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1679
Hennepin's Story of La Salle in Indiana
by Raymond F. Dolle


From "Indiana English" (Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall 1988, pp. 4-7)

For too long a New England Puritan bias spoiled early American studies for students and wrung complaints, even from scholars who work fertile neighboring fields in English and American literature, that the area is as barren as the rocky coast at Plymouth. Too many English majors stayed away to avoid suffering like sinners in the hands of an angry prof. But now a rich new world of early American writings shines on the horizon.

Of course Bradford, Bradstreet, Mather, Taylor, and the rest of The Puritans anthologized by Miller and Johnson (the traditional textbook) are essential to our national literature, but so are Columbus, Champlain, John Smith, and the other travel writers in "The Harper American Literature" (1987), just one example of the current expansion of the early American canon.

Today's Colonialists are, like William Spengemann, "Discovering the Literature of British America" ("Early American Literature" 18 [Spring 1983]:3-16). Further, some of us are, like Walt Whitman, discovering our pluralistic nature: "Thus far, impress'd by New England writers and schoolmasters," Whitman warned in a letter on July 20, 1883, commemorating the founding of Santa Fe, "we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashioned from the British Islands only--which is a very great mistake" ("the Complete Writings of Walt Whitman." New York: G.P. Putnam's, 1902. Vol. 6, 116-17). In fact, like Thoreau, "I am not sure but I have most sympathy with that spirit of adventure which distinguished the French and Spaniards of those days, and made them especially the explorers of the American Continent" ("A Yankee in Canada," from "The Writings of Henry David Thoreau." New York: AMS, 1968. Vol. 5, 67).

Directly relevant to the Midwest is Father Louis Hennepin's "Description of Louisiana" (Paris, 1683), the "most prominent, most interesting, and most minute of all the narratives of early American exploration" (L.P. Kellogg, "Dictionary of American Biography." New York: Charles Scribner's, 1932. Vol. 8, 540). As the earliest record of events in the area that became Indiana, the section narrating Robert Cavalier de La Salle's travels along the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers in December 1679 should particularly appeal to our sense of Hoosier heritage. The richness of Hennepin's account makes it a good example to illustrate the cultural and geographical diversity of Colonial writings. Moreover, it is representative of characteristic motifs and themes in seventeenth-century travelogues and promotional tracts.

The historical context involves several important New World ideas. When the 33 men in eight canoes paddled 65 miles up the St. Joseph from Lake Michigan, portaged five miles at South Bend, and floated down the Kankakee into Illinois, La Salle was searching for the Mississippi River. Like Cartier, Frobisher, Hudson, Champlain, and many other explorers, La Salle hoped to find the mythic Northwest Passage to the Golden East or a route to the Spanish silver mines in the Southwest.

After returning to France, Hennepin wrote the immediately and immensely successful "Description." Three French editions were published within five years, along with translations into Italian (1686), Dutch (1688), and German (1689 and 1692). John Gilmary Shea's 1880 translation (reprinted 1966, University Microfilms, March of America Facsimile Series, No. 30) was the first into English, a very literal translation preserving Hennepin's turgid, interminable style. A modern translation by Marion Cross (University of Minnesota Press, 1938) revises Hennepin's prose and divides the text into paragraphs and chapters, producing a more readable but less quaint and spirited version than Shea's classic. In the Foreword to Cross's translation, Edward Gale, President of the Minnesota Historical Society, summarizes Hennepin's situation and reception:

 

All Europe was at that period keenly interested in the new continent across the sea. Imaginations were kindled by the stories of its great forests, wide plains, enormous rivers, and strange inhabitants, and by the possibilities of a freer life in this new world unfettered by the rigid artificialities fastened by the past upon life in the old world. It was in this atmosphere that Hennepin's book was read and translated and reread all over Europe in the years following its publication. The importance of the book in this respect and its influence in widening the horizons of its readers and in shaping their ideas of America can hardly be overestimated. (v-vi)

