Early Exploration of Lake Erie and Lake Huron – Spring 1968

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By McLeod Orford

The years 1669 and 1670 were memorable ones in the exploration of Lake Erie and Lake Huron. More than half a century had passed since Champlain stood at the mouth of the French River on the east shore of Georgian Bay and gazed in wonder at the vast Freshwater Sea. During this period canoe travel was confined to the northern route as explorers, missionaries and fur traders pushed on to the West. To the white man the Michigan and Ontario shores of the main body of Lake Huron remained unknown territory. Of the land mass bordering on Lake Erie the courageous Frenchmen had only a vague idea.

The reorganization of the French Government in Paris in the early 1660s produced a revival of interest in New France. Dreams of a great empire in the New World became more and more dominate. The large river west of the Great Lakes was to be explored thoroughly, a series of forts would be set up and the British, Dutch and Spaniards would be confined to a narrow area along the Atlantic coast. Missionary efforts of the Jesuits would be supplemented by sending out members of the Sulpician and Récollet orders.

Vigorous regulations were enacted to cover the beaver and brandy trades. Attempts were made to control the lawless coureurs des bois, who sold furs to the highest bidder, regardless of whether he was French, British or Dutch. Troops were to be provided to guard strategic points. Settlers in large groups would travel to the New World at the King’s expense.

In addition to the above plans there was always the hope that a new route to the Orient would be found. Perhaps the great river in the West flowed into an unknown sea that provided a direct approach to China. In 1667 a French military expedition, sent out by Governor Daniel de Rémy de Courcelle, defeated the Mohawk Indians. The Iroquois Nation then sued for peace — a peace that lasted nearly twenty years. In 1669 the missionary and exploration projects were combined. It was felt that these two groups could work well together as a single unit.

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle

René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, a well-educated young man, was chosen as the head of the exploration group. He would lead an expedition to the Southwest, where a mighty river named Ohio was said to exist. Francois Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée, two Sulpician priests, were in charge of the missionary activities.

La Salle, then in his twenty-sixth year, came from a family belonging to the gentry of Rouen. He severed his connection with the Jesuit Order before coming to New France in 1667. From the Seminary of Montreal he received a grant of a seigniory and immediately began to build a fortified village. He soon realized, however, that the call of the unknown was irresistible. He sold his seigniory to raise funds and was permitted to reimburse himself for traveling expenses by participating in the fur trade.

Casson, then thirty-three years of age, was a man of tremendous vitality and physical strength. It was said that he could carry two men sitting on his hands. Before becoming a Sulpician priest he was a cavalry captain under Marshal Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne Turenne. He was a member of the nobility, an amiable man who possessed charm and courtly manners. To learn the Algonkin language he spent part of the 1668-69 Winter with a Nipissing chief. This chief had a captured slave, who had been presented to him by the Ottawas. This slave, a member of one of many tribes living near a great river in the Southwest, stated that no missionaries had ever visited his people. Casson, being a zealous and dedicated man, immediately saw a vast opportunity for missionary effort.

Galinée, a member of a well-known Breton family, came to Canada in 1668. One of the reasons he was chosen for the expedition was his knowledge of higher mathematics and mapmaking. The Abbé Gabriel Thubières de Levy de Queylus, the Montreal superior of the Seminary of Saint Sulpice, had a deep-rooted fear that the impetuous La Salle, who was primarily interested in exploration, might abandon the missionaries in the wilderness. In this eventuality it was vitally important that someone be present who could guide the ecclesiastical party on the return journey.

The intrepid La Salle assured the members of the expedition that he was thoroughly conversant with the Iroquois language. A short time later the Sulpician priests learned that he did not have even a rudimentary grasp of this language and was actually planning to pick up Seneca slaves from the southwestern tribes, who would guide him to his destination. Galinée was not at all pleased with this arrangement and at the last moment located a Dutchman, who was willing to join the French party. The Dutchman spoke Iroquois fluently, but had only a fragmentary grasp of French.

The expedition left Montreal on July 6, 1669. The little fleet consisted of seven canoes, each with three men, and was under the guidance of two canoes occupied by Seneca hunters, who were returning from Montreal to their homes on the south shore of Lake Ontario.

Galinée’s journal carries an interesting comment on the type of canoe used:

Above Montreal one is confronted with a rapid or waterfall amidst numerous large rocks, that will not allow a boat to go through, so that canoes only can be used. These are little birch-bark canoes, about 20 feet long and two feet wide, strengthened inside with cedar floors and gunwales, very thin, so that one man carries it with ease, although the boat is capable of carrying four men and eight or nine hundred pounds’ weight of baggage.

