Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Henry de Tonty
Nature Bulletin No. 294-A   February 17, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

HENRY DE TONTY
Among the greatest of the dauntless men who made possible the exploration J and settlement of the Mississippi Basin, there is one forgotten man. He was a simple sturdy soldier, blunt and laconic in his speech or his reports, over-shadowed by his brilliant chief -- La Salle -- whose trusted lieutenant, loyal friend and devoted companion he was. The Forest Preserve District proposes to create a lake and name it for Henry de Tonty, Sieur and Chevalier, Governor of Fort St. Louis in the Province of the Illinois -- The Man with the Iron Hand.

Lorenzo Tonty, his father, was a banker in Naples, Italy. After a bloody revolt in 1647, he escaped to Paris where Cardinal Mazarin, also an Italian, had succeeded Cardinal Richelieu as prime minister for Louis XIV. It was Lorenzo Tonty who suggested to Mazarin a system of life insurance which would replenish the royal treasury, and the name "tontine" for such a policy is in your dictionary. Henry, or Henri Tonti, was born in 1650. In 1668 he became a cadet in the French army and served through seven campaigns, rising to the rank of captain, commanding marines on warships. During a battle at Libisso, Sicily, his right hand was blown off by a grenade. In place of it he wore that iron hook so feared by the Indians as "big medicine". In 1678 he was engaged as LaSalle's lieutenant and they sailed for Quebec .

LaSalle, after talking with Joliet who had explored part of the Mississippi with Father Marquette, determined to find out if it was the long-sought route to China and India. In 1679, they started out in canoes, accompanied by three Recollects (Franciscans) -- Fathers Ribourdi, Membre and Hennepin -- who as LaSalle extended dominions of the king of France, would "bring the inhabitants to a knowledge of the Christian religion". From the east shore of Lake Michigan they went up the St. Joseph River, over into the Kankakee and, in 1680, arrived at Peoria where they built Fort Crevecoeur. Father Hennepin was sent to explore the upper Mississippi. LaSalle went back to Montreal by way of the Chicago Portage, and Tonty, after surveying the site for Fort St. Louis on Starved Rock, planned to meet him at Mackinac.

After Tonty left, Fort Crevecoeur was destroyed, Father Rihourdi was killed by a band of Kickapoos, Tonty narrowly escaped death from an Iroquois war party and, on his trip up the west side of Lake Michigan in midwinter, suffered incredible hardships. They ate decayed pumpkins in an abandoned Potawatomi village, the thongs which fastened the lodge poles, the skins and hoofs of a deer killed by wolves, and a buffalo-hide shield "which gave them bellyaches".

In 1682, LaSalle and Tonty reached the mouth of the Mississippi. LaSalle then returned to France to organize the expedition which finally landed at Matagorda Bay, Texas. After his ship was wrecked and most of the party had died or been killed, he was assassinated by his own men on a desperate overland trip to reach Tonty, Meanwhile, Tonty had built Fort St. Louis, rebuilt Fort Crevecoeur, and defeated the terrible Iroquois with a confederation of the Illinois and several other tribes. In 1686 and 1689, with Father Membre, he made fruitless trips down the Mississippi to find his boss. In 1700 he was replaced as governor of Fort St. Louis where he had maintained the supremacy of the French for 20 years and grimly endured neglect and injustice from his king. He was ordered to Biloxi, where de'Iberville had established a settlement. In 1704, at a new colony on the Mobile River, he nursed the sick and buried the dead until he, too, died of yellow fever.

There was a man.


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