The French Occupation of Kansas

For two generations the Spaniards sent expeditions to explore the Great Plains. They rode up and down in this magnificent land from the Ozarks to the Rocky Mountains, and from Texas to the Platte River. Vast sums were expended in these onerous ventures. But so far as the territory now embraced in Kansas is concerned, the result was nothing. The right accruing from discovery and explorations was permitted to lapse—in fact, it never was asserted. No claim of proprietorship was established to any portion of what is now Kansas. When it was determined that the plains afforded no cities to sack and no peoples to plunder and destroy, interest declined, and the Spaniards withdrew to the arid wastes of the far Southwest. They established communities of people almost as ignorant and superstitious as the savages they displaced. And most of this miserable population were held in perpetual slavery by the system of peonage. What a blessing that Kansas was not to receive her civilization from Spain! The Spaniard had his day and his opportunity. Making nothing of them, he sank below the horizon—and the Great Plains were as though they had not yet been seen by white men.

The occupation of the soil of Kansas by Europeans resulted from what was in effect a rediscovery of the Mississippi Valley. It remained for a stronger people to explore and develop this great interior valley of North America. The French are a dominant people. The infusion of their blood into that of the Saxons exalted the ideals and broadened the vision of the Englishman. It endowed him with the capacity for vast enterprises and gave him the genius for conquest and empire. “The Gaulish race, above all others, is characterized by that occult force of cohesion and resistance which maintains their material unity amid the most cruel vicissitudes and makes it rise superior to every attempt to depress it.” Garneau, the historian, says that the old Gallic characteristics have outlived the unchangeable theocracies of Egypt and Asia, the political combinations of the Greeks, the civic wisdom and military discipline of the Romans. And that the French are of antique blood, but ever young at heart—that they are inspired by a call of great moment or an appeal of noble conception. All this is established by the annals of the ages and by the common assent of mankind.

To the genius, the dominance, the vision, devotion and intrepidity of the French people does the Mississippi Valley owe its real discovery, its successful exploration and its enduring occupancy.

The discovery of the Great West was due to the efforts of La Salle. Through hardships inconceivable and discouragements which it seems would daunt the stoutest heart he persevered in his explorations of the country to the west and southwest of the Great Lakes. He was a trader, and the empire of which he dreamed and for which he planned was to rest on commerce and the settlement and development of the country. In this work he had the opposition of the Jesuits, who stopped at nothing to thwart his plans and ruin his enterprises. They had lost their missions among the Hurons east of the Georgian Bay in the destruction of those tribes by the Iroquois. They had followed the fragments of these broken tribes to the westward. They had themselves entered the fur trade, and they maintained extensive establishments at Michillimackinac and other points. They were opposed to the seating of white settlements in the Indian country, and from Quebec to the Mississippi they interposed every possible obstacle to the plans of La Salle. And it is by no means certain that they did not finally accomplish his ruin and, indirectly, even his death, by corrupting those in his service on his last voyage to found a colony on the Lower Mississippi. Their attitude is well expressed by Parkman in his La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West.

From the lakes, they turned their eyes to the Valley of the Mississippi, in the hope to see it one day the seat of their new empire of the Faith. But what did this new Paraguay mean? It meant a little nation of converted and domesticated savages, docile as children, under the paternal and absolute rule of Jesuit fathers, and trained by them in industrial pursuits, the results of which were to inure, not to the profit of the producers, but to the building of churches, the founding of colleges, the establishment of warehouses and magazines, and the construction of works of defense,—all controlled by Jesnits, and forming a part of the vast possessions of the Order. Such was the old Paraguay; and such, we may suppose, would have been the new, had the plans of those who designed it been realized.