This style of canoes affords the most convenient and commonest mode of navigation in this country, although it is a true saying that when a person is in one of these vessels he is always, not a finger’s breadth, but the thickness of five or six sheets of paper, from death    It is only the Algonkin-speaking tribes that build these canoes well. The Iroquois use all kinds of bark except birch for their canoes. They build canoes that are badly made and very heavy, which last at the most only a month, whilst those of the Algonkins, if taken care of, last five or six years.

Casson and Galinée depart in birch bark canoes.

Day after day the adventurous Frenchmen struggled with the mighty St. Lawrence. At night they slept on the shore. If it rained, they got what protection they could by gathering bark and boughs. Living off the land at first proved to be an unpleasant experience; all members of the party suffered from illness. A major item in their diet was Indian corn. It was ground between two stones, then boiled in water. It was seasoned with meat or fish, if available. There was an abundance of catfish in the rapids; frequently forty or fifty were caught in a short time. The oil in these fish was used as a seasoning for porridge made of Indian corn. In Lake St. Francis they killed two moose, which provided a welcome feast. Much of this meat was lost owing to hot weather and lack of experience in living in the woods.

On August 2, 1669, the weary travelers reached Lake Ontario, which appeared to be a great sea. The journey along the southern shore of this Lake was slow and tedious. The Senecas, as a whole, were friendly, but dangerous resentment still shouldered in isolated groups. The Dutch interpreter retained by Galinée became fearful and soon lost all interest in making the proposed trip to the Southwest. Day after day the Frenchmen plodded on toward their distant goal.

Much of the food served by the Indians was extremely nauseating.

Galinée wrote:

The great dish in this village, where they seldom have fresh meat, is a dog, the hair of which they singe over coals. After scraping it well, they cut it in pieces and put it into the kettle. When it is cooked they serve you a piece of three or four pounds weight in a wooden platter that has never been rubbed with any other dishcloth than the fingers of the lady of the house, which appear all smeared with the grease that is always in their platter to the thickness of a silver crown…. There was not a child in the village but was eager to bring us stalks of Indian corn, at another time squashes, or it might be other small fruits that they go and gather in the woods.

After numerous annoying delays the party met an Indian, who was returning from the Dutch settlement in the East. He was a native of an Iroquois village at the west end of Lake Ontario and readily agreed to guide the Frenchmen to this point.

In due course they discovered the Niagara River and were particularly impressed by its depth, rapid movement and the roar of Niagara falls. Owing to their eagerness to push further west the explorers did not take time to visit the falls. Galinée stated that several Indians told him the river fell from a rock higher than the tallest pine trees and that frequently stags, hinds, elks and roebucks were carried over the brink of the mighty cataract.

After a five-day voyage the party arrived at the western extremity of Lake Ontario. Upon the instruction of their guide, they camped in the woods a short distance from the shore and there awaited the arrival of the leading men from a nearby village, who would bring with them a group of baggage carriers. It was at this point that La Salle, while hunting, contracted a fever.

Three days later the principal persons and almost everyone in the village came to greet the Europeans. Presents were exchanged and two slaves were provided as guides. One was assigned to La Salle, the other to Galinée and Casson. The Frenchmen were told they would be guided to a river (the Grand) where they could launch their canoes and paddle on to Lake Erie.

The Iroquois in this little settlement did everything they could to entertain their guests. Late in September the gallant party moved on towards the next village, accompanied by more than fifty Indians. After camping in the vicinity of the second village, they were informed that an eastbound Frenchman with an Iroquois guide had just arrived in that community. La Salle, Casson and Galinée were puzzled by this report. They had no knowledge of any other Frenchman being in this area.

Louis Joliet

The unknown explorer was Louis Jolliet, who had left Montreal earlier in the year with orders from the Governor to go up as far as Lake Superior to discover the location of a copper mine, the existence of which had been known to the French since the days of Cartier. Upon locating this mine, he was to search for a route more convenient than the Lake Nipissing approach, for the transportation of this copper to Montreal.

Owing to the lateness of the season, Jolliet did not have time to visit the mine. Before starting on his return journey to Montreal, he convinced the Ottawas of the importance of a continuing peace with the Iroquois. As a token of their desire for peace, he persuaded them to release one of their Iroquois Prisoners. This man was placed in Jolliet’s custody.

