BEFORE the coming of the Pilgrim Fathers, or even the founding
of Jamestown, the French had made a beginning toward the occupation of Canada. At the moment when Henry Hudson was bartering with the Indians along the banks of the Hudson, Champlain was but a few miles away, exploring the beautiful lake that bears his name; and the year before that he had established a post on a rocky cliff overlooking the majestic St. Lawrence, and had named it Quebec.1 For many years thereafter the French came in small numbers, scattering through the wilderness, trading in furs, and seeking to convert the Indians to Christianity. The conversion of the Indians became the care of the French government, and the work was intrusted to the Jesuit priests -- men who would brave every peril to carry the religion of Rome to the benighted red man. They established missions in many places and at the same time made useful explorations through the great northern wilderness. In 1634 Jean Nicollet, sent by Champlain, discovered Lake Michigan. Other Frenchmen discovered Lake Superior and portions of the boundless regions west and south of it.
In 1666 one of these, Father Allouez, went far into the lake region, beyond the head of Lake Superior, and while there he heard of the vast, treeless plains of Illinois and of that river beyond that flowed toward the south. Returning to Quebec, Allouez related what he had heard, and the hearts of others
were fired with a desire to explore the great valley in the southwest. Among these was Father James Marquette, who had recently come from France. He, with another Jesuit priest named Joliet and a few guides and companions, determined to explore the western wilderness, where no white man's foot had been. They ascended the Fox River, carried their canoes across the portage to the Wisconsin, and floated down this stream to the Mississippi. They then launched their little boats upon its bosom and floated for hundreds of miles with its current. The shores were covered with dense forests abounding in wild animals, stretched away in boundless, grassy plains, with here and there the well-known traces of the red children of the forest. On they floated, past the mouths of the turbid Missouri and of the clear, sparkling Ohio, and still on until the semi-tropical plants and breezes replaced the rigorous climate of the north. When they reached the mouth of the Arkansas, they decided to retrace their steps, and the toilsome work of rowing up-stream was begun. After a weary journey of many weeks they reached the Illinois River, and, ascending it, crossed the country to Lake Michigan. Joliet now hastened back to Canada
to tell of their discoveries, while the self-denying Marquette determined to remain in the wilderness and give his life to the enlightenment of the savages. But his labors were soon to end; one day, as he was kneeling by a rude altar of his own making, his spirit passed away, and his friends found his lifeless body in the attitude of prayer.
Of still greater importance were the achievements of Robert Cavelier de La Salle, a young Frenchman born at Rouen, France,
and educated at a Jesuit school. While yet a young man he
migrated to Canada and occupied an estate Fort Frontenac, now
Kingston, on the shore of Lake Ontario. Inflamed with the news of Marquette's discoveries, he determined to leave his lands and herds and explore the great western country, and thus to secure it for his king. La Salle was probably the first of his nation to plan the holding of the entire Mississippi basin and the lake region by means of military posts. After several years' negotiating, he received permission from Louis XIV to occupy and explore the great valley of the Mississippi. In the spring of 1682 he began one of the most famous exploring tours in the early history of our country. Taking with him a few companions, he floated down the Mississippi to its mouth, took possession of its vast basin in the name of France, and called it Louisiana in honor of the king. He then made the long and weary journey back to Quebec, and thence sailed to France, where he soon succeeded in interesting his king in planting a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. The king sent La Salle back with four vessels, one of which was an armed frigate, bearing nearly three hundred colonists. It is claimed that the French king expended more money in fitting out this colony than did all the English sovereigns combined in planting their thirteen colonies in North America.
1As early as 1534 Cartier ascended the St. Lawrence as far as the site of Montreal, and Roberval made an unsuccessful attempt to plant a colony near the site of Quebec in 1542. The French had planted a colony of jail birds on Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, in 1598, and De Monts settled a colony in Acadia in 1604; but neither colony was permanent. Champlain had made a previous exploring tour 1603) to the American coast. [return]
Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter VIII p. 160-162. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.