The Jesuits were no longer supreme in Canada, or, in other words, Canada was no longer simply a mission. It had become a colony. Temporal interests and the civil power were constantly gaining ground; and the disciples of Loyola felt that relatively, if not absolutely, they were losing it. They struggled vigorously to maintain the ascendency of their Order, or, as they would have expressed it, the ascendancy of religion; but in the older and more settled parts of the colony it was clear that the day of their undivided rule was past. Therefore, they looked with redoubled solicitude to their missions in the West. They had been among its first explorers, and they hoped that here the Catholic Faith, as represented by Jesuits, might reign with undisputed sway. In Paraguay, it was their constant aim to exclude white men from their missions. It was the same in North America. They dreaded fur-traders, partly because they interfered with their teachings and perverted their converts, and partly for other reasons. But La Salle was a fur-trader, and far worse than a fur-trader, he aimed at occupation, fortification, and [p.30] settlement. The scope and vigor of his enterprises, and the powerful influence that aided them, made him a stumbling-block in their path. He was their most dangerous rival for the control of the West, and from first to last they set themselves against him.

What manner of man was he who could conceive designs so vast and defy enmities so many and so powerful? And in what spirit did he embrace these designs?

And the same authority defines exactly the difference between the future of the Great West as designed by the Jesuits and as conceived by La Salle.

Prodigious was the contrast between the two discoverers; the one, with clasped hands and upturned eyes, seems a figure evoked from some dim legend of mediaeval saintship; the other, with feet firm planted on the hard earth, breathes the self-relying energies of modern practical enterprise. Nevertheless, La Salle’s enemies called him a visionary. His projects perplexed and startled them. At first, they ridiculed him; and then, as step by step, he advanced towards his purpose, they denounced and maligned him. What was this purpose? It was not of sudden growth, but developed as years went on. La Salle at La Chine dreamed of a western passage to China, and nursed vague schemes of western discovery. Then, when his earlier journeying revealed to him the valley of the Ohio and the fertile plains of Illinois, his imagination took wing over the boundless prairies and forests drained by the great river of the West. His ambition had found its field. He would leave barren and frozen Canada behind, and lead France and civilization into the valley of the Mississippi. Neither the English nor the Jesuits should conquer that rich domain; the one must rest content with the country cast of the Alleghenies, and the other with the forests, savages, and beaver-skins of the northern lakes. It was for him to call into light the latent riches of the great West. But the way to his land of promise was rough and long; it lay through Canada, filled with hostile traders and hostile priests, and barred by ice for half the year. The difficulty was soon solved. La Salle became convinced that the Mississippi flowed, not into the Pacific or the Gulf of California, but into the Gulf of Mexico. By a fortified post at its mouth, he could guard it against both English and Spaniards, and secure for the trade of the interior an access and an outlet under his own control, and open at every season. Of this trade, the hides of the buffalo would at first form the staple; and, along with furs, would reward the enterprise till other resources should be developed.

Such were the vast projects that unfolded themselves in the mind of La Salle. Canada must needs be, at the outset, his base of action, and without the support of its authorities he could do nothing.

It will be necessary to review the events connected with the discovery of the Mississippi by the French. In 1673 Joliet was sent to find this great river of which they had long heard from the Indians coming from the West. He had been a priest, but had returned to the life of a trader. He had been sent to explore the country, on Lake Superior, containing the copper mines. On his journey into the wilderness to find the Mississippi a Jesuit, Jacques Marquette, was selected to accompany him. The priest puts it the other way, saying that Joliet was appointed by Frontenac and Talon to go with him. They set out on the 17th of May, 1673, in two birch-bark canoes, from old Point Ignace, on the [p.31] north side of the Strait of Michillimackinac. As attendants they had five Frenchmen—doubtless skilled in woodcraft and wilderness navigation. For supplies they carried some smoked meat and Indian corn, and their baggage was limited to the barest necessaries.

