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Having been invited by a Committee, on behalf of the People's Lyceum, to deliver one of their twelve annual Lectures, I was not long in selecting the subject of my labors. My mind had been lately engaged in the composition of the History of Louisiana, and it was natural that it should again revert to its favorite object of thought, on the same principle which impels the mightiest river to obey the laws of declivity, or which recalls and confines to its channel its gigantic volume of waters, when occasionally deviating from its course.
But in reverting now to the History of Louisiana, my intention is not to review its diversified features with the scrutinizing, unimpassioned, and austere judgment of the historian. Imposing upon myself a more grateful task, because more congenial to my taste, I shall take for the object of this Lecture, The Poetry, or the Romance of the History of Louisiana.
p10 Poetry is the daughter of Imagination, and imagination is, perhaps, one of the highest gifts of Heaven, the most refined ethereal part of the mind, because, when carried to perfection, it is the combined essence of all the finest faculties of the human intellect. There may be sound judgment, acute perceptions, depth of thought, great powers of conception, of discrimination, of research, of assimilation, of combination of ideas, without imagination, or at least without that part of it which elaborates and exalts itself into poetry; but how can we conceive the existence of a poetical imagination in its highest excellence, without all the other faculties? Without them, what imagination would not be imperfect or diseased? It is true that without imagination there may be a world within the mind, but it is a world without light. Cold it remains, and suffering from the effects of partial organization, unless by some mighty fiat imagination is breathed into the dormant mass, and the sun of poetry, emerging in the heaven of the mind, illumines and warms the several elements of which it is composed, and completes the creation of the intellect.
Hence the idea of all that is beautiful and great is concentrated in the word poetry. There is no grand conception of the mind in which that intellectual faculty which constitutes poetry is not to be detected. What is great and noble, is and must be poetical, and what is poetical must partake, in some degree or other, of what is great and noble. It is hardly possible to conceive an Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Newton, a Lycurgus, a Mahomet, a Michael Angelo, a Canova, or any other of those wonderful men who have carried as far as they could go, the powers of the human mind in the several departments in which they were used, without supposing them gifted with some of those faculties of the imagination which enter into p11the composition of a poetical organization. Thus every art and almost every science has its poetry, and it is from the unanimous consent of mankind on this subject that it has become so common to say "the poetry" of music, of sculpture, of architecture, of dancing, of painting, of history, and even the poetry of religion, meaning that which is most pleasing to the eye or to the mind, and ennobling to the soul. We may therefore infer from the general feeling to which I have alluded, that where the spirit of poetry does not exist, there can not be true greatness; and it can, I believe, be safely averred, that to try the gold of all human actions and events, of all things and matters, the touchstone of poetry is one of the surest.
I am willing to apply that criterion to Louisiana, considered both physically and historically; I am willing that my native State, which is but a fragment of what Louisiana formerly was, should stand or fall by that test, and I do not fear to approach with her the seat of judgment. I am prepared to show that her history is full of poetry of the highest order and of the most varied nature. I have studied the subject con amore, and with such reverential enthusiasm, and I may say with such filial piety, that it has grown upon my heart as well as upon my mind. May I be able to do justice to its merits, and to raise within you a corresponding interest to that which I feel! To support the assertion that the history of Louisiana is eminently poetical, it will be sufficient to give you short graphical descriptions of those interesting events which constitute her annals. Bright gems they are, encircling her brows, diadem-like, and worthy of that star which has sprung from her forehead to enrich the American constellation in the firmament of liberty.
Three centuries have hardly elapsed, since that immense p12territory which extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the Lakes of Canada, and which was subsequently known under the name of Louisiana, was slumbering in its cradle of wilderness, unknown to any of the white race to which we belong. Man was there, however, but man in his primitive state, claiming as it were, in appearance at least, a different origin from ours, or being at best a variety of our species. There, was the hereditary domain of the red man, living in scattered tribes over that magnificent country. Those tribes earned their precarious subsistence chiefly by pursuing the inhabitants of the earth and of the water; they sheltered themselves in miserable huts, spoke different languages, observed contradictory customs, and waged fierce war upon each other. Whence they came none knew; none knows, with absolute certainty, to the present day; and the faint glimmerings of vague traditions have afforded little or no light to penetrate into the darkness of their mysterious origin. Thus a wide field is left open to those dreamy speculations of which the imagination is so fond.
