Sunday, June 14, 2009

Revise LaSalle's Route? An Exercise in Topology

Since I did my research on the route of LaSalle's 1680 walk across the Lower Peninsula in the 90's many additional tools have become available to me. Some are technical like my kids' hand-me-down computers which have given me access to the magic of Internet mapping sites.

Others are newly published like the Natural Features Inventory pre-settlement vegetation maps for all Michigan counties.

Still others existed before but I had only limited access to them. I'm thinking of Hinsdale's 1931 "Archaeological Atlas of Michigan", for example. When I was doing my research in the Library of Michigan I could access that large atlas a couple hours at a time at most, and then only on those occasions that I was able to neglect other duties to spend time in the library. Now, thanks to the generosity of Karl Williams, I have my own photographic copy of Hinsdale for the counties I am working on.

Also thanks to Karl and Geneva Wiskemann I have color copies of the pre-settlement vegetation maps of those counties. And thanks to Jean King for her penetrating questions that send me back to the drawing board to justify some of my conclusions. Karl has also pushed my button by sending photographic copies maps showing old Michigan pioneer trails for me to study. These "old timers" (I can call them that, being older than they) are keeping me on my toes.

Enough of the cliches and thanks. Now to what I have set out to do, review and if necessary revise my conclusions from the 90's as to the route of LaSalle's cross-peninsula walk.

I remain satisfied as to the route I think that LaSalle and his men took in 1680 from his fort at today's city of St. Joseph on Lake Michigan nearly to the upper end of the Portage River in the northeast corner of Jackson County.

As I said in my May 25 message "LaSalle Relay-The "Corridor", if I could redo the map with the 1999 Michigan History article and the enlargement that hangs in the Michigan Historical Museum I would move the red line showing his route to take him north of the upper end of the Portage River (see my blog

I am no longer happy with the route I showed the party using when walking to the Detroit River after they gave up trying to go down the Huron and abandoned thier elm-bark canoe. Here is my new take:

I still think they left the Huron at French Landing where the river takes its big bend to the south. I think they then followed an Indian trail that Hinsdale shows and calls the "Potawatomi Trail". This trail generally follows the trend of the Huron between its left bank and a couple of tributaries named Silver Creek and Smith Creek. It does not follow all of the Huron's meanders.

Hinsdale shows another Indian trail paralleling the Lake Erie shore and the right bank of the Detroit River. That trail is now traced by a highway called River Road on some maps and West Jefferson Avenue on others. It was the main Indian trail between the mouth of the Maumee River (Toledo) and present-day Detroit.

Between that trail and Lake Erie the pre-settlement vegetation map shows nothing but marsh to the south and for a long ways to the north. Hinsdale's Potawatomi Trail dead ends at that unnamed trail. I think LaSalle and his men would have turned left and followed the shore trail to the northeast for two reasons. First it would have been obvious from that location that to the south the marsh around the mouth of the Huron was very extensive. Second, they wanted to end up at the bank of the Detroit River, not the shore of Lake Erie.

Following the shore trail in a northerly direction they would have had marsh to their right between them and the river until they arrived at the peninsula now occupied by Gibralter. The pre-settlement vegetation map shows woods right up to the river bank there. They needed live and dead elm trees and materials to make a raft. LaSalle 's plan called for leaving two men to make an elm-bark canoe and go to Michilimackinac, while the remaining four would build a raft and cross the Detroit River to present-day Ontario.

I believe the raft would have been made from riverside downed trees and large branches lashed together with vines. Starting the river crossing at the Gibralter peninsula would have them launching in the shelter of the peninsula and Celeron Island and would give them room to diagonal towards the Ontario shore and land before they could be swept into Lake Erie by the river's current.

I think you who are interested can follow all this on your maps, but we really need to make one for the blog. I'll consult with my daughter the Blogmaster on that.

Friday, June 5, 2009

LaSalle Chronology

To place LaSalle into his Michigan historical context, here is a chronology of events in and around Michigan involving him. Remember, during his time what would become Michigan and the other Great Lake states was a complete wilderness, sparsely peopled by Indian tribes and frequently visited by war parties, by far the most dangerous being the Iroquois.


