René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was born in 1643, the son of a wealthy family in Rouen, France. At the age of twenty-three, he went to Canada and established an Indian trading post near Montreal. Indian tales aroused his interest in the unexplored lands to the west and he set out on his first journey in 1669.
During the next three years, he reached the falls of the Ohio River at Louisville, traveled around Lake Michigan, and explored the Illinois River country. The governor of Canada, the Comte de Frontenac, granted him land on the present site of Kingston, Ontario.
La Salle might have settled down and become a rich man, but in 1678 he returned to France to seek King Louis XIV's permission to explore further. He was granted permission, but only if the explorations entailed no cost to the king. La Salle established the first settlement of white men in what was to become Illinois near the site of present-day Peoria and built a fort on the Illinois River. In February 1682 a party of fifty-four persons, including twenty-three Frenchmen, eighteen Native American men, ten Native American women, and three children, set out in canoes down the Mississippi River, which La Salle called Colbert in honor of the French finance minister.
Within the boundaries of present-day Tennessee, the party stopped to hunt and almost lost one of its members, an armorer named Pierre Prudhomme. Thinking he might have been captured by the Chickasaws, La Salle had a stockade built on the second Chickasaw Bluff south of the Hatchie River. He called it Fort Prudhomme. After ten days, Prudhomme returned, safe but starving, and the party continued downriver. Fort Prudhomme became the first structure built by whites in what was to become West Tennessee.
Although La Salle's expedition only passed by the site of future Memphis on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff without stopping, they left a name for the maps. Supposedly an Indian told them the name of the river, and thereafter it appeared as the Rivie du Loup, or Wolf River. The party proceeded to an Indian village they called Mitchigameas at the site of Helena, Arkansas. There, on March 14, 1682, La Salle erected a cross and claimed all the country on the west bank of the Mississippi in the name of the king of France.
The expedition reached the passes at the mouth of the Mississippi on April 6, 1682. They celebrated mass and La Salle claimed the land in the name of Louis XIV of France. Thus France claimed the Mississippi Valley, and it remained French until 1762. Fort Prudhomme, the first structure built by the French in Tennessee, preceded its English rivals in the eastern part of the state by seventy-four years.
Returning to Canada, La Salle sailed for France to obtain supplies and settlers for the colonies he planned to establish along the Mississippi. In 1684 he sailed for the Gulf of Mexico with four ships and more than two hundred colonists. The ships were blown off course and landed at Matagorda Bay in Texas instead of the mouth of the Mississippi. The colonists attempted an overland march toward the Mississippi. Weakened by Indian attacks and illness, the men rebelled and killed La Salle in 1687.
William A. Klutts, “Fort Prudhomme: Its Location,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 4 (1950): 28-40; James Roper, The Founding of Memphis, 1818-1820 (1970)