Whence came the Natchez, those worshipers of the sun with eastern rites? How is it that Grecian figures and letters are represented on the earthen wares of some of those Indian nations? Is there any truth in the supposition that some of those savages whose complexion approximates most to ours, draw their blood from that Welsh colony which is said to have found a home in America, many centuries since? Is it possible that Phoenician adventurers were the pilgrim fathers of some of the aborigines of Louisiana? What copper-colored swarm first issued from Asia, the revered womb of mankind, to wend its untraced way to the untenanted continent of America? What fanciful tales could be weaved on the powerful Choctaws, or the undaunted p13Chickasaws, or the unconquerable Mobilians? There the imagination may riot in the poetry of mysterious migrations, of human transformations; in the poetry of the forests, of the valleys, of the mountains, of the lakes and rivers, as they came fresh and glorious from the hand of the Creator, in the poetry of barbaric manners, laws, and wars. What heroic poems might not a future Ossian devise on the red monarchs of old Louisiana! Would not their strange history, in the hands of a Tacitus, be as interesting as that of the ancient barbarian tribes of Germany, described by his immortal pen? Is there in that period of their existence which precedes their acquaintance with the sons of Europe, nothing which, when placed in contrast with their future fate, appeals to the imagination of the moralist, of the philosopher, and of the divine? Who, without feeling his whole soul glowing with poetical emotions, could sit under yonder gigantic oak, the growth of a thousand years, on the top of that hill of shells, the sepulcher of man, piled up by his hands, and overlooking that placid lake where all would be repose, if it were not for that solitary canoe, a moving speck, hardly visible in the distance, did it not happen to be set in bold relief, by being on that very line where the lake meets the horizon, blazing with the last glories of the departing sun? Is not this the very poetry of landscape, of Louisianian landscape?
When diving into the mysteries of the creation of that part of the south-western world which was once comprehended in the limits of Louisiana, will not the geologist himself pause, absorbed in astonishment at the number of centuries which must have been necessary to form the delta of the Mississippi? When he discovers successive strata of forests lying many fathoms deep on the top of each other; when he witnesses the p14exhumation of the fossil bones of mammoths, elephants, or huge animals of the antediluvian race; when he reads the hieroglyphic records of Nature's wonderful doings, left by herself on the very rocks, or other granite and calcareous tablets of this country, will he not clasp his hands in ecstasy, and exclaim, "Oh! the dryness of my study has fled; there is poetry in the very foundation of this extraordinary land!"
Thus I think that I have shown that the spirit of poetry was moving over the face of Louisiana, even in her primitive state, and still pervades her natural history. But I have dwelt enough on Louisiana in the dark ages of her existence, of which we can know nothing, save by vague traditions of the Indians. Let us approach those times where her historical records begin to assume some distinct shape.
On the 31st of May, 1539, the bay of Santo Spiritu, in Florida, presented a curious spectacle. Eleven vessels of quaint shape, bearing the broad banner of Spain, were moored close to the shore; one thousand men of infantry, and three hundred and fifty men of cavalry, fully equipped, were landing in proud array under the command of Hernando De Soto, one of the most illustrious companions of Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and reputed one of the best lances of Spain! "When he led in the van of battle, so powerful was his charge," says the old chronicler of his exploits, "so broad was the bloody passage which he carved out in the ranks of the enemy, that ten of his men-at‑arms could with ease follow him abreast." He had acquired enormous wealth in Peru, and might have rested satisfied, a knight of renown, in the government of St. Jago de Cuba, in the sweet enjoyment of youth and of power, basking in the smiles of his beautiful wife, Isabella de Bobadilla. But his adventurous mind scorns such inglorious repose, p15and now he stands erect and full of visions bright, on the sandy shore of Florida, whither he comes, with feudal pride, by leave of the king, to establish nothing less than a marquisate, •ninety miles long by forty-five miles wide, and there to rule supreme, a governor for life, of all the territory that he can subjugate. Not unmindful he, the Christian knight, the hater and conqueror of Moorish infidelity, of the souls of his future vassals; for, twenty-two ecclesiastics accompany him to preach the word of God. Among his followers are gentlemen of the best blood of Spain and of Portugal: Don Juan de Guzman; Pedro Calderon, who, by his combined skill and bravery, had won the praises of Gonzalvo de Cordova, yclept "the great captain;" Vasconcellos de Silva, of Portugal, who for birth and courage knew no superior; Nuno Tobar, a knight above fear and reproach; and Muscoso de Alvarado, whom that small host of heroes ranked in their estimation next to De Soto himself. But I stop an enumeration which, if I did justice to all, would be too long.