In his book LaSalle: The Life aand Times of an Explorer, author John Upton Terrel describes LaSalle's first sight of Michigan:

"On August 10 the Griffon stood into the Strait of Detroit. All marveled at the beauty and richness of the country which reached away on each side of the passage. Groves of black walnut and wild plum trees and oaks festooned with grape vines stood like islands in the fine prairies." (Cadillac did not land at Detroit until 1701).


After surviving a storm on Lake Huron the Griffon arrives at the Straits. The eminent historian Francis Parkman in his 1879 book, LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West, describes the arrival of the Griffon:

"...and now her port was won, and she found her rest behind the point of St. Ignace of the Michilimackinac, floating in that tranquil cove where crystal waters cover but cannot hide the pebbly depths".


LaSalle in the Griffon sailed on to Green Bay where the ship was loaded with furs and sent off to Niagara. Then LaSalle headed south. According to Parkman:

"He pushed on...circling around the southern shore of Lake Michigan, till he reached the mouth of the St. Joseph, called by him the Miamis...It was the first of November. Winter was at hand, and the streams would soon be frozen."

Here he waited for his second in command, Tonty, who was coming down the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Parkman goes on:

"The men clamored to go forward, urging that they should starve if they could not reach the villages of the Illinois before the tribe scattered for the winter hunt. LaSalle was inexorable...The men grumbled but obeyed; and to divert their thoughts, he set them to building a fort of timber on a rising ground at the mouth of the river...They had spent twenty days at the task, and their work was well advanced, when at length Tonty appeared."


Parkman describes the ascension of the St. Joseph River and the portage to the headwaters of the Kankakee River as follows:

"On the third of December, the party re-embarked, thirty-three in all, in eight canoes, and ascended the chill current of the St. Joseph, bordered with dreary meadows and bare grey forests. When they approached the site of the present day village of South Bend, they looked anxiously along the shore to their right, to find the portage or path leading to the headwaters of the Illinois. The Mohegan was absent, hunting; and, unaided by his practiced eye, they passed the path without seeing it."

LaSalle went looking for the portage path, got lost and had to spend the snowy night in the woods alone. It wasn't until four the next afternoon that he found his way back by following the river. Parkman goes on:

"The Mohegan had rejoined the party before LaSalle's return and with his aid the portage was soon found."

The expedition then crossed the portage and launched their canoes in the marshes which were the headwaters of the Kankakee River, then went down the Kankakee to the des Plaines River. The joining of these two rivers forms the Illinois River which they followed south to about present-day Peoria where they built another fort. They spent the rest of the winter working on a ship to be used to explore the Mississippi.

LaSalle decided to return to Fort Miami so with a party of four Frenchmen and the Mohegan they headed back north on the Illinois.

From my "The Search for the Route of LaSalle's 1680 Walk Across Michigan":

"Their journey began on March 1, 1680. Attempts to canoe up the Illinois were mostly frustrated by ice. Sometimes they had to haul the canoes across the snow like sleds. Finally they hid the canoes on an island somewhere near present-day Joliet, Illinois, and slogged cross-country through drowned prairie until they reached Lake Michigan. They then walked the beach along the Lake Michigan shore, arriving at Fort Miami on March 24."


I have already covered that trip from the St. Joseph River to the Detroit River to Niagara in detail.


Returning from Niagara to the Illinois country in the fall of 1680; LaSalle, with 12 men in three canoes, traveled from Michilimackinac down the east shore of Lake Michigan. On their way to the St. Joseph River they passed the mouths of the Betsie, Manistee, Pere Marquette, White, Muskegon, Grand, Kalamazoo, and Black Rivers.

On this trip they would have passed the temporary grave of Father Marquette, who died on this shore five years previously, probably at the mouth of the river which bears his name.

Their route to the Illinois country was again up the St. Joseph to the portage to the Kankakee headwaters at South Bend.


On his return trip up the Illinois River LaSalle and his men found the Kankakee frozen so they slogged cross country to Lake Michigan and up the shore to Fort Miami where they spent the rest of the winter.


