Monday, March 17, 2008

La Rivière aux Canots

The Upper Mississippi was first explored in 1680 by the French priest Father Louis Hennepin. Father Hennepin started his explorations from the Jesuit mission on Mackinac Island, near the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Setting out in birchbark canoes, Hennepin’s party of French and Ojibwe skirted the top of Lake Michigan and arrived at Green Bay, where they entered the Fox River. They followed the Fox River to Wisconsin River, which brought them a last to the river the Indians called “Meche-e-sebe,” the Great River.

Eight years later, in September 1688, the Frenchman Louis Armand, Baron Lahontan (1666-1715), set out along the same route to explore the Great River. He reached the Mississippi on October 23. On November 3, according to his account, he entered a tributary of the Mississippi, a river almost without a current whose mouth was filled with reeds. He claims to have spent sixty days travelling up the river, covering nearly five hundred miles. Along the way, he claims to have encountered several Indian tribes who have never been heard of since. He called the mysterious river la Riviere Longue, the Long River.

Most people have dismissed Lahontan’s account of exploring the Long River as fiction, but in the nineteenth century the French scientist and explorer Joseph Nicollet suggested that Lahontan’s river was, in fact, the Cannon River.

E. S. Seymour wrote: “The Cannon, or Canoe River (or La Hontan River), empties into the Mississippi about three miles above Mount Reminicha [Barn Bluff], which is situated at the head of Lake Pepin. The land about the mouth is so low, flat, and obstructed with a dense growth of under-wood and intervening marshes, as to render it difficult to determine, precisely, the point of it junction with the Mississippi. This river is said to be fed by a great number of springs, and the upper portion of its course is in a remarkable manner protected from sudden changes to temperature by high, rocky banks, and thick forests that cover them; hence this river is one of the last to freeze, and is the last resort of the wild-fowl in the fall. Its name, Cannon, is thought, by M. Nicollet, to be a corruption of the French name, Riviere aux Canots, or Canoe River, it being the place where they hid their canoes. It is supposed to be the river which Baron La Hontan explored in the seventeenth century, and is sometimes called La Hontan River.”

From Red Wing, the steamboat continued up the Mississippi to St. Paul, already a bustling town on the north side of the river. The main part of the city lay on a broad plateau, ending in bluffs that reached down to the bank of the Mississippi. There were two steamboat landings. In 1849, when E. S. Seymour arrived, he counted one hundred and forty buildings in St. Paul, most of them less than six months old. There were small shanties, boarding houses, blacksmith shops, printing shops, stores and groceries, a state house, warehouses, two churches, and a “billiard and bowling saloon.” Thirty years later, when Mark Twain made the trip to St. Paul, the city was still growing. “It is a very wonderful town indeed,” Twain said, “and is not finished yet.”

The Nominee, with Robert and William Watson on board, landed at St. Paul on April 19, 1850. As soon as they disembarked, the brothers began to explore the area around St. Paul on foot, looking for a place to farm.

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