The early French explorer Louis Hennepin created this map of the Louisiana territory in 1683. Learn more »
Prior to Rene-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle’s expedition of 1682, the rulers of England, France, and Spain gave little thought to the role that the Lower Mississippi Valley might play in their imperial designs. Several groups of Spaniards and Frenchmen explored the western interior and Gulf Coast of North America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though the European powers made only moderate investments in establishing permanent colonies until the eighteenth century. European exploration of the region that La Salle would name “Louisiana,” therefore, remained tangential to entanglements in places like Mexico, Canada, New England, and the West Indies, where Spanish, French, and British colonizing efforts clashed. Nonetheless, the early exploration of colonial Louisiana proved crucial to the fates of those European empires, as well as to the frontier encounters between people of European, Native American, and African descent.
Spanish Exploration in the Gulf of Mexico
Florida represented the entryway for Spanish exploration of North America during the early sixteenth century. Juan Ponce de León discovered “the island of Florida” in 1513. Though brief, Ponce de León’s voyage to Florida opened the Gulf of Mexico to future Spanish crews. After experiencing considerable navigational and weather-related difficulties, Pánfilo de Narváez landed at present-day Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1528, and members of the expedition promptly antagonized the local Native American population with their martial activities and demands. Narváez’s brutal, uncompromising interaction with the Apalachee of north Florida led to the dispersal of the crew members. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was one of approximately eighty survivors who built and boarded a crude watercraft bound for Cuba, only to disembark several months later near present-day Galveston, Texas. Cabeza de Vaca, along with two other Spaniards and an enslaved African, finally reached an expedition of Spanish slavers in present-day Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1536. A published account of Cabeza de Vaca’s adventures appeared soon thereafter, including fantastic (if not fabricated) tales of European-Indian interaction in a “new” world.
Hernando de Soto followed the failed Narváez expedition with a slightly more successful one of his own in 1538. De Soto and his crew disembarked in an area of Florida inhabited by the Timucua. De Soto’s men made inland treks in search of precious metals, but with no success. After consulting a surviving member of the Narváez crew, de Soto decided to travel along the Gulf Coast toward the region that would become New Mexico. Rumors of gold led the overland expedition to present-day Alabama and along the Tombigbee River to present-day Mississippi, all while the group was taking considerable casualties in skirmishes with Native American warriors. In June 1541, de Soto and the remaining crew reached the Rio del Espiritu Santo, later called the Mississippi River, near the mouth of the White River in present-day Arkansas. De Soto died less than a year later in 1542, whereupon what remained of the Spanish crew sank his body in the Mississippi River. The crew proceeded westward through lands inhabited by the Caddoan peoples, only to return to the Mississippi River where they prepared to reach the Gulf of Mexico by river. Some 322 crew members departed on a seventeen-day voyage to the Gulf, leaving behind more than five hundred Native Americans who had been forcibly removed by the Spanish from other parts of the Southeast. De Soto’s expedition marked the first European exploration of the lower Mississippi River. It would be more than a century before another group of Europeans reached its waters.
Roman Catholic missionaries started to join Spanish crews in the exploration of Florida during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Dominican priests associated with the missionary reformer Bartolomé de las Casas conducted evangelistic enterprises that resulted in the death of several clergymen and the perpetuation of European-Native American antagonism. With a rise in the recurrence of shipwrecks along the Gulf Coast, clerics and laymen convinced the Spanish king to take drastic, violent measures against “savage” Indians posing obstacles to the settlement of Florida. Tristán de Luna y Arellano, the newly appointed governor of Florida, set sail from Mexico in 1559 with approximately five hundred soldiers, two hundred horses, and a thousand men, women, and children of European, Native American, and African descent. The goal was to transplant the Spanish model of government to North America and, in effect, “Christianize and civilize” the Native American population. Luna’s fleet of eleven vessels made landfall at Ochusa (present-day Pensacola Bay) in 1559, only to be met with a devastating hurricane, burdensome inland treks, and mutiny. The viceroy of New Spain sent Ángel de Villafañe to replace Luna as governor of Florida in 1561, though he also suffered a setback when a hurricane hit his fleet near the Carolina coast. Afterward, Villafañe oversaw the abandonment of the battered Pensacola colony, thus leaving the Gulf Coast uninhabited by Europeans, aside from castaways left for dead.
French Exploration in Canada
While the English and Dutch challenged Spanish supremacy of the Gulf of Mexico, the French focused their imperial goals on the exploration of the St. Lawrence River Valley during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The French ruler would have preferred to establish colonies in Brazil and other areas of South America, but the presence of Portuguese and Spanish settlements proved too strong for French advances. Francis I, king of France, also contended with European notions of sovereignty and colonialism that depended upon the sanction of the Roman Catholic pontiff. It was not until 1533 that Francis I convinced Pope Clement VII of France’s right to occupy lands previously unknown or unsettled by European kingdoms, thus reversing the 1493 papal bull Inter caetera, which had previously divided the New World between Portugal and Spain.
Francis I acted quickly after the pope’s reversal, and in 1534 Jacques Cartier became the first Frenchman to lead a major expedition in search of a western route across North America to the Pacific and mineral resources comparable to those found in South America. Cartier’s first expedition into the Gulf of St. Lawrence did not result in any great discoveries, though he did develop ties with the Iroquois and brought several Iroquoians back to France. A second expedition, more ambitious and better funded than the first, resulted in the beginning stages of settlement near present-day Montreal. In neither expedition did Cartier intend to execute large-scale colonization and missionary enterprises in Canada. He did, however, return to France with an Iroquois chief who reported on the existence of a northern kingdom with great mineral wealth. A third voyage set sail in 1541 with the goal to find the fabled land of gold and diamonds. Again, Cartier failed to satisfy Francis I’s dream of discovering treasure in the New World, after which he returned to France in 1542, having undermined whatever diplomatic inroads he had made with the Iroquois of the St. Lawrence River Valley.
The French continued to fish the seas of the North Atlantic following Cartier’s failed expeditions of the 1530s and 1540s. In 1603, King Henri IV granted Pierre du Gua, Sieur de Monts, a fur trade monopoly in the lands of Acadia and the St. Lawrence River Valley. De Monts, in turn, commissioned Samuel de Champlain to establish a base for trading operations on the St. Lawrence River, after which the ambitious explorer founded Quebec City in 1608. The encroachment of Dutch traders and French competitors complicated Champlain’s hopes for the discovery of a western passage and the accumulation of wealth for company and crown. French involvement in wars between the Algonquin and Iroquois also frustrated the fur trade and the stability of the fledgling colony as a whole. Cardinal Richelieu, the king’s first minister, supported an unprecedented level of monetary investment and personnel allocation in the colonization of New France, only to be foiled by English privateers in 1628. Champlain surrendered Quebec to a band of Englishmen in 1629.
Champlain, along with forty crew members and three Jesuits, conducted the reoccupation of Quebec in 1632. Growth was slow, as only 356 individuals—158 men, 116 women, 29 Jesuits, and 53 soldiers—resided in and around Quebec by 1640. French involvement in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) led to a reduction in Crown support for the development of New France. What little assistance colonists did receive often came from the Catholic Church, which in turn heightened the involvement of missionaries in the evangelization of native peoples. The Jesuit Relations, an annual publication recounting the experiences of Jesuits in New France, functioned as one of the chief sources of funding for governmental, educational, and missionary operations in the colony. Under these conditions, Quebec developed into a major trading post and center of colonial activity in New France by the end of the seventeenth century. Simultaneously, devout French laypeople and priests founded Montreal in 1640 as a place from which to coordinate the spread of Christianity and civilization to the Canadian wilderness.
Missionaries, Fur Traders, and Native Americans in New France
For much of the seventeenth century, missionaries and fur traders functioned as explorers of New France. George Bancroft, one of the most prolific historians of the nineteenth century, remarked that “the history of missionary labor is connected with the origin of every celebrated town in the annals of French Canada; not a cape was turned nor a river entered but a Jesuit led the way.” Bancroft’s sentimental, if not overstated, assertion nonetheless captures the essential role that Jesuits played in the spread of French influence throughout the Great Lakes region. Contemporary historian Richard White described French fur traders, or coureurs des bois (runners of the woods), as equally if not more important to the development of a “middle ground” in New France, where Europeans and Native Americans competed for control of territories only recently discovered by the French, even though traders were often at odds with the religious goals of the missionaries.
Native Americans proved crucial to the ability of missionaries and traders to set the stage for the exploration of the Mississippi River and the establishment of a permanent colony in Lower Louisiana during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Meetings between missionaries, traders, and Native Americans often resulted in compromises, as it was unreasonable for a lone European to be welcomed into a native village without exhibiting flexibility and adaptability. Jesuits, for instance, worked hard to learn the languages of those they sought to convert. They also rejected many aspects of the reducciónes missionary model that called for removing Native Americans from their indigenous places of habitation and establishing them in highly regulated, often fortressed villages. Instead, Jesuits journeyed away from French posts and lived among the Iroquois, most successfully among the Huron of New France. Traders were similar to missionaries in that they trekked into areas with little to no European presence, but their interest was in cultivating economic partnerships with Native Americans. Interactions often went further than the trading of goods, since many coureurs des bois took residence with Native American groups and developed close personal relationships with native men and women. In short, the movement of most French missionaries and traders throughout New France did not resemble epic tales of great explorers sailing the high seas and claiming lands in the name of a Christian god and king. They were explorers in the sense that they were discovering new places and meeting new peoples.
