Mississippi River Ideal for Exploring America's Heartland

By Swenson, Jim | Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque), June 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

Mississippi River Ideal for Exploring America's Heartland


Swenson, Jim, Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque)


Almost since America enticed Europeans to its shores, the Mississippi River drew explorers to its vast waterway.

They reached southern stretches of the river more than a decade before any of them came close to Dubuque.

On May 8, 1541, south of present-day Memphis, Tenn., Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto came upon the Mississippi River - making him one of the first European explorers to do so.

After building their flatboats, de Soto and 400 troops crossed the Mississippi. They did so at night to avoid the armed Native Americans who patrolled the river in canoes.

Explorers' "discovery" of the upper Mississippi River in the late 1600s was more or less an accident.

In 1673, the governor of New France - the French colonies of continental North America - sent an expedition to explore the rivers and lakes and seek a Northwest Passage across the continent.

He sent seven explorers, led by a Catholic missionary named Jacques Marquette, and a fur trader named Louis Joliet. Marquette knew several native American languages.

Marquette and Joliet began their trip at the northern tip of Lake Michigan. They traveled across Lake Michigan and entered the Fox River, which led them to the Mississippi River.

It wasn't long before they realized that the Mississippi could not be the Northwest Passage because the river flowed south, not west.

Nevertheless, the explorers continued to travel downriver until they reached the Arkansas River. They learned from the natives that Spanish or English settlers were living south along the river. This worried them, so they turned back, returning to New France by the Illinois River.

This expedition opened up the Mississippi River to trade and settlements by the French.

Besides Marquette and Joliet, there were other notable river explorers:

Father Louis Hennepin/La Salle

Father Hennepin joined a westward expedition led by Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle. They set sail from Fort Frontenac on the northeast corner of Lake Ontario on Aug. 7, 1679, in their ship, Le Griffon.

Their voyage went across Lake Erie and eventually made it to Green Bay. The expedition went inland and southward to the Illinois River and then on to the Mississippi. La Salle decided to return to Quebec, but before he left he urged Hennepin to go up the Mississippi on a journey of discovery.

The priest and two companions went north in 1680 and were eventually captured by the Sioux. They took the trio on trips farther north, to what is now Minneapolis. During the trip, Hennepin was adopted by the chief, Aquipaguetin, and his six wives, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. They came upon a waterfall nearly 60 feet high, which Hennepin named "St. Anthony Falls" after his baptismal patron.

In September, the chief gave the Frenchmen permission to leave.

LaSalle would later be credited as the first European to travel the entire length of the river (February-April 1682). He claimed the territory for France, which would now own more than half of what is now the United States. …

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