The preeminent eyewitness historian of the La Salle expedition, Henri Joutel was a native of Rouen, France, which also was the hometown of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. At the time the expedition was being organized, his amanuensis tells us, Joutel had just returned from "sixteen or seventeen years" in the army. Influenced by La Salle's reputation as an explorer and his own acquaintance with other members of the expedition, he decided to join.
Joutel sailed as a volunteer on the warship Joly. Because of his acceptance of military discipline, and perhaps because of ties to other members of La Salle's family, he was brought into La Salle's inner circle at the start. An ideal subordinate in many ways, Joutel never exalts himself in the journal that he kept and seldom offers even a hint of criticism of the leader. His journal, though long recognized as the most comprehensive and reliable account of the expedition, should be balanced against other sources, especially the journal of the engineer Minet and information given by Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Talon (see TALON CHILDREN).
Two basic versions of Joutel's journal are extant: the 1715 printed version and English translations thereof and the one published in the original French by Pierre Margry. The latter doubtless more accurately reflects what Joutel actually wrote; the former both adds to it and subtracts from it.
With the expedition's arrival on the Texas coast, Joutel emerged as La Salle's most trusted lieutenant. It was he, with the leader's nephew Crevel de Moranget, who took the soldiers ashore on Matagorda Island to seek a place for unloading the ships. After the landing, Joutel was left in command of the colony-at both the temporary beach site and the more permanent location near the head of Lavaca Bay-during La Salle's absences. It was he who completed the stockade and buildings at Fort St. Louis and saw to the general welfare of the colonists while La Salle explored the country. In his capacity as post commander, he ruled on such matters as who could marry and who could not. His loyalty to La Salle is exemplified by his seizing and burning Father Maxime Le Clercq's journal, which was critical of the leader.
Joutel accompanied La Salle on none of his journeys from Fort St. Louis except the last one, begun in January 1687, to seek La Salle's post on the Illinois river and travel thence to New France. Following the murder of La Salle and several others in eastern Texas, it fell his lot to lead the handful of survivors (excluding the murderers and others who chose to remain among the Indians) on toward Canada. The group reached France in late November 1688.
Back in his native Rouen, Joutel was employed as a guard on one of the city gates. There in 1698 he was contacted by an emissary of Louis de Pontchartrain, the marine minister. At the time, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville was outfitting a voyage to renew La Salle's enterprises and gain a solid French foothold in the Gulf of Mexico. Pontchartrain wanted to borrow Joutel's journal of the La Salle expedition and promised to return it within six weeks. After reading the account, the minister saw fit to send it to Iberville, informing him that he hoped to persuade Joutel to join his expedition. But Joutel, having had quite enough of the American wilderness, spurned the offer. The journal, which Iberville took with him on his first voyage to Louisiana, was Joutel's only contribution to the new venture. When Iberville at last returned the document five years later, some pages were missing. Yet the portion that survives comprises an invaluable source for mapmakers, naturalists, and historians.