French Explore the Mississippi Valley

French explorers charted and occupied the Mississippi Valley and points west, founded Louisiana, and set the stage for conflict with the British a century later.

Summary of Event

Expanding upon Samuel de Champlain’s Champlain, Samuel de explorations in the early 1600’, Jean Nicolet Nicolet, Jean opened the Ottawa River route to Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Green Bay in 1634. Nicolet then traveled up the Fox River; probably crossed the portage at what is now Portage, Wisconsin, to enter the Mississippi Valley; and may have proceeded south into what is now northern Illinois. During this trip, natives of the Mascouten Mascoutens tribe told him of a “great water” three days’ travel to the west. Although this probably was the Mississippi River, Nicolet thought it was the Pacific Ocean. [kw]French Explore the Mississippi Valley (beginning 1673)
[kw]Mississippi Valley, French Explore the (beginning 1673)
Exploration and discovery;Beginning 1673: French Explore the Mississippi Valley[2500]
Colonization;Beginning 1673: French Explore the Mississippi Valley[2500]
Expansion and land acquisition;Beginning 1673: French Explore the Mississippi Valley[2500]
American Colonies;Beginning 1673: French Explore the Mississippi Valley[2500]
Exploration;France of the Mississippi Valley
Mississippi River, exploration of

In 1671, Nicholas Perrot Perrot, Nicholas guided Simon François Daumont, sieur de St. Lusson, St. Lusson, sieur de to Sault Sainte Marie. St. Lusson formally took possession of the area for France and signed trade treaties with sixteen western tribes in 1672. Perrot was the first man licensed to explore the Great Lakes by Jean-Baptiste Talon, Talon, Jean-Baptiste intendant in charge of the French colonial judiciary and finances. Earlier, however, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers Chouart des Groseilliers, Médard and Pierre Esprit Radisson Radisson, Pierre Esprit had led an illegal exploratory trade mission to Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior, from 1654 to 1660. It appears that Radisson also traveled west to Mille Lacs (Minnesota) and perhaps to the Mississippi River.

Talon also engaged Louis Jolliet Jolliet, Louis to explore the Mississippi River. In 1673, Jolliet, accompanied by Jacques Marquette, Marquette, Jacques a Jesuit priest, left Michilimackinac and traveled across Lake Michigan to Green Bay and up the Fox River. They then portaged the Wisconsin River, thus entering the Mississippi Valley, and descended the Wisconsin River to its mouth. They canoed down the Mississippi River as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River, where they became convinced that the Mississippi River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, not the Gulf of California, and that it was therefore not a potential route to the Pacific Ocean. Jolliet and Marquette returned up the Mississippi River. Discovering the mouth of the Illinois River, they ascended it. From the Illinois River, they portaged to the Chicago River, leaving the Mississippi Valley and entering Lake Michigan.

Father Jacques Marquette preaches to Native Americans he encountered while exploring the Mississippi River Valley with Louis Jolliet.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

In 1672, Talon had left for France, turning over the colonial government to Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac Frontenac, comte de et Palluau. Frontenac envisioned building a series of forts west of the Appalachian Mountains to exclude the English from the Mississippi Valley. He then hoped to tap the rich fur supply and ship it to France from either Quebec or a new city to be constructed near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Frontenac made René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle La Salle, sieur de , who was fluent in eight American Indian languages and very effective in dealing with the tribes, his chief agent. La Salle already had explored the Ohio River to the falls at present-day Louisville in 1669-1670.

On May 12, 1678, King Louis XIV Louis XIV;New France and and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Colbert, Jean-Baptiste the king’s minister, signed letters patent giving La Salle a five-year trade monopoly in the West. In the spring of 1679, La Salle sent a party westward toward the land of the Illinois and began building his own sailing ship, the Griffon, which became the first to sail the lakes. On August 27, he arrived aboard his ship at Michilimackinac. Sending the Griffon back from Green Bay, La Salle then proceeded south to the mouth of the Miami River (now St. Joseph). During the next two years, he made three trips into the Illinois River Valley, penetrating to the Mississippi River in futile attempts to continue on down that river to the gulf. Forts were built and destroyed, the Griffon was lost, and trading parties failed. On April 9, 1682, La Salle found the mouth of the Mississippi River, claimed the whole area for France, and named it Louisiana after Louis XIV.

In 1683, La Salle again returned to France and obtained royal support to establish a fortified colony about 180 miles (290 kilometers) above the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1684, La Salle left France with four ships, one hundred soldiers, and three hundred settlers. Failing to find the river’s mouth and plagued by Spanish raiders, shipwreck, and desertion, La Salle and 180 survivors finally landed at Matagorda Bay, Texas, where he constructed a fort. After an exploratory trip to what is now West Texas, he returned to Fort St. Louis. A few days later, the expedition’s only remaining ship was lost and La Salle decided that the expedition’s only hope was to seek relief overland from Illinois. Starting on January 27, 1687, La Salle took seventeen men, leaving twenty-three behind to guard the fort. La Salle was murdered during a mutiny near the Brazos River, but six men struggled onward to Post aux Arkansas, near the junction of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. La Salle’s lieutenant, Henri de Tonty, Tonty, Henri de had established the post while searching for La Salle.

Meanwhile, Daniel Greysolon, sieur de Lhut, Lhut, sieur de explored the western Lake Superior region, discovering the Falls of Saint Anthony at present-day Minneapolis. Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville Iberville, Pierre Le Moyne d’ rediscovered the mouth of the Mississippi River and was instrumental in founding Fort Maurepas (now Biloxi) in 1699. His brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Le Moyne, Jean-Baptiste , sieur de Bienville, established Mobile in 1702 and New Orleans in 1718.


French exploration and occupation of the Mississippi Valley led directly to the clash with Great Britain in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). This cost France its American empire and ultimately contributed to the American Revolution. Nevertheless, the French left a substantial legacy: The coureurs de bois (fur traders) had gathered basic information about the trans-Mississippi West that was used by American mountain men and the British Hudson’s Bay Company nearly a century later. The French also made a lasting contribution to the culture of the north woods and Louisiana. Louisiana became a refuge for French colonists forced out of New France (Canada) by the English, and it became the center of Acadian, or Cajun, culture in the United States after the Louisiana Purchase.

Further Reading

  • Balesi, Charles J. The Time of the French in the Heart of North America, 1673-1818. Chicago: Alliance Française Chicago, 1992. Focuses on the history of the Illinois country.
  • Crouse, Nellis M. Lemoyne d’Iberville: Soldier of New France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1954. Biography of the man who founded the first French settlements on the Gulf coast.
  • Ekberg, Carl J. French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. History of French Creole settlements in Illinois, describing the agricultural practices, commerce, and other aspects of the settlers’ life and culture.
  • Kellogg, Louise P. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925. Discusses early exploration, mining, and the fur trade in the Great Lakes and Wisconsin.
  • La Salle, Nicolas de. The La Salle Expedition on the Mississippi River: A Lost Manuscript of Nicolas de La Salle, 1682. Translated by Johanna S. Warren, edited by William C. Foster. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003. Nicolas de La Salle (no relation to the explorer) was one of the men on sieur de La Salle’s 1682 Mississippi River expedition. A rare copy of Nicolas’s journal of that voyage was recently discovered at the Texas State Archives. This translation and analysis of the journal reveals new information about the historic exploration.
  • Nasatir, Abraham P. Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785-1804. 2 vols. St. Louis, Mo.: St. Louis Historical Documents Foundation, 1952. The author’s introduction to the first volume is a fine narrative of French Missouri River exploration between 1673 and 1804.
  • Parkman, Francis. The Discovery of the Great West: La Salle. 1889. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. The first comprehensive account of La Salle’s explorations, based on copies of most of the original documents in French and other archives.
  • Speck, Francis B. The Jolliet-Marquette Expedition, 1673. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1928. A definitive study of the Jolliet-Marquette expedition.
  • Weddle, Robert S., Mary Christine Morkovsky, and Patricia Galloway, eds. La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf. Translated by A. L. Bell and Robert S. Weddle. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987. Documents pertaining to La Salle’s exploration of the Mississippi Valley and Texas.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Samuel de Champlain; Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville; Louis Jolliet; Sieur de La Salle; Jacques Marquette; Pierre Esprit Radisson. Exploration;France of the Mississippi Valley
Mississippi River, exploration of