LaSalle, his aid LaForest, and 15 men left Fort Miami to go rendezvous with several Indian tribes, hoping to forge an alliance against the Iroquois. Since the rivers were still frozen and snow covered, they walked on snowshoes from the mouth of the St. Joseph River into present-day Indiana, pulling their canoes on runners like sleds.

My Note: How about a " LaSalle Snowshoe Challenge" next winter? On the beach on snow from St. Joe to Michigan City.........(Kruger Sea Winds wouldn't need runners).


After meeting with his Indian allies in present-day Indiana, LaSalle returned to Fort Miami and then canoed up to Michilimackinac along the east shore of Lake Michigan, the reverse of his trip in the fall of 1680. From there he went all the way back to Montreal.


LaSalle led a large convoy of cargo canoes through Lake Ontario to the site of present-day Toronto. From there, instead of going on west in Lake Ontario, portaging around Niagara Falls and returning to the upper lakes via Lake Erie, he took two weeks to portage from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron, then proceeded to Michilimackinac.

My Note: This has always seemed to me to be the hard way to get from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron, especially with heavily-laden cargo canoes. Maybe he was avoiding Iroquois war parties. Verlen Kruger never made that portage. He was considering doing it during his Paddle-to-the-Sea trip that never panned out.

From Michilimackinac the convoy of canoes went down the east shore of Lake Michigan, arriving at the River of the Miamis (St. Joseph River) and Fort Miami during the first week of December, 1681.


On this trip of discovery, LaSalle did not go up the St. Joseph River and use the portage to the Kankakee, but rather canoed along the south shore of Lake Michigan in bitter December weather to the Chicago Portage to get to the des Plaines River and the Illinois River.

After exploring the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and having survived a serious illness on the return trip, he was back in Fort Miami by August of 1682. When he arrived, there were several hundred Indian lodges along the banks of the St. Joseph. In the early fall he went on to Michilimackinac, even though he had not yet fully regained his health. In late fall he returned to the Illinois country.


Taking only six men in three small canoes, LaSalle set out for Quebec. He went by way of Lake Michigan, the Straits, Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River to Lake Erie.


When the three canoes entered Lake Erie and turned eastward towards Niagara, Michigan faded from view to the west. The Michigan shore of Lake Erie at the mouth of the Detroit River is where LaSalle in the sailing ship Griffon first saw Michigan in 1679. It is also the place where he ended his cross-peninsula trek in 1680.


Author Russel McKee, in his 1966 book Great Lakes Country tells about the remainder of LaSalle's career and life after he left Michigan:

"...he soon set sail for France to gain the King's ear. This time Louis XIV paid heed when LaSalle spoke. The explorer captured the court with his New World tales, and captured the King's interest with information about the vast colonial empire awaiting French development. Louis supplied a small army of soldiers and settlers, telling LaSalle to move his colony into the Gulf of Mexico. With four ships, the company sailed in the fall of 1684. In the Gulf, LaSalle knew he was in danger both from the Spanish, who claimed the adjacent land, and from hostile Indians. Without meeting either, he established a colony in December 1685 near the present site of Galveston, Texas,after failing to find the Mississippi on the coastal journey west.

The settlement was a disaster. LaSalle landed with 180 soldiers and settlers, and in a little more than a year, the total had dwindled to 40. Those who remained were mutinous. Heat, barren land, poisonous snakes, and the failure of expected supplies, all cut into the colony. Realizing his only hope was in French Canada, LaSalle decided to push east to find the Mississippi. He would go up that river, he decided, to obtain help for the colony. With a small force he headed east."

He never made it. Somewhere in South Texas in March of 1687, he was murdered by one of his own men. He was 43 years old.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

LaSalle's Walk on the Wild Side IX

Finishing my 1999 "Michigan History" article:

The construction of the canoe required cutting down a large elm tree---a formidable task with the hatchets the party were carrying. It was also challenging to strip the bark from the tree in one piece without breaking it or cracking it to the point where it would be unusable. The tree would have been either a slippery elm or an American elm. LaSalle, who called the tree by its Iroquois name of arondugalte recorded, "The bark of which can be stripped off at all times though with more difficulty at this season, when it must be continually moistened with boiling water".