What materials for romance! Here is chivalry, with all its glittering pomp, its soul-stirring aspirations, in full march, with its iron heels and gilded spurs, toward the unknown and hitherto unexplored soil of Louisiana. In sooth, it must have been a splendid sight! Let us look at the glorious pageantry as it sweeps by, through the long vistas of those pine woods! How nobly they bear themselves, those bronzed sons of Spain, clad in refulgent armor! How brave that music sounds! How fleet they move, those Andalusian chargers, with arched necks and dilated nostrils! But the whole train suddenly halts in that verdant valley, by that bubbling stream, shaded by those venerable oaks with gray moss hanging from their branches in p16imitation of the whitening beard of age. Does not the whole encampment rise distinct upon your minds?
The tents with gay pennons, with armorial bearings; the proud steed whose impatient foot spurns the ground; those men stretched on the velvet grass and recruiting their wearied strength by sleep; some singing old Castilian or Moorish roundelays; others musing on the sweet rulers of their souls, left in their distant home; a few kneeling before the officiating priest, at the altar which a moment sufficed for their pious ardor to erect, under yonder secluded bower; some burnishing their arms, others engaged in mimic warfare and trials of skill or strength; De Soto sitting apart with his peers in rank if not in command, and intent upon developing to them his plans of conquest, while the dusky faces of some Indian boys and women in the background express wild astonishment. None of the warriors of that race are to be seen; they are reported to be absent on a distant hunting excuse. But, methinks that at times I spy through the neighboring thickets the fierce glance of more than one eye, sparkling with the suppressed fury of anticipated revenge. What a scene! and would it not afford delight to the poet's imagination or to the painter's eye?
In two ponderous volumes, the historian Garcillasso relates the thousand incidents of that romantic expedition. What more interesting than the reception of Soto at the court of the Princess Cofachiqui, the Dido of the wilderness! What battles, what victories over men, over the elements themselves, and over the endless obstacles thrown out by rebellious nature! What incredible physical difficulties overcome by the advancing host! How heroic is the resistance of the Mobilians and of the Alabamas! With what headlong fury those denizens of the forest rush upon the iron-clad p17warriors, and dare the thunders of those whom they take to be the children of the sun! How splendidly described is the siege of Mobile, where women fought like men, and wrapped themselves up in the flames of their destroyed city rather than surrender to their invaders!
But let the conquering hero beware! Now he is encamped on the territory of the Chickasaws, the most ferocious of the Indian tribes. And lucky was it that Soto was as prudent as he was brave, and slept equally prepared for the defence and for the attack. Hark! in the dead of a winter's night, when the cold wind of the north, in the month of January, 1541, was howling through the leafless trees, a simultaneous howl was heard, more hideous far than the voice of the tempest. The Indians rush impetuous, with firebrands, and the thatched roofs which sheltered the Spaniards are soon on fire, threatening them with immediate destruction. The horses rearing and plunging in wild affright, and breaking loose from their ligaments; the undaunted Spaniards, half naked, struggling against the devouring element and the unsparing foe; the desperate deeds of valor executed by Soto and his companions; the deep-toned shouts of St. Jago and Spain to the rescue; the demon-like shrieks of the red warriors; the final overthrow of the Indians; the hot pursuit by the light of the flaming village; — form a picture highly exciting to the imagination, and cold indeed must he be who does not take delight in the strange contrast of the heroic warfare of chivalry on one side, and of the untutored courage of man in his savage state, on the other.
It would be too long to follow Soto in his peregrinations during two years, through part of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. At last he stands on the banks of the Mississippi, near the spot where now p18flourishes the Egyptian-named city of Memphis. He crosses the mighty river, and onward he goes, up to the White River, while roaming over the territory of the Arkansas. Meeting with alternate hospitality and hostility on the part of the Indians, he arrives at the mouth of the Red River, within the present limits of the State of Louisiana. There he was fated to close his adventurous career.
