On this day in 1687, the Sieur de La Salle, noted as "the first European to navigate the length of the Mississippi River" was murdered by his own men when exploring near the cost of what is today Texas. It was an ironic end for a man who had already defied death by exploring a river noted for its many treacherous bends, shallows, and bayous.
One of my former bosses was fond of noting that, in any endeavor, one can tell who the pioneers are by the fact that they are often found lying face down, with arrows in the back. At least La Salle's name is recorded. The real "unsung hero" in this instance is the first man or woman who decided that the Mississippi valley would be the cradle of its own unique civilization and acted on that belief. Certainly Louis XIV and his ministers had no appreciation of what La Salle had done a few years earlier. The Sun King would shortly thereafter launch the War of the League of Augsburg, which would leave France much poorer, with little in the way of territorial gains as compensation. With a fraction of the effort expended to grab territory contiguous to France, the French might have built settlements that could have given them a firm hold on one of the great waterways of the world.
My professors at the University of Florida and at Yale reminded their students that speculation about "what might have been" is useless for serious scholars. As a writer, though, I'm sometimes tempted to craft my own alternative versions of the past. Harry Turtledove and others have made profitable careers out of this pursuit. I suppose it's an homage to my teachers that my efforts at writing historical fiction have focused on the actions of the unsung heroes whose actions could have provided the fulcrum for great historical movements. My work-in-progress Soldiers of Night and Fog takes this approach. I don't know if I'll be able to pull this off. It's well worth the effort, at least in my mind.