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        North America’s Great Waters | Explorers and Traders

        Although France had been slower than Spain and Portugal to develop an interest in the New World, by the 16th century French explorers had begun to search for routes to the Pacific Ocean and to claim North American settlements for France. Samuel de Champlain, known as the father of New France, founded the first two permanent French colonies in North America: Port Royal in 1605 and Quebec in 1608. He was also the first European to see the Great Lakes, which he claimed for France. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette set out on a four-month voyage to explore the length of the Mississippi River, traveling thousands of miles through the interior of North America. Their journey helped establish the first European settlements around the Mississippi. In 1679, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle led an expedition down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. He claimed the vast region surrounding the Mississippi River and its tributaries for France, naming it Louisiana after King Louis XIV. Through two primary source activities and three short videos, students will understand the significance of these French explorations of North America’s Great Waters.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will explore the expeditions of four French explorers. After viewing three short videos about Samuel de Champlain, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, students will analyze a painting that shows Champlain leading a fleet of canoes on an expedition and then read journal entries that describe Jolliet and Marquette’s expeditions. The lesson will conclude with students creating a game that encompasses the travels, settlements, and expansion of French territory in North America during the 1600s. 

        Time Allotment

        • Introduction – 5 minutes
        • Videos and Class Discussion – 25 minutes
        • Visual Primary Source Activity – 10 minutes
        • Written Primary Source Activity – 20 minutes
        • Geography Activity – 30 minutes
        • Culminating Activity – varies depending on format




        • cartographer – a person who draws or creates maps
        • expedition – a journey or voyage made for a specific purpose
        • de facto –  in fact, or in effect; it usually means in practice but not necessarily by law
        • Jesuit – a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests founded in 1534 to do missionary work
        • missionary – a person sent on a religious mission, usually one sent to introduce or expand Christianity in another country
        • tributary –  a river or stream that flows into a larger river or lake 


        Great Lakes – A chain of five deep freshwater lakes in east-central North America comprising Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. The combined area of the Great Lakes (94,250 square miles) is the largest surface of fresh water in the world.

        To learn more about the Great Lakes:

        Mississippi River – At 2,340 miles, it is the longest river of North America, and lies entirely within the United States; it is one of the busiest commercial waterways of the world. 

        To learn more about the Mississippi River:

        Huron - The Huron people, also called Wyandot, were North American Indians who lived along the St. Lawrence River and were first contacted by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534.

        To learn more about the Huron people:

        Background on North America’s Great Waters | Explorers and Traders

        Samuel de Champlain

        Samuel de Champlain was born in France around 1570. His father and uncle were sailors and, as a young man, Champlain traveled with them to Central and South America and the West Indies. Champlain’s first trip to North America was as an observer on a fur-trading expedition in 1603. The following year, due to his excellent navigational skills, Champlain was asked to be the cartographer on a voyage around the St. Lawrence River to determine whether the area was good for settlement. By 1605, Champlain and his crew had built a fort and established the first French settlement in North America: Port Royal. 

        Champlain returned to France, but three years later, he led another expedition up the St. Lawrence River and constructed a fort in the area that is now Quebec, a city that would soon become the center of French fur trading. Quebec and the land near the St. Lawrence River came to be known as New France. Champlain established good relations with the Hurons, the First Peoples who lived in the region. 

        While traveling with the Hurons, Champlain became the first European to map the large freshwater body of water in the region, which was later named Lake Champlain in his honor. During the summer of 1609, the Hurons asked Champlain and other French settlers to help them in their war against the Iroquois, a group who lived farther south. In one battle with the Iroquois, Champlain was wounded and spent the winter living with the Hurons. It was there that he wrote one of the most detailed accounts of First Peoples life at the time. However, Champlain’s intervention in First Peoples politics triggered a hostile relationship between the French and the Iroquois that would last for more than a century. 

        In 1615, Champlain retraced his original route up the St. Lawrence and traveled further, becoming the first European to see the Great Lakes. Champlain returned to France for a number of years, but returned to New France in 1620. In 1632, he was named the administrator of New France and remained its de facto governor until his death in 1635. 

        Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette

        By the time Louis Jolliet was born in Quebec in 1645, it had become a well-established French colony in New France. Jolliet had gone to school to become a priest, but as an adult became more interested in fur trading and exploration. In 1673, he was asked to lead an expedition to explore what First Peoples called the “Mesipi” or “Great River,” determine its direction, and find out where it led. 