Expressing the European's typical wonder at the grandeur of America, Hennepin describes the Edenic landscapes and catalogs the natural riches to be exploited, promising prosperity and independence. Like many New World accounts, his narrative is a promotional tract, in this case propagandizing French imperialism in North America and justifying a new expedition by La Salle. Hennepin appraises the fauna, flora, and mineral wealth in terms of Old World use. He describes vast herds of buffalo and deer, furbearers, flocks of wildfowl, boundless prairies, timber enough to build all the ships of France, and groves of unforbidden fruit trees. Through his Old World eyes, he sees paradise:

 

The soil is capable of producing all kinds of fruits, herbs and grain, and in greater abundance than the best lands in Europe. The air there is very temperate and healthy, the country is watered by countless lakes, rivers and streams, most of which are navigable. One is scarcely troubled at all by musquitoes or other noxious creatures, and by cultivating the ground, people could subsist there from the second year, independent of provisions from Europe. (150-51)

In addition to the fertility and freedom, the bold explorer might find wealth:

 

"There are mines of coal, slate, iron, and the lumps of pure red copper which are found in various places, indicate that there are mines or perhaps other metals and minerals" (151).

During a time of Spanish treasure galleons, such tantalizing reports appealed to the hopes of investors, colonists, and adventurers. The dream of a land of golden opportunities had found a location and a name in America.

Nonetheless, with a New World traveller's usual ambivalence, Hennepin recalls the hardships of wilderness exploration, which create the central conflict within the narrative. The winter scene at the portage was foreboding, and the men were constantly reminded of their dangers by momento mori: "the bones, the horns and skulls [of buffalo] that we saw on all sides" (143). The duality of nature soon becomes threatening:

 

Our provisions ran out and we could find no game after passing these marshes, as we hoped to do, because there are only great open plains, where nothing grows except tall grass, which is dry at this season, and which the Miamis had burned while hunting buffalo, and with all the address we employed to kill some deer, our hunters took nothing. (142)

As in many New World accounts, privation and affliction bring spiritual regeneration and confirmation of Old World religious faith: "We subsisted only by a pure Providence of God, who gives strength at one time that he does not at another, and by the greatest happiness in the world, when we had nothing anymore to eat, we found an enormous buffalo mired on the bank" (152).

In contrast to the travellers' plight amid plenty, the natives harvest the herds of these "wild cattle." Hennepin interpolates several pages describing the buffalo and explaining how the Miamis hunt them ecologically and use all the products efficiently. Throughout, the attitude toward the Indians is fearful respect and at times almost admiration. His amazement at the Indians' customs and abilities is perhaps greatest when he watches the communal distribution of the buffalo meat and hides "according to the wants of the families," at which time the women "take on their backs three hundred pounds weight, and also throw their children on top of their load which does not seem to burthen them more than a soldier's sword at his side" (144). In other words, just as men are naturally warriors, such work comes naturally to native women, though it is still remarkable.

In the background stands the most significant Indian, La Salle's Mohegan guide, White Beaver, prototype of similar companions, such as Natty Bumpo's friend Chingachgook, related to figures like Manteo (at Roanoke) and Squanto (at Plymouth). His importance shows when he is away. Without him the explorers miss the portage, become separated for a night, and reach a crisis. Their rescue is routine: "Our Indian had remained behind us to hunt, and not finding us at the portage, he went higher up, and came to tell us that we would have to descend the river. All our canoes were sent with him" (139).

