Henri de Tonti: the ‘Father’ of Arkansas
Henri de Tonti
By Niccoló Graffio
“A true friend unbosoms freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.” – William Penn: Fruits of Solitude, 1693
In writing (or reading) the history of these United States one should be immediately cognizant of the marked differences involved in the founding of this country as opposed to those across the Big Pond. The Europeans who laid the foundations for what was to eventually become the United States of America originated in many cases from countries that were carved from the ruins of the old Roman Empire. In other cases the countries were created by peoples who were indirectly, but nevertheless strongly, influenced by contacts with the civilization of the Romans.
In either case, all these areas of Europe were heavily populated with sedentary peoples at the time the first European settlers decided to head for North America. What awaited them upon their arrival was a completely different world; a world which, for starters, was much less populated than the one from which they left. The peoples who lived there were a hodge-podge of various tongues and ethnicities who lived a much more primitive existence than the Europeans who would become their conquerors. Today many of those who subscribe to the doctrine of “political correctness” may chafe at the mention of that word, but in the context of the times it is undeniably correct.
The aboriginal inhabitants of the continent of North America (Mesoamerica notwithstanding) lived lifestyles that today would for the most part be called nomadic or semi-nomadic. They were hunter-gatherers, aquaculturalists and/or agriculturalists. Modern historical revisionists try to paint the aborigines (i.e. American Indians) as being much more culturally sophisticated than traditionally portrayed. Some have even gone so far as to claim they were culturally, if not technologically on par with, their European conquerors.
This author finds it strange then that such culturally and technologically sophisticated peoples would be so easily conquered by such (initially) small numbers of conquerors. The disease argument has problems with it as well. The epidemics (smallpox, measles, plague and influenza) that undeniably decimated the ranks of American Indians tribes seem to have had no problem killing off large numbers of European settlers as well. Resistance is not the same thing as immunity.
Finally, in spite of the utopian delusions of many today, the fact of the matter is the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America did not live an edenic lifestyle of peaceful coexistence with one another and being at one with nature. Archaeology strongly suggests the Pleistocene megafauna that once roamed this continent (Equus, short-faced bears, mammoths, giant sloths, giant beavers, etc.) were driven to extinction by the ancestors of today’s American Indians whose predations were the last nail in the coffins of populations of animals already stressed by the climatic changes associated with the end of the last ice age.
Likewise, internecine tribal warfare was carried out with great frequency even after the conquest of this continent was begun by European settlers (e.g. the annihilation of the peaceful Mandan of North Dakota by the warlike Lakota Sioux in the early 1800s).
Thus, attempts today to portray the colonization of this continent as an action by “evil” Europeans to conquer and destroy “peaceful” Indians is egregiously simplistic and hardly accurate.
The early days of exploring and settling the continent of North America by Europeans was fraught with great dangers. In addition to the hostility of many of the aborigines, who resented the intrusion into their territories, the explorers had to contend with legions of wild animals that roamed the virgin forests.
Those who took up the mantle of explorer were to be sure a motley crew. Some early explorers were people simply looking to achieve “fame and fortune”. Others were denizens of the lower rungs of society; riff raff who took off for North America in many cases to escape certain incarceration (or worse) by established legal authorities in Europe. Still others, members of the clergy, hoped to bring their respective religions to the masses of “the heathen” in the New World.
René-Robert de La Salle
René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (aka Robert de La Salle) was undoubtedly one who took to exploring for fame and fortune. Born into a prosperous but ignoble French family in 1643, La Salle originally was sent to train for membership into the Jesuit religious order. Though he completed his studies and was in fact accepted into the order, he later asked to be released; a request that was granted. Although historians often refer to him as a cleric, he never again “took the collar” and in fact developed hostility to the Jesuits whose ranks he once moved amongst.
One consequence of leaving the Jesuits was La Salle was now almost destitute. A prerequisite for joining the order was renouncing his father’s patrimony. Necessity therefore dictated his traveling to French North America as a colonist. He set sail for Canada in early 1666. His brother Jean, a Sulpician priest, had moved there earlier. La Salle received a seigneury, a type of semi-feudal land grant issued by the Crown of France to a landlord, on the western end of the island of Montreal. This land grant eventually became the town of Lachine.
A far-thinker, La Salle was not content with merely issuing land grants and building villages. He wished to move on to bigger and better things. From the local Mohawk Indians he learned of the existence of a large river they called Ohio, which flowed into the even mightier Mississippi. La Salle theorized this river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. Obsessed with finding a western passage to China (and the mercantile riches awaiting there), he obtained permission from both the colonial governor and royal intendant to embark on the venture, selling his interests in Lachine to finance the trip.
