Page images
PDF
EPUB

Joseph's, ascended in a canoe to the portage; conveying their slender barks six miles across the country to the Kankaree, they glided down this stream and the Iroquois to the Illinois river, and erected Fort Créveceur, on the spot where now stands the city of Peoria.

It is said that La Salle's conjectures about the Mississippi river “worked upon him; and that, zealous for the honor of his nation, he designed to signalize the French name.” His character has been thus described : “He was a man of regular behaviour, of a large soul, well enough learned, and understanding in the mathematics; designing, bold, undaunted, dexterous, insinuating ; not to be discouraged by anything; wonderfully steady in adversity; and well enough versed in several savage languages.” Here we have all the requisites for a great explorer; yet few have achieved such fame to endure such misfortunes. “The government of Fort Edward,” says his biographer, " which is the place farthest advanced among the savages, was given to him; and he going over to France, in 1675, the king made him proprietor of it; he came home with stories of mines, wild bullocks, forests, &c.; and there grew up a jealousy of him among his countrymen : they thwarted his designs; and after he had picked out forty or fifty of them for a new expedition, and had spent years in going and coming, he was once nearly poisoned; he conciliated the savage inhabitants, and gave her name to Louisiana.”

When, after the lapse of a few weeks, La Salle was obliged to return to Frontenac for supplies, he sent Hennepin to explore that mighty river, hitherto only known to Europeans above the mouth of the Wisconsin. The adventurous friar started on this expedition in the month of February, 1680, in his frail canoe, and, tracking the Illinois to its mouth, ascended the Mississippi to the Falls of St. Anthony, which he so named in honor of his patron saint; and was the first European who ever beheld those beautiful rapids in the heart of the wilderness. Having arrived at the mouth of the St. Francis river, in what is now Minnesota, a stream which he thus baptized from the founder of his own religious order, Hennepin again landed, and traversed the country to the distance of one hundred and eighty miles; he sojourned for three months among the Sioux Indians ; returned in safety to Quebec, and soon after embarked for France; and in 1683 published his “ Descriptions,” &c. This work was the most complete account of the first expedition of La Salle, and, as such, was sought for and read with avidity. Had the record of Hennepin's career ended here, his name would have remained honorably associated with those of other European missionaries who, with courage and probity, sought for and proclaimed the wonders of the New World, while planting therein the cross and the faith to whose service he and they were pledged. But, not satisfied with the glory of a pioneer navigator of the Father of Waters, nor with the prestige of a faithful attaché to a brave but unfortunate chieftain, or that of a self-devoted minister of religion, in 1697, ten years after the death of La Salle, Hennepin audaciously gave to the world his “Nouvelle découverté d'un tres grand pays situé dans l'Amerique entre la Nouveau Mexique et la Mer Glaciale ; * claiming therein to have descended the Mississippi and completed, for the first time, its exploration. The mere fact of his extraordinary delay in announcing this remarkable experience is sufficient to make a candid mind distrustful; and the motive thereto seems evident when we remember how immediately this publication followed upon the demise of the only witness its author had reason to fear. Accordingly, Hennepin has been and is regarded as untruthful by our own and European historians, except in regard to topographical and local details confirmed by other testimony and by observation of natural facts. Still his adventures, and the narrative thereof possess an interest derived from their early date; we associate them with the first authentic glimpses of the new continent in its vast Western phase which were attained by Europeans; we cannot but imagine the wonder, hope, and curiosity inspired by such travellers' tales, and look upon the diminutive volumes and obsolete type of the earliest editions with a kind of fond reminiscence; beholding, in fancy, the eagerness and incredulity with which they were originally pondered. And those of us who have sailed along the umbrageous and lofty bluffs of the Upper Mississippi, and gazed from a steamer's deck, in the early summer morning, upon the magnificent solitude—the noble stream, the far reach of woods, the high, castellated limestone rocks--and heard a wild bird's cry, or caught sight of a Sioux, a log hut, a hunter—watched the moving panorama of foliage, prairie, village, fever-stricken settlement and growing city alternating with lonely forestrealizing how Nature's wild seclusion and Humanity's primi. tive civilization meet, separate, and mingle on the borders of a mighty inland river, flowing deep and far through the West -so fraught with destiny, so recent in the annals of nations, and so ancient in the beauty and grandeur of creation-we, who have thus gazed and mused, when rapidly borne on the wings of steam, where Hennepin's lonely and fragile canoe slowly moved through this scene of virgin and unexplored loveliness and power, cannot refrain from a thrill of sympathy with those emotions of awe and love, of