To make a canoe from a large cylinder of elm bark, the ends are squeezed together and sewn with strips of bark or roots; gunwhales of saplings, split or whole, are attached in the same manner. Then stick thwarts are inserted at intervals to spread the bark, and ribs of some flexible wood are inserted on the inside. Finally the insides of the ends are caulked with the bark of dead slippery elm, which swells when wet.

Why not build a birchbark canoe? The Huron lies below the southern limit of where the paper birch grew. Although a birchbark canoe is far superior in most respects to a canoe of elm or hickory bark, its construction takes a lot of time, skill and experience---which neither LaSalle nor his men possessed.

With the canoe completed and the sick men and all gear on board, the journey down the Huron began. All did not work out as hoped. As LaSalle described the trip, "For as the river was everywhere encumbered by heaps of wood, which the swollen waters carry down or cast into its bed, we got weary of carrying our baggage every moment when the masses of wood prevented the canoe from passing; moreover the river made wide bends, and we observed after five days of rowing we had made less progress than we normally made in one day's march." So they gave up on floating down to Lake Erie and, according to LaSalle, "...our sick men being better, we resumed our march and reached the strait by which Lake Huron falls into Lake Erie which is a league broad at this place".

The "strait" is the Detroit River and LaSalle and his men reached it downstream of Grosse Isle and upstream of the extensive swamps and marshes where the Huron empties into Lake Erie. Here the Detroit River is more than three miles wide, which is reasonably consistent with LaSalle's estimate.

A little arithmetic can provide a clue as to where the men abandoned their canoe and resumed walking. LaSalle equated five days on the Huron to one day's march, and one can assume a day's march to be about thirty miles. This about the distance from Dexter to the area near Belleville where the Huron makes a big bend to the south (French Landing). I think this is where the party gave up poling, paddling and portaging. They would have followed the left bank of the river on foot down to about present-day Rockwood. By heading straight east from there they would have avoided the drowned lands at the mouth of the Huron and reached the Detroit River south of Grosse Isle.

There two men were tasked to build a canoe and head north to Michilimackinac, while LaSalle and the remaining three rafted across the river. They continued cross country to the shore of Lake Erie, probably just beyond Pte. Pelee, where another canoe was built. Then the Frenchmen and Saget, the Indian, paddled along the shore to Niagara. They arrived there on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1680.

As Professor Prator concluded more than half a century ago, "We shall probably never be able to retrace the great Frenchman's steps with absolute accuracy". There is no archaeological evidence and only LaSalle's one letter documenting the trip. However, given the availability of modern topographic, presettlement vegetation and soil survey maps, we have far better technical resources at our disposal than did earlier writers. Further, if one conducts serious on-the-ground reconnaissance, visualizes things as they were three hundred years ago and carefully matches LaSalle's descriptions to the existing terrain, it is possible to retrace his steps with reasonable accuracy. Finally, we do know one other thing----LaSalle and his companions crossed the Lower Peninsula the hard way.

This is the end of my 1999 article. I will follow up with some remarks on his route pertinent to the Relay idea and a chronology of LaSalle and Michigan's history.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

LaSalle's Walk on the Wild Side VIII

Continuing from my 1999 article in "Michigan History"

While struggling across the wetlands, the French party experienced an early April cold snap that brought trouble. According to LaSalle, "At last there came an unusually cold night on the second of April, and next day we were obliged to thaw our clothes before a fire in order to be able to use them, for they had become stiff as sticks because we had taken them off all soaked."

The fire gave them away to the Mascouten war party that had been tracking them. LaSalle continued: "Our fire showed us to the Indians who had slept on the other end of the marsh, from which they ran with loud cries to about the middle, where there was a rather deep stream which they could not cross, because the ice that had formed during the night was not strong enough to bear them".

When LaSalle wrote that the Mascoutens were " the other end of the marsh", that meant the Indians were ahead of them and across a stream that LaSalle's party had yet to cross. The description of a "rather deep stream" sounds like something bigger than the creeks they had been crossing. The stream must have been flowing across their easterly path in order for it to be a barrier to the charging Mascoutens. In this area, the Grand River flows from south to north, is bordered on both sides by marshes or swamps and is quite deep, especially when it floods.

