Finding Louisiana: La Salle’s Encounter with the Mississippi River Delta plain
In 1683 René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, completed his expedition down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, by canoe from Canada. Having demonstrated the existence of a water route from Quebec through the interior of the continent to the Gulf, he sailed to France to solicit official and financial support for a colony in the lower Mississippi Valley. His stay in France was brief but successful. With support in hand, he returned to North America the next year, intending to sail directly to the mouth of the Mississippi River. La Salle missed his mark, however, landing at Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast. For two years he wandered around looking for evidence of silver mines, trading with Indians, and always searching for his river. Or at least he said he was searching for his river. His men were not always so sure. Quite capable of barking orders, La Salle kept suspiciously quiet about his intentions. Initially, his men read into such reticence a supreme confidence, and felt encouraged, even after it was clear they were not at all where they wanted to be. In time, as they marched around in snake-infested swamps, with mosquitoes swarming about their heads, and surrounded by enemies, that air of confidence turned to a haughty, stupid arrogance. La Salle treated his men as any European officer would have done in such circumstances, which is to say, with callous disregard. For some of the men, it was too much. In March 1687, several mutinied. The man who actually shot La Salle dead, with a single shot to the forehead, claimed to be avenging the death of his brother, which he attributed to La Salle’s carelessness. Others joined the revolt because they at last had had enough. More died. Mutiny was the most serious of offenses, mutineers the most desperate of criminals. Fearful of everyone, they began to kill indiscriminately and eventually turned on each other.1
When French officials heard of La Salle’s fate they inquired into what had gone wrong.2 This was, after all, the same man who only a few years earlier had canoed down the river from the Great Lakes, demonstrating that New France was connected by a water route to the Gulf of Mexico. This was a discovery Louis XIV welcomed, because it put France in a position to challenge Spain’s control over northern Mexico, and in particular, control over New Mexico’s silver trade. It also put France in a position to check English expansion from the Atlantic coast into the North American interior. La Salle had found a way to spread the glory of the Sun King further into the Americas. French power would emanate not from the frozen fringe of North America but from Louisiana, at the center of the continent. This was the vision La Salle sold in Paris and Versailles. And he believed it. He, at least for the moment, abandoned his fur trading schemes in Canada for the chance to build a new colony on the Gulf of Mexico. No doubt La Salle expected the Mississippi River would replace the Great Lakes, and the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers as the major highways to the fur trade. He also had much more on his mind than furs.
Historians have offered several explanations for what Francis Parkman termed La Salle’s “fatal error.” He was an incompetent navigator; during the Canadian expedition he took a reading of the latitude of the mouth of the river with faulty equipment, and erred by nearly a full degree. He misunderstood sea currents; thinking a strong current flowed past the river mouth from west to east, he over-compensated by sailing too far to the west. He could not tell the difference between a barrier island and a river channel; as he sailed along the Texas coast La Salle felt encouraged at the sight of each island, ultimately identifying those at Matagorda Bay as the ones he had seen two years earlier at the mouth of the Mississippi River. He believed the river entered the Gulf on its western rim; La Salle observed that the last hundred or so miles of river flowed to the southeast, leading him to his logical if faulty conclusion. La Salle was temperamentally ill suited for his mission; his misjudgments might not have ruined his plans had he left some room for error and not been so certain he never made mistakes. Faulty charts plagued him; contemporary maps all showed the Mississippi River emptying into a large bay on the northern coast, rather than directly into the Gulf of Mexico, which confused him when he thought he had discovered otherwise. Finally, it has been argued that he never intended to find the Mississippi River, that he knew where it was all along but “falsified the geography” in his report to officials in France, placing it well into Spanish territory and proximate to the Mexican silver trade, which he hoped to intercept. It is true that once in the northern gulf seas La Salle insisted on sailing toward the west and New Spain even though there were abundant indications that his river lay to the east. Moreover, after landing at Matagorda Bay he initially marched westward into Spanish Texas.3
On the one hand some of the charges against his competency are accurate. He was temperamental, to be sure, and not always an inspiring leader. He was certainly hampered by faulty equipment and charts. There was no means in his day of determining longitude. On the other hand, La Salle was a navigator sufficiently skilled to overcome faulty charts and instruments, misjudgments and bad luck. That he was perhaps not so lost is the assumption behind the argument that he had his eye on the Mexican silver trade. The French had long had an eye on the Mexican silver trade, however, and until they found out otherwise, hoped that many of the rivers they encountered might provide avenues to it. Had he known for certain that the Mississippi River did not flow into Mexico La Salle nonetheless would have argued before French officials that a colony be established at its mouth as a base for organizing expeditions up the Red and Missouri Rivers and into Mexico, which is precisely what his successors did argue.4 As for his temperament, until the end it had served him rather well.
