Who First Explored the Mississippi?
A Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto (1496-1542) on May 8, 1541 became the first European to encounter the wide and muddy waters of the Mississippi River, which he called Río del Espíritu Santo (“River of the Holy Spirit”), in the area of what is now Mississippi. In Spanish, the river is called Río Mississippi.
A veteran of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, he was governor of Cuba when in May 1539 he set out with 600 men on an expedition in search of gold. He is the first European documented as having crossed the Mississippi River. De Soto’s North American expedition was a vast undertaking. By 1541 his wanderings had led him to the Mississippi but a year later he died of fever on its banks and was buried in the river at night to conceal his death from the Indians; different sources disagree on the exact location, whether it was what is now Lake Village, Arkansas, or Ferriday, Louisiana.
The next white explorers were two Frenchmen, Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, and Louis Jolliet, a trader, who in 1673 descended the Mississippi as far south as the Arkansas River. Marquette traveled with a Sioux Indian who named it Ne Tongo (“Big River in Sioux language) in 1673. Marquette proposed calling it the River of the Immaculate Conception.
When Louis Jolliet explored the Mississippi Valley in the 17th century, natives guided him to a quicker way to return to French Canada via the Illinois River. When he found the Chicago Portage, he remarked that a canal of “only half a league” (less than 2 miles (3.2 km), 3 km) would join the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. In 1848, the continental divide separating the waters of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley was breached by the Illinois and Michigan canal via the Chicago River. These both accelerated the development, and forever changed the ecology of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes.
Their trip inspired another Frenchman, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, to complete the exploration. He obtained permission for the expedition from King Louis XIV of France and in 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonti claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, calling the river Colbert River after Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the region La Louisiane, for King Louis XIV. He traveled down first the Ohio and then the Mississippi to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, but was assassinated while trying to establish a colony.
On March 2, 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville rediscovered the mouth of the Mississippi, following the death of La Salle. The French built the small fort of La Balise there to control passage. In 1718, about 100 miles (160 km) upriver, New Orleans was established along the river crescent by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, with construction patterned after the 1711 resettlement on Mobile Bay of Mobile, the capital of French Louisiana at the time.