        Jacques Marquette was asked to lead this expedition with Jolliet. Marquette was a Jesuit missionary who had arrived in Quebec in 1666 to bring Christianity to the native tribes of New France. 

        Though both men wanted to find the source of this Great River, their motives were quite different: Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, was interested in mapping the region, and Marquette was interested in spreading Christianity to the people he encountered on the way. In 1673, their team, which consisted of five men and two canoes, first crossed Wisconsin and then followed the Mississippi River hundreds of miles south to Arkansas. Once they had reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, which was within 435 miles of the Gulf of Mexico, they turned back, after learning that the river flowed through potentially hostile Spanish settlements in the south. Though Marquette and Jolliet did not discover the Mississippi River, they confirmed that it was possible to travel from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by water. Marquette’s extensive journals from their expedition made note of the fact that the American Indians along the route were friendly, and that there were vast natural resources to be found there. 

        La Salle

        After French officials learned about Marquette and Jolliet’s expedition down the Mississippi River, they were eager to take advantage of the land and resources encountered there. Led by the explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, France would soon begin to develop a huge network of trading posts all along this route. La Salle was born into a wealthy merchant family in France in 1643. He studied as a Jesuit priest, and in 1667 was sent as a missionary to join his brother in New France. 

        Soon after his arrival La Salle built a settlement, which became known as Lachine, near the western end of the Island Montreal. After hearing about a river in North America that potentially flowed to China, La Salle sold his settlement and obtained permission from King Louis XIV to explore. In 1682, La Salle led his own expedition down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle claimed the entire the region surrounding the Mississippi River for France and named it “La Louisiane,” or Louisiana, in honor of King Louis XIV. During his expeditions, La Salle established forts in Canada, across the Great Lakes, and along the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers, firmly establishing French territory in North America. La Salle also established important alliances with the Americans Indians in the upper Mississippi River region, which would help French colonial settlers and military through the 1700s. 

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        • By the time Champlain arrived in Canada, and certainly by the middle of the 17th century, First Peoples and American Indians in many parts of North America were accustomed to interacting with Europeans. Nonetheless, much of North America remained foreign unexplored territory to Europeans.

          Ask students: If you were embarking on an adventure into uncharted territory, but knew that you would encounter people who already lived there, what would you bring with you, in terms of skills and objects, that would (1) make you feel secure and (2) enable you to meet and interact with native people in a productive and hospitable way? 

        • Introduce Samuel de Champlain, Louis Jolliet, Jacques Marquette, and Robert de la Salle (more formally known as René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle):

          The 1600s was a time when Europeans—notably French, English, and Spanish—were exploring, trading, trapping, fishing, and settling in North America. The explorers in this lesson were all French. They were responsible for establishing French settlements and France’s dominance in what are now the eastern provinces of Canada. Importantly, these explorers were also the first Europeans to successfully navigate the inland waterways of North America from the North Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. These explorations gave France claim to much of the interior of the United States, called the Louisiana Territory.

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (25 minutes)

        Distribute the North America’s Great Waters Video Graphic Organizers for students to fill out while viewing the video. 

        Play Samuel de Champlain | PBS World Explorers

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. Explain why Samuel de Champlain is called the Father of New France.

        Play Louis Jolliet & Jacques Marquette | PBS World Explorers

        1. Jolliet and Marquette encountered many First Peoples and American Indian groups along their journey. Some historians say that Jolliet and Marquette would not have made it to and down the Mississippi river without their help. How did First Peoples and American Indians assist them in their journey?
        2. One of Marquette and Jolliet’s objectives for their expedition was to determine where the Mississippi River met the sea. Some people believed it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, while other people believed the river emptied into the China Sea or the Sea of Japan. How did Marquette and Jolliet determine where the Mississippi River flowed?

        Play René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle | PBS World Explorers

        1. Robert de la Salle claimed all of the lands around the Mississippi River—from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico—in the name of France. What other concrete things did La Salle do that enabled France to actually control these territories?

        The following considers the set of videos as a whole:

        1. When the French subsequently claimed enormous tracts of land for France, the First Peoples and their ancestors had been living on this land for thousands of years. Many First Peoples assisted these French explorers with planning and carrying out their expeditions into the interior of North America. How did they help each explorer? What advantages did the First Peoples gain by helping the Europeans?

