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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Exploration
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Exploration
Text 1. Into the Interior: The Spanish
Text 2. Europe's Literary Response
Text 3. Northwest Passage: The British
Text 4. Illustrating the New World (Pt. II)
Text 5. Catching Up: The British
Text 6. Failed Colonies
Text 7. The Slave Trade

Reading Guide
La Nuova Francia, 1556, detail
La Nuova Francia, 1556, detail
Into the Interior: The French
- Cartier: Account of the second voyage to the St. Lawrence River, 1535-1536, excerpts (PDF)
- Champlain: Account of a battle with the Iroquois, 1609
- Marquette & Joliet: Account of the Mississippi River expedition, 1673, Introduction, Pts. 4 & 8
- Maps (zoomable):

1556: New France (map #1, La Nuova Francia)
1664: Canada (map #9, Le Canada faict par le Sr. de Champlain)
1673: Map of Marquette's expedition (Carte de la découverte faite l'an 1673)

As we turn to the French explorers, let us repeat the litany of hardships that explorers encountered—intense cold, disease and death, unknown hazards and uncharted routes, Indians who might be friend or foe, and other Europeans who might be friend or foe. For Europeans, North America would be a "hard-won achievement," writes historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman. "At times it almost seemed as if the land itself was actively hostile to European lifeways."* With this in mind, we select three accounts of French expeditions in the St. Lawrence and Mississippi River regions:
  • JACQUES CARTIER explored the northeast part of the continent intending to find the elusive passage to the Orient. Sailing west of Newfoundland he "discovered" the St. Lawrence River and explored the region in three voyages between 1535 and 1541. He met several Iroquoian tribal groups, establishing friendly relationships, though cautious on both sides. He did not find a route to China; indeed the large sea described to him by the Indians—"there was never man heard of that found out the end thereof"—was probably Lake Ontario.

    In this selection from the account of his second voyage (perhaps written by one of the sailors), Cartier sails to the welcoming Iroquois village of Hochelaga (later Montreal). While in winter quarters near another Indian village, the crew becomes incapacitated with scurvy and the debilitating cold (for Europeans) of northern winters. (On the last page you will find a selection from Cartier's dictionary of the Indians' language.)
    [Author undetermined, Brief récit, & succincte narration de la navigation . . . , 1545]

  • SAMUEL DE CHAMPLAIN was the quintessential explorer. While aptly credited as the founder of Quebec in 1608, he spent little time there, leaving the small fortified post to others and heading further into the Canadian woodlands, where he functioned as the quintessential diplomat. Unlike the Spanish who brutally dominated the Indians for imperial gain, the French negotiated and traded with them, primarily for furs. But it was inevitable that alliances with some Indian groups would make the French foes of others. In this selection, Champlain and nine French soldiers join the Huron in an attack on the Iroquois ("discovering" Lake Champlain in the process). The Iroquois are initially shocked by the French use of firearms, yet within a few years the Iroquois would develop their own cache of modern guns through trade and raids.
    [Champlain, Journal of 1608]

  • JACQUES MARQUETTE & LOUIS JOLIET were sent to explore the Mississippi River in 1673 and answer two questions: Was the Mississippi the long-sought water passage to the Pacific Ocean? Were the fabled kingdoms of Quivira and Theguaio real? They are able to answer the first (no), but not the second. They encounter friendly Illinois Indians and unfriendly mosquitoes, describe "monster" fish (catfish) and "wild cattle" (buffalo). Reaching the Arkansas River, they realize they are risking capture by the nearby Spaniards and decide to turn back and return to their post on Lake Michigan. Joliet's journals of the expedition were lost, so we read several selections from Marquette's account.
    [Marquette, 1673 expedition journal, publ. in Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Vol. 59, 1899]
While the French presence in North America remained small compared to the Spanish (and later the English), its influence on the northern environment, the Indian societies, and the European rivalries in Canada was definitive. Its explorers pursued the interior of the continent more deeply than others, forging trade routes and Indian relationships that survived into the 1800s. French dialects are still spoken in Quebec, Louisiana, and even Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Study the two maps of Canada for the changes over a century, and explore Marquette's expedition map for its revelations (French not required). (15 pages, excluding the maps.)

Discussion questions
  1. Characterize the French exploration of the interior of North America. What surprised you? What matches your expectations?
  2. How do the explorers respond to the environment, the Indians, and the hardships of their expeditions?
  3. How do the Europeans define success or failure in the expeditions? What are they looking for?
  4. How do the expeditions end?
  5. What effect does leadership have on the expeditions? planning and matériel? whether it was undertaken for a specific goal or simply to reconnoiter an area?
  6. How do the Indians respond to the Europeans? Contrast the first encounters and subsequent contacts.
  7. To whom do the chroniclers address their accounts? To what extent are their accounts political "texts"?
  8. What changes in knowledge and attitude are apparent in the two maps of Canada created in 1556 and 1664?
  9. By the late 1600s, what does the New World appear to offer France?
  10. To the native inhabitants, what do the Europeans appear to offer?
  11. Contrast the French and Spanish expeditions. Are they more alike than different, or vice versa?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans' explorations? What were they looking for?
  •  What led them to deem an expedition a failure or success?
  •  How did the Europeans interpret the natural world they encountered?
  •  How did their experience of the New World comport with their expectations?
  •  How did the relationships of Europeans and Native Americans change after their initial encounters?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1550? in 1600?

Cartier:  7
Champlain:  3
Marquette & Joliet:  5
15 pages, excluding the maps
Supplemental Sites
Pathfinders & Passageways: The Exploration of Canada, from Library and Archives Canada

Explorers of Canada, from the Museum of New France / Canadian Museum of Civilization

France in America/La France en Amérique, from the Library of Congress and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Canada's First Nations: European Contact, from the University of Calgary (from this page go to the regional sections via the map and list at the page bottom)

Cartier, Voyage accounts, full text and background notes from American Journeys
     First voyage, 1534
     Second voyage, 1535-1536
     Third voyage, 1541

Voyage of Samuel de Champlain, 1604-1608, full text from American Journeys

Marquette and Joliet 1673 expedition, full text from American Journeys

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Cartier: National Humanities Center
Champlain: History Matters, George Mason University & the City University of New York (CUNY)
Marquette & Joliet: James Matthews, Dept. of French, Illinois Wesleyan University
Maps: Library of Congress & McGill University

Image: Giacomo Gastaldi, map of New France entitled La Nuova Francia, published in Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Navigationi et Viaggi, Venice, 1565 (1st ed., 1556), detail. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Library.

*Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "North America and the Beginnings of European Colonization" (Washington: American Historical Association, 1992), 31.

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