The greatest and most enduring achievement of Frontenac's first term was the exploration of the territory southwestward of the Great Lakes and the planting of French influence there. This work was due, in large part, to the courage and energy of the intrepid La Salle. Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, like so many others who followed the fleur-de-lis into the recesses of the new continent, was of Norman birth and lineage. Rouen was the town of his nativity; the year 1643 probably the date of his birth. How the days of his youth were spent we do not know except that he received a good education, presumably in a Jesuit seminary. While still in the early twenties he came to Montreal where he had an older brother, a priest of the Seminary of St. Sulpice. This was in 1666. Through, the influence of his brother, no doubt, he received from the Seminary a grant of the seigneury at Lachine on the river above the town, and at once began the work of developing this property.

If La Salle intended to become a yeoman of New France, his choice of a site was not of the best. The seigneury which he acquired was one of the most dangerous spots in the whole colony, being right in the path of Iroquois attack. He was able to gather a few settlers around him, it is true, but their homes had to be enclosed by palisades, and they hardly dared venture into the fields unarmed. Though the Iroquois and the French were just now at peace, the danger of treachery was never absent. On the other hand no situation could be more favorable for one desiring to try his hand at the fur trade. It was inevitable, therefore, that a young man of La Salle's adventurous temperament and commercial ancestry should soon forsake the irksome drudgery of clearing land for the more exciting and apparently more profitable pursuit of forest trade. That was what happened. In the winter of 1668-1669 he heard from the Indians their story of a great southwestern river which made its way to the "Vermilion Sea." The recital quickened the restless strain in his Norman blood. Here, he thought, was the long-sought passage to the shores of the Orient, and he determined to follow the river.

Having no other means of obtaining funds with which to equip an expedition, La Salle sold his seigneury and at once began his preparations. In July, 1669, he set off with a party of about twenty men, some of whom were missionaries sent by the Seminary of St. Sulpice to carry the tidings of the faith into the heart of the continent. Up the St. Lawrence and along the south shore of Lake Ontario they went, halting at Irondequoit Bay while La Salle and a few of his followers went overland to the Seneca villages in search of guides. Continuing to Niagara, the party divided and the Sulpicians made their way to the Sault Ste. Marie, while La Salle with the remainder of the expedition struck out south of Lake Erie and in all probability reached the Ohio by descending one of its branches. But, as no journal or contemporary record of the venture after they had left Niagara has come down to us, the details of the journey are unknown. It is believed that desertions among his followers prevented further progress and that, in the winter of 1669-1670, La Salle retraced his steps to the lakes. In its main object the expedition had been a failure.

Having exhausted his funds, La Salle had no opportunity, for the present at least, of making another trial. He accordingly asked Frontenac for trading privileges at Cataraqui, the site of modern Kingston, where stood the fortified post named after the governor. Upon Frontenac's recommendation La Salle received in 1674 not only the exclusive right to trade but also a grant of land at Fort Frontenac on condition that he would rebuild the defenses with stone and supply a garrison. The conditions being acceptable, the explorer hastened to his new post and was soon engaged in the fur trade upon a considerable scale. La Salle, however, needed more capital than he himself could supply, and in 1677 he made a second trip to France with letters from Frontenac to the King and Colbert. He also had the further design in view of obtaining authority and funds for another trip of exploration to the West. Since his previous expedition in 1669 two of his compatriots, Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet, had reached the Great River and had found every reason for believing that its course ran south to the Gulf of Mexico, and not southwestward to the Gulf of California, as had previously been supposed. But they had not followed the Mississippi to its outlet, and this was what La Salle was now determined to do.

In Paris he found attentive listeners to his plans, and even the King's ministers were interested, so that when La Salle sailed back to Quebec in 1678 he brought a royal decree authorizing him to proceed with his project. With him came a daring spirit who was to be chief lieutenant and faithful companion in the ensuing years, Henri de Tonty. This adventurous soldier was later known among the Indians as "Tonty of the Iron Hand," for in his youth he had lost a hand in battle, and in its stead now wore an artificial one of iron, which he used from time to time with wholesome effect. He was a man of great physical strength, and commensurate courage, loyal to his chief and almost La Salle's equal in perseverance.