        Answer Key

        1. Samuel de Champlain is called the Father of New France because he claimed and secured France’s land in the New World. He established the first two permanent French colonies in North America, and he helped to map out the Great Lakes and North American interior. Thanks to Champlain’s leadership and expeditions, the French colonies were successful for over a century. 
        2. Jolliet and Marquette’s alliance with the First Peoples helped them to trade goods and learn about the land. Local Illinois tribes encouraged Jolliet to further explore their land, especially “The Great River,” or what we now call the Mississippi. The American Indians also warned Jolliet and Marquette of the hostile Spanish settlements that lay further south on the river; this helped the explorers decide to turn around and avoid conflict. 
        3. Although they stopped hundreds of miles short due to hostile Spanish settlements, they were able to determine that the river continued south to the Gulf of Mexico because the river did not turn west. 
        4. La Salle helped to build several forts within New France that were armed with French soldiers to control the area, protect the land, and confine the English settlements to the East Coast. First, he was commissioned to build Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario, which only allowed French traders to access the fur trade around the Great Lakes. La Salle also established Fort Niagara, Fort Miami, and Fort Crevecoeur during his journey to explore the Mississippi River. 
        5. Friendly alliances and close bonds between the World Explorers and the local First Peoples helped the explorers survive their journeys.
          • Native tribes helped Champlain guide his exploration from the St. Lawrence River and present-day Lake Champlain over to the Great Lakes of Ontario and Huron. 
          • Jolliet and Marquette’s alliance with the local American Indians allowed the explorers to trade goods as well as information with the tribes. The Illinois tribes encouraged the explorers to continue towards the Mississippi River, and downriver local tribes warned the explorers about the hostile Spanish settlements that lived further south. 
          • La Salle was a successful fur trader with the native people, allowed him to make a living before exploring the Mississippi River.  
          • These scenarios were advantageous for the First Peoples because they gained European alliances and also new traded goods for their tribes. 

        Examining Primary Sources 

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the following image.

        [Source: accessed from the Toronto Public Library site,]

        An essential form of transportation in the French explorations down the St. Lawrence River, the Niagara River, through the Great Lakes, and of course down the Mississippi river was the canoe. This boat was the primary means of travel for North American First Peoples during all seasons except winter. The canoes used by French explorers were either made by the First Peoples or based on First Peoples designs. The canoes were made from local trees including the bark of the birch tree. They were strong, light, fast, and large. The largest canoes could transport 2000 pounds of supplies with ten people paddling.

        In the JD Kelly painting, Samuel de Champlain is depicted with a fleet of canoes. John David Kelly (1862–1958) painted this picture in 1895. It is called Champlain in Georgian Bay (Lake Huron, Ontario) c. 1615.

        Discussion Questions:

        1. Who are the people paddling the canoes? Why do you think that might be?
        2. In the foreground of this painting, four people are prominent; two are standing and two are seated. Who do you think each of these individuals is? You may only be able to name one of them, but what role is each one playing on this journey?
        3. Where has the painter situated himself in the context of the painting—on shore; in a boat? Why do you think he chose this vantage point?

        Answer Key

        1. First Peoples are paddling the canoes. They are serving as guides and likely provided the canoes. In return, the Indians likely received European goods and definitely received promises of assistance fighting their enemy, the Iroquois.
        2. One is Samuel de Champlain. The man in blue who is pointing may be a European guide or scout. The seated man wearing black is a priest, who is likely along to provide comfort to the Europeans and to convert First Peoples to Christianity. The American Indian who is seated is either the head of the tribe, an elder of the tribe, or the main guide.
        3. Champlain’s is likely the lead boat in the party, so the painter is more likely on the shore. This vantage point provides a sense of the size of the traveling party, and the scale of the river and the land around the river, while also showing the viewer the different kinds of people in the party and their roles in the expedition.
        Written Primary Source Activity (20 minutes)

        Each of these explorers expanded France’s claims to lands in North America. They also established relationships with American Indians, which led to trading opportunities, local knowledge of the woods and waterways, and created allies and enemies.

        One of the most thorough descriptions of their explorations is recorded in The Journal of Father Jacques Marquette. The saga is titled, The Mississippi Voyage of Jolliet and Marquette, 1673. There are numerous sources for accessing translations of the journal, including a version housed by the Wisconsin Historical Society Digital Library and Archives (accessed from and, where both English and French versions are available.

