Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Man of mystery

The October 19 Burlington Post ran an interesting story on Rene Robert, Cavelier de La Salle, hailing the oft-misunderstood explorer as the first European to set foot in Burlington.

La Salle is perhaps one of the most underrated explorers in Canadian history. Often recognized as the first to successfully canoe the Mississippi River, he covered lots of territory in southwestern Ontario, as well (including building the first sailing ship on Lake Erie, the Griffon, in 1679).

I spent a lot of time wrestling with the quixotic explorer and his Canadian adventures in Lake Erie Stories, but in many ways I feel as though I barely scratched the surface of La Salle's story.

He is nothing if not hard to read. At first devoted to the priesthood, he walked away from that life to answer the call of adventure in the New World. There, he became more entrepreneurial, and was obsessed with finding a trade route to China via the Great Lakes. When that didn't pan out, he became something of a colonizer, and wound up in Louisiana in an attempt to set up a settlement near the Mississippi's mouth.

He was adored by many for his accomplishments, but hated by many more for his brash personality. In the end, this cost him his life. As his attempted colonization project struggled toward its inevitable failure, some members of his party ran out of patience. They ambushed La Salle and shot him, stripping his body and leaving it out in the open.

Louis Joutel, who was with the expedition, gave La Salle perhaps the best obituary when he wrote in his journal that the explorer displayed "too haughty a behaviour" and a "rigidness" that "at last drew upon him an implacable hatred, and was the occasion of his death."

To read the full Burlington Post story, click here.

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