La Salle's party lost no time in proceeding to Fort Frontenac. Even though the winter was at hand, Hennepin was at once sent forward to Niagara with instructions to build a post and to begin the construction of a vessel so that the journey westward might be begun with the opening of spring. Later in the winter La Salle and Tonty joined the party at Niagara where the fort was completed. Before spring arrived, a vessel of about forty-five tons, the largest yet built for service on the lakes, had been constructed. On its prow stood a carved griffin, from the armorial bearings of Frontenac, and out of its portholes frowned several small cannon. With the advent of summer La Salle and his followers went aboard; the sails were spread, and in due course the expedition readied Michilimackinac, where the Jesuits had already established their most westerly mission.

The arrival of the Griffin brought Indians by the hundred to marvel at the "floating fort" and to barter their furs for the trinkets with which La Salle had provided himself. The little vessel then sailed westward into Lake Michigan and finally dropped anchor in Green Bay where an additional load of beaver skins was put on deck. With the approach of autumn the return trip began. La Salle, however, did not accompany his valuable cargo, having a mind to spend the winter in. explorations along the Illinois. In September, with many misgivings, he watched the Griffin set sail in charge of a pilot. Then, with the rest of his followers he started southward along the Wisconsin shore. Reaching the mouth of the St. Joseph, he struck into the interior to the upper Kankakee. This stream the voyageurs, who numbered about forty in all, descended until they reached the Illinois, which they followed to the point where Peoria now stands.

Here La Salle's troubles began in abundance. The Indians endeavored to dissuade him from leading the expedition farther, and even the explorer's own followers began to desert. Chagrinned at these untoward circumstances and on his guard lest the Indians prove openly hostile, La Salle proceeded to secure his position by the erection of a fort to which he gave the name Crevecoeur. Here he left Tonty with the majority of the party, while he himself started with five men back to Niagara. His object was in part to get supplies for building a vessel at Fort Crevecoeur, and in part to learn what had become of the Griffin, for since that vessel had sailed homeward he had heard no word from her crew. Proceeding across what is now southern Michigan, La Salle emerged on the shores of the Detroit River. From this point he pushed across the neck of land to Lake Erie, where he built a canoe which brought him to Niagara at Eastertide, 1680. His fears for the fate of the Griffin were now confirmed: the vessel had been lost, and with her a fortune in furs. Nothing daunted, however, La Salle hurried on to Fort Frontenac and thence with such speed to Montreal that he accomplished the trip from the Illinois to the Ottawa in less than three months - a feat hitherto unsurpassed in the annals of American exploration.

At Montreal the explorer, who once more sought the favor of Frontenac, was provided with equipment at the King's expense. Within a few months he was again at Fort Frontenac and ready to rejoin Tonty at Crevecoeur. Just as he was about to depart, however, word came that the Crevecoeur garrison had mutinied and had destroyed the post. La Salle's one hope now was that his faithful lieutenant had held on doggedly and had saved the vessel he had been building. But Tonty in the meantime had made his way with a few followers to Green Bay, so that when La Salle reached the Illinois he found everyone gone. Undismayed by this climax to his misfortunes, La Salle nevertheless pushed on down the Illinois, and early in December reached its confluence with the Mississippi.

To follow the course of this great stream with the small party which accompanied him seemed, however, too hazardous an undertaking. La Salle, therefore, retraced his steps once more and spent the next winter at Fort Miami on the St. Joseph to the southeast of Lake Michigan. In the spring word came to him that Tonty was at Michilimackinac, and thither he hastened, to hear from Tonty's own lips the long tale of disaster. "Any one else," wrote an eye-witness of the meeting, "would have thrown up his hands and abandoned the enterprise; but far from this, with, a firmness and constancy that never had its equal, I saw him more resolved than ever to continue his work and push forward his discovery."