        Distribute the Written Primary Source Handout. Students will read two passages from the journals and use the information to study a map and answer questions. 

        Answer Key

        Passage 1

        1. As you sit on the Wisconsin River, you are facing west/southwest. Once you have entered the Mississippi River, you will be traveling south/southeast.
        2. The phrase “on sounding” means to measure the depth of a body of water by dropping a weighted line (called a sounding line) into the water until it reaches the bottom, and then measure the length of line that was submerged.

          ten brasses = 60 feet [1 brasse = 6 feet]
          three quarters of a league = 2.25 miles [1 league = 3 miles]
          three arpents = 576 feet [1 arpent = 192 feet]

        3. The “monstrous fish” was likely a catfish. The “monster” was possibly a cougar (also known as a mountain lion or puma) if it was really large, or it might have been a bobcat or a margay.
        4. Latitude is one of two coordinate positions, along with longitude, that used together specify a precise location on the surface of the Earth. Latitude is an angle between 0˚ and 90˚ measured between one of the Earth’s poles and the Equator. So, when Marquette says they are at 42.5˚ latitude, he means they are on an imaginary circle that runs around the Earth and is located 42.5˚ from the North Pole (also placing it 47.5˚ from the Equator). 

        Passage 2

        1. Marquette speaks a number of Indian languages, including, as he noted, Allegonquin.
        2. Marquette does not see the Ilinois people, or any other American Indians, as equal to the French. He says that they have “an air of humanity” he did not see when encountering other natives, even though the term “savage” still suggests that he thinks they are not as advanced as the French. Marquette notes how the marital customs, use of metals, other raw materials, and tools, and other habits of the Ilinois are different than similar customs of the French. For example, he states that the Ilinois have no knowledge of iron, copper, guns, and punish wives by cutting off their noses or ears. 

        Geography Activity (30 minutes)

        Materials Needed

        This activity can be done in a school computer lab, or as a take-home assignment. 

        Distribute the World Explorer Map Handout and Comparing Journeys Handout, which correspond to the Google Earth Story “North America’s Great Waters”. In class or independently, have students follow the journeys of Samuel de Champlain, Jacques Marquette, Louis Jolliet, and Rene de La Salle. Have students make notes on the map; encourage them to include aspects of the journey that they find interesting as well as any questions that arise. 

        Answer Key

        World Explorers handout

        1. St. Lawrence River
        2. Lake Champlain
        3. Mississippi River
        4. Arkansas River
        5. Lake Michigan
        6. Niagara River
        7. Gulf of Mexico.


        The version of the map here has all bodies of water labeled.


        Comparing Journeys Handout 

        Motivation? Make maps for France; king’s request. Spread Christianity. Develop trade in furs; make maps. Riches; furs.
        Allied with American Indians? Yes and No. Allied with Mi’Kmaq; Montagnais; Algonquin. Enemy of Iroquois Yes. Allied with Algonquin; Montagnais; Illinois; various tribes along Mississippi River. Various tribes along Mississippi River, Illinois. No alliances.
        Significant discovery and why?

        [Answers will vary. Sample answer provided]
        The Great Lakes, because they linked N. American interior to the ocean and therefore Europe That the Mississippi River flows to the Gulf of Mexico (not the Pacific Ocean), because it helped France to understand the layout of interior N. America The mouth of the Mississippi River, because it allowed France to double their land in N. America


        Culminating Activity

        (1 to 3 hours)

        Materials Needed

        • Poster board
        • Markers, crayons, or colored pencils
        • Construction paper
        • Glue

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment, or as a multi-day in-class project.

         To be completed using the North America’s Great Waters Video Graphic Organizers.

        The explorations of Champlain, Jolliet and Marquette, and La Salle spanned much of the 1600s. Notably, Jolliet and Marquette’s travels depended upon the explorations and settlements of Champlain. Likewise La Salle’s journey to the mouth of the Mississippi River very much depended on the prior journey of Marquette and Jolliet.

        Explain to students that these explorations can be seen as a journey from eastern Canada into the upper Midwest of the United States and then south along the Mississippi River.

        Have students divide into groups and create a board game or card game that encompasses the travels, settlements, and expansion of French territory in North America during the 1600s. 

        For example, like the board game known as The Game of Life, they might create places and adventures that the explorers experienced as they sailed through the Great Lakes, built forts, established settlements, and met new peoples.

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