A Sketch of the Early “Far West”

By Henry Howe in 1857

Juan Ponce de Leon

Juan Ponce de Leon

Twenty years after the great event occurred, which has immortalized the name of Christopher Columbus, Florida was discovered by Juan Ponce de Leon, ex-governor of Puerto Rico. Sailing from that island in March 1513, he discovered an unknown country, which he named Florida, from the abundance of its flowers, the trees being covered with blossoms, and its first being seen on Easter Sunday, a day called by the Spaniards, Paseua Florida. Other explorers soon visited the same coast. In May 1539, Hernando De Soto, the Governor of Cuba, landed at Tampa Bay, with 600 followers. He marched into the interior; and on the first of May 1541, discovered the Mississippi River, the first European who had ever beheld that mighty river.

Spanish Explorers

Spanish Explorers

Spain, for many years, claimed the whole of the country — bounded by the Atlantic to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River on the north, all of which bore the name of Florida. About twenty years after the discovery of the Mississippi River, some Catholic missionaries attempted to form settlements at St. Augustine, and its vicinity; and a few years later, a colony of French Calvinists had been established on the St. Mary’s, near the coast. In 1565, this settlement was annihilated by an expedition from Spain, under Pedro Menendez de Aviles; and, about 900 French, men, women, and children were cruelly massacred. The bodies of many of the slain were hung from trees, with the inscription, “Not as Frenchmen, but as heretics.”

Old City Gate, St. Augustine, Florida, by the Detroit Photographic Co., 1898

Old City Gate, St. Augustine, Florida, by the Detroit Photographic Co., 1898

Having accomplished his bloody errand, Menendez founded St. Augustine, Florida the oldest town by half a century of any now in the Union. Four years after, Dominique de Gourgues, burning to avenge his countrymen, fitted out an expedition at his own expense, and surprised the Spanish colonists, on the St. Mary’s; destroying the ports, burning the houses, and ravaging the settlements with fire and sword; finishing the work by also suspending some of the corpses of his enemies from trees, with the inscription “Not as Spaniards, but, as murderers.” Unable to hold possession of the country, De Gourgues retired to his fleet. Florida, excepting for a few years, remained under the Spanish crown, suffering much in its early history, from the vicissitudes of war, and piratical incursions, until 1819, when, vastly diminished from its original boundaries, it was ceded to the United States, and in 1845 became a state.

In 1535, James Cartier, a distinguished French mariner, sailed with an exploring expedition up the St. Lawrence River, and taking possession of the country in the name of his king, called it “New France.” In 1608, the energetic Samuel de Champlain created a nucleus for the settlement of Canada, founding Quebec. This was the same year with the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia; and 12 years previous to that on which the Puritans first stepped upon the rocks of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Until late in the century, owing to the enmity of the Indians bordering Lakes Ontario and Erie, the adventurous missionaries, on their route west, on pain of death, were compelled to pass far to the north through “a region horrible with forests,” by the Ottawa and French Rivers of Canada.

Father Jacques Marquette

Father Jacques Marquette

As yet, no Frenchman had advanced beyond the Fox River of Winnebago Lake, in Wisconsin; but, in May 1673, the missionary Jacques Marquette, with a few companions, left Mackinac in canoes; passed up Green Bay, entered the Fox River, crossed the country to the Wisconsin River, and, following its current, passed into and discovered the Mississippi River; down which, they sailed several hundred miles, and returned in the Autumn. The discovery of this great river gave great joy in New France, it being “a pet idea” of that age that some of its western tributaries would afford a direct route to the South Sea, and then to China. Monsieur Robert de La Salle, a man of indefatigable enterprise, having been several years engaged in the preparation, in 1682, explored the Mississippi River to the sea, and took formal possession of the country in the name of the King of France, in honor of whom he called it Louisiana. In 1685, he also took formal possession of Texas, and founded a colony on the Colorado River; but, La Salle was assassinated, and the colony dispersed.

The descriptions of the beauty and magnificence of the Valley of the Mississippi River, given by these explorers, led many adventurers from the cold climate of Canada, to follow the same route, and commence settlements. About the year 1680, Kaskaskia and Cahokia in Illinois, the oldest towns in the Mississippi Valley, were founded. Kaskaskia became the capital of the Illinois country, and in 1721, a Jesuit college and monastery were founded there.

Peace with the Iroquois, Huron, and Ottawa tribes in 1700, gave the French facilities for settling the western part of Canada. In June 1701, De la Motte Cadillac, with a Jesuit missionary and a hundred men, laid the foundation of Detroit. All of the extensive regions south of the lakes was now claimed by the French, under the name of Canada, or New France. This excited the jealousy of the English, and the New York legislature passed a law for hanging every Popish priest that should come voluntarily into the province.

The French, chiefly through the mild and conciliating course of their missionaries, had gained so much influence over the western Indians, that, when a war broke out with England in 1711, the most powerful of the tribes became their allies; and the latter unsuccessfully attempted to restrict their claims to the country south of the lakes. The Fox Nation, allies of the English, in 1713 made an attack upon Detroit; but, were defeated by the French and their Indian allies. The Treaty of Utrecht, this year, ended the war.

