Before Lewis & Clark

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

One was called Mechesebe, and the other Pekitanoui. Their long arms spread wide, over a wild land teeming with resources. Where did they go? What treasures did they lead to? Could they provide passage across an entire continent?

Mechesebe, the Mississippi River, and Pekitanoui, the Missouri River, held the future of a nation in their vast arms. Visions of wealth and fruitful enterprise, or hopes of saving the souls of native people, drove numerous brave men to venture onto their uncharted waters.

The earliest explorers were perhaps the bravest. With no maps and scant provisions, possessing only weapons of the hunt and strong wills, they slid their pirogues into these unknown waters and set off on voyages of discovery.

Long before Missouri became a state (1821); before the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803); and almost 100 years before St. Louis was founded as the seat of western commerce (1763), French wilderness explorers or coureurs de bois paddled these rivers seeking to exploit the untapped natural resources. Not all of them recorded their adventures, but some did. The explorations and descriptions of these brave men provide us with a unique glimpse of these rivers, the lands bordering them, the native peoples and the explorers themselves.

During the middle 1600s, while English colonists were establishing settlements along the Atlantic seaboard, French colonial expansion was taking place throughout the Great Lakes region. Missionaries in the region learned from the native people of a great river which flowed south through tremendously rich land, eventually reaching the sea - either the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. Learning more about controlling this river and the lands it provided access to was essential to colonial expansion.

Marquette and Joliet

On June 17, 1673, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette paddled their birch bark canoe onto the "Father of Waters." With the help of native American guides, they had paddled and portaged their way from a mission at Sault Ste. Marie and reached the Mississippi River by way of the Wisconsin River. The mission of their journey was to explore the river and determine its size, direction and commercial value.

Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, was interested in geography and exploration, but the main reason he ventured into this unknown wilderness was to "preach the Gospel to all the peoples of this new world who have so long groveled in the darkness of infidelity." Joliet was a fearless fur trader and explorer. Together, Marquette and

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