In 1669 La Salle’s expedition reached the Ohio River. From there he followed it south to what is now Louisville, Kentucky. A waterfall prevented him from travelling farther. Later he took part in an expedition to map the northern shore of Lake Erie. A later effort to establish a mission to the Potawatomi Indians in what is now western Michigan failed.
La Salle oversaw the construction of Fort Frontenac (now Kingston, Ontario) on Lake Ontario which was completed in 1673. The ‘fort’ was part of a fur trade venture. La Salle named it in honor of his patron, Louis de Bade de Frontenac, Governor General of New France. The following year La Salle returned to France to legitimize his claim and acquire aid from King Louis XIV. With the support of Frontenac, La Salle received a fur trade concession, permission to build frontier forts and also a title of nobility! While in Paris he would also meet the man who would become his most trusted associate and lifelong friend – Henri de Tonti.
Henri de Tonti was born Enrico Tonti in 1650 in Gaeta, Campania which at that time was part of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. His father, Lorenzo de Tonti, was a former governor of Gaeta and a Neapolitan banker. It was this Lorenzo de Tonti who first created a type of life insurance policy known as the tontine.
Some confusion exists as to whether the Tonti family, properly speaking, was Sicilian or Campanian. I have read it described as both. Perhaps the confusion arises from the fact the name “Kingdom of Naples” was given by historians who lived much later in time. Contemporaries referred to it as the Peninsular Kingdom of Sicily (to distinguish it from the Island Kingdom of Sicily). The partition of King Roger II’s original Kingdom of Sicily into two parts was done by treaty between the French and Spaniards, and not by any desire on the part of its inhabitants. Denizens of both polities were frequently referred to as simply “Sicilians” which is how we should be referring to ourselves today!!!
Anyway, shortly after Lorenzo’s wife Loretta (nee di Lietto) gave birth to their son Enrico, Lorenzo took part in an ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the Spanish viceroy in Naples. He took his family and fled to Paris, France, where they were awarded political asylum. Here the family Gallicized their name to de Tonti, and Enrico Tonti henceforth was known as Henri de Tonti. Shortly after resettling in France, Loretta gave birth to a second son, Alphonse, who would grow up to found the city of Detroit, Michigan.
Upon reaching the age of 18, young Henri de Tonti joined the French Army as a cadet, serving with distinction and rising through the ranks until by the age of 26 he reached the rank of captain. While fighting the Spaniards on the island of Sicily during the Sicilian Wars, young Henri had most of his right hand shot off with a grenade. In a feat of incredible tenacity and valor, he cut off the rest of the mangled flesh, dressed the wound and continued fighting the enemy! Later, a prosthetic metal hand was fashioned for him which he wore covered with a glove. His French compatriots came to referring to him as “the man with the iron hand.” One later French historian would add “…and a will of steel!”
Shortly after this, having completed his military enlistment, Henri de Tonti looked elsewhere for new adventures. He would find it in the person of Robert de La Salle, who had just arrived in Paris to seek an audience with King Louis XIV. Louis had granted La Salle permission to explore the Mississippi and build as many forts (complete with trading rights) as he saw fit, but all at his own expense!
While La Salle had made a tidy profit in the New World it was hardly enough for such a vast undertaking! The monies would largely come as backings from relatives and friends. One of the chief backers was Louis Armand I de Bourbon, Prince de Conti. It was Louis Armand who suggested to La Salle that he make Henri de Tonti his lieutenant. Thus would begin one of the greatest enterprises in early American history!
The stalwart Southerner couldn’t have been a better choice for Robert de La Salle, a loner who was suspicious of the people with whom he worked. For good reason, I might add. Many of those in La Salle’s expeditions were thieves, deserters and murderers, the scum of French society! Shortly after arriving in French Canada, La Salle wrote a letter to Prince de Conti, expressing gratitude for introducing him to de Tonti, and noting that he was “equal to anything…and at a time when everyone is in fear of the ice, he is starting out to begin a fort 200 leagues (500 miles) away.”
One example of his endurance and leadership occurred when La Salle was forced to leave de Tonti in charge of 30 men below Niagara Falls to build a 60-ton vessel and a fort. Due to the incompetence and recalcitrance of a pilot named Luke, La Salle’s ship on Lake Ontario was destroyed in a squall, causing them to lose valuable cargo. In spite of this, La Salle left de Tonti in charge of building the new vessel on Cayuga Creek and returned to Fort Frontenac.
