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?

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