All efforts to account for La Salle’s mistake assume he failed to navigate his way to the Mississippi River. And yet there is another possibility. La Salle stumbled upon the river but failed to recognize it. Signs of the Mississippi River are present in the expedition accounts.
The navigational reckonings and computations from the best accounts of La Salle’s approach to the river, when plotted on present-day charts, have him first sighting the North American coast somewhere between Pensacola, Florida and Galveston, Texas.5 The problem is that the various instrument readings and calculations recorded in surviving accounts do not correspond. Compass readings noted in the accounts have him sighting land in the vicinity of Pensacola.6 Recordings of latitude put him somewhere between the Atchafalaya and Trinity Rivers, well to the west of the Mississippi River. Neither compass nor latitude calculations accord well with estimates of distance or with soundings, also noted in journals but often ignored by scholars. The single most detailed journal, that kept by Henri Joutel, claims that at the latitude of 28° 37', with the ships sitting in 9 fathoms of water, lookouts spotted land six leagues (fifteen miles) to the northeast. If as some scholars believe the sailors spotted Isles Derniers, off Atchafalaya Bay, then according to present-day charts the ships must have been twelve leagues (thirty miles) off the coast to have nine fathoms of water beneath them. However, that distance would have been much too great for even the most eagle-eyed lookout on the clearest of days to glimpse such low-lying barrier islands. However, at four leagues (ten miles), from which low-lying islands would have been difficult but not impossible to see, the ships would have been sitting in a mere three to four fathoms of water, which would have been reckless. Of the four measurements—depth, direction, latitude, and distance from land—the first two could be measured quite accurately, depth especially, which involved dropping a weighted rope to the bottom. The latter two would have been much more prone to error. Latitude was difficult to figure in the best of circumstances, and indeed, La Salle had erred before, crucially, on his expedition to the Gulf from Canada. Distance was simply guessed, and was based on experience. La Salle and his men had plenty of experience sailing, but virtually no experience spotting the low Louisiana coast and its barrier islands, which typically appear farther away than in fact they are. If anything, they were closer to land than they estimated, but that would have put them in impossibly shallow water, or else they were not off Isles Derniers but someplace else. Which measurement to believe?7
There are other discrepancies in the navigational record. Some accounts report at various points the angle of the shoreline, which has to be squared with other measurements, or else ignored. There are any number of possible points of landing for which there is some support in the navigation record, and no place for which all indicators coincide. One must guess, therefore, and consequently the point at which one has La Salle first encountering the Gulf Coast comes to depend not on the navigational record but on one’s initial assumptions about why La Salle failed to find the Mississippi River, the initial, unanswered question.
On one point there is agreement: La Salle came ashore at Matagorda Bay, at the western side of the Gulf. Archaeologists have found his fort and the sunken wreck of his ship, La Belle.8 Knowledge of where La Salle landed has influenced all recent efforts to trace his approach to the Mississippi River. Soundings are ignored, currents misunderstood, compass readings distrusted, and latitude measurements accepted only if they put La Salle where we know he ended up. Few scholars, if any, now believe he first spotted land to the east of the Mississippi River no matter what surviving navigational records indicate. From Matagorda Bay, the one certain fact, historians read La Salle’s route backwards to Cuba, bypassing the Mississippi River. La Salle, of course, sailed in the opposite direction, and feasibly if unlikely could have arrived anywhere on the coast between Galveston and Tampa Bay and still met his fate at Matagorda Bay.