In spite of the bitter cold of winter, low supplies, potentially mutinous crewmen and unfriendly Seneca Indians, the work on building the ship and fort was completed! Several of the men in the crew related the details of that winter in their memoirs. Henri de Tonti, showing characteristic modesty that endeared him to La Salle, merely wrote in his report: “The vessel was completed in the spring of 1679.”
The life of an explorer in early America was many things; dull was not one of them. In January, 1680 La Salle and de Tonti arrived at Lake Peoria to build another fort and vessel. Initially the Illinois Indians in the area seemed receptive. However, a brave from the Wisconsin tribe soon arrived and spread the lie La Salle’s party was there to betray them to their mortal enemies, the Iroquois. La Salle later wrote he believed the brave to have been sent by Canadian fur traders bent on destroying his expedition.
The Illinois’s attitude towards La Salle and his men cooled considerably as a result. Six of his men deserted out of fear. La Salle was in fact poisoned by one of them! In spite of these reverses, de Tonti stepped in and oversaw the construction of the fort while La Salle convalesced. When it was completed it was named Fort Crevecoeur (Fr: “Broken Heart”).
Greater problems arose, however, when work began on the vessel. La Salle left de Tonti in charge while he returned to Fort Niagara to inspect another vessel. In the meantime, he sent word he wished another fort to be constructed at another location called Starved Rock many miles from where the vessel was being constructed. It meant de Tonti had to divide his time between two locations in the middle of hostile Indian territory! Though many if not most other men might have balked, de Tonti agreed.
Taking four aides with him to survey Starved Rock, de Tonti was not long gone when those he left behind mutinied and destroyed Fort Crevecoeur, stealing everything they could carry. They then left to sack Fort Frontenac and murder La Salle himself!
Along the way they destroyed Fort Miami, another fort built by La Salle. Fortunately, someone had tipped off La Salle of the group’s approach. When they finally arrived two of them were killed and the rest taken prisoner.
Two missionaries and three Frenchmen who remained loyal to La Salle brought the bad news to de Tonti at Starved Rock, who sent his four aides back to La Salle, 1,200 miles away, while the five men remained within the perimeters of the Illinois Indian village, the two missionaries living within the village itself while de Tonti and the others living just outside, waiting for reinforcements.
Henri de Tonti had managed to reestablish friendship with the Illinois and maintained good ties with them until early September. At that time a brave came running into the village informing them their hated enemies, the Iroquois, were marching on them and La Salle was with them!
Feeling betrayed, the furious Illinois surrounded de Tonti and his men, who most certainly would have been put to death were it not for the quick-thinking de Tonti. He assured them La Salle would not betray them, and to prove it, he offered to go with them to meet the Iroquois, acting as emissary of peace, or leading them in battle if he must. The offer was acceptable to them.
Henri took two missionaries, one Frenchman and a host of Illinois to meet the vastly superior Iroquois army. Holding a necklace in his hand (a customary sign of peace) he and the three Whites with him approached the Iroquois, only to be fired upon. Ordering the three to retire back to the safety of the Illinois, de Tonti continued on alone, showing no fear. The Iroquois quickly surrounded him. In a show of treachery typical of the Iroquois, a brave grabbed the necklace out of his hand, flung it to the ground, and then stabbed him in the chest, severing one of his ribs!
Henri de Tonti attacked by Iroquois during mediation
The brave then prepared to scalp him when an Onondaga chief, who was a friend of La Salle, recognized that de Tonti was not an Illinois (his dark hair and Indian clothes had led the Iroquois to believe he was, in fact). Despite his serious wounds, de Tonti was able to act as mediator between the two tribes, bluffing the Iroquois into believing the Illinois had much higher numbers hiding in the woods, along with French allies. The Iroquois withdrew, but de Tonti, realizing they could not be trusted, advised the Illinois to retreat to safety while they still could. Later he was invited to a council by the Iroquois, where again he was almost killed. He and his party barely managed to escape in a leaky canoe and with no supplies.
In the meantime Robert La Salle had set out with reinforcements, looking for de Tonti. When he reached the Illinois village he was horrified by what he saw – the Iroquois had wiped them out! Fearing the loss of what one historian called “the only faithful friend La Salle ever had”, he searched the gruesome remains of the village for de Tonti. He then went all the way to Fort Crevecoeur, down the Illinois River to the Mississippi before giving up and returning to St. Joseph, his heart heavy with the belief Henri de Tonti was no more.
