Henri de Tonti

Henri de Tonti (1649/1650-August 1704), sometimes spelled as Tonty, a.k.a. "Thunder Arm", was a French soldier, explorer, and colonizer who assisted René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle with North American exploration and colonization from 1678-1686.[1] Tonti was one of the first explorers to navigate and sail the upper great lakes of North America. Tonti also sailed both the Illinois river which led to the establishment of Fort St. Louis, as well as the Mississippi river to its mouth and claimed it for France.[2] Tonti later established the first permanent European settlement in the lower Mississippi valley, known as Poste aux Arkansas or Arkansas post, making him the "father of Arkansas".[3][4]

Early life and lineage

Henri de Tonti was born in Italy, most likely near Gaeta, in either 1649 or 1650 to Lorenzo de Tonti and Isabelle di Lietto.[3] His father Lorenzo de Tonti was a financier and former governor of Gaeta. Lorenzo was involved in a revolt against the Spanish viceroy in Naples, Italy, and the family was forced to seek political asylum in France around the time of Henri's birth.[3] Henri's brother Alphonse de Tonti was later born in 1659, and later became one of the founders of what is now Detroit. Tonti's cousins, Daniel Greysolon Dulhut and Claude Greysolon de La Tourette were also able to build a name for themselves in the new world.[5] Tonti, in 1668 at around the age of 18, decided to join the French army and later, the French Navy.[2]

Early career and military service

Tonti was a cadet in the French army for his first two years of military service. The following four years, Tonti was a midshipman at Marseilles and Toulon and embarked on seven tours at sea, four of which were on warships and three of which were on galleys. Tonti later became captain-lieutenant of the maître de camp in Messina. This was a troop that King Louis XIV sent to Sicily in 1675 under the Command of The Duke of Vivonne to support the rebellion of Messina (circa 100.000 inhabitants in 1674) against the crown of Spain during the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Tonti took part in the military operations in the village of Gesso, up the hills near Messina and he lost his hand in a grenade explosion which was replaced with a metal appliance, and was also taken prisoner. After being detained for six months, Tonti was exchanged for the Governors son. After returning to France Tonti continued his deployment as a volunteer on the galleys. From that time on, wore a prosthetic hook covered by a glove, thus earning the nickname "Iron Hand". Among the officers fighting beside the French expedition corps, there were the brothers Antonio and Thomas Crisafy, who years later Tonti will have the chance to meet again in Nouvelle France. Proceeding the war, Tonti was unable to obtain employment until recruited by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle for exploration.[5]

Exploration and colonization

In the summer of 1678, Tonti journeyed to Quebec, Canada with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who recognized him as an able associate and thus named Tonti his lieutenant. On the 27th of August Tonti and La Salle arrived in Gulf St. Lawrence. Tonti described it as "A place extremely cold where no wheat grows".[6] On December 26th of the same year, Tonti and La Salle reached the Niagara river. Tonti was left to supervise the construction of fort Conti below Niagara falls and the construction of the Griffon in early 1679 above the falls, which was to be the first ship to sail the great lakes. In August of 1679, Tonti arrived in Michilimackinac, the crossroads for southwestern fur trade, in which he discovered some of La Salle's crew had fled to and traded many livre's worth of goods. After rounding up the deserter's, Tonti sailed to the mouth of the St. Joseph River and helped establish Fort Miami. Early in 1680. Tonti also helped build Fort Crèvecoeur in Illinois, in which La Salle left Tonti to hold while he returned to Ontario.[7] While on his return trip up the Illinois River, La Salle concluded that Starved Rock might provide an ideal location for another fortification and sent word downriver to Tonti regarding this idea. Following La Salle’s instructions, Tonti took five men and departed up the river to evaluate the suitability of the Starved Rock site. Shortly after Tonti’s departure, on April 16, 1680, the seven members of the expedition who remained at Fort Crevecoeur ransacked and abandoned the fort and began their own march back to Canada.[8] This opened up opportunity for attack by the Iroquois to attack Tonti and his men, stabbing Tonti and forcing them to retreat to Baie des Puants, current day Green Bay in late 1680.[2] in 1681, after recuperating from his injuries caused from battles with the Iroquois, Tonti traveled to Michilimackinac in order to re-group with La Salle. In the spring of 1682, Tonti journeyed with La Salle on his descent down the Mississippi River and helped establish alliances with Native Americans by presenting the calumet (a peace pipe) to the Natchez tribe allowing La Salle to travel 3 leagues inland to meet with their chief.[9] Assuming they had made peace with the tribe, Tonti tried to convince the Native Americans to relocate near their new fort, Fort Saint Louis, to conduct trade with one another. La Salle departed for France in 1683 to gather colonist for a new Louisiana venture, leaving Tonti behind to hold Fort Saint Louis.[5] In La Salle's absence Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre de La Barre, the governor of new France, confiscated all of his new territory. Barring Tonti's aid in fighting off Iroquois attackers, he was no longer in command of the Illinois territory and was replaced by Louis-Henri de Baugy, and Tonti ventured back to Quebec in the spring of 1684.[6] La Barre later rescinded his decision of seizing La Salle's territories, and Tonti ventured back in 1865.[5] Word reached Tonti that La Salle was in the Gulf of Mexico, causing Tonti to proceeded south in 1686 to try to meet Him on his ascent. Instead of meeting La Salle, Tonti established a trading post in Arkansas leaving six Frenchman to secure a permanent French settlement in which trade with the Quapaw tribe became possible, and to hinder English invasion in the East by establishing a presence in the middle of North America.[3] In 1689, after receiving news that La Salle had been killed by his own men, Tonti had begun journeying to La Salle's abandoned settlement in Baie Saint-Louis. Unfortunately, Tonti was ill prepared and turned back before he could reach the settlement and returned to Illinois.[5] In the latter winter of 1690, resources grew scarce at fort Saint Louis and Tonti began a new fort in Pimitoui (current day Peoria), in which he requested his post be transferred to.[10] Pimitoui later became the main trading post for the French.

