Before Lewis & Clark

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

on for half a league up this river and made camp on one of its banks. Four of our men went hunting and killed a buffalo bull and cow within half a league from where we camped."

Later their party took over 400 buffalo for meat to survive the winter. At the Grand Falls of the Mississippi River near Des Moines, Penicaut described this scene. "To the left of the rapids are open prairies extending for ten leagues from the bank of the Mississippi. The grasses on these prairies, which are like Sainfoin, come up no higher than one's garter at most. On these prairies, there is an infinity of every kind of animal."

There was already a trading post on an island in the Upper Mississippi (Barren Island, Wisconsin). "When spring comes, the savages come to this island bringing their merchandise, which consists of every kind of pelt, such as beaver, otter, marten, lynx, pekan (fisher) and all other kinds of pelts. Bear skins were commonly used (or kept) by the savages and French Canadians to cover their canoes."

In addition to the tremendous wildlife resource, Penicaut and company also had success mining copper ore on the "River Verte," and reported the presence of lead up the "Rivere Meramecq" (Meramec) and Salt Springs at "La Petite Rivere de Le Saline" (present day Ste. Genevieve County). It appears that by 1700, the visions of LaSalle of a vast trading empire in Louisiana were becoming reality.


Although the Mississippi River and its immediate environs were beginning to bustle with European activity, the muddy, treacherous waters of Pekitanoui remained a mystery. Undoubtedly, some of the most durable voyagers had ventured up the Missouri River, but a dependable account of its source, the lands it drained or the tribes that lived there was not available. Early attempts of organized exploration were blocked by hostile Indians or thwarted by the rigors of the river.

It would take a man of extreme experience and character to push up the Missouri. That man was Ettienne de Viniard, Sieur de Bourgmont. Bourgmont has the infamous reputation of an unbridled rogue. He reportedly left his post at Fort Detroit in 1712 and spontaneously married the daughter of a Missouri Indian chief, who was helping the French ward off a threat from the Fox Indians.

Bourgmont went back to the Missouri Indian villages with his new wife where he lived for years. By late 1713,

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