THE rivers and lakes and trails of this English-speaking nation were explored only by Spaniards and Frenchmen, until a new race sprang from the new soil and the American pioneer took up the work of blazing the way to the final conquest of the wilderness continent. Even had the English colonists been as adventurous as their neighbors, they could not have gone so far and so fast, since their river highways westward all stopped in the near-by uplands.
The colonists had been in New England twenty-five years before they discovered the White Mountains. They were forty years working as far westward as Worcester County, Massachusetts. The Virginia colonists were one hundred years in making their first crossing of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The St. Lawrence, on the other hand, opened to the French in Canada a broad highway to the Great Lakes and the limitless west. By 1616, Champlain had made his way to Huron. By 1640, Jean Nicollet had pressed onward to Wisconsin. Between 1655 and 1660 two brothers-in-law, Groseiliers and Radisson, carried their fur trading into Minnesota and introduced the Sioux Indians to our acquaintance.
Jesuit fathers, who had forsaken aristocratic homes of ease in La Belle France and renounced their inheritance of family wealth, unstrapped their portable altars, which they carried on their backs like knapsacks, and set up the cross on the barbarous shores of Superior in 1670-71.
At the same time, Père Marquette and Louis Joliet, son of a Quebec wagonmaker, were descending the Illinois River and, for some distance, the Mississippi. After their canoe had made twenty-five hundred miles in four months, the gentle, noble, young Marquette sank exhausted on the shore of Lake Michigan, thanking God for the gracious privilege of dying in the wilderness for the glory of the faith.
Ten years afterward, another priest, Father Hennepin, who was the first to describe the wonders of Niagara, ventured in the peaked hood and the coarse gray garb of the Franciscans upon a mission to the Sioux in the upper valley of the Mississippi. Armed only with a rosary and crucifix, he was taken captive, if we are to credit his own story, by those wild westerners, who were for hanging him with the cord of St. Francis that hung about his waist; but he won them over. After christening the Falls of St. Anthony, where he tells us he cut a cross in the bark of an oak tree, and after wandering for two years, the friar returned to Quebec with the tatters of his priestly habit held together only by patches of buffalo skins.
Canada had been traversed in canoe from the coast to Duluth, by priest and layman, with crucifix and calumet, when Sieur de La Salle, a twenty-three-year-old Norman, took up Champlain's quest for a waterway to Asia. Faint-hearted followers soon turned back to Montreal and forever mocked him by naming the boiling river current above that town La Chine, or China Rapids.
While the deserters were mocking him, La Salle himself awoke to the reality that the St. Lawrence and the Lakes were a road to the Gulf of Mexico, not to the Pacific. A new ambition took possession of him to push the frontier of French America beyond the snows of Canada to the warm, fertile lands at the south, and to an ice-free port at the mouth of the Mississippi.
Leaving "Chekagou" at Christmas time, La Salle crossed on sledges the snowy prairie of Illinois River to the open waters of the Mississippi, and pressed on until those waters changed to brack and finally to brine.
While the musketry rattled and cries of "Vive le Roi!" shook the solitude, he planted there in a swamp by the Gulf of Mexico the white banner of France and the arms of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In further honor of his sovereign, he conferred the name of Louisianne on all the great valley that he had won without firing a shot and without a sou from the royal treasury.
Yet Louis XIV looked that gift horse in the mouth! With a mind poisoned by the envy of La Salle's rivals, the King rewarded with a frown the man who laid at the foot of his throne a territory five times larger than France herself and potentially richer. It was "very useless," he said, and he feared it might "diminish the revenue from beaver skins." Beaver skins! Was that all America meant to the Grand Monarque?
Only when Louis XIV chanced to be out of sorts with Spain and willing to dispute her pretension to the exclusive ownership of the Gulf of Mexico did he consent to La Salle's planting a colony on the Mississippi. Alas, he who had found the great river for France lost it when he tried to reënter it from the Gulf.
Sailing by the mouth of the Mississippi and missing it by four hundred miles, La Salle landed in Texas. For two years his hungry, ragged faction-rended colonists floundered in the wilds, until they turned to murdering one another. At last, the leader himself fell the victim of an assassin while he was yet only forty-tree. Although he died a bankrupt, who had bankrupted his family and friends, La Salle had won the prize he sought. The two great rivers of America, with all the Great Lakes, were now French.
While the English colonists still were hugging the Atlantic seaboard, the explorers of France and the crusaders of her religion had staked out the top of the map clear up to the frozen north of the Eskimos, and also the heart of the country from Lake Superior to the Gulf. All down that long frontier, two races, two nations, two political and economic systems, two religious faiths stood opposed. The duel for a continent was on.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Nov 28, 1927, p. 14