“It just looks like a little park with some grassy humps in it,” I observed to Louis as we walked toward the “Wintering Place.” Secluded, in the middle of an upscale subdivision in the lakeside town of Port Dover, the plot was well cared for, if underwhelming. “I think there’s a lot more to this National Historic Site than meets the eye,” my spouse answered knowingly. And so there was..
Montreal of 1669 saw two Sulpician priests, Frs. Francois Dollier and Rene de Galinee clambouring to spread the word of God to heathen savages in the undiscovered lands of the New World. But how to get there? When French explorer Robert Cavelier de la Salle arrived from la belle France to Montreal to pick up his ship, his crew, and enough supplies to last him till he mapped the great the Mississipi River, the Fathers had their man.
For a price, La Salle agreed to take on the priests and the expedition departed in mid-June. Beyond the mighty St. Lawrence, lay the great Lake Ontario. And beyond that? The Indians spoke of other large water bodies and the mood of the crew and priests grew bold.
But La Salle, in truth a liar, braggart and rapscallion had other thoughts in his cunning mind. He’d grown weary of the pious priests and planned to send them packing. Putting ashore at the present day location of Hamilton, La Salle deposited the bewildered Fathers, with little more than the clothes on their back. Big-hearted as he was, the great La Salle spared them a couple of canoes and several sailors. He then departed for parts unknown.
The ragged band pressed on, crossing the Niagara River and entering Lake Erie–the first Europeans to pass from one Great Lake to the other. But by now the winds were raw and winter was in the air. Coming ashore at the site of present-day Port Dover, they sought a secluded woodsy shelter, built a rough cabin and set about to find food. With berries and mushrooms a-plenty and enough game in sight to feed an infantry, they gathered stores for the winter. Local legend says that from the berries and grapes they’d gathered, was made the region’s first wine.
The winter was thankfully a mild one and all members of the cast-offs saw the coming spring. Saying goodbye to their “Wintering Place” they pushed off north through the Detroit River to the third of the Great Lakes, Huron. Eventually over water and land Dollier, Galinee and their companions returned to Montreal. They had been away 347 days.
History records that Dollier spoke fondly of his time apart from the world, going so far as hoping that the afterlife would be so peaceful.
As for La Salle, he gained his place in the sun, claiming the entire Mississippi Basin for the King of France. Those who knew the real man behind the plumed hat and gold buttons knew he was a trickster and scoundel.