Later Military service

In the summer of 1685 Jacques-René Brisay de Denonville replaced La Barre as the governor of New France. Denonville decided that war with Iroquois was inevitable, promising Illinois "every protection" as well as consultation from Tonti on military excursions. Denonville made Tonti's key role in this military campaign was execution.[5] Tonti was to mount an assault with 300 leagues of men from the rear of the Iroquois while Denonville launched a full frontal assault. Tonti was unable to mount a large enough number of his men, so he joined with Sieurs de l’hut and de la Durantais at the front of the strait. Tonti and the other Proceeded to their rendezvous on Lake Ontario and met up with Denonville and took part in the van of the French attack against the Seneca's.[5] They later set a military post in Niagra.

Later life and death

in 1687, Tonti was engaged in wars with the English and their Iroquois allies. during this time, he was also able to conduct treaties with Native American tribes. in 1690, after he was granted La Salle's fur trading commission, Tonti decided to aid French colonization in Illinois by engaging in trade. In the summer of 1687, Tonti left the Illinois country in the care of his cousin Pierre de Liette.[5] Tonti then commenced on a journey down the Mississippi to make contact with Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, who had established the Louisiana (New France) colony.[1] Tonti reached French Louisiana and joined the colony.[2] Following this, Tonti was offered by Pierre Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville the opportunity to work as a treaty negotiator and peacemaker. Working under Pierre Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville's brother Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, Tonti was able to bring peace between the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations of Louisiana and proceeded to receive aid from the two nations. The use of his appliance that replaced his hand led these tribes to believe he had special powers.[11] Henri de Tonti died in September 1704 from yellow fever.[5] It is believe that Tonti's “remains were laid to everlasting rest in an unknown grave near Mobile River, and not far from the monument erected in 1902 to commemorate the site of old Mobile".[3]


  1. "A tour of Mobile's first 100 years", staff reporter, The Press-Register, Mobile, AL, 2002-02-24
  2. "Henri de Tonti". Encyclopædia Britannica. August 28, 2019.
  3. "Encyclopedia of Arkansas". Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Retrieved 2019-12-06.
  4. Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. "Henri de Tonti Historical Marker". Retrieved August 9, 2009.
  5. "Biography – TONTY, HENRI – Volume II (1701-1740) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". www.biographi.ca. Retrieved 2019-12-06.
  6. Tonti, Henri (1704). "Relation of Henri de Tonty concerning the explorations of LaSalle from 1678 to 1683". Chicago : Caxton Club: 1–121 via Archive.org.
  7. Saint Louis (Illinois) is distinct from the Fort Saint Louis founded in French colonization of Texas.
  8. "Henri de Tonti, Founder of Peoria"
  9. Mehta, Jayur (2013). "Spanish Conquistadores, French Explorers, and Natchez Great Suns in Southwestern Mississippi, 1542-1729". University of Nebraska Press. 6: 36 via Project MUSE.
  10. Mulkey, Floyd (December 1944). "Fort St. Louis at Peoria". Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. 37: 301–316 via JSTOR.
  11. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition. Columbia University Press.

See also

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