It is perhaps telling, that historians have argued over navigational measurements and technology. It is as if they were onboard L’Aimable with him, pouring over charts, taking compass and astrolabe readings, and never looking up to consider the coast, the direction of the shoreline, the amount of debris scattered along the beaches, the behavior of the wind, the color of the water, and the direction of the current. “Unless all the maps are worthless,” La Salle declared at one point, the Mississippi lies to the west.9 In fact, all his maps were worthless, as were most of his navigational tools. And yet historians, no less than La Salle, have put their faith in charts and instruments, seeking ways to make the technology work by calculating which was most accurate, or estimating degrees of error and then correcting measurements. It might even be possible to determine the error in compass readings caused by the magnetic poles and correct them. But this misses the point. Tools and measurements, whether of the seventeenth century or twenty-first century, are still only tools and measurements. There are other ways of seeing, however. Historians have read the journals of La Salle’s voyage without paying attention to what they reveal about land and water. They read the technology, the man-made tools, but not nature. They share La Salle’s seventeenth-century epistemology. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as La Salle might have said.10
If we reject all navigational technology as unreliable, which it was by and large, and look instead to the record for other clues that would indicate where La Salle first spotted the Gulf Coast, what we find is evidence that he came much nearer to the Mississippi River than he knew. Indeed, there were plenty of signs that the river was nearby—the muddy bottom, the driftwood and dead trees, the contour of the coastline.
The descriptive, as opposed to the technical and quantitative, evidence in the expedition’s accounts is as follows.11 On December 18, 1684, La Salle’s three ships weighed anchor off Cape Saint Antoine at the western tip of Cuba and headed north toward who-knows-where, the record as we have seen being inconsistent. Nine days later, as they came across the gulf, the expedition entered seas that were cloudy with sediment. By evening, the waters had cleared. Soundings indicated a bottom of “grayish muddy sand” at forty fathoms, then twenty-five, then seventeen. The coast was near. They had been sailing day and night, but as they entered shallow waters they grew cautious. At midnight the ships turned into the wind and dropped their anchors into the muddy bottom. The next day they proceeded. Sometime after noon a lookout spotted land, fifteen miles to the northeast, and La Salle ordered anchors set. The following day the group headed west-northwest, into slightly deeper water, and then approached land again. They made little headway in gusts that kept shifting direction. Frustrated by the wind, and with land on three sides, La Salle ordered his captains to stop and await the first steady breeze from the north, at which time they were to set sail immediately, no matter the time of day or night, and head due south into deeper, safer water. At 2 a.m. they were on the move. The wind remained somewhat unsteady, but they managed to hold course through the darkness. At daylight they came about and looked once again for land, which they saw at midmorning. The weather cleared, and there lay the coast, stretching from northeast to southwest. The ships stopped while La Salle and a small party could go ashore. What they found was “a large and vast country, flat, full of pasture land and marsh.”12 Huge dead trees, some of them perhaps a hundred feet long, littered the shoreline. The party stayed ashore but briefly. With the wind picking up, they returned to their vessels and moved westward along the coast. For the next few days the bottom remained muddy, and then abruptly turned sandy.
