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[Detail] Vue de Quebec, capitale du Canada. 1755.

Exploration and Settlement

The first exploration of the Americas by the European powers was undertaken under Spanish sponsorship by Christopher Columbus, who was seeking a route to Asia that would bypass Portuguese-controlled Africa. Columbus’s initial exploration of several islands of the Caribbean is documented in the France in America collection, in the form of a letter from Columbus to a friend.

In 1524, France made its first major contribution to exploration of the Americas when Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sponsored by France, made the first exploration of North America’s Atlantic coast. Verrazano’s voyage was just the first of France’s many contributions to generating knowledge about the American continents (see the Theme essay on Exploration and Knowledge, for more information).

The collection has a wide variety of French-language documents from Bibliothèque Nationale de France on the early exploration of North America, including a handwritten report of the second voyage of Jacques Cartier, c. 1535 and Samuel Champlain’s account of his voyage of 1603.

Secondary sources also provide insight into Champlain’s explorations. Francis Parkman’s "Historic Handbook of the Northern Tour," published in 1885, provides a survey in English of the French exploration of settlements of North America.  "Papers Relating to the French Occupation in Western Pennsylvania, 1631-1764" provides a general history of French settlements in North America from Champlain’s discoveries through the conflicts in the Ohio Valley during the French and Indian War.

 The "History of Brulé’s Discoveries and Explorations, 1610-1626" further elaborates the exploits of the early French explorers.  Stephen Brulé, the subject of this book, was an aide and interpreter for Champlain, one of a small number to survive the first year at Quebec. In order to learn their language, Brulé spent a year with the Huron, becoming the first European to see, among other things, Lake Huron.

Read selections from several of the sources noted above.

  • On a map, trace the routes of the explorers discussed in the selections you read. Add symbols to indicate where significant events in their explorations occurred. Note the locations where various Indian tribes lived.
  • Describe the interactions of the French explorers with the Indians. In what ways did the explorers use the Indians to further their own ends?  How did the Indians respond?
  • How did the explorers document their voyages? Why were the exploits of Cartier and Champlain better documented than those of Brulé?
  • The author of "History of Brulé’s Discoveries and Explorations, 1610-1626" says in the preface that Brulé’s story is "one of the most romantic chapters of adventures wherein is related the captivity and suffering of an explorer at the hands of savages."  In what ways were the adventures of the explorers "romantic"? (You may need to look for alternative definitions of the word romantic in order to answer this question.) What adjectives would you use to describe the explorers’ exploits?

Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle was another noted French explorer. In 1682, he journeyed to the mouth of the Mississippi River, claiming the Mississippi Valley, which came to be known as Louisiana, for France. (Note that Louisiana referred to a much larger territory than the modern-day U.S. state.) Read from the "Memoir of Robert Cavelier de La Salle" on the purpose for taking possession of Louisiana (c. 1684).

The principal result which the Sieur de La Salle expected from the great perils and labors which he underwent in the discovery of the Mississippi, was to satisfy the wish expressed to him by the late Monseigneur Colbert, of finding a port where the French might establish themselves and harass the Spaniards in those regions from whence they derive all their wealth. The place which he proposes to fortify lies sixty leagues above the mouth of the Rivert Colbert (Mississippi), in the Gulf of Mexico, and possesses all the advantages for such a purpose which can be wished for, both upon account of its excellent position and the favorable disposition of the savages who live in that part of the country.

From  the "Memoir of Robert Cavelier de La Salle"

Also read from the English translation of "Henri Joutel’s Historical Journal of Monsieur de La Salle’s Last Voyage to Discover the River Mississippi."   Joutel accompanied La Salle, and his account of the voyage was first published in 1713. 

  • What was the stated purpose of the La Salle expedition?
  • Why was France anxious to establish a colony to "harass the Spanish"?
  • What do these stories tell you about the preparations necessary for a voyage such as La Salle’s? Does any of this information surprise you?

Henry de Tonty’s memoir of 1693 in "Documents, Papers, Materials and Publications Relating to the Northwest and the State of Illinois" gives a lengthy account in English of the La Salle expeditions in the Great Lakes region.

The French expanded their hold in the Mississippi Valley with the founding of New Orleans by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, in 1718, and then established a series of forts at the junctions of tributaries of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Read selections from the English translation of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville’s historical journal on the colonization of Louisiana (c. 1699). Also read a description of the founding of New Orleans in "Historical Memoirs of Louisiana, From the First Settlement of the Colony to the Departure of Governor O'Reilly in 1770."

  • Why was control of the Mississippi River deemed important for France?
  • What difficulties did France encounter in establishing control over Louisiana?
  • What was the strategic importance of the French settlement at New Orleans?  Can you think of other eras in U.S. history when New Orleans has had strategic importance?