Three years of intense bodily fatigue and mental excitement had undermined the hero's constitution. Alas! well might the spirit droop within him! He had landed on the shore of the North American continent with high hopes, dreaming of conquest over wealthy nations and magnificent cities. What had he met? Interminable forests, endless lagoons, inextricable marshes, sharp and continual conflicts with men little superior, in his estimation, to the brutish creation. He who in Spain was cheered by beauty's glance, by the songs of the minstrel, when he sped to the contest with adversaries worthy of his prowess, with the noble and chivalric Moors; he who had reveled in the halls of the imperial Incas of Peru, and who there had amassed princely wealth; he, the flower of knightly courts, had been roaming like a vagrant over an immense territory, where he had discovered none but half-naked savages, dwelling in miserable huts, ignobly repulsive when compared with Castile's stately domes, with Granada's fantastic palaces, and with Peru's imperial dwellings, massive with gold! His wealth was gone, two thirds of his brave companions were dead. What account of them would he render to their noble families! He, the bankrupt in fame and in fortune, how would he withstand the gibes of envy! Thought, that scourge of life, that inward consumer of man, racks his brain, his heart is seared with deep anguish; a slow fever p19wastes his powerful frame, and he sinks at last on the couch of sickness, never to rise again. The Spaniards cluster around him, and alternately look with despair at their dying chieftain, and at the ominous hue of the bloody river, known at this day under the name of the Red River. But not he the man to allow the wild havoc within the soul to betray itself in the outward mien; not he, in common with the vulgar herd, the man to utter one word of wail! With smiling lips and serene brow he cheers his companions and summons them, one by one, to swear allegiance in his hands to Muscoso de Alvarado, whom he designates as his successor. "Union and perseverance, my friends," he says; "so long as the breath of life animates your bodies, do not falter in the enterprise you have undertaken. Spain expects a richer harvest of glory and more ample domains from her children." These are his last words, and then he dies. Blest be the soul of the noble knight and of the truth Christian! Rest his mortal remains in peace within that oaken trunk scooped by his companions, and by them sunk many fathoms deep in the bed of the Mississippi!
The Spaniards, at first, had tried to conceal the death of Soto from the Indians, because they felt that there was protection in the belief of his existence. What mockery it was to their grief, to simulate joy on the very tomb of their beloved chief, whom they had buried in their camp before seeking for him a safer place of repose! But when, the slaves of hard necessity, they were, with heavy hearts but smiling faces, coursing in tournament over the burial-ground, and profaning the consecrated spot, the more effectually to mislead the conjectures of the Indians, they saw that their subterfuge was vain, and that the red men, with significant glances, were pointing to each other the p20precise spot where the great white warrior slept. How dolorously does Garcillasso describe the exhumation and the plunging of the body into the turbid stream of the Great Father of Rivers!
Then comes an Odyssey of woes. The attempt of the Spaniards to go by land to Mexico; their wandering as far as the Rio Grande and the mountainous region which lies between Mexico and Texas, and which was destined, in after years, to be so famous in American history; their return to the mouth of Red River; their building of vessels capable of navigation at sea; the tender compassion and affectionate assistance of the good Cazique Anilco; the league of the other Indian princes, far and wide, under the auspices of the great king, Quigualtanqui, the Agamemnon of the Confederacy; the discovery of the plot; the retreat of all the Indian chiefs save the indomitable Quigualtanqui; the fleet of one thousand canoes, mounted by twenty thousand men, with which he pursued the weary and despairing Spaniards for seventeen long days, assailing them with incessant fury; the giving up of the chase only when the sea was nearly in sight; the fierce parting words of the Indians to the Spaniards: "Tell your countrymen that you have been pursued by Quigualtanqui alone; if he had been better assisted by his peers, none of you would have survived to tell the tale;" the solemn rites with which, in their thousand canoes riveted on the water, they, on the day they ceased their pursuit, adored the rising sun and saluted him with their thanksgivings for the expulsion of the invaders; the hair-breadth escapes of the three hundred Spaniards who alone out of the bright host of their former companions had succeeded in fleeing from the hostile shore of Louisiana; their toils during a navigation of ninety days to the port of Panuco, where they p21at last arrived in a state of utter destitution, are all thrilling incidents connected with the history of Louisiana, and replete with the very essence of poetry.
