Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery
Southeast Region
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Welcome to the "de Tonti page," of the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery

Cast likeness of de Tonti by artist Donna Weaver of Wax Portrait Miniatures. Credit: USFWS

Cast likeness of de Tonti by artist Donna Weaver of Wax Portrait Miniatures. Credit: USFWS

"We set off on the 12th [of February] with twelve Taencas, and after a voyage of twelve leagues to the northwest we left our boat and made twenty leagues portage, and on the 17th of February, 1690, came to Natchitoches."

So recorded Henri de Tonti in his account of a journey to find and hopefully rescue Robert de La Salle and the French colony stranded in south Texas.

An Italian citizen but an officer in the French Army, Henri de Tonti, at 28, came to North America with Robert Cavalier de La Salle in 1678. Captain de Tonti had served the previous 10 years in the French Guard Marines. A seasoned veteran of several campaigns in wars with Spain, de Tonti had lost his right arm in battle at Messina, Sicily in 1668. He recovered having the missing arm replaced with and iron appendage of some type. Because of this appendage he was later referred to by the Native Americans as “Bras de Fur” – or “Iron Hand” to the English. He was recognized by the court of Louis XIV whereby he gained the attention of La Salle, who was preparing to lead a second mission of exploration into the western Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

De Tonti's mission was to help La Salle set up trading posts along the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and negotiate trade in furs and other goods with the Native American nations in the region. La Salle's settlement efforts ended in disaster on the Texas coast and brought de Tonti to the Natchitoches-Caddo village site in his search for French survivors of LaSalle’s lost colony.

That site is the very ground the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery currently occupies. At the main entrance to the hatchery visitors can see a State Historic Marker which reads:

Louisiana State Historical Marker. Credit: USFWS

Louisiana State Historical Marker. Credit: USFWS

On February 17, 1690, Henri de Tonti, a trader and French army officer known as the Iron Hand, arrived in this area to search for La Salle’s lost company. While here he helped arrange a treaty between the Taensa and Natchitoches Indians.

His search for LaSalle eventually ended in the Hasinai-Caddo trading center on the Angelina and San Pedro Creeks of East Texas where today visitors find the Mission Tejas and Caddo Mounds State Parks. He learned any other survivors had perished and further searching was pointless. He found himself alone except for only one Frenchman and a slave of unknown origin. Far inside Spanish Tejas, the Caddoan chiefs provided him 4 horses and guides and he returned to French trade lands on the upper Mississippi.

French flag of the period of 1690.

French flag of the period of 1690.

Tonti continued working in the Mississippi valley called the Territory of Louisiana. From his entry with La Salle until his death in Mobile he was successful as a businessman, frontiersman, soldier, commander, and diplomat between the French and the American Indian nations.

According to the University of South Alabama’s Center for Archaeological Studies, "It was probably his letters to officials in France about the possibilities of English encroachment westward from Virginia and the Carolinas that led King Louis XIV to sponsor Iberville's expeditions and the establishment of Fort Louis de La Louisiane on the Mobile River."

*from the University of South Alabama Center for Archaeological Studies.

*from the University of South Alabama Center for Archaeological Studies.

Captain Henri de Tonti died in 1704 of yellow fever in French Mobile in the service of Governor Iberville and France. He was about 54 years of age. At the time of his death he was Iberville's "Ambassador to the Nations,"(Indian nations) for the French. He was truly an American legend -- in his lifetime and today.

 

Last updated: May 5, 2010