Louis Jolliet

Louis Jolliet (1645-1700) was a Canadian explorer, musician, hydrographer, fur trader, and teacher. The most famous exploit in the career of this multifaceted man was the exploration of the Mississippi River in 1673.

The exact birth date of Louis Jolliet is unknown. He was baptized on Sept. 21, 1645, at the parish church of Quebec. In 1656 he entered the Jesuit college in Quebec City and began classical studies which, it was expected, would lead eventually to the priesthood. He took minor orders in the summer of 1662. During this early period of his life Jolliet became an accomplished musician, the first organist of the Cathedral of Quebec, where he played for many years.

Jolliet apparently lost his desire for the life of a religious and withdrew from the seminary in 1667. After a year in France, Jolliet determined to enter the fur trade, that magnet of the youth of New France, and began his career in the west. Two years later, the Comte de Frontenac, the new governor, authorized Jolliet to undertake an exploration of the Mississippi.

This mysterious river was already well, if imprecisely, known to many through contacts with the Indians. It was hoped that it would lead to the "Southern Sea" and the long-sought passage to China. Jolliet's precise mission was to discover into what body of water the Mississippi River emptied. The government did not underwrite the venture. It was to be profitably financed, hopefully, by a group of private individuals whose return would come from the fur trade. Following his instructions, Jolliet proceeded to Michilimackinac to join forces with Father Jacques Marquette, who had been ordered to accompany the expedition. Part of the group would remain at this settlement to engage in the fur trade.


Exploration of the Mississippi

In May 1673 Jolliet, Marquette, and five others set out on their great adventure. They followed the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to the Mississippi. During the journey southward past the confluence of the Missouri and then the Ohio, they marveled at the unfamiliar scenery and the exotic birds. The little group halted at the Arkansas River and went no further, deterred by their suspicion of the Indians and fear of the Spanish.

It was clear, however, that the river flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and that the legendary route to the "Southern Sea" was not the Mississippi. The arduous trip upriver was accomplished without incident, and Jolliet passed the winter of 1673/1674 at Michilimackinac completing his log and maps. He set out in the spring for Quebec, but his canoe capsized when nearly home, and the precious map and logbook were lost (a duplicate set left at Sainte-Marie was destroyed by fire).

After his return from the west, Jolliet married in 1675 and engaged in commerce and the fur trade along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Four years later he was off on another mission, this time to Hudson Bay. He became quite convinced that if the English were left in uncontested control of the bay, they would soon dominate the whole fur trade of Canada. Jolliet then obtained Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and for several years became a prosperous merchant.

Jolliet's last important expedition was undertaken in 1694, when he charted the coast of Labrador far to the north but returned disappointed with the meager prospects for trade in the area. At the age of 49, after another trip to France, Jolliet began a new career as a teacher at the Jesuit college. In 1697 he was appointed to fill the office of hydrographer and produced many excellent navigation maps of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf. He died sometime during the summer of 1700.


Further Reading on Louis Jolliet

Almost all the studies of Jolliet are in French. The best book in English is Jean Delanglez, Life and Voyages of Louis Jolliet, 1645-1700 (1948).