The descriptive evidence is revealing. As they approached the coast, at night, the expedition sailed through a stream of silted water, and then back into clear water just as the bottom began to rise. Satellite images show quite dramatically a tremendous sediment plume off the river’s southwest pass that corresponds with the accounts of clear, then murky, and then in the bay to the north of the pass, clear seas again.13 Although the river reaches farther into the Gulf and shoots a straighter stream of sediment today, its mouth even in La Salle’s day reached almost to the edge of the continental shelf. The careful and regular soundings taken from La Salle’s ship would not have told the sailors they were approaching the river until they were almost upon it. They could have been in twenty or thirty fathoms of water and yet only yards from Southwest Pass. In the dark of nighttime they could not easily have seen waves breaking on the jetties, or observed currents on the sea surface. They might have assumed, incorrectly, that the sediment was flowing west to east, and concluded the river lay to the west. The next day they saw land lying fifteen miles to the northeast. There are just two places where they could have seen land to the northeast: off Isles Derniers, well to the west of the river, and off Barataria Bay, next to the Mississippi River Delta. The sediment plume suggests they were off Barataria Bay, and the land they spotted was the delta. At this point the river mouth was where they would have least expected it, about thirty miles behind them and well out of sight. They turned away and headed west, momentarily entering deeper water. As they struggled with shifting winds they approached land again, and stopped. They must have been heading towards Grand Isle. As they crossed the bay the water would have gotten deeper, and winds could easily have been ricocheting from several directions off a shoreline that enclosed them on three sides. In the middle of the night they sailed into open water and awaited the dawn. Their next encounter with the coast probably occurred off Bayou Lafourche. Accounts describe a shoreline running northeast to southwest. Again, there are few places to the west of the Mississippi River where the shoreline is angled northeast to southwest. Descriptions of driftwood and dead trees scattered along the coast at this point, however, suggest Bayou Lafourche. Some of the trees were huge, eighteen fathoms (108 feet) long, according to Minet. Henri Joutel recognized that they indicated the close proximity of the Mississippi River, although whether to east or west he could not say. Two years after La Salle’s voyage, Enriquez Barroto recorded in his logbook a description of the coastline at Bayou Lafourche that precisely matches the description in the La Salle accounts. Barroto observed “much driftwood upon the oyster banks,” and a shore that was “very flat and low,” so low that at a safe depth it could be seen from the masthead “only with difficulty.” He also observed much driftwood exited the Mississippi River’s southwest pass.14 Spanish maps labeled this location Ensenado de Palos, the literal translation being “covered with woods,” but which English charts translated as Bay of Loggs, or Bay of Woods.15 As they continued west, the men who took soundings noted a muddy bottom, and then abruptly, sand and gravel. La Salle’s ships had probably reached what is known today as Trinity Shoal, a large sand bank off Atchafalaya Bay, 150 miles west of the Mississippi River. Still they sailed westward, away from the Mississippi River and toward Matagorda Bay.16
How could La Salle, explorer and adventurer, and the experienced sailors who manned his boats, have missed the Mississippi River if they were right on top of it, and if its signs were all around them? Furthermore, if La Salle’s navigational technology was so undependable, how is it that he reached the river? La Salle and his expedition failed not because of inaccurate charts and faulty tools, for despite them he made his way to the river’s mouth. He was, perhaps, not so incompetent after all, indeed, he and his technology were perhaps better than he knew. He was, however, in unfamiliar territory.17 The Gulf Coast and the river delta were unlike any landform he had seen. In short, La Salle and his men missed the river because they had no good idea of what they were looking for. Their charts told them they were looking for a bay. They knew to look for passes, jetties La Salle called them, protruding from the coastline, which they witnessed on the earlier expedition down the river from Canada.18 Still, they had no concept of a river delta, at least not one so huge. Though they had seen it they utterly failed to comprehend its size, shape, location, and mechanics. Just two years earlier La Salle had canoed through the delta. He had stood upon it. Yet he had no idea where he was, directionally—we know about his mistaken calculation of latitude—but also environmentally. It is true, the second expedition, by sea, experienced a bit of bad luck. Had they sailed passed the river’s mouth in daylight they might have seen it and recognized it for what it was. Then again, sailing at night, they were lucky not to ground their boats upon it. With more attention paid to natural indicators La Salle might have made some luck. One can imagine him standing on deck, consulting with his captain, knowing what his various instruments told him, knowing, too, which ones were likely off and compensating for their error, and then looking at the coast but not seeing the river where it was supposed to be, where he knew it had to be. But the river was there, only he just could not see it. And so he groped his way westward.19
To understand how La Salle imagined the delta, we need to review the accounts of his first visit to it, when he canoed down the Mississippi River from Canada. We also need to consider his experiences on the Great Lakes, which shaped his perceptions of the river and the Gulf Coast. In 1682, when La Salle and his party of Canadians first arrived at the river’s mouth they argued over where they were and what they were looking at. Canoeing in the stretch of river about half way between the future site of New Orleans and the Gulf, one of La Salle’s men spotted in the distance a large bay, just as their maps predicted. Some, La Salle among them, were convinced they had found the Gulf of Mexico. Others, including La Salle’s able partner, Henri de Tonty, thought they had stumbled upon a large freshwater lake or sea. Only when La Salle insisted that the water was salty did he elicit unanimous agreement from his men, who knew who was in charge, although they continued to quench their thirst with the “salty” water. Three years later, during the approach from the sea, a similar discussion appears to have taken place, over the nature of the water lying behind the barrier islands that guard the coast from Galveston to the Rio Grande. The French referred to the bays and channels as lakes, and thought they might contain some fresh water, a sure sign of their lost river. They presumed freshwater rivers such as the Mississippi fed these lakes, which collected the water until it spilled out into the Gulf. The openings between the islands were, as far as they knew, river mouths. They were quite surprised to find the “lakes” at sea level. When they discovered the water was salty, they reasoned it was either because high seas sometimes spilled over the coastal islands and into the lakes behind them, or else because there was no large river nearby to supply the lakes with fresh water. They had no understanding of gulf coast hydrography. Freshwater lakes they knew, however, in particular the Great Lakes, “inland seas” as Samuel de Champlain described them, among the worlds largest bodies of fresh water, surrounded by a network of interconnecting rivers and still more lakes, tens of thousands of them. More than any European before him, La Salle was responsible for probing the extent of North America’s inland waterways. In 1679 La Salle launched the Griffon, the first ship to sail the upper Great Lakes. It is no wonder he and his men supposed that the continent flooded the Gulf of Mexico, and not the other way around. It is no wonder, too, that some of them mistook the body of water at the mouth of the river for another great lake of fresh water. During spring floods the volume and force of water carried to the Gulf of Mexico is so great that a stream of fresh water is shot for miles out into the ocean. This phenomenon could easily have confused La Salle’s party.20
From Baton Rouge to the coast, the Mississippi River flows in a southeasterly direction. This was sufficient to convince La Salle and others with him that the river emptied into the western end of the Gulf of Mexico. His compass would have told him, assuming it was working properly, that the river flowed to the southeast. He could not have seen the coast from the river mouth; he could only assume it ran perpendicularly to the river. His interest in the Mexican silver trade perhaps prevented his being properly skeptical. His faith in his compass and sense of direction, combined with his sense of infallibility, would have hardened his conviction that the river had to be on the western, not northern coast, despite other indications to the contrary. It is also entirely possible that he underestimated how far west lay the coast of Mexico relative to landmarks he knew. Some of the maps he may have carried placed the Great Lakes, familiar territory to La Salle, over Mexico. Others placed them above the Florida peninsula. The inability to measure longitude presented a real problem.21
It is certain that La Salle never understood how far the delta protruded into the sea, indeed, he never really discerned the delta at all, apart from the passes at its end. La Salle estimated that the entire delta reached perhaps fifteen miles into the sea.22 In fact it extends over fifty miles into the Gulf, a full degree of latitude, enough to render moot the issue of La Salle’s misreading of his astrolabe. Charts indicated the north coast of the Gulf lay at 30º north. The river mouth lay at 29º north. Based on his earlier miscalculation, La Salle in 1684-1685 was looking for the river at 28º north. Once he got near the coast at Barataria Bay he would have believed he was too far north, and whether one or two degrees makes little difference. He then sailed west to where he knew the coast reached south to the expected latitude.