It was this prisoner who showed Joliet a new route to the Lower Lakes, of which the French had no previous knowledge. With his Indian guide, the young explorer paddled from the northern section of Lake Huron to its southern extremity. Jolliet sailed along the Michigan shore and thus became the first European to use this course.

The two men passed on down the St. Clair River, across Lake St. Clair, then by the Detroit River to the broad expanse of Lake Erie. After traveling many miles along the north shore of this Lake, the guide became fearful of falling into the hands of the Andastes, a tribe that had waged constant war against the Iroquois for many years. Jolliet finally yielded to the pleas of his guide, paddled ashore, and hid his canoe in the bush near the site of Port Stanley. From there they proceeded on foot through the dense forest to the village, where they met the westbound French expedition.

For several days, prior to the meeting with Jolliet, Galinée and Casson had been aware of La Salle’s ebbing interest in the entire venture. He was still suffering from the fever he had contracted and it was apparent he had concluded that the group’s chances of survival during the approaching winter were virtually nil.

Jolliet told the two Sulpician priests that he had sent a number of men to search for a large Indian tribe known as the Potawatomis. This tribe, to which no missionaries had been sent, was said to live in a northwestern area near the great river that flowed south.

Casson and Galinée gave this new information serious consideration and eventually decided to change their plans. Instead of going directly to the southwestern region, they would paddle along the northern side of Lake Erie to its western end, then follow the connecting waters to Lake Huron’s eastern shore. Upon locating the Potawatomis and establishing a mission in their territory, they would move on to their original objective in the Southwest.

Galinée drew a marine chart based on the information he received from Jolliet. The two priests then made preparations to push on towards the river that would take them to Lake Erie. Noting this activity, La Salle told them that the state of his health did not permit him to continue the journey and that he had decided to return to Montreal with Jolliet. He also stated that he could not make up his mind to winter in the woods with his men, where their lack of skill and experience might make them die of starvation.

All twelve men in the missionary party were eager to get underway.

Galinée wrote:

We had no trouble in persuading our men to follow us. There was not one of them who desired to leave us; and it may be said with truth that more joy was remarked in those who were going to expose themselves to a thousand perils than in those who were turning back to a place of safety, although the latter regarded us as people who were going to expose themselves to death    Jolliet was kind enough to inform me likewise of the place where his canoe was, because mine was almost worthless, which made me resolve to endeavor to get it at the earliest possible moment, for fear the Indians should carry it off from us.

The Dutch interpreter, having assured Galinée he could find Jolliet’s canoe without difficulty, trudged on toward the West with two Indians on October 3, 1669. The interpreter was instructed to remain at the location of the hidden canoe until the rest of the party arrived.

Owing to the low water, the other nine men had extreme difficulty in navigating the Grand River. Before they eventually reached the shore of Lake Erie their small craft had to be carried on many occasions. They were the first Europeans to see the eastern portion of this Lake.

Galinée recorded their immediate impressions:

At last we arrived, on the 13th or 14th, at the shore of Lake Erie, which appeared to us at first like a great sea, because there was a great south wind blowing at the time. There is perhaps no lake in the whole country in which the waves rise so high, which happens because of its great depth and its great extent. Its length lies from east to west, and its north shore is in about 42 degrees of latitude. We proceeded three days along this lake, seeing land continually on the other side about four or five leagues away, which made us think that the lake was only of that width; but we were undeceived when we saw that this land, that we saw on the other side, was a peninsula separating the little bay in which we were from the great lake, whose limits cannot be seen when one is in the peninsula.

Galinée’s Map

The peninsula mentioned is Long Point and the bay is Long Point Bay. On Galinée’s map, Long Point appears much larger than it actually is; Long Point Bay is called “Little Lake Erie.” In the drawing of this map no attempt was made to show the unexplored southern shore.

When the nine men reached the Port Dover area, they decided to camp for the winter at this point. Two members of the party were immediately dispatched to notify the Dutchman of the chosen winter location. Upon returning at the end of one week, these men reported they had found the Jolliet canoe, but had seen neither the Dutchman nor the two Indians who went with him.

The Frenchmen were exceedingly grateful for the abundance of food in the Port Dover region. This appreciation was duly noted in the Galinée journal:

The woods are open, interspersed with beautiful meadows, watered by rivers and rivulets filled with fish and beaver, an abundance of fruits, and what is more important so full of game that we saw there at one time more than a hundred roebucks in a single band, herds of fifty or sixty hinds, and bears fatter and of better flavor than the most savory pigs of France.

