Not Just Another Pretty Statue: The Life of Robert de La Salle

By Mary Giorgio

Robert de La Salle was a Frenchman renowned for his exploration of North America. Traveling from Canada, he traversed the United States all the way down to present-day Louisiana. In 1679, those travels took him through present-day Indiana, making him one of the first Europeans to explore the Hoosier state.

LaSalle was born in Rouen, France, on November 22, 1643. Eager to explore the new world, he joined the Jesuits and set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1666. LaSalle arrived in New France, near present-day Montreal, Canada, in 1667.  


In Canada, LaSalle began to issue land grants and set up a village. He made overtures to the Mohawk tribes who were living in the area. But first and foremost, LaSalle was an explorer. He began looking for opportunities to investigate the unsettled areas of North America.

Between 1679 and 1682, LaSalle traversed western North America, searching for trade opportunities and setting up frontier trading posts. LaSalle wanted to establish strong trading partnerships with Native American tribes to beat out competing English and Dutch traders.

He built forts as he traveled, which were then used to help control the fur trade. LaSalle also used the forts as launch points for his expeditions.   

Members of the Mohawk tribe told LaSalle stories of great rivers that ran through North America, like the Ohio River and the Mississippi River. Desiring to explore them further, LaSalle ultimately hoped that one of the rivers would lead him to the Gulf of Mexico. From there, he believed that it would be possible to sail directly to China.

In 1679, LaSalle sailed up from Lake Erie to Lake Huron, eventually crossing into present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. From there, his party headed down the western shore of Lake Michigan. They eventually reunited with members of their group who had traveled on foot across the lower Michigan peninsula.

Next, LaSalle and his companions journeyed through present-day Indiana via the St. Joseph and Kankakee rivers. Traveling in canoes, LaSalle discovered marshland, swamps, dunes, numerous fish, waterfowl, and mammals in what would become the Hoosier state. His party stopped in present-day South Bend, Indiana, to camp for the winter.

LaSalle eventually sailed down the Mississippi River all the way to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. On April 9, 1682, he claimed the entire Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries for France. He named the territory Louisiana after French King Louis XIV. The claimed territory included Indiana.

Only a few years later, LaSalle’s life came to a sad end. On that fateful day, March 19, 1687, a mutiny occurred as LaSalle explored what would become Navasota, Texas. Distracted by a decoy, several of La Salle’s men ambushed the explorer, reportedly shooting him in the back

LaSalle’s contribution to the exploration of America resulted in the establishment of a series of forts that proved instrumental to France’s defenses in years to come. His efforts also resulted in France’s early dominance in the fur trade. To Hoosiers, LaSalle is remembered as one of the original explorers to travel through the state.