Before Lewis & Clark

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

as well as from the north.


Andre Penicaut was a master carpenter and ship builder who was part of the early colonization efforts near the mouth of the Mississippi. Because of his boat-building skills, he accompanied many of the early explorations of the Mississippi Valley. He wrote an account, describing his journeys between 1699 and 1721.

In 1700, Penicaut accompanied M. de LeSeur on an ascent of the Mississippi River from its mouth to Saut de St. Anthoine in present day Minnesota. The exped ition's principal mission was to find copper mines reportedly on the Riviere Verte (Blue Earth River, Minnesota). They were also to make friendly contact with the natives and to pursue trade in fur or other valuables.

It took LeSeur, Penicaut and company over four months to ascend the river. Along the way, they stopped frequently at Indian villages, where they too were well treated. For them, however, it was already a different world than that encountered by Joliet, Marquette or LaSalle just 15-25 years earlier. Most villages had several to many French missionaries and coureurs de bois living with the natives.

Having followed the lead of Marquette, Joliet and LaSalle, these Frenchmen were already engaged in trapping and trading with the natives throughout the region. And no wonder. Penicaut repeatedly described the tremendous abundance of wildlife encountered in the region. Much of the land along the middle and upper Mississippi River, especially around Indian villages, was prairie and open woodlands, which abounded in wildlife.

Of the Cascascia village in southern Illinois, Penicaut wrote that "All around the village there is a very large prairie, beyond which are mountains that make a very pretty vista." Not far from here, one of the men shot and killed a bear that fed over 10 men for a week. "The bears from the banks of the Mississippi are as fat as beavers and very good to eat." In hunting bear, one had to be extremely careful because "with one single blow of tooth and claw, he will tear you to pieces instantly. There are bears as big as coach horses and so strong they can easily break a tree as big as one's thigh."

Across from the mouth of the Illinois River, in present day St. Charles County, Penicaut described "the beginning of a prairie, the most beautiful in the world and very extensive." At the Cuivre River, (present day Lincoln County) Penicaut wrote, "We went

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