Enrico Tonti: The Most Powerful Man in America

It is widely accepted that the Italian contribution to the exploration of the New World ceased after a brief period of great discoveries. Cristoforo Colombo discovered America in 1492, and Giovanni Caboto landed in Newfoundland in 1497. Amerigo Vespucci explored the east coast of South America: his map was the first to recognize that the lands that the Europeans had been sailing to were not the East Indies but, in fact, a “new world,” ergo Amerigo’s land or “America.” In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano – an Italian mariner in the service of the French crown – was the first European, since the Norse colonization, to explore the Atlantic coast of North America.

History also records that the exploration of the interior of the North American continent was carried out by hearty French fur traders, the coureurs des bois, who fraternized with the Natives and skirmished with the English and hostile Natives. They were the first Europeans to travel west to the Rocky Mountains, and they founded settlements throughout the continent’s interior, along the Saint Lawrence River, and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, New France stretched from the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi (see map).

There is nary a mention in the official histories of an Italian figure who, in the service to the French crown, came to prominence in New France at the height of the colony and was for a short time the most powerful man on the continent. Enrico Tonti, whose name was Gallicized as Henri de Tonti, was born in the Italian coastal town of Gaeta near Naples, sometime between 1647 and 1650.

The son of an Italian exile to France, Tonti played a leading role in the earliest incursions by explorers, soldiers and settlers from New France into the regions of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi Valley, the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama and Texas. This allowed the French, and later other Europeans, to settle in new territories.

Enrico was the first-born of Lorenzo Tonti’s nineteen children. As governor of Gaeta, the elder Tonti supported the Neapolitan revolt against the Spanish viceroy. Following the rebels’ defeat, Lorenzo was forced to seek political asylum in France. Educated and aristocratic, Enrico Tonti left behind a wealth of letters and other documents that reveal little-known facets of the European exploration and settlement of North America.

At 18 Enrico Tonti enlisted in the French army, during the reign of Louis XIV, climbing to the rank of lieutenant. He is believed to have arrived in New France with his friend, the great French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in 1678.

Tonti was at the head of a party of explorers who were the first Europeans to reach Niagara Falls that same year. Tonti and his collaborators helped establish a permanent settlement in the area by building Fort Conti, the first European fort on the Great Lakes. Driven by the desire to explore the waters around them, La Salle, Tonti and their men built the Griffon, the first ship to sail on the Great Lakes. On August 7, 1679, the ship was launched on what is known today as Lake Erie. Father Louis Hennepin blessed the Griffon, the Te Deum was sung, and the ship set sail on unfamiliar waters, as the local Natives watched in awe. Sailing north onto Lake Huron and then veering south onto Lake Michigan, the Griffon reached Green Bay on September 18, 1679. There it loaded a precious cargo of furs, and set forth on its return trip. Alas, the Griffon has been lost to history, believed to have sunk during a powerful storm. One of the great historical mysteries about the Great Lakes, the disappearance of the Griffon, still arouses the curiosity of many. In 1930, remains of a ship attributed to the Griffon were found near Tobermory, in Georgian Bay. However, the remains have not been authenticated and so the search continues.

With La Salle, Tonti is credited as discoverer of the mouth of the Mississippi River, reaching the Gulf of Mexico from the Great Lakes. The French canoe expedition began its journey south from Lake Ontario on Christmas Eve 1681, and arrived at the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico on April 9, 1682. They were the first Europeans to sail down the entire length of the Mississippi River and, in doing so, proving that the Gulf of Mexico could be reached from Quebec by inland waterways.

This linking of France’s two colonies in North America – one in the north and the other in the south – for a time thwarted Spanish and English colonial expansion. Tonti’s important role in the enterprise is evidenced by the appearance of his signature next to that of La Salle on the document which proclaims France’s sovereignty over the newly discovered Louisiana territory.

On his slow and deliberate return journey north, without La Salle who had decided to return to France, Tonti explored the vast territories of the Mississippi Valley and the river’s great tributaries, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Arkansas and the Red rivers. Along the way, Tonti’s records show that the French befriended many nations of Native Peoples – Quapaw, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Illinois, among others. In 1686 Tonti founded Arkansas Post, which was the first capital of the state of Arkansas. He built forts and trading posts in the Mississippi Valley and into Ontario. He participated in the founding of the city of Mobile, Alabama. His explorations stretched as far as present-day Texas. He is considered as one of the fathers of Illinois, Arkansas and Louisiana.

When La Salle was murdered in 1687, as his second in command, Tonti became the de facto leader of France’s exploratory drive in North America, making him the most powerful man in America. For nearly 20 years he proved an able leader.

The land and water routes in the Great Lakes area and the Mississippi Valley, first traced by Tonti, became the paths followed by future European settlers, later opening the way to the establishment of population centres in the United States and Canada.

An able diplomat, Tonti organized local Native tribes into a twenty-thousand strong alliance, which kept open the travel and trade routes from New France to the Mississippi Valley. In 1698, Tonti served as guide to a group of missionaries heading from Quebec to the village of Tamaroas, near present-day Saint Louis, Missouri, where the first Christian mass was celebrated.

Enrico Tonti, an exceptional and tenacious explorer, endowed with an innate ability to communicate with strangers, had earned the nickname “iron hand,” given to him by the Natives. (He had lost his right hand in a grenade explosion, resulting in his wearing a prosthetic hook covered with a glove.)

When he received news that the French were re-establishing a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, Tonti decided to join the colony. He reached Biloxi on January 16, 1700, and settled there. He was chosen as ambassador to the Choctaw and Chickasaw native tribes by Iberville, the colony’s administrator.

In August 1704 Enrico Tonti contracted yellow fever and died at Old Mobile, north of present-day Mobile, Alabama. His letters and journals remain an invaluable primary source of information on the exploration of North America.

Pietro Vitelli is the author of the book Enrico Tonti (2004, La città del sole, pp 348).

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 21.

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