18 March 2008

French Explorations of 1714-1725 Along the Missouri River, Louisiana Territory

Intrepid French explorers were among the first foreigners to come to northeast coast of America, fishing and exploring along the Atlantic Ocean. As their travels spread further inland, voyageurs paddling about western lands described a great unexplored interior of the continent. Occasional reports sent via a long and tenuous route back to the home country gave details of the new France territory.

Native peoples, dramatic scenery, wild animals and colorful birds were sometimes described and these details provide some of the original natural history for the North American continent.

Ongoing explorations established routes for trades on the continental waterways. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain established a fur trading post that became Quebec, in Canada. Further travels then established the French presence in the territory of the Mississippi valley and its northern tributaries.

By 1667, French fur traders - the "coureurs de bois" - braved weather, natural hazards and resident tribes to maintain the trade supply in places along the big muddy tributary flowing from the west from the Mississippi River.

The French name given for this river was described in the chronicles: "Concerning the River called Pekitonoui, ... coming from the northwest." Notes mention the confluence as having "tangled masses of trees" and a rapid current. A few Indian villages of the "Messouri" were noted along the river west of its confluence.

The name Pekitonoui signifies muddy water, and the flow was prominent to navigators for miles downstream from its confluence with the Mississippi River. Earlier French maps had however used other names to describe the river. Examples are "Riviere des Osages" or "Riviere des Ourmessourites" or "Riviere des Emissourites." The latter two are in reference to the native tribe of Messouri people.

With ongoing explorations and trade expansions, and based on a reconnaissance of the Mississippi river in 1682, Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, or commonly just known as La Salle, claimed for the French all the lands drained by the Mississippi river and its tributaries. It was named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. During this journey, members of this expedition party placed upon prominent trees at prominent locations, durable metal markers stating French dominion over the vast lands.

Claims of the native tribal clans were simply not considered and any right to ownership by the local residents was basically ignored.

Along the Muddy River

Along the Missouri, a bit of birdly history in the Louisiana domain revolves around Frenchman Etienne de Veniard, sieur de Bourgmont, born in Normandy in April 1679.

Bourgmont was a soldier in the "Troupes de la Marine" in the fall of 1702. Years later, after having been sent to America, Bourgmont had military troubles due to a disastrous event with two Indian tribes. Ensign Bourgmont deserted the service in August 1706, disappearing from Fort Ponchartrain at Detroit. One reason mentioned for his leaving was to pursue a woman, La Chenette.

This French man was known to have wandered around for years south of the Great Lakes country. He then moved to the main village of the Messouri people to marry a fine maiden that lived at the village situated at the Grand River where it flowed into the Missouri river.

Bourgmont did not forget to share the results of his service for the home country. Following an exploration during the summer of 1713, he sent back as an official description of the Louisiana country. His chronicle was called "Exact Description of Louisiana, of Its Harbors, Lands and Rivers, and Names of the Indian Tribes That Occupy It, and the Commerce and Advantages to be Derived Therefrom for the Establishment of a Colony." The details included a map showing some local rivers, creeks or islands with a native language name. A river map shows the many places identified by the Frenchmen.

Some history from nearly three centuries ago, for the region along the lower Missouri River, includes:

* "Some leagues further up, on the left as you ascend, is the great Missouri River, so famed for its swiftness. Its water is always muddy, and especially in the spring," ... (Norall 1988, page 108).
* "Higher upstream is the wide river called by the French and by the Indians the Nibraskier [Platte], a tributary that flows from the northwest and west-northwest (Norall: page 108-109).
* "Let us continue to ascend the Missouri. ... one hundred leagues higher up ... One hundred leagues farther up the Missouri divides into two forks. That on the right as well as that on the left is called by the Indians Nidejaudeg (Running Water, i.e., Niobrara River), which the French translate as Smoky river, because the sand blows like smoke and makes the water of the river all white and full of sediment. It is very rapid and frightening at the time of the flood waters. It is best ascended at low water and descended in time of flood (Norall: page 109).

Fur-traders and trade men established a solid French presence on the Missouri river. Trade meant trade power among the tribes. Through various dealings through exploration, commerce or government tasks, Bourgmont knew the Osage, Kansa, Padoucas (Apache) and the Pawnee tribes. This frontier Frenchman was the first to explore this western prairie region of the Missouri river.

In March to June 1714, another of his explorations was a journey ascending the Missouri river from its confluence with the Mississippi to the Platte and beyond. Departure was 29 Mar 1714. The results are given in "La Routte qu'il faut tenir pour monter le riviere Missoury" or chronicles titled "The Route to be Taken to Ascend the Missouri River."

Better notes for the 1714 trip are available for the area in the Kansa-Oto territory. In June, the expedition was going up the Missouri river through the country northwards towards the flat water river now better known as the Platte.

Leagues were used in the navigational log as a measurement for the distances traveled, the distance usually a league equal to 2.76 miles. For the many twists and bends of the everlasting, shifting Missouri river channel, a league was estimated as equal to about 4.5 miles of distance, according to some historians.

