LaSalle in Wentworth County

Part I: Arrival September 1669

During 1983 and 1984 we celebrated several notable events in the history of Wentworth County, from the arrival of U.E.Ls. and Ontario’s Bicentennial, to the 150th anniversary of Adam Fergusson’s home, Woodhill. September 1985 will mark the date when another event in the history of Wentworth County occurred, for 316 years ago, a twenty-five year old Frenchman, Robert Cavalier, Seigneur de la Salle led a flotilla of seven canoes into Macassa Lake or Burlington Bay and visited Wentworth County. This Heritage Paper looks at this man, the reasons for his trip and the possible route of his travels to Wentworth County.

Throughout the seventeenth century explorers and priests had been told stories of the riches that lay beyond Montréal, tales of Indian tribes who would embrace Christianity, stories of spectacular scenery, of great mineral wealth, and of a possible route to China. Such tales naturally inspired the imagination of the explorers who were bent on finding a shorter passage to the riches of the Indies, and it also stirred the zeal of the Jesuit Sulpician and Recollet priests who were eager to visit the Indian tribes, convert them to Christianity, and so gain great merit for themselves in Heaven. Among the young men filled with adventure and dreams was René-Robert Cavelier, Seigneur de la Salle, of Rouen, France, who believed earnestly that he could find a way across North America to find riches.

Eight years before his arrival in Canada, sometime between June and November 1667, La Salle had started theological training for the priesthood in the Society of Jesus in Paris. Brought up by rich parents of the upper bourgeoisie in Rouen, the young man found it hard to control his energy and independent spirit in the seminary. After eight years, La Salle felt that his “moral frailties”1 made him unsuited for priestly duties, and he had himself released from his vows. Within a short time, this adventurer arrived in Montréal where his elder brother, a senior priest, arranged a seigneury grant for him on Montréal Island. The relentless yearning for adventure was extremely strong and finally prompted La Salle to sell the major portion of this Montréal fief on January 9, 1669.

With the money realized from this transaction, La Salle and two Sulpician priests headed an expedition that set out from Montréal on July 6, 1669. The two priests were François Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhaut de Galinée. They accompanied La Salle under orders from their Superior of the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Montréal to convert the native Indians to Christianity. Besides the three Frenchmen, there were French and Indian paddlers, and a Dutchman who knew the Iroquois language, but very little French. From the start, the voyage proved difficult. Galinée, who had a “smattering of mathematics, and enough to put a map together after a fashion”2 also kept a journal. In it he recorded their progress and the events that occurred. On his return to Montréal, Galinées journal and map were copied, filed away and forgotten. In 1866 it was published in French, and in 1903 an English translation by James H. Coyne appeared in the Ontario Historical Society’s “Papers and Records”. Galinée’s account entitled “The Most Noteworthy Incidents in the Journey of Messieurs Dollier and Galinée 1669 – 1670” is an important textual source of this historical expedition and tells in some detail the visit to this area, without, unfortunately, identifying the actual route taken by La Salle’s party.

The expedition consisted of nine canoes, seven of which carried the three Frenchmen, the Dutch interpreter, paddlers and supplies. The two lead canoes were guided by Seneca Iroquois Indians. It was soon apparent that La Salle was ill-prepared, and his companions were not much better off. They were all more or less novices in the art of surviving in the woods, and they lacked an Iroquois-French interpreter. Galinée, by his own admission, was a mediocre cartographer, and La Salle himself was not competent as an astronomer or interpreter. The party was unable to communicate with the Iroquois except the Dutchman, who unfortunately had little mastery of French. “M. de La Salle”, wrote Galinée, “who said that he understood the Iroquois perfectly, and had learned all these things from them as a result of the perfect knowledge that he had of their language, did not know it at all, and was undertaking this voyage almost blindly, without knowing where he was going.”3

After many difficulties, the canoes entered Lake Ontario on August 2, 1669. The party followed the south shore of the lake for just over a week, stopping at a Seneca village (near present-day Rochester), where they eventually obtained the services of a guide who had knowledge of a village called Tinawatawa at the western head of Lake Ontario. La Salle hoped that from here he would find further guides to help him and his party reach Lake Erie, then the Ohio, and finally the Indies. The canoes continued along the south-west shore of Lake Ontario, past the Niagara River, which occasioned tales from the guide of its wonder. On September 18, the canoes crossed the sandy bar of the Beach Strip at the “old outlet” of Burlington Bay.

  1. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 1, 1000-1700, p. 172
    University of Toronto Press, Toronto. 1966.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

Originally published in Heritage Happenings, September 1985.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1985, 2021

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