The Mississippi River - The Father of Waters

Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi River

NOTE:  The information and graphics contained in this file were extracted from, The Leading Facts of American History, by D. H. Montgomery;  Boston, U.S.A., Ginn & Company, Publishers, The Anthenaeum Press, 1901.   This book now resides in the Public Domain.  The file may be downloaded by individuals for private, non-commercial use only. 

Ann Allen Geoghegan


DISCOVERY

In 1528, Spanish explorer Narvaez made an attempt to explore Florida.  The undertaking failed.  The disheartened explorers built some boats and crept along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, toward the west.  After cruising in this way for more than five weeks, Cabeza De Vaca, an officer of the expedition, discovered one of the mouths of the Mississippi River.

Narvaez, the commander of the little fleet, soon after parted company with Cabeza, and was lost.  About a week later, Cabeza himself was shipwrecked, probably on the coast of Texas.  He was captured by the Indians.  After a long captivity, he and three of his companions managed to escape.  They plunged into the wilderness, and at length, after nearly two years of wandering, reached the Spanish settlement  of Compostela, twenty miles from the Pacific on the western coast of Mexico.  From there they traveled east to Mexico City.

Cabeza De Vaca and his companions were the first white men that had ever crossed so large a potion of the continent.  They had only journeyed from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, but they probably had a clearer idea of the actual width of that part of the new world than anyone else in it;  for they literally knew every foot of the way.

De Vaca brought reports of rich cities in the north.  Coronado, a Spanish governor in Mexico, set out to find them in 1540.  He discovered the Great Canyon of the Colorado, and the Indian stone and sun-dried brick cities of New Mexico.  He then pushed eastward, and may have reached what is now Kansas.  Later the Spaniards made permanent settlements in the southwest.


SPANISH EXPLORATION

The next one to undertake the conquest of Florida was Ferdinando De Soto, a Spaniard, as greedy of gold as he was cruel, and as daring as he was greedy.  He sailed from Cuba in the spring of 1539, with a force of about 600 picked men and over two hundred horses.  It was "a roving company of gallant freebooters" in search of fortune.  De Soto had provided bloodhounds and chains to hunt and enslave the Indians;  finally, he had ordered a drove of hogs to be taken along, in order that his men might be sure of an ample supply of fresh meat.


De Soto's Expedition, 1539-1542

The expedition landed at Tampa Bay, and began its march of exploration, robbery, and murder.  The soldiers seized the natives, chained them in couples so that they might not escape, and forced them to carry their baggage and pound their corn.  The chief of each tribe through whose country they passed was compelled to serve as a guide until they reached the next tribe.  If an Indian refused to be a slave or a beast of burden, his fate was pitiful.  They set him up as a target, and riddled his body with bullets, or they chopped off his hands, and then sent him home to exhibit the useless, bleeding stumps to his family.

For two years the march went on.  During that time De Soto and his men traveled upwards of 1500 miles through what are now the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.  They found no goal worth mentioning, but in its stead, hunger, suffering, and death.

In the spring of 1541, the Spaniards, worn out, sick, disgusted, emerged from the forest on the banks of the Mississippi, probably at or near a place now called De Soto Front, De Soto County, MS.  Cabeza De Vaca had seen one of the mouths of the Mississippi, but De Soto was probably the first civilized man that had ever looked on the main body of that mighty river.

The river, at the point where De Soto stood, is so wide that a person standing on the bank and just barely see a man standing on the opposite side.  Here the Spaniards crossed.  They made a long circuit of many months' march, getting no treasure, but meeting, as they declared, "Indians as fierce as mad dogs."  In May, 1542, they came back to the great river at that point in Louisiana where the Red River unites with it.  There he died, and was secretly buried at midnight in the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.  He had made the Indians believe he was not a human being, but a "child of the sun," and that death could not touch him.  When the chief found that he had mysteriously disappeared, he asked where he was.  The Spaniards replied that their captain had gone on a journey to heaven;  but that he would soon return.

The survivors at length reached the Spanish settlements in Mexico.  Only about half of those that had landed in Florida were alive;  they were a miserable band, half-naked, half-starved, looking worse than the savages they had gone out to subdue.


FRENCH EXPLORATION

In 1673, Joilet, a famous French explorer and fur-trader, and Father Marquette, a Jesuit priest, set out from Mackinaw to find a great river the Indians told them lay west of Lake Michigan.  Making their way in birch-bark canoes to the head of Green Bay, they paddled up the Fox River to a place which they called Partage - now Portage City - then carrying their canoes across a distance of less than two miles, they embarked on the Wisconsin River.  Borne by the current, they dropped down the Wisconsin until, on a beautiful day in June, they floated out on the broad, shining bosom of the upper Mississippi.

The sight of it was enough;  they knew they had found that mighty stream which the Indians called the "Father of Waters."  At the point where they reached it, the river is full two miles from bank to bank.  Turning their canoes southward, they let the river bear them where it would.  Day after day they kept on their silent journey, now gliding by castle-shaped cliffs, now coming into the sunlight of open prairies, now entering the long shadow cast by miles of unbroken forest.  Thus they drifted on, past the muddy torrent of the Missouri, past the mouth of the beautiful Ohio.

In about three weeks the explorers came to the point where De Soto had crossed the river more than a hundred years before.  Then, pushing on, they reached the mouth of the Arkansas.  There the Frenchmen stopped and feasted with friendly Indians.  The Indians warned them not to go further south, telling them that the tribes below were hostile to strangers.  Joliett and Marquette took their advice, and after resting for some time they got into their canoes and patiently paddled their way back up the river to the Illinois, then up that river and across to Lake Michigan.  They had not followed the Mississippi to the Gulf, as they intended, but they made a good beginning.

Six years later, in 1679, La Salle, the greatest of the French explorers, a man of active brain and iron will, set out from Canada to complete the work of Joliet and Marquette.  It took three attempts, the last beginning in the autumn of 1681.  Landing at the head of Lake Michigan, where Chicago now stands, he crossed over to the Illinois and going down that river, entered the Mississippi in February, 1682.  The weather was bitter cold, and the river full of floating ice.  La Salle did not hesitate, but started with his company on his perilous voyage.


La Salle at the mouth of the Mississippi.

.Nine weeks later - having stopped on his way to build a fort - La Salle reached the sunny waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  There he set up a rude wooden cross on which he fastened a metal plate bearing the arms of France, a shield decorated with representations of the heads of lilies.  Then with volleys of musketry and loud shouts of "God save the King!" La Salle took possession of the entire vast territory watered by the Mississippi and its tributaries.  To that region of unknown extent - twice as large as France, Spain, and Germany united - he gave the name of Louisiana, in honor of Louis XIV, then the reigning sovereign of France.