How did the Mascoutens, who had been tracking LaSalle for several days, end up ahead of him? There were two Indian trails that allowed the Indians to bypass LaSalle's party on either the north or south. The Mascouten's believed LaSalle's party was a band of Iroquois. What better spot to set an ambush than where the hunted ones would be struggling to cross a river in flood?

LaSalle described his party's reaction when the Mascoutens charged and were stopped by the ice and river."We went to within gunshot of them; and either they were frightened by our position of advantage and our firearms, or believed there were more of us than there were, or else recognizing that we were Frenchmen, they did not wish to attack us". The two groups then palavered across the intervening water, the Indians saying they were "brothers" to the Frenchmen. The Mascoutens departed and LaSalle's party continued on their journey.

On April 4 two of the Frenchmen became so ill that they could not walk farther. LaSalle does not describe the terrain traveled on April 3 and 4, but if the party continued in the same direction these two days there would have been more walking in marshes. Even today, there are extensive marshes between the Grand River and the highlands of northwest Washtenaw County, particularly the Portage Lake Swamp in the Waterloo State Recreation Area.

After April 4 LaSalle gave no more dates until he arrived at Niagara on April 22. When the party reached the Huron River they built an elm-bark canoe. It is unclear when he found the Huron River, how long it took to build the canoe or when it was launched on the river. Nor does LaSalle's narrative offer any clue on how the two sick men got from the place where they became incapacitated to the site where the canoe was constructed. According to LaSalle, "I went to look for some stream which might fall into Lake Erie, where we wished to go, to make a canoe, so as to relieve those who were worn out with toil". This sounds as if he went ahead and left his companions and found the Huron River.

LaSalle probably came to a well-used Indian trail adjacent to present-day Island Lake in Washtenaw County's Lyndon Township. At that juncture of time, place and circumstances he would have had no hesitancy in traveling on an Indian trail. It headed in the right direction and following it for eight or nine easy miles took him to the Huron River. Today this trail is Island Lake Road and it reaches Mill Creek near where the creek joins the Huron River at Dexter.

NEXT: Building the canoe

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

LaSalle's Walk on the Wild Side VII

Continuing from my 1999 article in "Michigan History":

The next piece of the puzzle of LaSalle's route is the location of the fens and marshes through which they struggled. In the early spring the trees and shrubs were leafless and there was flooding everywhere from melting snows. Since LaSalle's journey occurred before the southern Lower Peninsula was logged, drained and plowed, the water table was much higher than it is today.

A cursory reading of LaSalle's account or the reading of secondary sources leaves the impression that the party waded through one vast swamp (wetland with trees) or marsh (wetland with sedges and rushes). Actually, they faced a series if marshes and swamps interspersed with higher and drier uplands, ridges and knolls.

LaSalle encountered this series of wetlands after crossing the floodplain of the Battle Creek River, probably near Pennfield northeast of Battle Creek. Going east today across the northern tier of townships in Calhoun County there are several tributaries of the Battle Creek River that flow to the north or northwest. At Duck Lake the tributaries of Rice Creek flow south or southwest. Further eastward lies the divide between the Kalamazoo River drainage basin and that of the Grand River. Continuing eastward, there are two northward flowing tributaries of the Grand River and then the Grand its self. Lowlands that must have been flooded swamps or marshes in the spring of 1680 border all these streams.

U.S. Department of Agriculture soil maps aid in determining the extent and nature of some of these wetlands. These maps show in great detail the types of soil and provide data on the slopes of the land and susceptibility to flooding and ponding, plus water table relationships. The key soil type is muck. Where muck exists today, marshes existed earlier. The maps identify and locate other types of soil subject to frequent flooding or with such a high water table that the land is unsuitable for septic tanks and drain fields. Soils that are flood-prone or water saturated today were wet and flooded during the spring high water in the late seventeenth century.

Highlighting the mucks and the flood-prone soils creates a mosaic that represents a birds-eye view of the wetlands and the intervening dry land over which the LaSalle party traversed. The longest stretch of marsh that the men waded through was twelve miles of almost continuous lowland, located today in Calhoun County's Convis, Lee and Clarence Townships. Interstate 69 crosses the west end of this stretch about one and one half miles north of the N Drive North exit.