The most interesting feature of the Indiana section of Hennepin's narrative is the portrayal of La Salle as a daring, self-reliant frontiersman at home alone in the forest, an archetypal figure who developed into a classic American hero, as embodied in Cooper's Leatherstocking, a forefather of young men like Ike McCaslin in Faulkner's "The Bear." La Salle's heroic nature is demonstrated in the most dramatic episode, when he becomes lost in the woods that snowy night at the south bend of the St. Joseph. La Salle's own story of the experience, as retold by Hennepin, has almost mythic qualities. Forced to circle wide marshes and faced with rapidly falling snow, he reached the river around 2:00 a.m. and continued upriver for three hours. Then a suspenseful encounter occurred:

 

He saw fire on a mound, which he ascended brusquely, and after calling two or three times, but instead of finding us asleep as he expected, he saw only a little fire among some brush, and under an oak tree, the spot where a man had been lying down on dry herbs, and who had apparently gone off at the noise which he had heard. It was some Indian who had gone there in ambush to surprise and kill some of his enemies along the river. He called him in two or three languages, and at last to show him that he did not fear him, he cried that he was going to sleep in his place. He renewed the fire and after warming himself well, he took steps to guarantee himself against surprise, by cutting down around him a quantity of bushes, which falling across among those that remained standing, blocked the way, so that no one could approach him without making considerable noise, and awakening him. He then extinguished his fire and slept although it snowed all night. (138-39)

This anecdote is evocative. It is a paradigm of European-New World history. It is the archetypal initiation story. It is an American tall tale.

Behind it all is the real hero of the story, Hennepin, the first-person narrator, who is not only an observer but also a major actor. He leads the search for La Salle: "I begged two of our most alert men to penetrate into the woods, and fire off their guns so as to give him notice of the spot.... The next day I took two of our men on a lightened canoe, to make greater expedition" (136-37). That night, Hennepin saves La Salle again: "I remained with the Sieur de la Salle, who was very much fatigued, and as our cabin was composed only of flag mats, it took fire at night and would have burnt us, had I not promptly thrown off the mat which served as a door to our little quarters, and which was all in flames" (139-40). This proud voice is perhaps what is most distinctive about this narrative, but it is also what critics most question.

Although an influential celebrity in his time, Hennepin was criticized for vainglory, plagiarism, and self-aggrandizement. La Salle in a letter of August, 1682, warns that Hennepin "will not fail to exaggerate everything; it is his character" (Shea 32). In "Histoire de la Nouvelle France," Charlevoix says, "Father Hennepin thought he might take a traveler's license, hence he is much decried in Canada, those who had accompanied him having often protested that he was anything but veritable in his histories" (Shea 34). Jean Delanglez in "Hennepin's Description of Louisiana: A Critical Essay" (Institute of Jesuit History, 1941) examines the opinions of such scholars as Shea, Pierre Margry, and Marc De Villiers and concludes that the first two- thirds of this narrative, including the Indiana section, were pilfered from Claude Bernou's "Relation des Decouvertes et des Voyages du Sieur de la Salle," which was derived from La Salle's letters and journals. The "Dictionary of American Biography" sums up the critical consensus:

 

Hennepin was a charming writer of travels, observing minutely and describing graphically all he saw, but his works are marred by his garrulity, his inordinate vanity, his inability to tell the truth, and his habit of appropriating without credit what other had written. (540)

Instead of dismissing Hennepin as a braggart and liar, we should consider his imaginative and compelling story as early American literature and include it in appropriate courses. I used the Indiana section in an upper-division survey of the Literature of Early America at Indiana State University. In response, Pfennig Scholar Jill Shoemaker, wrote, "'A Description of Louisiana' enriches the syllabus by adding a splash of local color." A graduate student, Christine Hogan, commented, "The detail in vignettes of La Salle and the Indians as well as in descriptions of the area make this a most interesting addition to our study of this early period in American literature."

Other writings related to early Indiana also have literary merit. For example, Francis Morgan de Vincennes, the French commandant who was burned at the stake by the Chickasaw in 1736, and George Rogers Clark, the Colonial general who defeated the British here during the American Revolution, have fascinating stories. But Hennepin's is the first and best of Indiana's earliest literature.

Reprint permission granted by author.



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