De Tonti and La Salle would be reunited again, though, in the spring at Mackinac Island. The two friends were overjoyed! After pleasantries they decided the time was now ripe to follow the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.
With a party of 23 Frenchmen, 18 Indians and 12 canoes, Robert de La Salle and Henri de Tonti set out to find the mouth of the mighty Mississippi. They would reach their goal on April 17, 1862. In the interim de Tonti had acted as the lead mediator between their party and the various Indian tribes that lived along the river.
On April 18, 1682, in a ceremony lasting just five minutes, Robert de La Salle took formal possession of the vast Louisiana Territory in the name of King Louis XIV of France. This territory stretched from the Great Lakes in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south; from the Appalachians in the east to the Rockies in the west. Henri de Tonti would later govern this vast expanse for 20 years.
In 1683 La Salle and de Tonti decided to finish construction on Fort Saint Louis at Starved Rock, to replace Fort Crevecoeur. While La Salle was overseeing its construction, de Tonti went over the whole region, convincing the peaceful Indian tribes of the area to move close to the fort for protection against the hostile Iroquois. 20,000 of them eventually did, bringing their buffalo and beaver pelts with them. This established a lucrative trade center.
With construction of Fort Saint Louis completed, La Salle put his best friend in charge of the whole of the Louisiana Territory while he set sail for France to get more men and supplies. Regime change in Canada left a hostile provincial governor in charge who would be of no use to him. Sadly, the two friends would never see each other again.
On July 24, 1684, La Salle set sail from France with four ships and 300 colonists with the intent of establishing a French colony on the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition would be plagued by pirates, disease, hostile Indians and poor navigation. La Salle was forced to go on foot no less than three times to try to find the mouth of the Mississippi.
De Tonti assumed he would meet La Salle as the latter traveled up the Mississippi River on his return from France, so in 1686 he left Fort Saint Louis and headed south. Instead of meeting up with La Salle, however, de Tonti explored what is now Arkansas, establishing a trading post. He declared himself feudal lord of the area, leaving behind six Frenchmen to, among other things, build a trade house, engage the local Indians in trade, serve as a way station for travelers and form the nucleus of a colony to stop English advancement into the area. In a rare show of ego, he named the new town he founded “the City of Tonti”. He left Arkansas in 1687 but returned several times in the 1690s to oversee his affairs there.
While La Salle was trying to find the mouth of the Mississippi, his men mutinied and on March 19, 1687 he was murdered in cold blood by one Pierre Duhaut near the site of what is now Navasota, Texas.
While this was happening, de Tonti was busy fighting wars with the English and their Iroquois allies. On many occasions de Tonti himself took part in the fighting. His favored mode of battle was to fire pistol first, draw sword and then close for combat, looking for an opportunity to finish off his opponent with his iron hand. How many skulls were smashed and jaws broken in this manner is unknown; Henri de Tonti never liked to brag. What is known is his Iroquois enemies paid him homage by giving him the moniker “Thunder Arm”.
In 1688 he returned to Fort Saint Louis and found members of La Salle’s failed expedition, who concealed his final fate. De Tonti set out in search of his friend and the lost colony, but was eventually forced to withdraw in the spring of 1690.
In August of 1704 Henri de Tonti, the ‘father of Arkansas’ and the best friend Robert de La Salle ever had, contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 54. The whereabouts of his grave are unknown.
As has happened all too frequently in the annals of our people, after his death his legacy largely vanished from the pages of history, overshadowed by his friend and partner, Robert de La Salle. Yet to anyone who desires to do a serious, in depth study of that time his contributions to the success of La Salle’s expeditions are undeniable!
It was Henri de Tonti (Enrico Tonti) and not Robert de La Salle who established the great Indian Confederation, the only peaceful confederacy of Indian tribes ever to have existed on the continent of North America. This confederacy checked the growing power of the English and their Iroquois allies in the Old Northwest, a fact that would have great benefits later on for the new American Republic.
Nor was he alone of the Tonti family to achieve fame as an explorer. His brother Alphonse would go on to found the city of Detroit, Michigan. Alphonse’s daughter Theresa was the first White child born in that city. Henri’s cousin Duluth would fight alongside Henri in the Iroquois War of 1687 before pioneering himself in the Minnesota region. The city of Duluth, Minnesota is named in honor of him.
Perhaps no greater homage to the memory of Henri de Tonti was written than that by the Mississippi historian B. King: “Tonty [sic] was without question the most intelligent pioneer France ever possessed in America.”
- Louis A. Lepis: Italian Heroes of American History; Americans of Italian Descent; 1976.
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture