Robert de La Salle: Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

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  • 0:04 Robert de La Salle
  • 0:47 Early Life
  • 1:34 Exploration
  • 2:23 Exploring the Mississippi
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We can get so caught up talking about British North America, that we sometimes forget how much of the continent was once controlled by the French. In this lesson, we'll see how Robert de La Salle helped shape early colonial North America.

Robert de La Salle

French is spoken widely in Montreal and is also an important language in New Orleans. How did both of these cities, on opposite ends of the English-speaking United States, end up with such a strong French heritage? One person who played a large role in this was René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, more often known simply as Robert de La Salle.

Robert de La Salle was a French explorer of the early colonial period. He had a huge impact on defining French interests in North America and, at the same time that Britain was getting its first colonies established on the eastern seaboard, helped expand France's empire across half the continent. We often think of the British as the main influences in North American colonial history, but that certainly wasn't the future that Robert de La Salle had in mind.

Early Life

René Robert Cavalier was born in France in 1643, son of a wealthy merchant. As Robert grew, he adopted the title of Sieur de la Salle but nearly abandoned it in order to join the Jesuits and become a priest. He never completed his training, finding monastic life to be a little strict for him. Robert just wasn't cut out to be a monk or a priest. Instead, he wanted to explore.

In 1666, Robert de La Salle moved to Canada following his brother Jean, a priest of St. Sulpice. Canada was not a highly developed colony yet, but small cities like Montreal (then the mission of Ville Marie) were starting to attract permanent residents. Most of them were priests interested in Christianizing the local Native Americans or fur traders looking to become wealthy. La Salle was the latter.

Exploration

French colonialism in North America was initially motivated by a desire to find the Northwest Passage, a maritime route over North America to Asia. By the time that Robert de La Salle arrived in Canada, a century after this theoretical route was envisioned, the Northwest Passage remained undiscovered. However, the dream of finding it persisted.

In 1669, La Salle sold his shares in fur companies and used the money to finance an expedition. Quebec and Montreal were centered on massive lakes and rivers, but no one knew just how far they went. La Salle decided to find out. He was going to find the Northwest Passage. La Salle's first expedition made it through the Great Lakes, but his crew deserted the mission and he was forced to turn back just before reaching the mouth of the Mississippi River. Another French expedition would claim discovery of that river just a few years later.

Exploring the Mississippi

Robert de La Salle was not the first French explorer to encounter the Mississippi River, but that didn't deter him. He studied the reports, compared the notes of the Joliet-Marquette expeditions to others, and decided that other French explorers were wrong. The Mississippi didn't empty into the Pacific. It emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. With that assertion, La Salle stopped worrying about finding the Northwest Passage. His new goal: line the Mississippi with trading forts and establish a French fort at the river's mouth on the Gulf of Mexico, securing the river against Spanish and English threats.

For years, La Salle had learned Native American languages and gotten to know Native American leaders. Now, he would use those connections to help launch a new expedition into the Mississippi. In 1682, he literally sledded down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River and claimed all the lands drained by the river to be under the authority of France. He named this territory La Louisiane, or Louisiana, after French king Louis XIV.

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