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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Man with the Iron Hand

When the explorer LaSalle set out to build a great arc of French trading posts stretching from Quebec to New Orleans, he chose as his chief lieutenant 28-year-old Henri de Tonty. Tonty was a tough young navy officer who, when a grenade mangled his right hand, calmly amputated the shredded remains with his left. He wore an iron prosthesis under a leather glove for the rest of his life, occasionally revealing his iron fist to impress observers.

In the summer of 1678, the two left France for the wilderness of interior North America. They built a shipyard that winter at Fort Frontenac, at the east end of Lake Ontario, where they christened The Griffon, the first ship to sail the Great Lakes. After a year of planning and assembling personnel and materials, the two men embarked late in 1679 with 33 artisans and craftsmen to place the keystone in the arc of forts among the Illinois Indians near modern Peoria.

The Illinois received them warmly, as they had greeted and hosted Fr. Jacques Marquette only four years before, but this was the last of their good fortune. In January 1680 LaSalle and Tonty learned that The Griffon had never arrived at its destination; it had, in fact, become the first Great Lakes shipwreck, and was never found. The bulk of their carpenters and shipwrights then deserted, making it impossible to carry on the plan of descending the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Needing support, LaSalle snowshoed from Illinois back to Fort Frontenac in Ontario that winter (map), leaving Tonty to hold the fort at Peoria.

As the winter wore on, the remaining workers grew restless and lost faith. Marooned in the wilderness and not knowing if their leader would ever return, they mutinied. One day while Tonty was at the Illinois village, they packed all the portable food and supplies, destroyed the ship they'd been building, burned down the fort, and before disappearing into the forest scribbled a parting message to their commander: "We are all savages."

As if things were not bad enough, in September 1680 a hostile Iroquois force descended on their enemies the Illinois and quickly drove them far off to the west. Tonty only saved himself and his handful of followers by walking alone directly into their onslaught of gunfire. Amazed at his courage, the Iroquois ceased shooting long enough to learn that he was French, and be reminded by him that they had signed a truce in Quebec. Tonty was wounded in the chest, however, before hostilities ceased and the warriors reluctantly withdrew.

The French commander found himself abandoned in the wilderness. His soldiers and craftsmen had deserted, his Illinois hosts had fled before the Iroquois invasion, their village and his trading post were destroyed, and winter was fast approaching. His only hope was to reach the nearest French settlement as quickly as possible. So the last five Frenchmen -- an elderly priest and a young one, two raw recruits, and one of LaSalle's servants -- set off with Tonty in a leaky bark canoe that October. They started for the French fort at Machillimackinac, at the head of Lake Michigan, stopping repeatedly to repair their fragile craft, eating roots and nuts that they could grub up along the way, and soon losing the elder priest to an Iroquois raid. After several days, the survivors reached Lake Michigan and started paddling north along the Wisconsin shore.

At the end of October, 1680, they had passed the Milwaukee River, but cold autumn winds were sending tall breakers across Lake Michigan. On November 1, their fragile canoe was crushed against the high bluffs somewhere between Milwaukee and Port Washington and the exhausted travelers were forced to climb the bluffs and take to their feet.

As they started north through the forest, the temperature dropped, the first snow fell, and the ground froze so they could no longer dig roots to eat. The ice in the frozen marshes and streams cut their naked legs and bare feet, and when they crossed the prairies there was not even enough wood for a fire. For 11 days they pressed northward through Wisconsin, freezing and starving, past Sheboygan and Manitowoc and Two Rivers, toward a Potawatomi village located near modern Kewaunee.

When they reached it on Nov. 11, 1680, they found to their dismay that the village was entirely abandoned. The Indians had left for the season, breaking up into small family groups and dispersing for their winter hunt. The destitute Frenchmen took some solace in having shelter, firewood, and a little leftover food, which after a few days increased their strength somewhat. They also came across a trustworthy canoe, and scrounged enough corn and gourds from the abandoned fields to set out again.

But winter came on with a vengeance as they crossed the Door Peninsula. Stranded for a week by heavy winds and cold weather, they consumed the very last of their food and prepared to die. "None of us could stand, for weakness," wrote the priest who chronicled the journey; "we were all like skeletons." As they huddled about a tiny fire somewhere between Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay, sick from hunger and from eating the boiled remains of their leather clothing, Tonty tried to rally their hopes one last time. And at that moment, two Ottawa warriors walked out of the forest and into their camp.

The pair were hunters, equipped with food and supplies that they happily shared with the starving Frenchmen. After feeding and dressing them, the Ottawa hunters escorted them to a nearby Potawatomi winter camp. Its chief, Onanghisse, had heard of LaSalle, knew he was a great warrior, and was eager to help his men. The Potawatomi women healed Tonty's chest wound, treated all the men's frostbitten limbs, and fed them from their own scanty winter stores. After a few days, Potawatomi hunters escorted the priest to the Jesuit mission at DePere. Tonty and the three others wintered in Wisconsin, and journeyed across to the settlement at Fort Michilimackinac in the spring of 1681.

[Source: Kellogg, Louise P. "A Wisconsin Anabasis."Wisconsin Magazine of History 7: 322-339. This is just one of the hundreds of stories we will publish on the Web later this year, when the entire archive of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, 1917-2005, goes online for free public access.]

:: Posted in Odd Lives on November 5, 2006

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