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[zhoh lyeh'] co-explorer of the Mississippi River
Louis Joliet was born in Quebec on September 21, 1645, the son of a wagonmaker, and educated at the Jesuit school there. Although his parents wanted him to become a priest, Joliet wanted a life of adventure and chose to leave the seminary after a short time to join a party of explorers heading west to find a more direct route from Montreal to the "Country of the Upper Lakes" and to search for copper along the shores of Lake Superior. This trip convinced the young man to become a fur trader, a profession which would allow him a life of adventure that also provided a fairly good living.
Having heard Indians talk of a mighty river far to the south, Joliet began wondering whether such a river, if it existed, might not be the long-sought-after passage to China that so many explorers had sought (the fabled Northwest Passage). In 1672 the Governor of New France charged him with the duty of finding the river and tracing it to its mouth. Joliet accepted the challenge, and asked a good friend to join him. The friend was Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest whom Joliet knew had an excellent rapport with the Indians, and who also happened to know the wilderness at least as well as he did.
Joliet, Marquette, and five other Frenchmen set out in May of 1673. They paddled across Lake Michigan to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, then up the Fox River to what is now Portage, Wisconsin. From there they carried their canoes across land to the Wisconsin River, which they followed until June 17, when they came upon the great river now known as the Mississippi. They canoed down the Mississippi to its junction with the Arkansas River, in present-day Arkansas. Here local Indians told them that Spaniards were in possession of the lands to the south. Rather than risk confrontation with the Spanish, the party decided to turn back. On the way back, the expedition turned into the Illinois River and paddled to its source. Then they carried their canoes across to Lake Michigan, and returned to Green Bay in late September.
Joliet and Marquette parted ways at Green Bay. Marquette went to Mackinac Island, while Joliet made his way back to Quebec. At one point on his return trip Joliet nearly drowned when his canoe overturned. All his notes and documents about the trip were lost, but he was able to make a report from memory of what he had seen and done.
Joliet was rewarded with high honors, including the Island of Anticosti in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. When the British took the island in 1691, Joliet was given the holding of a town south of Quebec. (His heirs still have title to the town, which is now known as Joliette.) He subsequently married, and thereafter divided his time between his estates and explorations, especially in Labrador. He died in New France in May of 1700.
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This page was last updated on 09/20/2017.