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

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Searching for the "Northwest Passage"—a hoped-for commercial sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, north and west of the North American landmass—provided the motive for much exploration of North America. The noted explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle was one of many determined to discover a route to China:

THE first design of the sieur de la Salle had been to find the long-sought passage to the Pacific ocean, and although the river Colbert (Mississippi) does not lead to it, yet this great man had so much talent and courage, that he hoped to find it, if it were possible, as he would have done, had God spared his life.

From "Account of La Salle’s Attempt to Reach the Mississippi by Sea"

Find three different types of sources that provide information about the search for the Northwest Passage. For example, you might examine a map, an account by missionaries among the Indians of the American Northwest who inquired about the possibilities that rivers crossed the continent, and a secondary source from the Themes section of the collection. Compare the information about the Northwest Passage available in each source. What are the advantages of each? What are the disadvantages? How would you answer these questions based on the sources you used?

  • How did the fables of the Northwest Passage begin?
  • Why did European explorers seek to find a Northwest Passage?
  • Other than La Salle, which French explorers sought to find a passage to the Western Sea?