The Mississippi River delta is long and wide and flat, rising only inches above sea level. It is vast and mysterious, even a little mystical. Southwest Pass is today the primary point of entry. To the sailor who approaches, it comes out of nowhere, two fingers of land surrounded by water. It is so low-lying that at a distance it disappears into sky and water. Like a giant portal to another world, it reaches out from the horizon and beckons. Of course, it looked different in La Salle’s day. The passes did not project out into the sea as far, and were hidden in the marshland that was much thicker then than now. Sailors needed to be right on top of the river’s entrances to recognize them for what they were. In 1699, La Salle’s successor, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, poked his way along the coast, checking each inlet to see if it was the entrance to the Mississippi River. He had no concept yet of the delta, but expected the river mouth was on the coastline. He found the entrance, North Pass, at 28º, 50' N., well south of the coast he had been inspecting. The delta was utterly bewildering, and it is not likely that La Salle or anyone in his party had ever seen anything like it.23
They were not the first to be misled by its appearance. In 1519, as he sailed the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico, Alvarez de Pineda encountered a strong current that he took to be the discharge of a great river. Rio del Espiritu Santo, he called it, without ever seeing it. Cartographers subsequently added the river, but not a delta, to their charts and maps. In 1528 the survivors of a failed expedition to Florida, the Narvaez expedition, attempted to enter one of the passes on the east side of the delta, but were pushed to sea by the current. They, too, never comprehended the delta. When the survivors of Hernando de Soto’s expedition reached the Gulf, by Southwest Pass, they thought they had entered a large bay, perhaps because they glimpsed coastline on their right, at Barataria Bay, and another pass on their left. In fact, the river shot them like a champagne cork out into the gulf. They had no idea how far out to sea they were when at last the current dissipated and they regained control of their boats. Their bay, the existence of which was seemingly confirmed by the “discovery” of Mobile Bay, found its way onto most charts, including those used by La Salle nearly a century-and-a-half later, but the charts showed no delta.24
What La Salle was looking for as he sailed across the Gulf in 1684 was a large river flowing northwest to southeast that emptied into the sea through at least three passes separated by islands. Not known was whether the passes were hidden within a bay possibly of fresh water, and the bay itself hidden by islands, but this certainly was possible, given their experiences on the Great Lakes, and the information provided in charts based on Spanish encounters with the river.25
Minet, who traveled with La Salle on his sea voyage, sketched the mouth of the river based on descriptions given him by members of the earlier expedition from Canada, in which he did not participate. His drawing shows the river dividing at the coastline into three passes separated by several islands. The river runs nearly east to west, and the coastline runs nearly north to south. Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin incorporated a similar description into his 1684 map of North America, and may have seen Minet’s sketch, or else Minet saw Franquelin’s map. Their representations of the mouth of the Mississippi are identical. When Minet first saw Matagorda Bay he recognized it as the place he had sketched. Franquelin’s map shows the river as La Salle imagined it. He went to Texas because that is where it was on the map Franquelin had drawn for him, and because he believed that was where the river was to be found. 26
Upon looking at a present-day map of the Gulf of Mexico, one cannot help but wonder how La Salle failed to find the river. But then, even a nose on a face is hard to see if one is looking for something else, and La Salle was looking not for the Mississippi River but for something else: a river flowing from the west, with jetties at its mouth but with no extenuated delta, and maybe emptying into a large, possibly freshwater lake or bay. We also have to remember, as we look at a present-day map and contemplate La Salle’s blunder, that the delta took a different form three centuries ago, that it was not then so protrusive.
