Before Lewis & Clark

By Tim A. Nigh | August 2, 1995
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 1995

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 Joliet are credited as the first Europeans to discover and explore the Mississippi River.

Marquette and Joliet followed the river south, traveling as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River. Marquette's journals describe a wild and beautiful country teeming with wildlife, including extensive flocks of waterfowl and turkey, large herds of buf falo and huge fish.

"From time to time we came upon monstrous fish, one of which struck our canoe with such violence that I thought it was a great tree, about to break the boat to pieces."

After seven days on the river, in the vicinity of today's Iowa-Missouri state line, they "perceived on the water's edge some tracks of men, and a narrow and somewhat beaten path leading to a fine prairie...We silently followed the narrow path, and, after walking about two leagues, (a league is about 3 miles), we discovered a village on the bank of a river, and two others on a hill distant about a half a league from the first."

They stood and shouted from a hill, and soon the inhabitants swarmed out of their huts to see the white strangers. Four old men walked out to greet them. The natives informed the Frenchmen that "they were Illinois; and as a token of peace, they offered us their pipes to smoke."

As with the other tribes encountered by Marquette and Joliet, the natives had heard of the French and appare ntly treated them with respect and admiration. They were frequently celebrated with feasts that included wild game, corn and watermelon. Some tribes even had hatchets, hoes, knives and glass flasks, which they had apparently obtained from tribes that had contact with the Spanish colonies to the southwest.

Near present day Alton, Illinois, they were unnerved by a painting of two hideous monsters high on a bluff.

"They are as big as a calf, they have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales and so long a tail that it winds around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail."

Shortly downstream from this sight, they encountered another frightening experience.

"We were rowing peacefully in clear, calm water when we heard the noise of a rapids into which we were about to fall. I have seen nothing more dreadful. An 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, 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 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, French missionaries were complaining that Bourgmont "lived like a savage" and spread "scandalous, even criminal behavior" throughout the Illinois country. Despite his reputation, Bourgmont was commissioned in 1714 to conduct an expedition to provide a detailed description of the route from the mouth of the Mississippi up the Missouri as far as he could travel.

Bourgmont's "Route To Be Taken To Ascend the Missouri," does just this. Written as if describing a route for a cartographer, his account provided the basis for one of the earliest maps of the region _ by DeLisle in 1718. In addition, his "Exact Description of Louisiana" was more descriptive of the land, flora, fauna and native peoples.

As did other early explorers, Bourgmont spoke highly of the lands in the Mississippi Valley. "It would be impossible to speak too highly of this river with respect to its abundance of beasts, game, fruits, roots and pot herbs." The Missouri River traversed lands that were equally bountiful. "From all the Missouri River can be gotten furs of every kind, very fine and good, as the climate there is very cold." However, navigation of the river was made challenging, not only by the numerous islands and side chutes, but more so by countless snags and huge rafts of entangled trees.

The Lower Missouri (below Kansas City) also differed from the Mississippi in having only two tribes living along its banks. The Missouri Indians, whom Bourgmont had lived with, had a sizable village situated on prairie-laden hills overlooking the river in present day Saline County. The Osage, whose main villages were in the upper reaches of the Osage River Basin, (Bates, Vernon counties), had a small faction (the Little Osage) living on the Missouri near the mouth of the Lamine.

Bourgmont respected the Missouri Indians and their ways. "They are not very numerous, they are of very good blood and are more alert than any other tribe." The yearly ritual of these tribes was adopted to take advantage of the bounties of nature available to them. In early spring, they would hunt for deer, buffalo, elk, bear and other wild game. In April, they would plant gardens of corn, squash, pumpkins and beans.

Hunting throughout the summer was followed by a fall harvest, then a fall hunt. The skills of these and other native Americans was instrumental in the survival of many coureuer de bois and the subsequent growth of the fur trade.

Bourgmont made it as far north as the Platte River (in Nebraska) on this initial expedition. He also made a friendly acquaintance with the Kansas Indians, whose villages were near the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers (near Kansas City). He described this country in eloquent terms: "These are the most beautiful countries and the most beautiful pieces of land in the world. The prairies there are like seas and full of wild beasts, especially buffalo, cows, hinds and stags, which are in numbers that stagger the imagination."


Bourgmont's initial expedition was followed by another some 10 years later. Apparently, hostilities and inter-tribal warfare had prevented progress by the French up the Missouri. Commissioned by the Mississippi Company (a French company intent on exploiting the resources of the Missouri River Valley and establishing a trade route with the Spanish to the southwest) Charles DuTisne attempted to make it up the Missouri in 1719 to establish trade relations.

He was thwarted, however, by the Missouri Indians, who, fearful of his intentions, would not let him continue west. He returned to a settlement at Kaskaskia (Illinois) and, determined to complete his mission, crossed the Mississippi and marched due west across the barren Ozark hills to the Osage villages and beyond to the Comanche. Despite his attempts, Du Tisne failed to establish good relations and returned to the Illinois country.

In 1723, Bourgmont returned to the Missouri villages and established Fort Orleans, on the north side of the river. In 1724, he marched west onto the plains to make peace and establish trade relations with the Comanches and their neighbors. Bourgmont's reputation preceded him and he was treated royally by the Indians. Though little truly organized commerce followed his efforts for 40 years, he is credited with establishing a basis for future beneficial relations with the natives.

Rivers Led to the Heart and Soul of Our Nation

These were the earliest and perhaps the bravest explorers on the big rivers. They ventured into the uncharted wilderness and, following the long arms of Mechesebe and Pekitanoui, discovered the heart and soul of our nation. Their bravery and the knowledge they shared opened the door to a world of unrivaled natural wealth.

By 1750, Ste. Genevieve had become the first permanent settlement in Missouri. In 1763, St. Louis was founded and became the gateway to western expansion. By 1832, steamboats plowed up the Missouri to St. Joseph and beyond.

The long arms of Mechesebe and Pekitanoui became the travelways of opportunity. The visions of wealth and fruitful enterprise of Marquette, Joliet, LaSalle, Penicaut, Bourgmont, DuTisne and others were realized.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer