Henri de Tonti

While in France La Salle met Henri de Tonti, an Italian who had just won distinction in the French army. His father had been engaged in an insurrection in Italy and had taken refuge in France where he became a great financier, having originated the Tontine system of life insurance. Henri de Tonti had lost a hand in one of the campaigns, but he was nevertheless a man of great energy, and destined to win for himself an honored name in the New World. La Salle returned to New France in 1678, bringing with him about thirty craftsmen and mariners, together with a large supply of military and naval stores. It can readily be seen that La Salle would be opposed by the merchants and politicians in the region of Quebec and Montreal. He had risen rapidly and was now ready to make one of the most pretentious efforts at discovery and exploration that had been undertaken in New France. Late in the fall of 1678, probably in December, he sent Captain La Motte and sixteen men to select a suitable site for the building of a vessel with which to navigate the upper lakes. Captain La Motte stopped at the rapids below Niagara Falls and seems to have been indifferent to his mission. La Salle and Tonti arrived the 8th of January, 1679. The next day La Salle went above the falls, probably at Tonawanda Creek, and selected a place to construct the vessel. Tonti was charged with building the vessel. It was launched in May, 1679, and was christened the Griffin (Griffon). It was of forty-five to fifty tons burden and carried a complement of five cannon, and is supposed to have cost about $10,000. An expedition of traders had been dispatched into the Illinois country for the purpose of traffic, in the fall of 1678. Tonti and a small party went up Lake Erie and were to await the coming of the Griffin at the head of the lake. The Griffin weighed anchor August 7, 1679, amid the booming of cannon and the chanting of the Te Deum. It arrived at what is now Detroit on the 10th, and there found Tonti and his party. The vessel reached Mackinaw on the 27th of August. Here La Salle found the men whom he had dispatched the year before to traffic with the Indians. He found they had been dissuaded from proceeding to the Illinois country by the report that La Salle was visionary and that his ship would never reach Mackinaw. Tonti was given the task of getting these men together, and while he was thus engaged, La Salle sailed in the Griffin for Green Bay. Green Bay had been for several years a meeting place between white traders and explorers, and the Indians. When La Salle reached the point, he found some of the traders whom he had sent ahead the year before. These traders had collected from the Pottawattamies large quantities of furs. For these furs La Salle exchanged a large stock of European goods with which the Griffin was loaded. It is said that he made a large sum of money in this transaction. The Griffin was loaded with these furs and made ready to return to the warehouses at Niagara.

La Salle went to France in the summer of 1683 and left Tonti in charge of his interests in the Illinois country. Tonti was active in the defense of his superior’s interests. In this duty he was forced to defend the Illinois country against the Iroquois, and to struggle against La Salle’s enemies in New France. He made expeditions of trade and exploration throughout all the western country, took part in a great campaign against the Iroquois, and was the life of a growing community around Fort St. Louis.

The death of La Salle occurred in the spring of 1687. Just one year previous to this Tonti had made a trip to the Gulf in search of La Salle, but failing to find him returned sorrowfully to Fort St. Louis. In September, 1688, Tonti heard definitely of the death of La Salle. In December of that year he organized an expedition to rescue the colonists whom La Salle had left on the coast of the Gulf. This expedition also proved a failure. For the next ten years Tonti remained in the region of the Lakes, but when Bienville began planting new settlements near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Tonti abandoned Fort St. Louis and joined the new settlements. He died near Mobile in 1704.

Illinois Genealogy

Source: A Standard History of Champaign County, Illinois, by J. R. Stewart, published by The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago And New York, 1918.

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