It was 210 years ago that Lewis & Clark completed their “Corps of Discovery” journey into the West to complete American claims on more than half a continent. Ironically, most Minnesotans don’t realize that the resultant Louisiana Purchase began here with the first French explorers who arrived from the Great Lakes as far back as 1660!
Pierre Radisson and Medard Groseilliers were the first Europeans of record to come down the Great Lakes and discover our Upper Mississippi that year. Then explorers Joliet, Marquette, Duluth, LaSalle, Hennepin, LeSueur, Charlevoix and LaVerendrye followed to cement French claims on the reat river from here to Louisiana by 1682.
An art exhibit entitled “From Canoes to Canvas” by artist/historian Robert Perrizo celebrates those first French forefathers and was recently on display at the famed Jaques Art Gallery in Aitkin, MN. Some 50 original oil paintings and portraits brought to life that colorful period when those explorers and an influx of brave French fur traders roamed our woodlands and lake country.
Those early French of Minnesota were already 1,500 miles inland and trading with the Dakota when Jamestown was still just a small fort on America’s Atlantic coast.
It was the presence of fur traders who paddled downriver, traveling alone and often intermarrying into various American Indian nations, that helped those early French claims to hold up. Eventually, as the influx of Europeans reached our Mississippi, some fur traders moved west from Minnesota to become the first mountain men.
This timeline reveals the early sequence of events that made Minnesota pivotal to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803:
1608 – Samuel de Champlain, a soldier/humanitarian of France, establishes the first successful French colony in the New World at Quebec on the Atlantic coast of today’s Canada after four failed attempts by previous explorers. His settlement is based on treating the native Indians as equals, and Champlain creates a network of young fur traders to live with them, learn their languages and fur trade practices, and even marry into their tribes. In return, he invites young sons of the Chiefs of those tribes to live with the French and do the same. Champlain is also intrigued with the possibility of a “Northwest Water Passage” beyond the Great Lakes that would lead through the new Continent to the Pacific Ocean. He heard rumors of a major tribe of Indians that lived beyond the chain of Great Lakes he called the “Nation of the beef” for their rumored skills as buffalo hunters on foot in the days before horses (North America was devoid of horses since the time of the last ice age). He prayed he would one day meet with this tribe, which later turned out to be the Dakota, who had migrated from Ohio possibly as early as the 1500s to today’s Minnesota.
1660 – Some 24 years after Champlain’s death, two of the greatest of all the fur-trading Couriers des bois, or fur-trading “runners of the woods,” left Three Rivers on the St. Lawrence to meet with those mysterious Dakota. They left on an extremely dangerous mission without French government approval under cover of darkness with their Huron and Ottawa trading partners. Surviving two attacks by enemy Iroquois and a winter of near starvation near today’s Hayward, WI, they managed to reach the Mississippi River for a rendezvous with the Dakota near present day Hastings, MN, in the spring of 1660. The gathering included Radisson and Groseilliers, their Huron and Ottawa friends, some visiting Cree from Hudson’s Bay and the host Dakota and was a big success. The two Frenchmen thus became the first Europeans of record to see the Upper Mississippi, and they returned with the largest trove of prime furs ever seen in Quebec.
1661 – King Louis XIV is crowned monarch of France and all future French claims on the Mississippi River are made in his name (thus the Louisiana purchase).
1673 – Louis Joliet and Fr. Jacques Marquette follow the lead of Radisson and Groseilliers by taking an expedition including two canoes and five voyageurs down the Mississippi to determine if the Great River drained into the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. They paddle as far south as the Arkansas River and, spotting enemy Spanish soldiers, they decide to turn back, but not until satisfying themselves that the Great River did indeed drain into the Gulf of Mexico and not the desired Pacific.
1679 – Daniel Greysolen, Sieur Duluth, arrives at the western end of the Great Lakes to rendezvous with the Dakota near where the city of Duluth now stands. The tribesmen escort him to their stronghold on the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs, where he formally claims the country for King Louis XIV.
1680 – Robert Cavalier de LaSalle of France begins his canoe explorations down the Mississippi from the foot of Minnesota to claim all drainages from the west for France. With him are Fr. Louis Hennepin (a cartographer and diarist) and two sub-explorers who are then sent northward to determine the source of the Mississippi while he concentrates explorations to the south.
1680-- Fr. Hennepin and the two sub-explorers are almost immediately captured by a band of marauding Dakota and are taken, under a sort of house arrest, to the tribe’s stronghold on Lake Mille Lacs. The missionary is entranced with the Indians, their buffalo hunting expeditions on foot and in canoes at river crossings, and the natural beauty of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and the Great Plains teeming with buffalo. He begins recording his experiences in a notebook before the trio of explorers are rescued by Duluth, who heard of their “captivity” while canoeing on the St. Croix River.
1683 – Fr. Hennepin, back in France once again, writes a book on his experiences with the Dakota of Minnesota entitled Description of Louisiana (the Mississippi). After being translated into several European languages, it became the first best-selling book about the New World.
1695 – Pierre Charles LeSueur -- a military man, explorer and fur trader – establishes a fort at Prairie Island (where Radisson and Groseilliers originally landed on the Mississippi). He goes on to build Fort L’Huillier near Mankato, make mineral claims there and establish a buffalo meat-processing plant with the Dakota Indians. LeSueur also makes possibly the northernmost claims on the Mississippi at Sandy Lake.
1731 – Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye, opens new western territories for French trading by establishing a post at Grand Portage on Lake Superior. With his sons and a nephew, he moves westward to build more forts while searching for a northwest water passage through the west to the Pacific. LaVerendrye becomes the first European to meet with the master trading Mandan Indians on the Missouri River and barter for horses.
1783 – The North West Fur Company out of Montreal establishes Grand Portage as the western terminus of the Great Lakes fur trade. The new company then begins deploying many French hivernants (wintering fur traders) in the Minnesota wilderness to live and work with the native Indians to gather furs. Many of these French settle in the region and intermarry into various tribes to form mixed-blood Metis’ (French/Indian) citizens.
\1797 – Joseph Renville, the son of a French trader and a Dakota mother, begins an illustrious fur trading career on the Mississippi near Sauk Rapids. He goes on to found the Columbia Fur Company in 1822 in the Red River Valley and become a valued peace-maker among the Indians. He is an interpreter for Zebulon Pike’s conferences with the Dakota and for other explorations on the Mississippi headwaters. In 1823 he was an interpreter for the U.S. Government, establishing a trading post at Lac Qui Parle. Later, he translates the Bible into the Dakota language.
1803 – Napoleon Bonaparte of France sells nearly half a continent to American President Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase that startles the whole world.
1806 – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark complete their Corps of Discovery expedition across the American West to conclude the Louisiana Purchase.