Selected Notes ...
* Monday 4th. West-northwest two leagues; then a little river enters, which we call the river of the little Kansas [=Nemaha River]; in front of this river there is an island of willows, with a great prairie, in the shape of a loop (Norall 1988 - page 122).
* Wednesday, 6, and (Thursday), 7. Halted.
* 8th: big prairie to the east, bluffs to the west for a quarter of a league, an island of a quarter of a league [Fair Sun Island or Sun Island or Sonora Island site), bluffs of the same length to the west [east of current Peru], great prairies to the east [mouth of Nishnabotna river].
* Saturday, 9, and Sunday, 10. Halted. [McKissock Island that includes "Chauve Island" that translates to Bald Island].
* 11th: island three quarters of a league long, prairie that makes a sweeping curve [cf. Lone Tree prairie at Peru bottoms], bluffs of red earth.
* 12th: prairie of a quarter of a league, with an island of 10 arpents [cf. Frazers Island; to the east is Four le Tourtre, or "oven the tourtre", an area of prairie at Bakers Oven Islands].
* 13th: bluffs, two little streams (Spring Creek or Weeping Water Creek?; L' Eue Que Pleure = Weeping Water], "prairies appear, with an island afterward, on the same side; this island is covered with willows and about six arpents in length" [Keg Island area], prairie to the west, a prairie half a league long toward the east and an island.
* 14th: an island, a prairie of two leagues and at the end a bare cape, two islands in the middle of the river, to the west a little river [perhaps Pigeon creek, Raikes creek area], an island.
* 15th: a series of hills covered with open stands of trees [area of King Hill also called Calumet Point and north a four mile distance to Queen Hill or Rock Bluff Point near the south end of Tobacco Island].
* Saturday, 16. North one league; at the start, an island of half a league [Tobacco Island]; to the west a prairie of one league, at the end of which the river [Platte] of the Pani (Pawnee) is found. Its mouth is wider than the Missouri at that point (Norall 1988 - page 123).

The journey continued for a short unknown distance upriver from the confluence of the turbulent Platte. There were not any journal entries after June 16th that record the route or events.

These notes that are from nearly three centuries in the past set a scene. The French man Bourgmont had some interest in observing the wild birds, especially one that might provide an evening's meal.

The wild scene along the Missouri river would have been rich in bird life on the summer days of June. Meadowlarks would dwell on the rich grass prairies. Earthen river banks would harbor nesting swallows. Wooded islands would have little warblers and a myriad of other songbirds. Bare sandbars were a haven to a great variety of water birds. Even thought there weren't any actual bird notations, the narrative is a fine chronicle regarding bird habitats on the river setting so many decades ago!

Once the report was finally received back in France, a rough map of the Missouri channel was drawn later by a cartographer to correspond with the voyage. It shows the Osage river, the Missouri village and the Kansas river, spelled in french, of course. Many islands are noted in the lower river sections.

As a result of the report's success, a commander of the French services requested that Bourgmont be awarded the "Cross of St Louis" in recognition for valiant service to his country.

With his continued residence in the Missouri river country, written communications, even the few transported great distances into the remote western country, brought government instructions and responsibilities. Trade and contact with the Indians was an important and ongoing task.

The establishment of Fort d'Orleans in the winter of 1723-24 at the confluence of the Grand River with the Missouri river, created a primary outpost for the French in their vast western lands of the continent.

The search for information on local tribes and any valuable resources continued.

A subsequent exploration involved a lengthy and involved trip west. In late June 1724, the Frenchman traveled into the Smoky Hill river country to meet with the Apache tribe of the open plains.

Soon after the departure from the fort, Bourgmont mentioned that the Indians brought back to camp six turkeys they had taken. It was the 4th of July 1724 in the lower Missouri river valley. This game bird was also noted on 8 July. Later on the journey, on October 11-12th, turkeys were noted along the rivers and streams, when the French party was in the area which is now northeastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska.

Bourgmont sighting of the turkey provides some of the first known written observations of birds in the lands west of the Mississippi River. The brief details of his account, though much too short, are another contribution of the tradition for early French explorers writing about bird-life of the Louisiana territory.

Influence of the French is apparent with the names given to particular places. The Petite River Platte was west of Fort D'Orleans. Explorers named places like the French Bottom with St. Michael's prairie at Saint Joseph, Missouri. A French attribution was the origin for the name of Weeping Water creek. Later river maps show Chauve Island and the Oven Island prairie. Papillion Creek in east-central Nebraska, is French for Butterfly creek.

The chronicles of the French are an important first contribution to the ornithology of the Missouri river valley. Many of their first written accounts of history present details of bird life from French North America, before there was a United States of America.

The legacy for country men loyal to France is apparent in details available for natural history notes made centuries in the past. And the essential role of these voyageurs obviously continues with place names still in regular use on modern-era maps.


John Finley. 1915. The French in the Heart of America. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 431 pages.

Raphael N. Hamilton, S.J. 1970. Marquette's Explorations: the Narratives Reexamined. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 275 pages.

Frank Norall. 1988. Bourgmont, Explorer of the Missouri, 1698 - 1725. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 192 pages.

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