expectancy and danger the roving Franciscan must have felt; and, with all his want of veracity, recognize somewhat of fraternity by virtue of that “touch of nature” which makes us all akin. We accept the memorial of Hennepin, which gives his name to locomotive and steam barge, where he first baptized the waters; we recall him as we stand in the midst of the dashing flood which still murmurs his saintly nomenclature; an when a prairie flower takes us back to the bosom of nature, or the wind, unchecked on the wide plains, sounds the same eternal anthem that greeted his ears who first invaded their solitude, we feel that, however the face of the land has changed, woods fallen before the settler's axe, and aborigines faded in the path of civilization, and thrift encroached upon sport, agriculture upon the wilderness, Nature still breathes her ele mental charms, and preserves not a few of her most significant features. To an imaginative mind there is as much poetry as philosophy in the contrast between the Illinois which Hennepin traversed, and that which to-day holds such a world of life and labor in her bosom. The vast fields of grain, the teeming orchards, the cities and railroads of the present, to the political economist, afford a marvellous parallel to the verdant deserts described in 1680; but not less striking is the coincidence that deserted Mormon temples are there found, and a President of this republic was thence elected to meet the greatest crisis of our national life. One sees the extremes of civilization and the normal physical resources of this Western region, side by side with the distinctive natural features which excited the admiration and fill the chronicles of the missionary explorers. Even a rapid transit brings these associations home to the mind. On one occasion, as our train stopped on the edge of a rolling prairie, whose treeless, undulating surface, for miles, was unbroken save by harvest fields, the early descriptions of the face of the country were realized ; and, while specimens of the mineral wealth and fruits of the alluvial soil were passed around, there appeared, pensively walking on the edge of the “ garden of the desert,” in entire contrast with the solitude and wild fertility of the landscape, an English lady, in the costume of the landed gentry, leading a childtheir flaxen hair and high-bred manner suggestive of Saxon lineage: they were evidently of the better class of emigrants, who had sought in the far-away West a sphere, limited and dreary in comparison with their English home, however blessed by nature, but auspicious for the future of children whose native land affords no promising scope either for work or subsistence. The vivacious and brave heralds of the Cross, who, two centuries ago, delighted the Parisians with their accounts of a land of boundless woods and waters in the West, rarely and imperfectly surmised its destiny in the Providential issues of time : it was recognized, indeed, as a new domain for the rule of a French monarch, a new sphere for the triumph of religion, a new arena for military adventure and colonization ; but few realized that it was to become a grand scene of political development and a refuge for the baffiled nationalities of Europe. Indeed, there is no chapter in the primitive history of the country, which, appreciated in all its relations, picturesque, adventurous, heroic, and religious, that offers such attractive themes for art, romance, and philosophy as these early missions, whereby the Old World first won a foothold in the grandest portions of the New. It was through the vague reports of their aboriginal converts that the pious followers of St. Francis de Xavier, were stimulated to seek now a great lake, and now a mighty river: it was when in search of new tribes as subjects of their missionary zeal, that incidents of romantic interest and scenes of unrivalled beauty became known to them, and, through them, to the civilized world. Ménard, a Huron missionary, planned an expedition in search of the Mississippi in 1660 : at the mission on the Saguenay, the Jesuits heard from their wild converts, of a vast lake, that lured them on a voyage of auspicious discovery; while their brethren in New York State witnessed the ceremonious departure of the Iroquois to give battle to an inimical tribe on the shores of the beautiful river,” and, being thus made aware of new links in the magnificent water chain, urged their explorations in the direction of the Ohio. Father Dablon, when superior of the Ottawa mission, established a station among the Illinois, and reached the Wisconsin river after a toilsome voyage: his “ Relation" was published in 1670, and contained a map of Lake Superior. But the narrative of Father Claude Allouez, who left France in 1658, contains one of the earliest accounts of an expedition to the Illinois country, which the Indians had described to Father Dablon as intersected by a river “ so beautiful that, for more than three hundred leagues from its mouth, it is larger than that which flows by Quebec; and the vast country is nothing but prairies without trees or woods, which oblige the inhabitants of those parts to use turf and dung for fuel, till you come about twenty miles from the sea.” Allouez began his journey thither on the ice; one of his companions

* “New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, extending above 4,000 Miles, between New France and New Mexico, &c., map and plates, London,

« PreviousContinue »