64 Parishes

Early Exploration and Colonization

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, several expeditions explored the area that would later become known as Louisiana.

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Early Exploration and Colonization


"Taking possession of Louisiana and the River Mississippi, in the name of Louis XIVth," Jean-Adolphe Bocquin.

How did Spanish exploration and colonization efforts in North America begin?

Spanish exploration of North America began during the early sixteenth century. Explorer 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. In 1528, a Spanish expedition led by Panfilo de Narváez landed in present-day Tampa Bay, Florida, but overland explorations were difficult. Access to food and supplies was limited, and local Native people repeatedly attacked the Spaniards, seeking to dispel them from their lands.

Hernando de Soto, another Spanish explorer, followed this failed initial 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 peoples. Like Narváez, de Soto’s men searched for precious metals but had no success. 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 Mississippi, all while the group was taking considerable casualties in battles with Native 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, and 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 sail to the Gulf of Mexico. Some 322 crew members departed on a seventeen-day voyage to the gulf, leaving behind more than five hundred Native people 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 evangelist expeditions that resulted in the death of several clergymen. With a rise in the number of shipwrecks along the Gulf Coast, clerics and laymen convinced the Spanish king to take drastic, violent measures against “savage” Native peoples posing obstacles to the settlement of Florida.

The Spanish governor of Florida, Tristán de Luna y Arellano, 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 population. This fleet of eleven vessels made landfall at present-day Pensacola Bay in 1559, only to be met with a devastating hurricane and mutiny, thus leaving the Gulf Coast uninhabited by Europeans, aside from castaways who were left for dead.

How did French exploration and colonization efforts in North America begin?

While the English and Dutch challenged Spanish dominance in the Gulf of Mexico, the French focused their efforts on the exploration of the St. Lawrence River Valley in what is now Canada during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The French Crown 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.

King Francis I of France, also had to deal with the Roman Catholic Pope. 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 that previously divided the Americas between Portugal and Spain.

Francis I acted quickly after the pope’s decision, 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 to locate mineral resources, like gold and silver, 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. In 1534 Cartier convinced Iroquois Chief Donnacona to allow two of his sons, Domagaya and Taignoagny, to travel to France, where they were trained as interpreters before returning with Cartier to Canada the next year.

This second expedition, more ambitious and better funded than the first, resulted in the beginning stages of French settlement near present-day Montreal. In neither expedition did Cartier intend to begin large-scale colonization and missionary work in Canada. He did, however, return to France with ten captive Iroquois, taken against their will, including Chief Donnacona, 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 fabled sources of gold and diamonds. Again, Cartier failed to satisfy Francis I’s dream of discovering treasure in the Americas. He returned to France in 1542.

The French continued to fish the seas of the North Atlantic following Cartier’s failed expeditions in the 1530s and 40s. 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 hired 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.

Dutch traders and French competitors complicated Champlain’s hopes for the discovery of a “western passage” to the Pacific or a new source of wealth for company and crown. French involvement in wars between the Algonquins and Iroquois also frustrated the fur trade and the stability of the new colony. Champlain was forced to surrender Quebec to a band of Englishmen in 1629.

Champlain, along with forty crewmembers and three Jesuits, retook Quebec from the English in 1632. Growth was slow, as only 356 individuals—116 women and 240 men, including 29 Jesuits, and 53 soldiers—resided in and around Quebec by 1640. What little assistance colonists did receive often came from the Catholic Church, which heightened the involvement of missionaries in the evangelization of Native peoples. 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. At the same time, 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.

How did the fur trade and missionary work effect Native peoples and the development of French colonies in North America?

For much of the seventeenth century, missionaries and fur traders functioned as explorers of New France. Native people 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 people often resulted in compromises, as it was unreasonable for a lone European to be welcomed into a Native village without showing both 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 missionary model that called for removing Native people from their homes and putting them in highly controlled, fortressed villages. Instead Jesuits journeyed away from French posts and lived among the Iroquois, most successfully among the Huron people of New France. Traders were like missionaries in that they trekked into areas with little European presence, but their interest was in building economic partnerships with Native people. Interactions often went further than the trading of goods, since many traders, known as coureurs de bois, lived with Native groups and developed close personal relationships with Native men and women.

How did the Mississippi River influence the course of French exploration in North America?

By the 1660s and 1670s, Jesuits began to show signs of shifting their attention away from evangelizing Native people and toward exploring the uncharted regions of North America. One such Jesuit 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. 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, Marquette and Joliet interacted with the descendants of Quapaw people, who encountered 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 near present-day Utica, Illinois, in 1674. He died shortly thereafter.

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 step toward colonizing what would come to be known as Louisiana.

After Marquette’s death Claude-Jean Allouez, a veteran Jesuit missionary, migrated to the Illinois Country mission. Allouez distrusted the coureurs de bois because of their bad influence on Native people. Fur traders often rejected the authority of colonial missionaries and considered them obstacles to their chief goal of making money. Yet regardless of their distrust in each other, missionaries and fur traders of the Illinois Country played an important role in the future migration of French and Canadian men and women to Louisiana during the eighteenth century.

René-Robert Cavalier, 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 sought better business opportunities further south along the Mississippi River. In 1678 he started an expedition that would follow parts of the Marquette-Joliet route, and in the process, he attempted to buy what fellow 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 Mississippi River (which he named Colbert after his chief sponsor) and its basin for the French empire, and name the region “Louisiane” after King Louis XIV.

After returning to France Hennepin published a description of Louisiana 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” (“Map of New France and the newly discovered Louisiana”), which was the first map to include the place-name “Louisiane.” Interestingly no details of life on the Mississippi River appear on the map below present-day Illinois. All that would begin to change with the French colonization of lower Louisiana in 1699.