When Alvarado, the Ulysses of that expedition, related his adventures in the halls of Montezuma, Don Francisco de Mendoza, the son of the viceroy, broke out with passionate admiration of the conduct of Quigualtanqui: "A noble barbarian," exclaimed he, "an honest man and a true patriot." This remark, worthy of the high lineage and of the ancestral fame of him who spoke it, is a just tribute to the Louisianian chief, and is an apt epilogue to the recital of those romantic achievements, the nature of which is such, that the poet's pen would be more at ease with it than that of the historian.
One hundred and thirty years had passed away since the apparition of Soto on the soil of Louisiana, without any further attempt of the white race to penetrate into that fair region, when on the 7th of July, 1673, a small band of Europeans and Canadians reached the Mississippi, which they had come to seek from the distant city of Quebec. That band had two leaders, Father Marquette, a monk, and Joliet, a merchant, the prototypes of two great sources of power, religion and commerce, which, in the course of time, were destined to exercise such influence on the civilization of the western territory, traversed by the mighty river which they had discovered. They could not be ordinary men those adventurers, who in those days undertook to expose themselves to the fatigues and perils of a journey through unknown solitudes, from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi! That humble monkish gown of Father Marquette concealed a hero's heart; and in the merchant's breast there dwelt a soul that would have disgraced no belted knight.
p22 Whether it was owing to the peaceful garb in which they had presentd themselves, or to some other cause, the Indians hardly showed any of that hostility which they had exhibited toward the armed invasion of Spain. Joliet and Father Marquette floated dwell the river without much impediment, as far as the Arkansas. There, having received sufficient evidence that the Mississippi discharged itself into the Gulf of Mexico, they retraced their way back and returned to Canada. But in that frail bark drifting down the current of the Mississippi, and in which sat the hard plodding merchant, with the deep wrinkles of thought and forecast on his brow, planning schemes of trader with unknown nations, and surveying with curious eye that boundless territory which seemed, as he went along, to stretch in commensurate proportion with the infiniteness of space; in that frail bark, I say, where mused over his breviary that gray-headed monk, leaning on that long staff, surmounted with the silver cross of Christ, and computing the souls that he had saved and still hoped to save from idolatry, is there not as much poetry as in the famed vessel of Argos, sailing in quest of the golden fleece? Were not their hearts as brave as those of the Greek adventurers? were not their dangers as great? and was not the object which they had in view much superior?
The grandeur of their enterprise was, even at that time, fully appreciated. On their return to Quebec, and on their giving information that they had discovered that mighty river of which the Europeans had but a vague knowledge conveyed to them by the Indians, and which, from the accounts given of its width and length, was considered to be one of the greatest wonders of the world, universal admiration was expressed; the bells of the Cathedral tolled merrily for a p23whole day, and the bishop, followed by his clergy and the whole population, sang a solemn Te Deum at the foot of the altar. Thus, on the first acquaintance of our European fathers with the great valley of the Mississippi, of which our present State of Louisiana is the heart, there was an instinct that told them it was there that the seeds of empire and greatness were sown. Were they not right in those divinations which pushed them onward to that favored spot through so many obstacles? Greatness and empire were there, and therefore all the future elements of poetry.
Joliet and Marquette were dead, and nothing yet had been done to take possession of the newly discovered regions of the West; but the impetus was given; the march of civilization once begun could not retrograde; that mighty traveler, with religion for his guide, was pushed onward by the hand of God; and the same spirit which had driven the crusaders to Asia, now turned the attention of Europe to the continent of America. The spell which had concealed the Mississippi amid hitherto impenetrable forests, and, as it were, an ocean of trees, was broken; and the Indians, who claimed its banks as their hereditary domain, were now fated to witness the rapid succession of irresistible intruders.
Seven years since the expedition of Marquette and Joliet had rolled by, when Robert Cavalier de La Salle, in the month of January, 1682, feasted his eyes with the sight of the far-famed Mississippi. For his companions he had forty soldiers, three monks, and the Chevalier de Tonti. He had received the education of a Jesuit, and had been destined to the cloister, and to become a tutor of children in a seminary of that celebrated order of which he was to become a member. But he had that will, and those passions, and that intellect p24which can not be forced into a contracted channel of action. Born poor and a plebeian, he wished to be both noble and rich; obscure, he longed to be famous. Why not? Man shapes his own destinies when the fortitude of the soul corresponds with the vigorous organization of the mind. When the heart dares prompt the execution of what genius conceives, nothing employs but to choose the field of success. That choice was soon made by La Salle. America was then exercising magnetic attraction upon all bold spirits, and did not fail to have the same influence on his own. Obeying the impulse of his ambition, he crossed the Atlantic without hesitation, and landed in Canada in 1673.
