the rivers which discharge themselves thereinto, from its source beyond the Nadouessioux--as far as its mouth at the sea, or Gulf of Mexico, and also to the mouth of the River of Palms, upon the assurance we have had from the natives of these countries, that we are the first Europeans who have descended or ascended the river Colbert." [Footnote: Margry, 2:191.]

None could have remembered the emaciated followers of De Soto, who cared not for the land since they had found no gold there and asked only to be carried back to the sea, whence they had so foolishly wandered. There were probably not even traditions of the white god who had a century and a half before been buried in the river that his mortality might be concealed. It was, indeed, a French river, from where Hennepin had been captured by the Sioux through the stretches covered by Marquette and Joliet to the very sea which La Salle had at last touched. The water path from Belle Isle, Labrador, to the Gulf of Mexico was open, with only short portages at Lachine and Niagara and of a few paces where the Fox all but touches the Wisconsin, the Chicago the Des Plaines, or the St. Joseph the Kankakee. It took almost a century and a half to open that way, but every league of it was pioneered by the French, and if not for the French forever, is the credit the less theirs?

When the "weathered voyagers" that day on the edge of the gulf planted the cross, inscribed the arms of France upon a tree, buried a leaden plate of possession in the earth and sang to the skies "The banners of heaven's king advance," La Salle in a loud voice read the proclamation which I have in part repeated. Thus "a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile," [Footnote: Parkman, "La Salle," p. 308.] in fact gave to France a river and a stupendous territory, of which Parkman has made this description for the title-deed: "The fertile plains of Texas, the vast basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen springs to the sultry borders of the gulf; from the wooded ridges of the Alleghanies to the bare peaks of the Rocky Mountains--a region of savannas and forests, sun-cracked deserts, and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes." [Footnote: Parkman, "La Salle," p. 308.] They gave it to France. That, perhaps, the people of France almost wish to forget. But it is better and more accurately written: "On that day France, pioneer among nations, gave this rich, wide region to the world."

CHAPTER V

THE RIVER COLBERT: A COURSE AND SCENE OF EMPIRE

A CHARACTERIZATION OF THE RIVER WHOSE EXPLORATION AND CONTROL GAVE TO FRANCE LOUISIANA AND THE LAND OF THE ILLINOIS

To the red barbarian tribes, of which Parkman says there were a thousand, the river which passed through their valley was the "Mississippi," that is, the Great Water. They must have named it so under the compulsion of the awe in which they stood of some parts of it, and not from any knowledge of its length. They must have been impressed, especially they of the lower valley, as is the white man of to-day, by the "overwhelming, unbending grandeur of the wonderful spirit ruling the flow of the sands, the lumping of the banks, the unceasing shifting of the channel and the send of the mighty flood." No one tribe knew both its fountains and its delta, its sources and its mouth. To those midway of the valley it came out of the mystery of the Land of Frosts and passed silently on, or, in places, complainingly on, to the mystery of the Land of the Sun, into neither of which dared they penetrate because of hostile tribes. While the red men of the Mississippi lowlands were not able as the "swamp angel" of to-day to discern the rising of its Red River tributary by the reddish tinge of the water in his particular bayou, or to measure by changing hues, now the impulses of the Wisconsin or of the Ohio, and now of the richer-silted blood of the Rockies (as Mr. Raymond S. Spears, writing of the river, has graphically described), [Footnote: "The Moods of the Mississippi," in _Atlantic Monthly_, 102:378-382. See also his "Camping on a Great River," New York, Harper, 1912, and numerous magazine articles.] yet as they gazed with wonderment at these changes of color, they must


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