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Jolliet, Louis
(September 21, 1645–May 1700)

–fur trader and explorer—was the second son of two French colonists, Jean Jolliet and Marie d'Abancour. He had been preceded by a brother, Adrien, and was soon followed by a sister, Marie, and another brother, Zacharie. Little is known about his early life, including the location of his birth, but one can confidently state that Jolliet's childhood was marked by both misfortune (his father died when Louis was five) and promise (he proved to be both intelligent and ambitious). He received a Jesuit education at Quebec. Although he contemplated a career in the priesthood, he decided against it and instead decided to seek his living from the burgeoning fur trade. Such a vocational choice provided the young Frenchman with the opportunity to sharpen necessary backcountry skills. His experiences dealing with American Indians, navigating rivers, and gaining additional knowledge of New France's vast interior prepared him for his greatest accomplishment.

    The most notable journey of his life began with a charge offered to him by the leadership of New France. In 1673 French colonial administrators selected Jolliet to mount an expedition to locate and explore a vast river that reportedly lay to the west of French settlement. The expedition's primary aim included locating that waterway and ascertaining whether it led to Asia. Jolliet obtained the necessary funding required for the trip by partnering with other important colonial figures. He was joined on the expedition by six other Frenchmen, most notably Father Jacques Marquette. Marquette not only represented many Europeans' long-held desire to convert American Indians but also was a great asset to the expedition. Like Jolliet, the clergyman was a seasoned veteran in navigating both the region's diverse cultures and challenging landscapes, and his knowledge of Indian languages and culture proved to be vital to the journey's successful completion.

    In the summer of 1763 Jolliet and his comrades devoted themselves to locating and exploring the river. The party skirted the northern and western shore of Lake Michigan and pushed into Green Bay to the Fox River. Near present-day Portage, Wisconsin, they portaged to the Wisconsin River and followed it to the Mississippi River. The group entered the impressive waterway, the first Europeans to view the region that would become Iowa. They observed the area's high bluffs, prairies, and fauna, including the buffalo. Eventually, they came upon an American Indian settlement in the vicinity of present-day Oakville, Iowa. They continued their journey southward, observing both the Missouri and Ohio rivers until they ventured past the Arkansas River. They did not reach the Gulf of Mexico, but they did determine that the great river was not a route to Asia. After coming to that important conclusion, they began their return trip. Unfortunately, Jolliet lost his journal on the return journey to Quebec. The famed French explorer would live a long and active life, dying in 1700.

    Despite the loss of his records, Jolliet's accomplishment of leading the first European expedition to reach and explore the Mississippi River is widely acknowledged as an important step in the Euro-American conquest of the region.
Sources The best source on Marquette and Jolliet's voyage is Marquette's journals, which have been translated and published in numerous editions. The exploration is also well covered in Raphael N. Hamilton, S.J., Marquette's Explorations: The Narrative Reexamined (1970); and Joseph Donnelly, S.J., Jacques Marquette, S.J., 1637–1675 (1968).
Contributor: Derek Oden