Monday, April 23, 2018

La Salle's Letters

At the time of his death at the surprisingly youthful age of 43, La Salle’s debts, at minimum, amounted to 106,831 livres, a figure which does not include everything  he lost.  His whole family, upon who he often relied upon for financial support lost between 300,000 and 500,000 which included his expeditions of 1678, 1683 and the fatal one to what would later be called Texas in 1684. These last figures are from a memorial sent to the King by those family members so are certainly an exaggeration. La Salle never made much money, not even from the grants of land and commercial privileges the received from the king, which he often mortgaged to raise funds. 

La Salle’s creditors complained. He responded. Many of these responses were preserved and collected over time. In my judgment they are the most reliable direct evidence we have about the man and they don’t seem overburdened with conventional literary devices.

In the autumn of 1680 La Salle wrote to an associate who had demanded long deferred profits:

“I have had many misfortunes in the last two years. In the autumn of 78 I lost a vessel by the fault of the pilot; in the next summer, the deserters I told you about robbed me of eight or ten thousand livre’s worth of goods [ La Salle kept no books]. In the autumn of 79, I lost a vessel worth more than ten thousand crowns; in the next spring five or six rascals stole the value of four or five thousand livres, were killed or drowned in the St. Lawrence, and the furs were lost. Another robbed me of three thousand livres in beaver skins stored at Michillimackinac. This last summer, I lost seventeen hundred livres worth of goods by the upsetting of a canoe. Last winter, the fort and buildings at Niagara were burned by the fault of the commander; and, in the spring, the deserters, who passed that way, seized a part of the property that remained, and escaped to New York. All this does not discourage me in the least, and will only defer for a year or two the returns of profit which you ask for this year. These losses are no more my fault that the loss of the ship “”St Joseph” was yours. I cannot be everywhere, and cannot help making use of the people in the country.”

He begs his correspondent to send out an agent of his own. “He need not be very savant, but he must be faithful, patient in labor, and fond neither of gambling, women, nor good cheer; for he will find none of these with me here. Trusting in what he will write you, you may close your ears to what priests and Jesuits tell you.”

“ After having put matters in good trim for trade, I mean to withdraw, though I think it will be very profitable; for I am disgusted to find that I must always be making excuses, which is a part I cannot play successfully. I am utterly tired of this business; for I see that it is not enough to put property and life in constant peril, but that it requires more pains to answer envy and detraction than to overcome the difficulties inseparable from my undertaking.”

After the expedition which ended in the scene of horror at ruined town of the Illinois, attacked by a party of 500 Iroquois warriors, to another creditor pressing him for dividends, he wrote:

‘Though I have reason to thank you for what you have done for this enterprise, it seems to me that I have done still more, since I have put everything at stake; and it would be hard to reprove me either with foolish outlays or with the ostentation which is falsely imputed to me. Let my accusers explain what they mean. Since I have been in this country, I have had neither servants, nor clothes, nor fare which did not savor more of meanness than ostentation; and the moment I see that there is anything with which either you or the court can find fault, I assure you that I will give it up; for the life I am leading has no other attraction for me than that of honor; and the more danger and difficulty there is in undertakings of this sort, the more worthy of honor I think they are.”

Perhaps by honor La Salle means that he is not a liar or dissembler. As one admirer wrote of him: “He distinguishes perfectly between that which he knows with certainty and that which he knows with some mingling of doubt. When he does not know, he does not hesitate to avow it; and though I have heard him say the same thing more than five or six times, when persons were present who had not heard it before, he always said it in the same manner. In short, I never heard anybody speak whose words carried with them more marks of truth”. At least the truth as he was able to see it. And it seems that on several occasions in his applications for assistance from the King he did engaged in the usual flatteries and unrealistic assessments of what he could do- like ‘ challenging the Spaniard’s exclusive claims to the Gulf of Mexico’, finding the outlet of the Mississippi by sea when he did not know its longitude, invading New Mexico with an army of Illinois, Miami and remnants of New England tribes brought down river, while oblivious to the vast intervening territory of Texas. Not to say he couldn’t be delusional.

To the same correspondent he continued:

“Above all, if you want me to keep on, do not compel me to reply to all the questions and fancies of the priests and Jesuits. They have more leisure than I; and I am not subtle enough to anticipate all their empty stories. I could easily give you the information you ask; but I have a right to expect that you will not believe all you hear, nor  require me to prove to you that I am not a madman. That is the first point you should have attended , before having business with me; and, in our long acquaintance, either you must have found me out, or else I must have had long intervals of sanity.”

To another correspondent. He defends himself against the charge of harshness to his men:

“ The facility I am said to want is out of place with his sort of people, who are libertines, for the most part; and to indulge them means to tolerate blasphemy, drunkenness, lewdness, and a license incompatible with any kind of order. It will not be found that I have in any case whatever treated any man harshly, except for blasphemies and other such crimes, openly committed. These I cannot tolerate: first, because such compliance would give grounds for another accusation, much more just; secondly, because, if I allowed such disorders to become habitual, it would be hard to keep the men in subordination and obedience, as regards executing the work I am commissioned to do; thirdly, because the debaucheries, too common with this rabble, are  a source of endless delays and frequent thieving, and, finally, because I am a Christian, and do not want to bear the burden of these crimes. . .

I do not know what you mean by having popular manners. There is nothing special in my food, clothing or lodging, which are all the same for me as my men. How can it be that I do not talk to them? I have no other company. M. de Tonty has often found fault with me, because I stopped too often to talk with them. You do not know the men one must employ here, when you exhort me to make merry with them. They are incapable of that; for they are never pleased, unless one gives free reign to their drunkenness and other vices. If that is what you call popular manners, neither honor nor inclination would let me stoop to gain their favor in a way so disreputable; and, besides, the consequence would be dangerous, and they would have the same contempt for me that they have for all who treat them in this fashion.”

[ of course La Salle always took plentiful supplies of wine and brandy on his expeditions. Perhaps he rationed them too severely or reserved them for the Natives?)

“As for what you say about my look and manner, I myself confess that you are not far from right. But naturam expellas: and, if I am wanting in expansiveness and show of feeling towards those with whom I associate, it is only through a timidity which is natural to me, and which has made me leave various employments, where, without it, I could have succeeded. But, as I judged myself ill-fitted for them on account of this defect, I have chosen a life more suited to my solitary dispositions; which, nevertheless, does not make me harsh to my people, though, joined to a life among savages, it makes me, perhaps, less polished and complaisant than the atmosphere of Paris requires. I well believe that there is self-love in this; and that, knowing how little accustomed to a more polite life, the fear of making mistakes makes me more reserved than I like to be. So I rarely expose myself to conversation with those in whose company I am afraid of making blunders, and can hardly help making them. Abbe Renaudot knows with what repugnance I had the honor to appear before Monseigneur de Conti (his main patron at Court); and sometimes it took me week to make up my mind to go to the audience, that is, when I had time to think about myself, and was not driven by pressing business. It is much the same with letters, which I never write except when pushed to it, and for the same reason. It is a defect of which I shall never rid myself as long as I live, often as it spites me against myself, and often as I quarrel with myself about it.”

Parkman remarks that this is a ‘strange confession for a man like La Salle.” And goes on quite a bit to explain it. It seems simple enough to me, he didn’t like and had much contempt for the fopperies of Paris, the Court and aristocratic manners.

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