The French have a rich history of exploration in North America

french quarter, New Orleans

France in the Middle Ages was divided into a number of small feudal regions. The counts and dukes controlled these little principalities and were virtually independent, but gave nominal allegiance to the French king.

France grows strong

By the end of the 15th century, the King of France had consolidated his power and extended authority over the whole of France. The monarchy gradually increased its sovereignty until it was the strongest in Europe and eager to challenge England, Spain and the Netherlands for leadership in the New World.

In the early 1600s, France was ready to undertake the serious business of establishing settlements in present-day Canada. Giovanni Verrazano (1524) and Jacques Cartier (1534-1542) had done the preliminary work of staking French claims in the New World. Two failed attempts at colonization in Florida (1562-67) and South Carolina had taught the French lessons that were to prove valuable in later colonizing attempts.


With the coronation of Henry IV, a strong-willed king, France was eager to “flex her muscles.” The King found a super-agent in Samuel de Champlain who earned the title “Father of New France.”

In March 1603, Champlain set out, with royal approval, for the North American coast. Entering the St. Lawrence at the mouth of the river, where fur traders had been bartering since the days of Cartier, he made his first contact with the natives. For several years, he crisscrossed the Atlantic attempting to secure permanent settlers for colonization and finally established Port Royal at Acadia and Quebec.

In time, other settlements appeared at Three Rivers and Montreal. In 1615, Champlain made his farthest trip west and reached the lower end of Lake Huron. Appointed governor of New France, he cultivated the friendship of the Algonquin Indians who dominated the great fur-bearing region in America, resided in Quebec and died there in 1635.

Hard living

The location of New France was not a happy one. The colonists had a highly centralized government of state and church, controlled from home, with no popular representation and a land policy semi-feudalistic in nature. The soil was poor, and the climate was hard. The seacoast was far away, and for fully half a year, ice flowed in the St. Lawrence River blocking communications and trade with the mother country.

But the way to the west was temptingly easy. No such formidable barrier existed as the mountains that lay back of the English settlements, and the pathway of the Great Lakes and rivers invited exploration.


Meanwhile a new force entered the colonial life of New France. The 17th century in Europe witnessed a revival of the Roman Catholic Church and revival meant missionary spirit and activity.

The passionate order of Jesuits, untiring missionaries who were always looking for new worlds to conquer, took an interest in New France and its Indian allies. In 1613, two Jesuits, the forerunner of a devoted army of clergymen, sailed to the French outpost. They came in dribbles, then in a stream and finally in a flood.

Strange partnership

The Jesuit missionary and fur traders formed a strange partnership in America’s backcountry. The Jesuits were primarily interested in saving the souls of the natives and in lifting them to a higher standard of living. To accomplish this mission, the Jesuits underwent all sorts of hardships and suffering and asked for no material rewards in return.

The traders, on the other hand, were usually concerned only with the profits afforded by their business and their daily life. In pursuit of these aims, they would stoop to what unscrupulous methods were available at the time. This was usually selling the Indians brandy and setting an example of licentiousness that tended to debase the tribal morals.

The Jesuits protested strongly against these practices but feared the Indians would take the English rum if they complained too much and all would be lost.

The French proved to be better at exploration and fur trade with the Indians than at colonization. In contract with the English, they were slow in persuading their countrymen to settle the area in large numbers on the seacoast and along the St. Lawrence River. The economy was based on the fur trade and fisheries, not on mineral wealth as in Spanish America or on agricultural products as among the 13 colonies. Because they did not try to take away the Indians’ land and had smaller settlements, except for Quebec, the French had better relations with the native tribes than the Spanish and English.

Further exploration

With Catholic missionaries, fur traders and explorers, the French penetrated into the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi River valley. These bold leaders like Louis Joliet and Father Marquette appeared in the Wisconsin backcountry and explored the beginning of the “Big Muddy” in some swampy grasslands.

In 1673, they sailed their tiny craft through 450 miles of roaring water to present-day Arkansas. Much to their sorrow, they discovered that the great river did not enter the Pacific Ocean but the Spanish-controlled Gulf of Mexico.

La Salle

The greatest of all the French explorers in the West was Rene Robert Cavalier, better known as Sieur de La Salle, who after several attempts crossed the Great Lakes, found the Illinois River, and drifted down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. On April 9, 1682, he claimed this vast interior for King Louis XIV and named it Louisiana.

Despite the failure of La Salle’s early adventures, the French government was unwilling to forgo the advantages of colonies in the lower Mississippi and the backcountry of the English colonies and in the face of the Spanish. In 1699, they erected a fort at Biloxi, but later moved it to present-day Mobile.

New Orleans

In 1718, New Orleans became the capital of the province and the southern anchor for a continuous chain of forts that connected France’s settlement all along the Mississippi. The New Orleans colony prospered and had a population of some 7,000 by 1731. The French continued their active efforts to occupy the West right up to the French and Indian War (1756-1763).

French and Indian War

By the middle of the 18th century, their explorers and trappers had reached the Rocky Mountains, and a number of forts had been constructed in strategic places both east and west of the Mississippi. The overlapping of French and English claims in America was the occasion for the Seven Years War which embroiled Europe.

Called the French and Indian War in America and unlike earlier intercolonial wars, this war started in the New World. Years of exploring, of trading for furs, of fishing in Acadia, of draining the coffers of money, was all in vain. By the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France had lost all of her possessions on the continent of North America. England was suddenly the leading colonial and naval power in the world. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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