NEXT: Ambush

Monday, June 1, 2009

LaSalle's Walk on the Wild Side VI

Continuing from my 1999 article in "Michigan History"

LaSalle recorded that on the evening of the twenty-eighth (of March 1680) the party camped on the edge of a prairie where they had encountered the Pottawatomies. Certainly one day's march across easy, open terrain by LaSalle's veterans should have taken them far beyond Grand Prairie. The next prairie the men encountered as they moved east was Gull Prairie, a distance of about sixteen miles beyond the Paw Paw River valley. This would have been a relatively easy march for LaSalle's men except for having to cross the Kalamazoo River.

LaSalle makes no mention of crossing a river on March 28. In fact, he fails to record the crossing of any of the sixteen rivers and creeks he and his men would have encountered between the St. Joseph and the Huron Rivers. The only information in LaSalle's account about building a raft and crossing a river comes from the first day when the party left from Fort Miami and the last day at the Detroit River. Nevertheless, the building of a raft and the crossing of the Kalamazoo would have taken perhaps half a day. But March 28 was not an ordinary travel day. Not only had LaSalle's men come out of the Paw Paw River flood plain, but the open land was rich with game. The men were too busy shooting, butchering, fire building, cooking and eating to make much progress that day. This proves to me that when they camped on the edge of a prairie it was at Grand Prairie (west of today's Kalamazoo), certainly not Prairie Ronde about thirteen miles south, and probably not at Gull Prairie on the other side of the Kalamazoo River.

Clues about where they crossed the Kalamazoo River come from topographic maps and the reminiscences of early Kalamazoo settlers. There was a ford across the river in what is now the city of Kalamazoo, less than a mile north of where the river changes direction from west to north. Riverside Cemetery on the east side of the river is adjacent to the site of the ford and is due east of Grand Prairie.

Today's muck land on the west side of the river, which extends about three miles north, was, according to one Kalamazoo pioneer, an "...impassable marsh and tamarack swamp, covered with water the year round". Given their narrow escape from the Indians, LaSalle's party would likely have avoided the ford and the Indian trail leading to and from it, as well as the marsh and tamarack swamp. Following the high ground on the west side of the river and going downstream (north) brought them to a logical crossing point right where the Kalamazoo Nature Center is today. If LaSalle and his men crossed at this point and headed straight east, they would have been at Gull Prairie, around present-day Richland.

My Note: The rafts LaSalle and his men would have constructed to cross rivers would have to have been small and relatively easy to lash together from downed trees or large branches found at riverside. No need or time for a Huck Finn float-down-river kind. They probably used poles and shuttled across the river two or three men at a time. During my research I found illustrations of such rafts. They probably just waded across creeks. The raft to cross the Detroit River would have to have been large enough for four men and they would have to have paddled. That must have been a tricky crossing. Back to the article:

Two significant natural barriers---Gull Lake on the north and the flood plain of the Kalamazoo River to the south---would have forced the Frenchmen and their Indian companion to travel straight eastward from Gull Prairie. Travel should have been relatively easy. Although hilly, the route to the east all the way to the Battle Creek River would have led LaSalle through mainly oak savanna and oak forest. (remember, they were setting the grass on fire to cover their tracks).The distance covered on March 29 and 30 along this route measures about twenty-seven miles---a reasonable distance for these two days---given the time it would have taken to make a raft and cross the Kalamazoo River.

On March 30 they "...came to extensive fens which were flooded by thaw, and had to cross them in mud or water up to our waists, and our tracks going deep into the mire revealed us to a band of Mascoutens who wanted to kill some Iroquois." The misconception that caused the Pottawatomies to run off---the belief that LaSalle's band was an Iroquois war party---is the same one that caused the Mascoutens to stalk them. According to LaSalle, "They followed us across these marshes for the three days it took to traverse them; but we made no fire at night, contenting ourselves with taking off our clothes, which were wet, and wrapping ourselves in our blankets on some dry knoll, where we passed the night".

NEXT: Where were the fens and marshes?