When on the continent of America, that fond object of his dreams, La Salle felt that he was in a congenial atmosphere with his temperament. His mind seemed to expand, his conceptions to become more vivid, his natural eloquence to be gifted with more persuasion, and he was acknowledged at once by all who saw and heard him, to be a superior being. Brought into contact with Count Frontenac, who was the governor of Canada, he communicated to him his views and projects for the aggrandizement of France, and suggested to him the gigantic plan of connecting the St. Lawrence with the Mississippi by an uninterrupted chain of forts. "From the information which I have been able to collect," said he to the Count, "I think I may affirm that the Mississippi draws its source somewhere in the vicinity of the Celestial Empire, and that France will be not only the mistress of all the territory between the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, but will command the trade of China, flowing down the new and mighty channel which I shall open to the Gulf of Mexico." Count Frontenac was seduced by the magnificence of the prospect sketched by the enthusiast, but not daring p25to incur the expenses which such an undertaking would have required, referred him to the court of France.
To France, then, the adventurer returns with increased confidence; for he had secured one thing, he had gained one point; introduction to the noble and to the wealthy under the auspices of Count Frontenac. The spirit of Columbus was in him, and nothing abashed he would have forced his way to the foot of the throne and appealed to Majesty itself, with that assurance which genius imparts. But sufficient was it for him to gain the good graces of one of the royal blood of France, the Prince de Conti. He fired the prince's mind with his own contagious enthusiasm, and through him obtained from the king not only an immense concession of land, but was clothed with all the powers and privileges which he required for trading with the Indians, and for carrying on his meditated plans of discovery. Nay, more, he was ennobled by letters-patent, and thus one of the most ardent wishes of his heart was gratified. At last, he was no longer a plebeian, and with Macbeth he could exclaim, "Now, thane of Cawdor, the greatest is behind."
La Salle re-crossed the Atlantic with one worthy of being his fidus Achates, and capable of understanding the workings of his mind and of his heart. That man was the Chevalier De Tonti, who, as an officer, had served with distinction in many a war, and who afterward became famous among the Indians for the iron hand with which he had artificially supplied the one which he had lost.
On the 15th of September, 1678, proud and erect with the consciousness of success, La Salle stood again in the walls of Quebec; and stimulated by the cheers of the whole population, he immediately entered into the execution of his projects. Four years after, in p261682, he was at the mouth of the Mississippi, and in the name (as appears by a notarial act still extant) of the most puissant, most high, most invincible and victorious Prince, Louis the Great, King of France, took possession of all the country which he had discovered. How his heart must have swelled with exultation, when he stood at the mouth of the great river on which all his hopes had centered; when he unfurled the white banner and erected the stately column to which he appended the royal escutcheon of France, amid the shouts of his companions and the discharge of fire-arms! With what devotion he must have joined in the solemn Te Deum sung on that memorable occasion!
To relate all the heart-thrilling adventures which occurred to La Salle during the four years which elapsed between the opening and the conclusion of that expedition, would be to go beyond the limits which are allotted to me. Suffice it to say, that at this day to overcome the one-hundredth part of the difficulties which he had to encounter, would immortalize a man. If it be true that man is never greater than when engaged in a generous and unyielding struggle against dangers and adversity, then must it be admitted that during those four years of trials La Salle was pre-eminently great. Was he not worthy of admiration, when to the camp of the Iroquois, who at first had received him like friends, but had been converted into foes, he dared to go alone, to meet the charges brought against him by the subtle Mansolia, whose words were so persuasive, and whose wisdom appeared so wonderful, that it was attributed to his holding intercourse with spirits of another world? How interesting the spectacle! How vividly it pictures itself to my mind! How it would grace the pages of a Fenimore Cooper, or of one having the magic pen of a Walter Scott! Methinks p27I see that areopagus of stern old Indian warriors listening with knit brows and compressed lips to the passionate accusation so skillfully urged against La Salle, and to the prediction that amity to the white race was the sure forerunner of destruction to all the Indian tribes. La Salle rose in his turn; how eloquent, how pathetic he was when appealing to the better feelings of the Indians, and how deserving of the verdict rendered in his favor!
