The Southwest Louisiana Historical Association
Notable Men and Women of Louisiana

Di Tonti of the Iron Hand

by Truman Stacey

The kingdom of the Two Sicilies produced a number of outstanding men and women, but few of them gained a more prominent place in history than Henri di Tonti.

His exploits in the Mississippi Valley were the stuff of which legends are made. His indomitable energy overcame a weak physique. He endured privations which would have broken lesser men. He was at home on every environment, with the court of Louis XIV as well as with the Coureurs de Bois, squaw men and renegades of the frontier, and in the red men’s lodges.

He was the son of Lorenzo di Tonti, a banker who fled his native Naples after participating in an  unsuccessful revolt. Lorenzo took up residence in Paris where he became a financier and where he invented the form of lottery known as a “tontine.”

His son, Henri, entered a French military academy, served four years as a midshipman at Marseilles and Toulon and made seven military campaigns-three in galleys and four in ships. While his unit was storming a redoubt in Sicily his right hand was blown of by a grenade. He was captured and held prisoner for six months, until he was released via an exchange of prisoners.

He returned to France where the king granted him a pension for his heroism. He replaced his lost hand with a hand or hook of iron, and later, on the American frontier, this iron appendage awed the native tribesmen, who dubbed him “Bras de Fer.”

Di Tonti was at court at Versailles when the explorer Robert C. Velier, Sier de la Salle, arrived seeking permission and funds to explore the great American west.

The two were introduced and LaSalle enlisted the naval officer as his second -in-command of the expedition to explore beyond Quebec. The LaSalle party departed France in 1678 and spent the next four years exploring and fur trading. They built Fort Saint Louis on the Illinois River as their headquarters.

During these years Di Tonti revealed a unique capacity to learn native tongues and to earn the natives’ trust and admiration. He was able to gain an ascendancy over them equaled by few other Europeans.

In 1682 LaSalle was ready for his great achievement, and led a French party south to the mouth of the Mississippi River. After claiming all the vast territory for France he returned to Paris to gain backing for a colony at the mouth of the river he had traversed. He was successful and sailed with four ships bound for the Mississippi, but inept seamanship put his colonists ashore in Texas. When LaSalle set out to reach French territory, he was murdered by some of his men.

LaSalle had left Di Tonti in command of Fort St. Louis and the rest of the Illinois country. When Di Tonti had received no word of LaSalle in 1686, he descended the river again to its mouth, but found no trace of LaSalle. A year later a few bedraggled survivors of the Texas tragedy reached Fort Saint Louis and told Di Tonti LaSalle was alive with the Tejas Indians.

Again Di Tonti sped down the Mississippi. When he reached the Red River he followed it up to the Natchitoches tribe, and thence to the Tejas, where he was told seven Frenchmen were living with the Mabedaches. He found no white men with the tribe, and when he inquired of the chief, the women began to wail. Suspecting the Frenchmen had been murdered, he accused the chief, and the women wailed louder. To emphasize his distrust, Di Tonti refused to smoke the peace pipe. Having too small a party to use force, he departed for Fort Saint Louis without learning of LaSalle’s fate.

Di Tonti spent the next dozen years in his fur trading ventures, and left an indelible print on the history of the Mississippi Valley. In 1770, having learned of Lemoyne d’lberville’s colony at Biloxi, he and his traders came south to join the project, where his experienced trappers and traders were of great benefit. It was there that he died four years later from the yellow fever epidemic that swept away nearly half of the colony, including Iberville himself.

For 25 years Di Tonti was the dominant figure in the Mississippi Valley and was the chief actor in keeping the native tribes friendly to he French. His travels took him from Hudson’s Bay to Texas, and he traveled all the lands that became the states watered by the Mississippi except Iowa And Minnesota.

He spent his last years in the area that is now Louisiana , Mississippi An Alabama, here again negotiating peace treaties with the tribes, or punishing them when they broke the peace. In fact, his work with the southern Indians-the Chickawas, Choctaws, Mobiles, Tomes, Tunicas and Alibammons - contributed more to the success of Iberville’s colony than the latter was willing to admit.

Even the native tribes, whom he had chastised from time to time, mourned at his passing.

The missionary priest, Father Buisson de St. Cosme, described the wilderness paladin best:

“He is the man who knows this country best. He has been to the sea twice; he has been to the depths of the land of the most far-away nations; he is everywhere feared and esteemed.”


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