Exploration of the Mississippi River

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Exploring the Mississippi –


he first European to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River was perhaps the Spaniard Alonso Alvarez de Pineda. He called it Rio del Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit). In 1527 Panfilo de Narváez, a wealthy Spaniard living in Cuba who attempted to take possession of Florida and any other land he could find, made an expedition past the Mississippi's mouth, where a storm wrecked his fleet. One of the survivors, Alvar Núnez Cabeza de Vaca, later wrote an account of the adventure. Hernando de Soto, Spanish Governor of Cuba and a veteran of the conquest of Peru, was intrigued by Cabeza de Vaca's description of the coastline. De Soto organized an expedition and landed in Tampa Bay in 1539.

De Soto's Discovery of the Mississippi (c. 1880) This lithograph by Kurz & Allison was based on a painting by William H. Powell. De Soto is believed to be the first European to find and cross the Mississippi River.
The Historic New Orleans Collection


He continued and found the Mississippi River, which he crossed into Arkansas in 1541. De Soto died upon his return to Mississippi the following year. His men went down the river to the Gulf Coast under the direction of Luis de Moscoso. They are believed to be the first white men to pass by the site where New Orleans stands today. By 1673, the French-Canadians were interested in finding an exit to the Pacific. The Governor of Canada ordered such an expedition under the leadership of Louis Joliet, a fur trader, and Father Jacques Marquette. They entered the Mississippi River after paddling down the Wisconsin River, but they stopped when they suspected the presence of Spanish explorers in the area. In February of 1682, the Frenchman Robert Cavalier de la Salle entered the Mississippi River from the Illinois River. He reached the Gulf of Mexico, disembarked on April 9, and claimed the land drained by the river for France. He named the region Louisiana in honor of the King of France. The possibility of controlling the trade route from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico was of paramount importance for France and for its most important colony in the New World. The French court financed an expedition with the idea of creating a colony in Louisiana. On July 4, 1684, la Salle left France with four ships, 100 soldiers, and 250 settlers. He attempted to enter the river from the Gulf of Mexico, but apparently he did not recognize the delta and drifted to Matagorda Bay in Texas. La Salle lost one ship to the Spaniards and another at the entrance of the bay. He built Fort St. Louis and then lost his remaining ship in a storm. His own men murdered la Salle and the survivors fled to Canada.