Thus provided and equipped these pioneers set forth. They coasted Lake Michigan to Green Bay. From thence they ascended Fox River, crossed Lake Winnebago, and again took to Fox River, which they coursed to its source. There they dragged their canoes overland to the head of the Wisconsin. Here they embarked again, but on the waters of the mighty river which they sought. On the 17th of June, 1673, they reached the Mississippi, and Marquette wrote that he experienced a joy which he could not express. They continued down the stream, and upon its banks no human being was descried for many days. On the west bank, on the 25th of June, footprints were seen, and a path led the explorers to an Indian village two leagues away. Other towns were in sight—all of the Illinois stock, thrown beyond the Mississippi by the irresistible onset of the Iroquois from the country now embraced in the State of New York. Marquette addressed the Indians in their own tongue, and the explorers were well received. They were feasted, but exhorted to refrain from going on, which counsel they could not heed. Six hundred Indians went with them to their canoes and saw them again committed to the Mississippi. Below the mouth of the Illinois they beheld, painted on a beetling shore-cliff, the images of imaginary diabolic monsters—manitous of the Illinois tribes. They were still discussing those pagan representations when “A torrent of yellow mud rushed furiously athwart the calm blue current of the Mississippi; boiling and surging, and sweeping in its course logs, branches, and uprooted trees. They had reached the mouth of the Missouri, where that savage river, descending from its mad career through a vast unknown of barbarism, poured its turbid floods into the bosom of its gentler sister. Their light canoes whirled on the miry vortex like dry leaves on an angry brook.”

Continuing this voyage, they passed the mouth of the Ohio, and came into a different country. The days were hot and enervating, and the nights were but periods of torment from mosquitoes. An Indian village on the east bank rose to view, coming to which they disembarked, and were cordially received and feasted. They were told of towns lower down, which on the following day, they set out to reach, finding one opposite the mouth of the Arkansas River. It was one of the villages of the Arkansas or Quapaw Indians. There they were also received with hospitality, though at night the sentiment changed, and they escaped death only by the watchful care of the chief.

These Frenchmen had descended the Mississippi far enough to determine that it did not flow into the South Sea or Gulf of California, but into the Gulf of Mexico. And so the Indians doubtless told them. Such information would be of vast importance in Canada, and they decided to return, setting out on the 17th of July. The voyage homeward was uneventful, and they reached the mission at Green Bay near the last [p.32] of September. They had traveled more than twenty-five hundred miles. Marquette remained at the mission an exhausted and feeble man, but Joliet went on to Quebec. In sight of Montreal his canoe was overset and his papers lost, but he made report of the momentous discovery to the Governor of Canada. Marquette founded a mission the following summer at a point near the present Utica, Illinois, which he called Kaskaskia. He died on the 19th of May, 1675, on the shore of Lake Michigan as he was going to Michillimackinac.

The report of Joliet only confirmed the conclusion of La Salle—that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. With Frontenac, La Salle had established Fort Frontenac, where Kingston now stands, in 1675. That gave him control of Lake Ontario and the country adjacent, especially the country to the north. He had discovered the Ohio in the winter of 1669-70, and had explored it to the falls—now Louisville. “It was for him to call into light the latent riches of the Great West.” La Salle was the first man to comprehend the magnitude and possibilities of the great valley of the Mississippi. He resolved to secure it for France—and to develop its trade for himself.

It is not necessary here to review all the steps taken by La Salle to seat himself on the Mississippi. No more stirring tale could be written than a faithful account of this matter. He suffered from intrigue, perfidy, exposure to cold, floods, starvation, the horrors of Indian bloodlust. He journeyed thousands of miles through snows, over swamps and flooded plains. His men were murdered, and he himself twice poisoned. His business was wrecked and ruined by enemies at home. But he rose triumphant above it all until an assassin cut off his life.

Only a man of indomitable will could have risen from the ruin which had prostrated all the undertakings of La Salle. “But he had no thought but to grapple with adversity, and out of the fragments of his ruin to build up the fabric of success.” He spent the winter of 1680-81 at Fort Miami, on the River St. Joseph, near the southeastern extremity of Lake Michigan. Here were the wigwams of some friendly Indians, and during the winter more of them gathered about his desolate fort. Having organized them in his interest, he departed in May, 1681, for Canada to assemble again the scattered remnants of his fortunes and make ready for the grand enterprise of his life. He succeeded in satisfying his creditors and getting some additional means. This work consumed the summer. In October he reached Lake Huron on his return to the wilderness. “Day after day, and week after week, the heavy-laden canoes crept along the lonely wilderness shores, by the monotonous ranks of bristling moss-bearded firs; lake and forest, forest and lake, a dreary scene haunted with yet more dreary memories—disasters, sorrows, and deferred hopes; time, strength, and wealth spent in vain; a ruinous past and a doubtful future; slander, obloquy, and hate. With unmoved heart, the patient voyager held his course, and drew up his canoes at last on the beach at Fort Miami.” This was the voyage preliminary to the establishment of Louisiana.

