Voyageurs Reach Minnesota
Brûlé explored Lake Superior as early as 1618, two years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, but he never reached the western shore. Following Champlain’s death in 1635 the official desire to push west withered, and it wasn’t until 1660 that the first Europeans set foot in what would become Minnesota.
On their second illicit trading journey along the south shore of Lake Superior, Pierre Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Médard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, an enterprising duo of unlicensed traders, spent the winter of 1659 with the Ottawa in northern Wisconsin, during which time they became the first Europeans to meet the Dakota.
The following spring they reached the “Head of the Lake” at present-day Duluth and paddled up along the lake’s western shore before returning to Montreal, where they expected to be welcomed as heroes. Instead French officials confiscated their colossal haul of illegally obtained fur. Radisson and Groseilliers soon allied with the British and headed for Hudson Bay, where their explorations led to the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which, ironically, later played a large role in the downfall of the French empire in North America.
Following Radisson and Groseilliers, a few others poked around Lake Superior’s western shore, including Father Claude Allouez, who contributed greatly to a 1670 Jesuit map of the lake. No one, however, headed inland until 1679 when Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut (Duluth’s namesake), paddled up the St. Louis River and crossed overland to Lake Mille Lacs, where he forged an alliance with the Dakota at the village of Izatys and claimed all this land for King Louis XIV.
A year later the Dakota, who apparently weren’t too impressed by du Lhut’s overtures, seized a group of explorers traveling north from Illinois to explore the upper Mississippi River and held them captive near Mille Lacs before du Lhut returned to secure their release. Upon his return to Europe, one member of that fateful party, Father Louis Hennepin, published Description of Louisiana, an account of their ordeal. Though full of inaccuracies, the first book written about Minnesota became a best-seller.
Fur traders soon followed du Lhut and Hennepin and were operating along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. In 1686 Nicholas Perrot built Fort St. Antoine on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin, and soon after he erected Fort Bon Secours, the first white settlement in Minnesota, just below Lake Pepin.
A few more small posts were later constructed in Minnesota, including the short-lived Fort l’Huillier near Mankato in 1700, but most New World positions were abandoned at the start of the 18th century as France fought a vast and expensive war against the British across the European continent.
The War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, and a few years later the French revived their quest for beaver pelts and the legendary Northwest Passage. The last French explorer of any significance in North America was the Canadian-born Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye, who built Fort St. Charles on Lake of the Woods in 1732. This Jesuit mission and fur-trading post thrived despite its remote location. La Vérendrye passed on the opportunity to enrich himself in the fur trade and spent most of the rest of his life venturing west desperately searching for the Pacific, eventually expanding the French influence all the way to the Canadian Rockies. By the 1750s the fur trade was thriving and several other large forts had sprung up in Minnesota, including La Jonquiére near Brainerd.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition