Before Lewis & Clark

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

accumulation of large and entire trees, branches and floating islands was issuing forth from the mouth of the river, Pekitanoui, with such impetuosity, that we could not without great danger risk passing through it. So great was the agitation, that the water was very muddy, and could not become clear."

This is the earliest recorded description of the Missouri River, legendary for its floating tangles of trees and brush and muddy waters. Having successfully navigated the confluence, Marquette and Joliet continued south for a couple of weeks.

They concluded their descent of the river at the Quapaw villages near the Arkansas River. There they were assured that the river continued south toward the sea. Having determined the character, direction and destination of the river, they turned back north.


Although news of the Mississippi River caused great excitement among the residents of New France, preoccupation with wars in Europe caused a lull in further, immediate exploration. That is, until Robert de LaSalle came onto the scene. LaSalle was a tall, muscular, rugged man whose primary interest was the fur trade. He was 23 when he arrived in Canada in 1667 and spent several years living in the wilderness with the Iroquois.

After hearing of Marquette and Joliet's discovery, his ambition was to travel to the mouth of the Mississippi, claim it for France and open an inland trading empire. In 1677, he received the endorsement of the French government. After spending several years living in the Illinois country, LaSalle led an expedition down the Mississippi River. Like Marquette and Joliet, he found the country bountiful and the natives friendly.

Near its mouth, the river split into three main channels. LaSalle divided his party into three crews, which proceeded through canebrakes and swamps, eating alligator along the way, until they reached the Gulf of Mexico. LaSalle claimed for France the Mississippi and all the lands it drained, naming them Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. The year was 1682.

With the knowledge that the Mississippi spilled its waters into the Gulf of Mexico, efforts to colonize Louisiana were shifted to the Gulf Coast. LaSalle himself led the first expedition of French colonists to the Lower Mississippi in 1686, but he died in the wilderness of Texas during the ill-fated mission.

In 1699, the French established a colony near the mouth of the Mississippi at Biloxi. Further exploration and settlement of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers spread from here,

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