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Louis Joliet was a 17th century Canadian explorer who, aided by Native American communities, explored the origins of the Mississippi River.
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Born around 1645 in or near Quebec, New France, Louis Joliet pursued religious and musical studies until deciding in adulthood to become a fur trader. In 1673, he embarked on a trip with missionary Jacques Marquette along the Mississippi River, ascertaining with Native American guidance that it led to the Gulf of Mexico. Joliet made later expeditions to the Hudson Bay and Labrador Coast.
Louis Joliet (also spelled "Jolliet") was born sometime in the mid-17th century in or near the Quebec, New France settlement to Marie d'Abancourt and John Joliet. Baptized on September 21, 1645, he entered a Jesuit school as a child and focused on philosophical and religious studies, aiming for priesthood. He also studied music, becoming a skilled harpsichordist and church organist. Yet he decided to leave the seminary as an adult and pursued fur trading instead.
In 1673, Joliet embarked on a privately-sponsored expedition with Jacques Marquette, a missionary and linguist, to be among the first Europeans to explore what was called by Native Americans the "Mesipi" river and ascertain where it led to, with hopes of finding a passage to Asia. After meeting in the Michilimackinac region, the men started their journey by canoe on May 17, 1673, to what would be known as the Mississippi River. A month later, they came upon a native village in the Illinois area and were hosted by the tribe's chief, who sent his son with the group as a guide along with a peace pipe for future safe passage.
Continuing their travels to the Arkansas River region, they eventually came upon a native tribe ready to attack near the region that would be known as St. Louis. After seeing the peace pipe in Joliet's hands, the tribe took the explorers to their village and revealed that there were armed Europeans further along the Mississippi. Joliet and Marquette realized that these were the Spanish settlers at the Gulf of Mexico—deducing that's where the Mississippi led to and not Asia—and hence decided to turn around to avoid conflict and capture, having also noted other westward rivers. Along the way back, the young native guide showed the explorers a shorter route home by taking the Illinois River, with the men coming upon Lake Michigan and rich prairie land. Marquette came back to the area the following year with plans of proselytization, but died from dysentery.
Joliet split from Marquette on his way back to Quebec and, in 1674, took a shortcut through the rapids of Lachine along the St. Lawrence. His canoe capsized, taking the lives of the additional passengers, including the chief's son. Joliet was saved by fishermen after holding on to a rock for hours. Losing all of his highly detailed maps and journals, he recomposed some notes of the journey from memory, but Marquette's recovered notes became the more relied upon resource.
The following year, Joliet wed Claire-Françoise Bissot and became more actively involved in Quebec's church and community life.
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Throughout the centuries, brave explorers have fearlessly traveled the globe and beyond to discover new lands, people, animal species, riches and glory. Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal proved the world is round with his mission to sail around the world. His fellow countryman Vasco da Gama commanded the first European ship around the southern tip of Africa to reach India by sea. Norseman Leif Eriksson is regarded as the first European to reach North America, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus, who is credited with discovering the “New World” of the Americas. Juan Ponce de León scoured Puerto Rico and Florida in his quest for the fountain of youth. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed new trails during their Corps of Discovery Expedition across the western half of the United States. Traveling to new heights of discovery were mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the peak of Mount Everest, and U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. These intrepid explorers and more have made an indelible mark on human history. See all Explorers.
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