The French followed the Portuguese, Spanish, and English to the New World. By 1504 French fishermen were harvesting the waters of the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Soon contact with the Indians of the region led to a lucrative fur trade. Explorations by Jacques Cartier in the 1530s and 1540s and by Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s pushed the fur trade inland up the St. Lawrence River. By 1650 the French had reached all five of the Great Lakes (see Item 7).

As the French expanded their Indian trade westward from the St. Lawrence they continued the search for a water route to the Orient. Reports from western Indians of “Great Waters” even further to the west raised their hopes of finding this passage.

Although the Spaniards Hernando de Soto and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca were the first Europeans to see the Mississippi River during their explorations to the interior of North America in the mid-1500s, more than a century passed before any other Europeans visited the Missouri or Mississippi rivers beyond the southwestern portion of the Mississippi basin.

Undoubtedly, French coureurs de bois were the first Europeans to reach the northern Mississippi. French explorers came within a three-day trip of reaching the Mississippi River in 1640 and may have reached it in 1659. Finally, in 1673, Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, and Louis Joliet, a fur trader, not only reached the Mississippi but descended it as far as the Arkansas River. Noting the large volume of water entering the Mississippi from the mouth of the Missouri River, which he called the “Pekitanoui,” Marquette speculated that this river came from a great distance. The Indians told him that if he ascended the Missouri for five or six days and made an easy portage, he would reach another river that led southwest to a lake and joined another waterway that led to the sea. Marquette proclaimed: “I have hardly any doubt that it is the Vermillion Sea [Gulf of California], and I do not despair of discovering it someday.” Marquette was never able to make this voyage because he died two years later.

In 1682 Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, descended the Mississippi and proved that the river discharged into the Gulf of Mexico as Marquette had predicted. La Salle claimed the Mississippi and all lands drained by it and its tributaries for France and named the territory Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV. Several members of La Salle’s expedition noted the powerful current of the Missouri River. Father Louis Hennepin said that the Missouri could be ascended “for ten or twelve days to a mountain where they [the tributaries] have their source; and that beyond this mountain is the sea, where great ships are seen.”

Over the next forty years French explorers, traders, miners, and missionaries explored the upper Mississippi, Ohio, Red, and Arkansas rivers and, most importantly, the Missouri River. By 1700 the French had made contact with the Osage Indians and perhaps the Kansa Indians. In 1713 Etienne V‚niard de Bourgmont surveyed in detail the Missouri River from the Platte River to its mouth. For more than seventy years, no one ventured further up the Missouri than Bourgmont, though French exploration continued to the south. The French reached the Rio Grande in 1713 and Sante Fe in 1739. They built Fort Cavagnolle in 1744, near present-day Fort Leavenworth, to be a trading post and a gateway to New Mexico.

In addition to this southernmost exploration, other French exploration pushed westward along a more northerly route from Canada and the Great Lakes. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, and his sons set off from Canada in the 1730s in quest of a route to the western sea. In 1739 they reached the Mandan Indian villages near the Great Bend of the Missouri. In 1742 two of the sons explored an area southwest of the Mandan villages. Thus, by the time the French period in North America came to an end with the fall of Quebec in 1763 and the cession of Louisiana to the Spanish in 1764, the French had explored most of the territory that lay between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains in the present-day United States and southern Canada.

In addition to their legacy of extensive explorations, the French developed two geographical theories that were to play an important role in later concepts of western North America. The pyramidal height-of-land theory postulated that America’s great rivers all originated from centralized mountain heights before they dispersed to outlets in the Mississippi River, Hudson Bay, or Pacific Ocean. The French believed the sources of the rivers to be so close together that a short portage between the sources might be possible.

The second geographical theory, known as symmetrical geography, held that the topography of the western half of the continent was a mirror image of the continent’s eastern landforms and waterways. Thus the drainage patterns of the rivers on the Pacific slopes of the western mountains would resemble those of the rivers on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains. Further, as the construction of an eastern canal from the Potomac River to a tributary of the Ohio River appeared feasible, a similar internal improvement linking the rivers on the Pacific side of the continent might also be possible. Resolving these conjectures was one of the principal objectives of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The cartographic and geographic knowledge obtained from the French explorations was presented in two ways. First, discoverers such as Bourgmont, La Vérendrye, and Champlain wrote journals and letters; cartographers produced maps from these writings. Although many of these journals, letters, and maps were published, on the whole, this material was not widely distributed. The second and far more popular means of presenting the French geographic knowledge took the form of “pulp” journals. Sensational journals by Hennepin, Baron de Lahontan, Daniel Coxe, Pierre de Charlevoix, Robert Rogers, and Jonathan Carver contained a mix of the authors’s firsthand investigations, information borrowed from other legitimate sources, and fictitious accounts. Often promotional in nature, these journals extolled the western lands and touted the ease of reaching the Pacific Ocean.

The items in this section of the exhibition were all known to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson owned copies of all of the sensational journals on display. Both the legitimate and the exaggerated accounts helped form Jefferson’s image of the West and spurred his romantic hope of finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean.

“Carte de la Nouvelle France et de la Louisiane Nouvellement découverte.”
In Description de la Louisiane, nouvellement découverte au Sud’Oüest de la Nouvelle France. Paris, 1683.

“A Map of a Large Country Newly Discovered in the Northern America situated between New Mexico and the Frozen Sea.”
In A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. London, 1698.

“Carte de la Rivière Longue et de Quelques Autres.”
In Nouveaux Voyages de Mr. le baron de Lahontan, dans l’Amérique Septentrionale. The Hague, 1703.

“Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi.” 1718.

“Map of North America to ye Newest and most Exact observations.” 1720.

“A Map of Carolana and of the River Meschacebe.”
In A Description of the English Province of Carolana, by the Spaniards call’d Florida, And by the French La Louisiane. London, 1722.

“A Map of the British Dominions in North America as Settled by the late Treaty of Peace 1763.”
In A Voyage to North-America. Dublin, 1766.

“Carte de la Louisiane.” 1732.

“Amerique Septentrionale.” 1746.

“Carte de l’Amerique Septentrionale Depuis 28 Degr‚ de Latitude jusqu’au 72.” 1755.

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