skip to main content

World Explorers: Robert de La Salle

5 minutes

(female narrator) René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was an ambitious explorer who pioneered French expansion in the New World. His explorations into the heart of North America turned New France from a couple colonies in Canada into an empire.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Robert de la Salle.

(Describer) A map zooms in on western Europe as a timeline pointer moves to 1643.

La Salle was born to a wealthy family in France in 1643 and educated as a priest. But adventure and riches lured him away from the quiet life of priesthood. He revoked his vows, and in 1667, sailed to New France to seek his fortune. Within two years, La Salle established himself as a fur trader in Montréal. He befriended the governor of New France, Louis de Buade de Frontenac. In 1673, de Frontenac commissioned La Salle to build a fort on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario.

(Describer) It's shown on an old map.

Naming it Fort Frontenac, La Salle armed it with French soldiers who only allowed French traders to access the lucrative fur trade around the Great Lakes. The French king, Louis XIV, pleased with France's military hold on the fur-trade territory, rewarded La Salle with the exclusive right to explore the Mississippi River in its entirety. To facilitate his Mississippi exploration, in early 1679, La Salle established Fort Niagara on the western side of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River. On the other side of Niagara Falls, he constructed the Griffon, the first sailing vessel to travel the interior of North America. La Salle sailed the Griffon across three Great Lakes-- Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan-- to reach Green Bay in modern-day Wisconsin, where he began his remaining journey by canoe. The great Griffon headed back east, but sank in Lake Michigan. No one onboard was ever heard from again.

(Describer) In a painting, large canoes reach a shore.

La Salle canoed westward, through Illinois, to reach the Mississippi River. Along the way, he established two more frontier forts-- For Miami and Fort Crevecoeur. In January, 1682, he at last reached the mighty Mississippi and began his perilous journey south. Three months and twelve hundred miles later, he reached his ultimate goal-- the mouth of the Mississippi River. La Salle took possession of the territory, naming it Louisiana, in honor of the French king, Louis XIV. With the addition of the Louisiana Territory, New France extended from the Saint Lawrence River in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle sailed to France to promote settlement in the new territory. King Louis gave him four ships and more than 300 settlers to colonize the Mississippi Delta. On July 24, 1684, La Salle's expedition departed France. But the journey was a disaster. Passengers fell ill, pirates in the West Indies captured one of the ships, and the remaining ships sailed right past the destination because La Salle didn't recognize the mouth of the Mississippi River. Instead, the fleet reached the coast of Texas. Yet, La Salle persevered and founded a colony there named Fort St. Louis. Sickness and desertion took their toll and by 1687, only 36 settlers survived. Despite growing opposition, La Salle insisted on exploring eastward, in hopes of finding the Mississippi. But on March 19, 1687, La Salle's men, frustrated and alienated, mutinied and shot him dead. La Salle's campaign of exploration and fort-building gained an empire for France. His forts kept the English settlements confined to the East Coast and his claim of the Louisiana Territory doubled France's lands in North America. For nearly a century, France controlled a third of the continent, making it the richest and most powerful European kingdom.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: Robert de la Salle. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Transcript Options


Now Playing As: Captioned (English) (change)

Report a Problem

An ambitious explorer, Robert de La Salle pioneered French exploration in the New World. Through his efforts, La Salle transformed the few colonies of New France into stronger colonial powers. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

World Explorers
Episode 1
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 2
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 3
6 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 4
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 5
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 6
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 7
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 8
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 9
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 10
6 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8