From his savage retainers at the fort La Salle chose eighteen men. [p.33] He had with him twenty-three Frenchmen. Of the Indians, ten took their squaws, and there were three children. Altogether there were fifty-four persons in the expedition which he had then formed for the descent of the Mississippi. His main reliance was the iron man, Tonty, whose fidelity, and intelligent assistance have won the plaudits of the generations to this time. The advance guard set out from Fort Miami on the 21st of December, and went by the Chicago River, from the head of which they carried their canoes and lading to the Illinois. La Salle followed in a few days, coming up with Tonty before the party left Lake Michigan. They found the Illinois River frozen, and were compelled to drag their canoes down the river on the ice to Peoria Lake, below which they found open water. There they launched their frail vessels for the final voyage. They reached the Mississippi on the 6th of February, 1682. The descent of the mighty “Father of Waters and Mother of Floods” was devoid of incidents requiring detail here. The head of the delta was reached on the 6th of April, and the river was found to have three principal channels thence to the Gulf. Each channel was explored, after which the company united to return. On a hillock of firm land back from the mouth of the Mississippi a little way they assembled to make formal proclamation and take firm possession of the valley of the Mississippi. A beam of wood, heavy post, or column, was prepared. It bore the arms of France, and this inscription:


Hymns of the Roman Church for momentous occasions were chanted, Vive le Roi was shouted, muskets fired. The post was set up, and La Salle took place beside it. Standing there, with loud voice, he proclaimed:

In the name of the most high, mighty, invincible, and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, by the grace of God King of France and of Navarre, Fourteenth of that name. I this ninth day of April, one thousand six hundred and eighty-two, in virtue of the commission of his Majesty, which I hold in my hand, and which may be seen by all whom it may concern, have taken, and do now take, in the name of his Majesty and of his successors to the crown, possession of this country of Jonisiana, the seas, harbors, ports, bays, adjacent straits and all the nations, peoples, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams, and rivers, within the extent of the said Louisiana, from the mouth of the great river St. Louis, otherwise called the Ohio . . . as also along the river Colbert, or Mississippi, and the rivers which discharge themselves there into, from its source beyond the country of the Nadouessioux . . . as far as its mouth at the sea, or Gulf of Mexico, and also to the mouth of the River of Palms, upon the assurance we have had from the natives of these countries, that we are the first Europeans who have descended or ascended the said river Colbert: hereby protesting against all who may hereafter undertake to invade any or all of these aforesaid-countries, peoples, or lands, to the prejudice of the rights of his Majesty, acquired by the consent of the nations dwelling herein. Of which, and of all else that is needful, I hereby take to witness those who hear me, and demand an act of the notary here present.

He was greeted with more shouts of Vive le Roi, and with additional volleys of musketry. A cross was erected by the great beam, and a leaden plate bearing the arms of France and the legend Ludovicus Magnus regnant was buried there. The Vexilla Regis was sung, and the cry of Vive le Roi was again raised—and the ceremonies thus completed.

So, was established the French Province of Louisiana. Notice to all the world that it was set up was duly proclaimed. Through toil and fatigue, hardships and disaster, malice and envy, hate and intrigue, its armorial blazonry rose triumphant that day over the vapors and fogs and exudations of the miry shores of the inland sea. It was the inception of the Empire of the mighty Mississippi. It was the germ of power and glory. It held immense possibility, such opulence, dominance, progress, and development that even the thought of it had not entered the mind of man. The bounds of the Old Louisiana enclose the land most favorable to the growth of the human race. It will bring forth the ideals and originate the forces to influence and lead mankind. It is the heart of North America. Its conception was heroic. Its effulgence is consummated on the Great Plains. And on the banners of its glory the brightest star is Kansas.

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