Fort Chartres, Illinois

Fort Chartres, Illinois by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

By the year 1720, a profitable trade had arisen in furs and agricultural products — between the French of Louisiana, and those of Illinois; and settlements had been made on the Mississippi River, below the junction of the Illinois River. To confine the English to the Atlantic coast, the French adopted the plan of forming a line of military posts, to extend from the great northern lakes to the Mexican Gulf; and as one of the links of the chain, Fort Chartres was built on the Mississippi River, near Kaskaskia; and in its vicinity soon flourished the villages of Cahokia, and Prairie du Rocher.

The Ohio River, at this time, was but little known to the French, and on their early maps was but an insignificant stream. Early in the 1700s, their missionaries had penetrated to the sources of the Alleghany River. In 1721, Chabert de Joncaire, a French agent and trader, established himself among the Seneca at Lewistown, and Fort Niagara was erected, near the falls, five years subsequent. In 1735, according to some authorities, Post St. Vincent was erected on the Wabash River. Almost coeval with this, was the military post of Presque Isle, on the site of Erie, Pennsylvania, and from there, a cordon of posts extended on the Alleghany River to Pittsburgh; and from there, down the Ohio River to the Wabash River.

Greentree Tavern in Ste Genevieve MO

The Janis-Ziegler House, or Green Tree Tavern, in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri was probably built in the 1790s. The house combines French and American architectural styles. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

In 1749, the French regularly explored the Ohio River and formed alliances with the Indians in western New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The English, who claimed the whole west to the Pacific, but, whose settlements were confined to the comparatively narrow strip east of the mountains, were jealous of the rapidly increasing power of the French in the west. Not content with exciting the Indians to hostilities against them, they stimulated private enterprise, by granting 600,000 acres of choice land on the Ohio River, to the “Ohio Company.”

By the year 1751, there were in the Illinois country, the settlements of Cahokia, five miles from St. Louis; St. Philip’s, 45 miles farther down the river; Ste. Genevieve, a little lower still, and on the east side of the Mississippi River, Fort Chartres, Kaskaskia, and Prairie du Rocher. The largest of these was Kaskaskia, which at one time contained nearly 3,000 souls.

Fur Traders

Fur Traders

To strengthen the establishment of French dominion, the genius of Samuel de Champlain saw that it was essential to establish missions among the Indians. Up to this period “the far west” had been untrod by the foot of the white man. In 1616, a French Franciscan, named Joseph Le Caron, passed through the Iroquois and Wyandot nations — to streams running into Lake Huron; and in 1634, two Jesuits founded the first mission in that region. But, just a century elapsed from the discovery of the Mississippi River, where the first Canadian envoys met the Indian nations, of the northwest, at the falls of St. Mary’s, below the outlet of Lake Superior.

It was not until 1659, that any of the adventurous fur traders wintered on the shores of this vast lake, nor until 1660, that Rene Mesnard founded the first missionary station upon its rocky and inhospitable coast. Perishing soon after in the forest, it was left to Father Claude Allouez, five years subsequent, to build the first permanent habitation of white men among the northwestern Indians. In 1668, the mission was founded at the falls of St. Mary’s, by Claude Dablon and Jacques Marquette; in 1670, Nicholas Perrot, agent for the intendant of Canada, explored Lake Michigan to near its southern termination. Formal possession was taken of the northwest, by the French, in 1671, and Marquette established a missionary station at Point St. Ignace, on the mainland north of Mackinac, which was the first settlement in Michigan.

In 1748, the Ohio Company, composed mainly of wealthy Virginians, dispatched Christopher Gist to explore the country, gain the good-will of the Indians, and to ascertain the plans of the French. Crossing overland to the Ohio River, he proceeded down it to the Great Miami River, up which he passed to the towns of the Miami tribes, about 50 miles north of the site of Dayton, Ohio. The next year the company established a trading post in that vicinity, on Loraroies Creek, the first point of English settlement in the western country. It was soon after broken up by the French.

Fort le Boeuf, Pennsylvania

Fort le Boeuf, Pennsylvania

In the year 1753, Robert Diawiddie, governor of Virginia, sent George Washington, then 21 years of age, as commissioner, to remonstrate with the French commandant who was at Fort le Boeuf, near the site of Erie, Pennsylvania, against encroachments of the French. The English claimed the country by virtue of her first royal charters; the French, by the stronger title of discovery, and possession. The result of the mission proving unsatisfactory, the English, although it was a time of peace, raised a force to expel the invaders from the Ohio River and its tributaries. A detachment under Lieutenant Ward erected a fort on the site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; but, it was surrendered shortly after, in April 1754, to a superior force of French and Indians under Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecœur, and its garrison peaceably permitted to retire to the frontier post of Cumberland. Contrecoeur then erected a strong fortification at “the fork,” under the name of Fort Duquesne.

Measures were now taken by both nations for the struggle that was to ensue. On May 28, 1755, a strong detachment of Virginia troops, under George Washington, surprised a small body of French from Fort Duquesne, killed its commander Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, and ten men, and took nearly all the rest prisoners. He then fell back and erected Fort Necessity, near the site of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

In July, he was attacked by a large body of French and Indians, commanded by Louis Coulon de Villiers, and after a gallant resistance, compelled to capitulate, with permission to retire unmolested; and under the express stipulation that farther settlements or forts, should not be founded by the English, west of the mountains, for one year.

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