Born the son of an Italian banker in 1649, Henri de Tonti has illustrious relatives. His father, Lorenzo de Toni, was the governor of Gaeta and invented the tontine life insurance plan, where the initial investors split the returns until all but one dies. His brother Alphonse de Tonti was one of the founders of Detroit. His cousin Duluth went onto explore Minnesota and the city of Duluth is named for him. Henri is best remembered as the right hand man of French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. However, he has quite a story in his own right.
The family was originally from Naples, but fled to France after a failed rebellion against the Spanish viceroy. Once in France, young Tonti joined the French military at a relatively young age and served in seven campaigns. During the Sicilian wars, he served with the French Navy and had his hand was blown off in a grenade explosion. There are legends which say when he saw the mangled mess of a hand, Tonti just hacked it off himself. Much like Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen before him, he went with it and improvised. (For more on Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/gotz-iron-hand/ ) Tonti had an “appliance” put on the stump and wore a glove over it. Some stories say it was iron hook, while others sources say it was an actual iron hand. His fellow soldiers gave him the nickname “Iron Hand”, and his ability to knock a person unconscious in one blow impressed Europeans and Native Americans alike in his later career. The Iroquois much later named him “Thunder Arm”, which in my opinion sounds much cooler. One historian refers to him as a real life Captain Hook, and his portrait bears out the comparison.
In 1678, Tonti ’s regiment disbanded after the treaty of Nymwegen. He returned to Versailles and cast about for something to do. Fate took a turn, and Tonti was recommended to La Salle by the Prince de Conti to assist in La Salle’s exploration of the New World. La Salle had already been exploring lands in North America and was fascinated with the Seneca tales of the “father of waters”, a great river which ran to the “Vermilion Sea” in the east. He made it as far as a waterfall on the Beautiful River (the Ohio), but was unable to get to the Mississippi, which was eventually discovered by Louis Joliet and Father Pierre Marquette. He was in charge of the improvement of Fort Cataracqui, which was the oldest military establishment in Ontario. Under his direction, the renamed Fort Frontenac, after the new governor of Canada Count Frontenac, was well received in Paris. Flush with success, La Salle decided his next endeavor would be to build a sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes above Niagara falls. After much grumbling, he convinced the Seneca to allow this to happen so he dumped Tonti and some voyaguers at Cayuga Creek during the winter of 1678 and told them to get to building. It was not that easy. The men lived in bark huts and survived on little food and and had less than adequate materials to build their ship. The only entertainment was sing Gregorian chants on Sundays and holidays. Although they had permission from the Seneca, they were always lurking around and there were attacks. Despite it all, they completed the ship which they named the Griffon, after the coat of arms of Count Frontenac. By August 1679, the Griffon was sailing across Lakes Erie, Huron and through the Straits of Mackinac to Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, the long sought after ship sank on the voyage home.
La Salle, however, did not know this and continued his voyage south to explore the Mississippi Valley. The explored to the source of the Illinois River, and built a fort at the site of present day Peoria they named Crevecoeur. They spent the winter with the Illinois tribe, where a group of deserters tried to poison them. La Salle only survived because of an antidote brought with him from France. Despite this, they decided to built yet another fort, they called Starved Rock, and another ship. La Salle returned to France by way of Ontario leaving Tonti to literally hold the forts with few men and fewer supplies. While inspecting progress at Starved Rock, the men at Fort Crevecouer mutinied and stole all the supplies they could get their hands on. Tonti sent back to La Salle for reinforcements, and in the meantime was reliant on the Illinois tribe for supplies and support. As if on cue, messengers came that the enemy of the Illinois, the powerful Iroquois, were marching to attack with La Salle with them. The furious Illinois were about to take care of their Tonti problem with a quick hit the back of the head, when Tonti offered to prove the loyalty of the French by negotiating peace or leading the attack on the Iroquois. The Illinois tribe reluctantly agreed.
Tonti decided the best move was to try to negotiate so he strolled out to the Iroquois holding a necklace in his hand, as a sign of peace. They were nothing but surprised, but had the presence of mind to stab him in the chest severing one of his ribs. Not taking the hint, Tonti decided to threaten them with war with France. While the chiefs were deciding whether to scalp him or burn him to death, he puttered off back to his fort despite “the great quantity of blood I had lost, both from my wound and my mouth”. The stunned Iroquois decided this guy must be crazy and signed a peace treaty to placate him. Tonti and five survivors made it to Green Bay in late 1680.
La Salle and Tonti were back at it as soon as Tonti recovered from his wounds. The two travelled south again and established a settlement on the Illinois River called Fort St. Louis. The two of them journeyed all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi where La Salle claimed all the land it touched for France. Tonti was witness many ceremonies claiming the land for France, including one at present day Arkansas Port National Memorial at the mouth of the Arkansas River. There he established a trading post with the Quapaw Indians he named Poste aux Arkansas. He declared himself “Seignor [sic] [of] the City of Tonti and the river of Arkansas” or the Lord of the Arkansas River. The trading post had some issues because it was difficult to reach and Louis XIV put the kibosh on beaver pelt trading south of Canada. As feudal lord, Tonti had to enforce the king’s will, which angered Native Americans and French traders alike. Settlers were few and far between and money was tight.
After financial difficulties, he had to return to Montreal, but was bitterly unhappy about it. Eventually, Tonti was able to return to the lower Mississippi with an expedition headed by Pierre Le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville. Tonti was chosen to broker a peace between the warring Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. He was active in exploration of the Gulf region until he died of yellow fever at Old Mobile in 1704. Legend has it 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.” In the words of the Mississippi historian B. King, “Tonty [sic] was without question the most intelligent pioneer France ever possessed in America.”