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Saturday, November 16

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LaSalle Street has formed the center of Chicago's financial and commercial districts in the Loop for more than a century. Banks, law firms, the Federal Reserve, City Hall and the Chicago Board of Trade all make their homes on LaSalle Street. A photograph of LaSalle Street looking south from Madison Avenue, around 1911, shows the Northern Trust Building in the foreground. The monumental Classical-style building, completed in 1905, still stands at 50 S. LaSalle.

But if you ever, even for a fleeting moment, wondered if LaSalle Street was named for a certain bank of the same name, think again. The street was named for French explorer René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, who is credited as the first European to navigate the Mississippi River all the way down to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. He is commemorated on the street that bears his name most visibly on the building at 1 N. LaSalle. There, at the fifth floor level, a series of relief panels by sculptor Leon Hermant depict La Salle, along with several other famous explorers, including Father Marquette, Louis Joliet and Christopher Columbus.

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was born in Rouen, France, on November 22, 1643. He studied at a Jesuit college with an eye towards the priesthood, but when he was denied a chance to become a missionary, despite several applications, he left the order.

In 1667, La Salle left France and traveled to Canada. Thanks to family connections, he received a grant of land on Montreal Island. He farmed the land and established a fur-trading outpost, which helped him make valuable contacts with the Indians. Accounts from the Indians about the lands south and west further fueled La Salle's desire for exploration. He sold his lands in 1669 to raise money for his first expedition and became a full-time explorer.

La Salle is remembered in Chicago because he passed through the area at least once during his travels. A priest with his expedition, Father Zenobius Membré, recalled the visit in his memoir of the trip, writing, "On the 21st of December I embarked with the Sieur de Tonty and a part of our people on Lake Dauphin (Michigan), to go toward the divine river, called by the Indians Checagou, in order to make necessary arrangements for our voyage. The Sieur de la Salle joined us there with the rest of his troop on the 4th of January, 1682, and found that Tonty had had sleighs made to put all on and carry it over the Chicago, which was frozen; for, though the winter in these parts is only two months long, it is, notwithstanding, very severe."

But La Salle left his mark in other parts of the state, as well. In 1680, he had a fort built along the Illinois River near present-day Peoria. Despite the failure of that fortification, which was destroyed and abandoned, he built a second fort on the Illinois River in 1683. Fort Saint-Louis was erected near Starved Rock. Today he is remembered in the area in both the county name, La Salle County, and the nearby town of La Salle, Illinois.

He is best known, however, for his achievement in April 1682, when he and his party completed their journey down the Mississippi River, reaching the Gulf of Mexico. They surpassed the voyage Marquette and Joliet, who had traveled the Mississippi about 10 years before, but only made it as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River. On April 9, 1682, La Salle claimed the lands of the Mississippi Delta for the King of France, Louis XIV, naming the territory Louisiana. And, although his claim of the land was little more than an empty gesture at the time, it did lay the foundation for future French colonization in the area.

La Salle would never repeat his success. In his final, doomed expedition, he planned to begin the process of colonizing the mouth of the Mississippi River. But La Salle also made wild promises, claiming he could raise an army of Indians that could invade Mexico and attack the Spanish there. It would never happen.

The expedition sailed from France in July of 1684, but a serious miscalculation caused the ships to miss the mouth of the Mississippi by nearly 500 miles. Instead, the party landed on the coast of Texas. Bad steadily turned to worse as La Salle failed to find his way back to the Mississippi. Finally, on March 19, 1687, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was shot and killed by his own men, near the present-day town of Navasota, Texas. He was 43 years old.

Many excellent resources about La Salle can be found online. For a more complete biography and account of his adventures, read the entry for La Salle from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

Then, don't miss the "France in America" digital collections, a joint project of the Library of Congress and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The site includes many complete, digitized texts of La Salle's explorations, from La Salle's own papers to first-hand accounts written by other members of his party.

Finally, just for fun, check out the companion site to "Voyage of Doom," an episode of NOVA on PBS. The program documents the discovery of one of La Salle's ships, La Belle, which was shipwrecked during the explorer's last, ill-fated expedition and lost for more than 300 years. Explore the shipwreck online and learn about the work of the marine archeologists and conservators involved in the project.

Sources
Milo Milton Quaife. Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835. University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Patricia Gallaway. "La Salle, René-Robert Cavalier de." American National Biography Online, 2000.
"René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle." Explorers and Discoverers of the World. Gale Research, 1993.
"Robert Cavelier La Salle." Dictionary of American Biography. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-36.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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