Born in Rouen, France, on November 21, 1643, René-Robert Cavelier grew up at his family’s estate, La Salle, amid the fields and streams of Normandy. He earned a practical education in science and nature before studying formally with the Jesuits and taking the initial vows of that religious order in 1660 as a seventeen-year-old, following his older brother into the service of the Church. The following year Robert changed his mind, lured away by the temptations of the New World. His Jesuit mentors described him as “inquietus,” or restless, as they closed the book on the would-be priest. La Salle joined his brother in Canada in 1667.
Granted land on the western end of the Island of Montreal, La Salle traded and mingled with Mohawk Indians for several years. These natives told him of great rivers to the south and north, which, he hoped, would provide a passage through North America to the Pacific Ocean and China. In 1670, La Salle sold his property and outfitted an expedition to follow his hunch, traveling well down the Ohio River but stopping short of its junction with the Mississippi before heading back to Montreal.
In 1673, the thirty-year-old accompanied the governor of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac, to a gathering of the Iroquois at the mouth of the Cataraqui River near present-day Kingston, Ontario. Here, La Salle built Fort Frontenac as a center for what all hoped would be a lucrative fur trade, as well as a hedge against Dutch and English inroads in the region. Having faithfully served his governor and king, La Salle returned to France in 1674 where he earned a title to nobility as well as a potentially lucrative fur-trading concession in the region of Lake Ontario.
Now Sieur de La Salle, he returned to Canada in 1675 determined to expand his personal empire, spending the next few years exploring the region around Niagara Falls, and leading an expedition to explore the Great Lakes and their southern shores. Among other outposts, his men raised Fort Crevocoeur on the Illinois River (near present-day Peoria) in 1680 as an advance base.
Two years later he launched his most important effort, canoeing with his men down the length of the Mississippi River until reaching its mouth, making a formal claim to the lands he named La Louisiane for his patron, King Louis XIV, on April 9, 1682. On the trip back up the river, he left a garrison at a hastily built stockade dubbed Fort Prudhomme near present-day Memphis to make good the French claim on the region. The forty-year-old adventurer returned to France to report his successes to his sovereign and to plan his greatest expedition yet—a colonization effort headed for Mississippi Valley and a direct challenge to Spanish influence in North America.