Over the centuries the delta has changed considerably. Actually, there are remains of six former deltas, recalling a history of river shifts and land formation and erosion. La Salle’s delta was, in 1684, only the most recent. There is today still another delta emerging, which serves to remind us that the river is not finished its work. The passes—La Salle’s jetties—had only just begun to form in 1542, the moment when the remnants of Soto’s expedition reached the Gulf. Over the next 140 years Southwest Pass, which La Salle narrowly missed, has grown to a length of nearly twenty miles. As the river mouths have stretched farther and farther out into the gulf, the adjacent coastline has receded, over the last two centuries at a rate of fifteen to twenty-five feet per year. The barrier islands, too, have shifted, chasing the retreating shore. The combined effect is the unmistakable long finger of land easily recognizable today on any map of the Gulf of Mexico as the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is worth imagining what La Salle might have accomplished had he possessed present-day maps of the delta, made with satellite precision imagery. In all likelihood he would have missed his mark just the same, because the maps would have guided him to a river mouth that did not exist as it does today. And yet, in a sense this is what historians do when they trace his voyage on modern maps and puzzle over how he erred; they put twenty-first century charts in the hands of a seventeenth-century sailor.27
La Salle’s maps were wrong. They showed the Mississippi River, or the Rio del Espiritu Santo, emptying into a bay, as Soto’s men had described. It is easy to see how the Spaniards were deceived. If they thought they were heading more or less due south when they entered the gulf, then the adjacent coastline, which would have been visible to them, would have appeared to run northeast to southwest, indicating an inlet in a coastline that they thought ran east to west. And there were bays on the northern Gulf Coast, most notably Mobile Bay, which sailors and cartographers probably confused with the one reported by Soto’s survivors. La Salle quickly discovered that the Spanish accounts of the river’s mouth were inaccurate, that there probably was no bay, and that for the last several hundred miles the river flowed not due south but in a southeasterly direction. Charts updated with information brought by La Salle following his canoe trip from Canada show the Mississippi River flowing eastward, into the western rim of the Gulf, through short passes that appear almost as islands—but no extenuated delta. The maps drawn after the Canadian expedition but before the Gulf voyage, that is to say, the maps that illustrate the mouth of the river as La Salle imagined it are it turns out rather accurate representations of Matagorda Bay. His failure to comprehend the delta, even though he had stood upon it, was the error that destroyed him.
Nearly forty years passed before the plan to establish a permanent French presence in the lower Mississippi Valley was, more or less, completed, with the construction of a permanent post near in river’s great delta. Between the first expedition to the Gulf by canoe from Canada and the founding of La Ville de la Nouvelle Orleans, a series of missteps taught the French how much they had to learn about the valley environment and its people. La Salle’s gropings in this unfamiliar natural environment, so unlike anything in Canada and France, would not be the last.
In 1699 Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville took up La Salle’s unfinished mission. Landing well east of the Mississippi, so as not to repeat his predecessor’s error, Iberville established a base at Mobile Bay before proceeding cautiously along the coast, then, with the help of native guides, up what he hoped was the Mississippi River. Confirmation, that he was indeed where he thought he was, came when some Mongoulachas revealed a letter written in French. It was addressed to La Salle, dated thirteen years earlier, and signed by his partner, Henri de Tonty, who had come down the river from Illinois to greet his friend. Tonty waited at a Quinipissa village, then, leaving the letter, returned up river, unaware of his friend’s fate. Iberville’s caution and good luck paid off. He was now on the Mississippi River, ready to establish the fort that would stake and protect his nation’s claim to Louisiana. Where to establish it, and how, in a place that seemed perpetually under water, became his source of unending frustration. He, like La Salle, had a lot to learn about the delta.
Only after Iberville’s reconnaissance of the river mouth did cartographers put a delta on their maps of the Mississippi River. In 1700, Guillaume Delisle, the most respected French cartographer of his day, completed a new map of North America. By this time everyone knew that La Salle had erred in thinking the river emptied into the Gulf on the western coast. Delisle put the Mississippi back where it belonged. He drew no delta. Then, just as he began to print his map, he received new information from Iberville’s reports. Immediately he stopped printing, added a delta to his drawing, and began to print again. Just like that, the delta entered the consciousness of European explorers and mapmakers. Like lookouts scanning the distant horizon, they rubbed their eyes, squinted, and saw land where only seconds ago they had seen nothing.28
Most early sketches of the delta appear wildly inaccurate. It took time to learn of its full size and shape. Delisle drew a fat stub of land with very short jetties at the mouths, and an advancing, not a receding, coastline. It is a delta very different from the one that appears on present-day maps. And yet it is a surprisingly accurate rendition of the delta as it was over three centuries ago, the one La Salle should have found, had he been looking for it at all.
The classic, full biography of La Salle remains Francis Parkman, La
Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (Boston, 1879).
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