The Naming of Louisiana
There came to Canada, in 1666, one Robert Cavelier, better known as La Salle. A young man of twenty-three, he was perhaps as eager to test his spirit as to improve his fortunes. He established a settlement some eight miles above Montreal on the St. Lawrence. From Indians who visited him there, he heard of a noble river to the southwest. It was but natural that his quick imaginative mind should connect their story with the still lingering popular belief in the existence of a western passage to China. The fever of exploration seized upon him. He planned to seek this passage, which he reasoned was to be found by way of the unknown river. He won the approval of Courcelle, the governor of New France, to his design, but received from that official no aid more substantial than governmental permission to engage in the enterprise. To secure means he sold his property. On the 6th of July, 1669, the expedition started from La Chine as his place was called in derision of his magnificent schemes of discovery. His travels and the adventures that befell him in the next to years are veiled in obscurity. That he visited the Illinois River is probable; that he reached the Ohio River is certain.
Returning to France in 1674 for a brief period, La Salle, on account of his public services, was able to obtain from the King the rank of an untitled nobleman and a valuable grant of land in the colony. He prospered, acquiring both position and wealth, but he cared for these things only that they might be the means to greater ends. His own discoveries and the discoveries of Joliet and Marquette had fired his imagination. He was not content with these achievements. They were incentive and inspiring. The wonderful country brought to view should be the seat of a new empire. So he continued to dream, to plan and to prepare for his part in the development, for in his visions he saw it occupied, fortified and settled.
The propitious time and opportunity for which La Salle was hoping at length arrived. In 1677, he sailed for France to present a memorial to the King praying for authority to execute his plans. In this proposal he described in knowing terms the country he had seen and to which he was calling attention. "It is nearly all so beautiful," he wrote, "and so fertile; so free from forests and so full of meadows, brooks and rivers; so abounding in fish, game and venison, that one can find there in plenty and with little trouble, all that is needful for the support of flourishing colonies." In contrast with the northern possessions of the French, it was an attractive prospect. He met with a favorable reception. On the 12th of May, 1678, he was commissioned by Louis XIV to labor at the discovery of the western parts of New France, and to build forts and enjoy the possession thereof. By October he was back in the colony assembling goods for trading, provisions and whatever seemed necessary for the enterprise.
It was to be a difficult undertaking, how difficult to be revealed only with the progress of the days. Time was to show that both extreme personal enmity and the unyielding forces of impassive Nature were to be overcome. La Salle's force, his strength of character, his success in trading, the magnitude of his purpose, had raised up active enemies. The big fur traders were envious or feared him. The Jesuits distrusted him. He was ridiculed as visionary and declared to be fit only for a madhouse. He was charged with immorality. His creditors attacked his property. His followers were enticed from his service. Often his trust was abused. Poison was secreted in his food. The Indians were incited to hostility against him. Storms, rain, snow, cold, all assailed him. When one obstacle passed or was subdued, another of forbidding aspect loomed large and terrifying. Suffering, discontent, disaster, danger pressed from every side. For three years it was an unceasing struggle against the opposition of man and the elements. Only a soul of unconquerable fortitude could have endured it. La Salle's courage never faltered.
Then Fortune smiled. On the 6th of February, 1682, with a party of fifty-four persons, twenty-three being Frenchmen and thirty-one being Indians, of whom ten were squaws and three were children, La Salle's canoes passed from the Illinois River to the broad bosom of the Mississippi. The way to his heart's desire was at last open. The days that followed, as they swiftly drifted toward unknown destinies through everchanging scenes, promised a successful issue to their long and hazardous effort.
On the 6th of April, they found the river parting into three branches. They separated into three companies to follow the different channels. On reaching the Gulf they reunited and finally landed on a spot of dry ground a short distance above the mouth of the river. With solemn ceremonies La Salle laid claim to the great valley they had in part traversed and to all lands draining into it. A column bearing the arms of France and the inscription "LOUIS LE GRAND, ROY DE FRANCE ET DE NAVARRE, REGNE; LE NEUVIEME AVRIL, 1682," was set up. Then in formal proclamation La Salle announced in a loud voice that in virtue of his commission he took possession of this country of Louisiana in the name of the most high, mighty, invincible and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by the grace of God, King of France and of Navarre, Fourteenth of that name, and of his successors to the crown, on this ninth day of April, one thousand, six hundred and eighty-two, upon the assurance of the natives that they were the first Europeans who had ascended or descended the Mississippi River. A cross symbolizing the Christian religion was erected beside the column. Near by was buried a leaden plate, it too bearing the arms of France and the Latin sentence, "Ludovicus Magnus regnat." At intervals they fired volleys of musketry, shouted "Vive le Roi" in unison, and chanted sonorous Latin hymns. The Indians of the party looked on in silent wonderment, unconscious that in the scene enacted before them their white leader and his companions were asserting lordship and dominion.
In this place and in this manner did La Salle bestow the name of "Louisiana" upon the vast territory drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries. His dream failed of realization. Forces then not manifest determined the future of these fertile valleys and placed them under the control of an alien race. But as is fitting the name he gave is proudly borne by that state of the Union within whose boundaries occurred the drama of its bestowal.
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