The enmity, the ambushes of Indians were not to him the only sources of danger. These he could have stood unmoved! But what must have been his feelings when he became conscious of the poison which had been administered to him by some of his companions, who thought that, by destroying him, they would spare to themselves the anticipated horrors of an expedition which they no longer had the courage to prosecute! What his despair was, is attested by the name of "Crève Coeur," which he gave to a fort he built a short time after — the fort of the "Broken Heart!"a But let us turn from his miseries to the more grateful spectacle of his ovation.
In 1684 he returned to France, and found himself famous. He, the poor boy, the ignoble by birth, for whom paternal tenderness had dreamed nothing higher than the honor of being a teacher in a seminary of Jesuits, was presented to Louis XIV amid all the splendors of his court! That Jupiter among the kings of the earth had a smile to bestow upon the humble subject who came to deposit at the foot of the throne the title-deeds of such broad domains. But that smile of royalty was destined to be the last smile of fortune. The favors which he then obtained bred nothing but reverses. Every thing, however, wore a bright aspect, p28and the star of his destiny appeared to be culminating in the heavens.
Thus a fleet, composed of four vessels, was put at his disposal, with all the materials necessary to establish a colony, and once more he left the shores of his native country, but this time invested with high command, and hoping perhaps to be the founder of an empire. This, indeed, was something worth having struggled for! But alas! he had struggled in vain; the meshes of adverse fate were closing around him. Here is not the place to relate his misunderstandings, degenerating into bitter quarrels with the proud Beaujeu, who had the subordinate command of the fleet, and who thought himself dishonored — he, the old captain of thirty years' standing, he, the nobleman — by being placed under the control of the unprofessional, of the plebeian, of him whom he called a pedagogue, fit only to rule over children. The result of that conflict was, that La Salle found himself abandoned on the shores of the Bay of St. Bernard, in 1685, and was reduced to shift for himself, with very limited resources. Here follows a period of three other years of great sufferings and of bold and incessant wanderings through the territory of the present State of Texas, where, after a long series of adventures, he was basely murdered by his French companions, and revenged by his body-servant, an Englishman by birth. He died somewhere about the spot where now stands the town of Washington,º which owes its foundation to some of that race to which belonged his avenger, and the star-spangled banner now proudly waves where the first pioneer of civilization consecrated with his blood the future land of liberty.
The rapid sketch which I have given shows, that so much of La Salle's life as belongs to history occupies a space of fifteen years, and is so full of incidents as p29to afford materials enough for the production of a voluminous and interesting book. But I think I may safely close my observations with the remark, that he who will write the life of that extraordinary man, however austere his turn of mind may be, will hardly be able to prevent the golden hues of poetry from overspreading the pages which he may pen, where history is so much like romance that, in many respects, it is likely to be classed as such by posterity.
Here I must close this historical sketch; here I must stop, on the threshold of the edifice through which I should like to wander with you, in order to call your attention not only to the general splendor, but to the minute perfection of its architecture. Perhaps, at a future period, if your desire should keep pace with my inclination, I may resume the subject; and I believe it will then be easy for me to complete the demonstration that our annals constitute a rich mine, where lies in profusion the purest ore of poetry, not to be found in broken and scattered fragments, but forming an uninterrupted vein through the whole history of Louisiana, in all its varied phases, from the primitive settlement made at Biloxi to the present time, when she wears the diadem of sovereignty, and when, with her blood and treasure, and with a spirit of chivalry worthy of her Spanish and French descent, and of her Anglo-Saxon adoption, she was the first to engage in the support of that war which, so glorious in its beginning at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterey, and Buena Vista, will undoubtedly have an equally glorious, and I think I may add, a poetical termination in the walls of Mexico!b
a I haven't yet found a source to back our author up on this point, and therefore prefer to keep an open mind. While the French word crève-coeur does indeed mean "heartbreak", the explorer may have named the fort more prosaically after a place back home. There are at least five small towns in France by that name, four of which are within one or two days' horseback journey from Rouen, where La Salle was born.
b This reference to the Mexican War dates the first edition of Gayarré's book very precisely. The Americans won the battle of Buena Vista on February 23, 1847, but would not take Mexico City until September 14. We might expect this passage to have been reworked for the final edition — that of 1867, transcribed on this site — but the care the author seems to have taken with his book suggests, to me at least, that this historical marker was left in the text intentionally.
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Gayarré's History of Louisiana
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