European Explorers in Arkansas

Read in ARKANSAS, A NARRATIVE HISTORY.  Chapter 2 pp. 20-32


Christopher Columbus sailed in 1492 to a new world to the Europeans.  The Spanish first established themselves on the Caribbean islands and then explored the mainland.  The  resulting conquest of Mexico and Peru altered the balance of power in Europe and produced  a wealth that exceeded Europe's    imagination.  Many of the men arrived in this new world poor and left richer than kings.



 After De Soto's party left Arkansas there is no written account of Europeans until the arrival of the French 130 years later.

After the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere/Columbian Exchange No single population in America suffered more than the Native Americans of Arkansas from their first contact with Europeans.


Michael Dougan, Arkansas Odyssey. Rose Publishing Com. Little Rock, 1994,684pp.



"The French came to the New World seeking the Northwest Passage to Asia, to convert the Native Americans and the fur trade. The French came upon the Great Lakes in the course of exploring the St. Lawrence river.    Natives there referred the French to a great river.  In hope of  the Northwest passage,  two men,Louis Jolliet, a fur trader, and Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary. sought to find this river.  They left in May 1673 to find the Mississippi River.  They traveled through the Straits of Michilimackinac and following  Lake Michigan; they moved west to  the Wisconsin  River and into the Mississippi on June 17."

"Near Alton, Illinois Marquette and Joliet passed the famous  Piasa Bird . While the French were recovering from the shock of this monster they passed the mouth of the Missouri River.  Continuing down the Mississippi, they noted the Ohio River and passed in silence all of the former centers of the Mississippian culture before arriving near the mouth of the Arkansas River.

"Here they met the Quapaw who prepared to attack until the chief recognized the calumet (peace pipe) that Marquette waved above his head.  The   Native Americans then gave a joyous greeting and escorted the party to a place Joliet called the town of Akansea but was better known as Kappa. The Quapaw spoke Siouan, which was not in Marquette's repertoire,  but one  of the Native Americans spoke  a little  of the Illinois tongue so that a limited conversation  took place.  The French learned from the Quapaw that the River continued south and that the Native Americans below had hatchets, knives and beads obtained in trade  from the Spanish.  They also learned that the Mitchigamea tribe of the Illinois Confederacy had a village somewhere on Black River in northeastern Arkansas.  Having failed in their goal,    the  French returned to Canada.

"As with the Spanish explorers problems regarding   their  contacts with Native Americans in Arkansas is limited.  Only Joliet's map survived.  It appears that they visited only one village but the map located several towns.  It is certain that after 1673 the area known as Arkansas(   after the Quapaw village name) began to influence French colonial policy.

"The religious impulse which figured in 16th century motives was beginning to wane in the 17th century and  economic and imperialistic  motives dominated.  Robert Cavelier, de La Salle was a visionary empire builder with a grand design for New France to stretch form Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  His reach exceeded his grasp in two areas.  First, the French government of Louis XIV was greatly over-extended in European wars and reluctant to support colonial adventures.  Second,  the Jesuit missionaries wanted to monopolize the fur trade for themselves and protect their Native American converts from social degeneration associated with the coureurs de bois and the voyageur.  The royal governor of New France, Count Frontenac provided LaSalle with initial support but Frontenac's power was undermined and the greatest of New France's governors was recalled.

"La Salle made a start beginning with a royal grant to erect a fort on Lake Ontario and with permission to explore the west at his own expense in return for trading rights.  In France La Salle recruited a skilled lieutenant in Henri de Tonti. He lost his right hand in a grenade explosion and was known as "Iron Hand" for the metal hand he wore. La Salle left Canada in  the winter of 1679 and established a   fort, christened Crevecoeur, near Peoria.  He left de Tonti in charge and returned to France for more supplies.  The men at the fort mutinied and deserted.  In 1682 La Salle was able to proceed down the River.  The trip was uneventful.  At the Chickasaw Bluffs, future site of Memphis, TN,  he erected a small fort named Prudhomme  in honor of one of the men of the company. They also visited the four Quapaw villages and those of the Taensas farther south. On April 9,1682 La Salle reached the Gulf of Mexico, which he named Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV. La Salle returned to France for more men on his return to North America his fleet missed the mouth of the Mississippi river and the party landed in Texas.  Failing to find the Mississippi river, La Salle was killed by one of the men of his party and the remaining members found their way home.

"Henri de Toni had come south from Canada in hopes of contacting the La Salle party.  Failing in this he permitted Jean Couture and five others to establish a trading post in 1686 at the Quapaw village ofOsotouy on the Arkansas  river.  A remnant from the La Salle party came to this Poste aux Arkansas bearing  news of the explorer's death.)

"The Post became the first French settlement west of the Mississippi river and for the next twenty years  was their southernmost penetration.  The Spanish from    Mexico alarmed   by La Salle's plans advanced on his Texas settlement only to find that  small pox and Native Americans had already destroyed it.  The Gulf continued to  be up for grabs.  Meanwhile Arkansas Post served to wed the Quapaw to the French alliance and extend the range of French interests."


Expedition of Hernando de Soto 

  Marquette and Joilet


 Henri de Tonti

AHQ: Some Old French Place Names in the State of Arkansas, 191.