The desire to find a passage through the New World to China drove most early European explorers. By 1536, France laid claim to what would become New France, now much of southeast Canada. By 1625, the people of the Jesuit missions adopted the role of both explorers and missionaries as they attempted to convert American Indians to Catholicism. From bases in the Great Lakes, further French expansion would follow.
French policies with the American Indians differed from that of Spanish or English efforts in that the French encouraged direct trade networks and partnerships with American Indians. French settlements were established but grew slowly in the 17th century due to warfare and some restrictive French policies. These policies changed when Count Frontenac become governor in 1672. Expansionists now wanted a French presence in the western territories, and native descriptions of the great river "Messi-Sipi" to the west led to an assignment given to Louis Jolliet.
Louis Jolliet was born in Quebec in 1645. He was educated and had the practical skills to be given the assignment in 1672 to explore "the great river called the Michissipi, which is believed to flow into the sea of California." Father Jacques Marquette, proficient in five American Indian languages, was assigned to accompany Jolliet. Marquette had arrived in Canada in 1666 and had been placed in charge of the Jesuit mission at Chequamegon Bay in 1669, where he met several Illinois Indians. Marquette learned to speak Illinois and wished to found a mission among them. Jolliet was placed in charge of the expedition, and traveled to St. Ignace (in present-day Michigan) to collect Father Marquette.
On May 17, 1673, the expedition set out from St. Ignace in two canoes with five men. They traveled along the west shore of Lake Michigan, entered Green Bay, then the Fox River to a portage to the Wisconsin River. By June 17, they were on the Mississippi River.
On June 25, 1673, they noticed a beaten trail on the river's edge. The trail led them to Illinois Indians -- a Peoria village about 2 leagues (nearly 6 miles) from the river and two more villages a half league farther. This describes the location of this site -- now Iliniwek Village State Historic Site. Of all of the places visited by the expedition, this is one of the few places where it is relatively certain that Jolliet and Marquette actually stood. This location fits the surviving written description and the artifacts found here are indicative of the Illinois Indians and included very early European trade goods.
After remaining a few days with the Peoria at this location, the expedition continued down the Mississippi River. Near the present Missouri/Arkansas border, the expedition encountered some Michigamea (another Illinois tribe) and eventually came to the mouth of the Arkansas River, where they stayed with the Quapaw Indians for a few days. Having decided that the Mississippi River emptied into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Pacific Ocean, and fearing that they would encounter the Spanish, they turned around and traveled back upriver. Their return route deviates from its route downriver by returning up the Illinois River and a portage into Lake Michigan.
At the completion of their voyage, both composed accounts of their journey. Jolliet made two copies: one was to be left at a mission at Sault Ste. Marie, and the other he took to Montreal. When his canoe overturned in the Lachine rapids near Montreal, all of his papers were lost. Unfortunately, the mission burned and the other copy of his account was also lost. Only a transcription by another priest of Father Marquette's account survives.
While they had not found a route to the Pacific, they did find the mouth of the Missouri River, which led to further hope for such a route. Their efforts encouraged French explorer Sieur de La Salle to travel down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico nine years later and claim the river and its tributaries for France (1682).