Louis Jolliet (also spelled Joliet) was a French Canadian explorer. In 1673, he gained fame as the leader of the first European expedition to extensively explore the Mississippi River. Jolliet was born in 1645 in Beauport, outside of Quebec, in present-day Canada. He received Jesuit training in Quebec but left the seminary in 1667 and traveled to France for unknown reasons. He returned to New France in 1668 to become a fur trader with the Native Americans. While Jolliet journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean and back, King Louis XIV of France was busy trying to solidify his empire. Part of this plan involved making his North American colony more economically viable, a task left to the new intendant, Jean Talon. Talon sent Louis Jolliet’s brother, Lucien, on an expedition to Lake Superior to find copper mines. When Lucien disappeared, Louis Jolliet emerged as an unlikely replacement to be Talon’s principal explorer.
Talon selected Jolliet to lead an expedition to find the great river that Native Americans called Messipi, a waterway that the French thought might lead to the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, or Hudson Bay. Whatever the case, the successful mapping of this river would boost the economy of New France. Jolliet’s selection as leader for this expedition also stemmed from his Jesuit training. Because Jesuits in the Great Lakes region resisted encroachment by fur traders, Jolliet’s Jesuit connection and the addition of the Jesuit father Jacques Marquette to the party eased this potential conflict. In 1673, the French Canadian Louis Jolliet led the first expedition by white men to explore and chart the Mississippi River. His original map was lost in a canoe accident, but he was able to reconstruct the major elements from memory. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) The journey to find the Mississippi River’s mouth began on May 17, 1673.
Jolliet, Marquette, and five oarsmen set off from Saint-Ignace across Lake Michigan in two canoes. They carried with them writing and drawing equipment, navigation tools, and plenty of furs. The furs were important, because the explorers financed the trip themselves, and the furs could be used to trade with Native Americans along the way, either for provisions or for profit. The group journeyed into Green Bay, up the Fox River, and across Lake Winnebago to where the Fox River resumed. At the end of the Fox River, with the help of Mascouten Indians, the party portaged their canoes to the Wisconsin River and paddled for the Mississippi, which they reached on June 17, 1673. Two hundred miles south, the explorers encountered a group of Illinois. Jolliet’s previous experience with Native Americans and Marquette’s knowledge of native languages made this meeting a peaceful one, especially when it became clear that the French were enemies of the Iroquois, who perpetually threatened smaller tribes. Jolliet was disappointed to find out that the Illinois would not become future partners in the fur trade and knew little of the lower Louis Jolliet (1645-1700)