By the 1660s and 1670s, Jesuits began to show signs of shifting their attention away from the evangelization of Native Americans and toward the exploration of uncharted regions of North America. No longer did Jesuits exhibit the same degree of optimism and fortitude as earlier missionaries like Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, both of whom died as martyrs in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. The most famous exemplar of this alteration in Jesuit orientation was Jacques Marquette. In 1673, Marquette left the missions of the Great Lakes and joined the Canadian trader and explorer Louis Joliet on an expedition in search of the Mississippi River. Together with a small crew, Marquette and Joliet traveled more than 2,500 miles by canoe from the Mackinac Straits, up the Fox River, down the Wisconsin River, and finally down the Mississippi River until they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River (north of the present-day Louisiana-Arkansas border). It was there that Marquette and Joliet interacted with the descendents of Quapaw who had come in contact with de Soto’s expedition more than a hundred years earlier. The Quapaw introduced Marquette and Joliet to the calumet (pipe smoking) ceremony and warned them of Spaniards further south. Convinced that the Mississippi River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico instead of the Pacific Ocean, the two explorers returned north to the Illinois Country where Marquette established a mission at Kaskaskia (near present-day Utica, Illinois) in 1674 and died shortly thereafter.
From the Illinois Country to Louisiana
Following the Marquette-Joliet expedition, French and Canadian officials recognized the potential value of the Mississippi River Valley to the French empire in North America. The Illinois Country, a vast region without clear boundaries that stretched from the Alleghenies in the east to the Rockies in the west and from Peoria in the north to the Arkansas River in the south, became the last major territorial step toward the colonization of what would come to be known as Louisiana in 1682. The Jesuit Claude-Jean Allouez migrated to the Kaskaskia mission after Marquette died in 1675. The veteran missionary brought with him a deep suspicion of coureurs des bois, especially because of what he perceived as their bad influence on Native Americans. Similarly, fur traders often rejected the authority of missionaries and considered them to be obstacles to their chief goal of making money. Yet regardless of their mutual distrust, missionaries and fur traders of the Illinois Country played a pivotal role in the future migration of French and Canadian men and women to Louisiana during the eighteenth century.
Sieur de La Salle, a former Jesuit and ambitious entrepreneur from Normandy, tried his hand at the fur trade in the Illinois Country during the late 1670s. After achieving little profit, La Salle looked for better business opportunities further south along the Mississippi River. In 1678 he started an expedition that would retrace parts of the Marquette-Joliet route, and in the process attempt to buy what the Recollect missionary Louis Hennepin described as “all the Furs and Skins of the remotest Savages, who, as they thought, did not know their Value; and so enrich themselves in one single voyage.” It was not until 1682 that La Salle, joined by his lieutenant Henri de Tonti, finally led an expedition that would pass the mouth of the Arkansas River, reach the Gulf of Mexico, claim the river (which he named Colbert after his chief benefactor) and its drainage basin for the French empire, and name the region Louisiane after King Louis XIV.
After returning to France, Hennepin published A description of Louisiana, recently discovered to the southwest of New France by order of the king in 1683, the first book of its kind to describe the Illinois Country and Louisiana. In it, Hennepin included a map entitled Carte de la Nouvelle France et de la Louisiane nouvellement découverte, which was the first map to include the place-name Louisiane in a cartographic representation of North America. Interestingly, no details of life on the Mississippi River appear on the map below Fort de Crèvecoeur in present-day Illinois. All that would begin to change with the French colonization of Lower Louisiana in 1699.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Pasquier, Michael T. "Early Exploration." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published May 16, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/491/.
Pasquier, Michael T. "Early Exploration." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 16 May 2011. Web. 4 July 2015.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Cabeza de Vaca, Álvár Núñez. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Casas, Bartolomé de las. Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. London: Penguin, 1999.
Eccles, W. J. The French in North America, 1500–1783. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.
Galloway, Patricia K., ed. La Salle and His Legacy: Frenchmen and Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982.
Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Greer, Allan. The People of New France. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Hennepin, Louis. Father Louis Hennepin’s description of Louisiana; newly discovered to the southwest of New France by order of the king. Translated by Marion E. Cross. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938.
Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.
Weddle, Robert S. Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500–1685. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.