Now that he had caught his first glimpse of the Mississippi, La Salle was determined to persist until he had followed its course to the outlet. Returning with Tonty to Fort Frontenac, he replenished his supplies. In this same autumn of 1681, with a larger number of followers, the explorer was again on his way to the Illinois. By February the party had reached the Mississippi. Passing the Missouri and the Ohio, La Salle and his followers kept steadily on their way and early in April reached the spot where the Father of Waters debouches through three channels into the Gulf. Here at the outlet they set up a column with the insignia of France, and, as they took possession of the land in the name of their King, they chanted in solemn tones the Exaudiat, and in the name of God they set up their banners.

But the French were short of supplies and could not stay long after the symbols of sovereignty had been raised aloft. Paddling slowly against the current. La Salle and his party reached the Illinois only in August. Here La Salle and Tonty built their Fort St. Louis and here they spent the winter. During the next summer (1683) the indefatigable explorer journeyed down to Quebec, and on the last ship of the year took passage for France. In the meantime, Frontenac, always his firm friend and supporter, had been recalled, and La Barre, the new governor, was unfriendly. A direct appeal to the home authorities for backing seemed the only way of securing funds for further explorations.

Accordingly, early in 1684 La Salle appeared at the French court with elaborate plans for founding a colony in the valley of the lower Mississippi. This time the expedition was to proceed by sea. To this project the King gave his assent, and commanded the royal officers to furnish the supplies. By midsummer four ships were ready to set sail for the Gulf. Once more, however, troubles beset La Salle on every hand. Disease broke out on the vessels; the officers quarreled among themselves; the expedition was attacked by the Spaniards, and one ship was lost. Not until the end of December was a landing made, and then not at the Mississippi's mouth but at a spot far to the west of it, on the sands of Matagorda Bay.

Finding that he had missed his reckonings, La Salle directed a part of his company to follow the shore. After many days of fruitless search, they established a permanent camp and sent the largest vessel back to France. Their repeated efforts to reach the Mississippi overland were in vain. Finally, in the winter of 1687, La Salle with a score of his strongest followers struck out northward, determined to make their way to the Lakes, where they might find succor. To follow the detail of their dreary march would be tedious. The hardships of the journey, without adequate equipment or provisions, and the incessant danger of attack by the Indians increased petty jealousies into open mutiny. On the 19th of March, 1687, the courageous and indefatigable La Salle was treacherously assassinated by one of his own party. Here in the fastnesses of the Southwest died at the age of forty-four the intrepid explorer of New France, whom Tonty called - perhaps not untruthfully - "one of the greatest men of this age."

"Thus," writes a later historian with all the perspective of the intervening years, "was cut short the career of a man whose personality is impressed in some respects more strongly than that of any other upon the history of New France. His schemes were too far-reaching to succeed. They required the strength and resources of a half-dozen nations like the France of Louis XIV. Nevertheless the lines upon which New France continued to develop were substantially those which La Salle had in mind, and the fabric of a wilderness empire, of which he laid the foundations, grew with the general growth of colonization, and in the next century became truly formidable. It was not until Wolfe climbed the Heights of Abraham that the great ideal of La Salle was finally overthrown."

It would be difficult, indeed, to find among the whole array of explorers which history can offer in all ages a perseverance more dogged in the face of abounding difficulties. Phoenix-like, he rose time after time from the ashes of adversity. Neither fatigue nor famine, disappointment nor even disaster, availed to swerve him from his purpose. To him, more than to any one else of his time, the French could justly attribute their early hold upon the great regions of the West. Other explorers and voyageurs of his generation there were in plenty, and their service was not inconsiderable. But in courage and persistence, as well as in the scope of his achievements, La Salle, the pathfinder of Rouen, towered above them all. He had, what so many of the others lacked, a clear vision of what the great plains and valleys of the Middle West could yield towards the enrichment of a nation in years to come. "America," as Parkman has aptly said, "owes him an enduring memory; for in this masculine figure she sees the pioneer who guided her to the possession of her richest heritage."