After camping two weeks on the lakeshore swept by November gales, the explorers built a winter cabin about three-fifths of a mile in the woods, on the edge of a rivulet. This cabin was a combination of a chapel, a fort and living quarters. During the winter its occupants were visited by a group of friendly Iroquois beaver hunters on several occasions.

In the latter part of March the nine Frenchmen traveled on toward the West. A heavy gale soon forced them to stay on shore at Turkey Point for two days. Galinée’s canoe, which his men had not tied securely, was swept out into the Lake and lost. After placing all baggage in the two remaining canoes, there was space for only two men in each craft. The other five men, including Galinée and Casson, proceeded on foot.

“The land route,” Galinée reported, “was very bad, because of four rivers that had to be crossed and a number of great gulches that the water from the snows and rains had scooped out in many places on its way to the lake.”

The first river was crossed without difficulty; the second had to be traced to its mouth, which was very deep and bordered on both sides by large submerged meadows.   An entire day was spent in making a raft with pieces of wood tied with ropes. In the midst of the raft-building efforts, a terrific northeasterly gale swept down upon the weary men. In a few hours a foot of snow had fallen. As soon as the snowstorm ceased, the five men boarded the fragile raft and pushed across to the opposite meadow. In trudging across this meadow they waded through mud, water and snow to their waists.

Francois Dollier de Casson

On the shore of Lake Erie the fatigued men were amazed to see a huge field of floating ice. There was no sign of their four comrades. Galinée and Casson decided to wait by a ridge of sand, at the western end of Long Point, where a portage would have to be made by the canoe men. The next day there was much rejoicing as the two parties met. On the Tuesday after Easter the two groups were again underway — four men by water and five by land. The land party was soon short of food. For five or six days they had nothing to eat but a little Indian corn cooked in water.

Shortly after arriving in the Port Stanley area the nine men learned the Jolliet canoe had been stolen during the winter by Iroquois hunters. This misfortune plunged the entire party into the abyss of gloom. Their food supply was all but exhausted. Owing to the prevailing cold weather, all game had retreated from the shoreline to the depths of the forest for shelter. It was too early in the season to strip bark and thus build another canoe.

In the midst of this perplexity one of the men went out to search for dry wood to put on the fire. By sheer good fortune he located the missing canoe. Galinée wrote:

The Indians had placed it on the other side of the river, and had hidden it so well that it was impossible to find it without a special providence of God. Everybody was delighted over this discovery; and although we were without provisions, we thought we were in a condition to reach some good hunting spot soon.

After a day’s journey by water they came ashore with the conviction they would be able to kill enough game to keep body and soul together. A herd of more than two hundred does was located, but in their excitement the hunters did not bring down a single animal. A wolf was then killed, skinned and brought to camp. The hungry men were about to put it into the kettle when a lookout spotted another herd of twenty or thirty does. These does were driven into the Lake, then pursued with the canoes. Ten of the best animals were taken.

The three canoes were loaded with fresh and smoked meat. The food supply for the immediate future appeared to be ample and secure. Long hours of strenuous paddling brought the party to a Point Pelee sand beach for the night. Being extremely tired, the men carried the canoes to high ground, but left the packs on the sand.

During the night a heavy northeaster whipped Lake Erie into a raging sea. One of the men, roused by the howling storm, rushed to the beach to check the packs. “All is lost!“ he cried, as the water lashed the highest piece of baggage. The other men ran to the shore. They saved the luggage from Galinée’s canoe and one pack belonging to Casson. Among the items lost was the entire altar service. This had a most disturbing effect on the missionary plans of the two priests. All food had disappeared, with the exception of that in one canoe.

Casson and Galinée first gave serious consideration to an immediate return to Montreal. Later they decided to go on to Sault Ste. Marie and there join a group of Ottawas traveling east by the Lake Nipissing route.

In the Detroit River the Frenchmen saw a stone idol formed by nature, which was held in great veneration by the Indians, and to which they attributed their good fortune in crossing Lake Erie without accident. As an expression of gratitude the Indians left skins, provisions, etc., at the base of the stone. The rock bore no resemblance to the figure of a man other than that created by imagination. On one side, however, a crude face had been painted.

Galinée expressed strong feelings relative to this idol:

I leave you to imagine whether we avenged upon this idol, which the Iroquois had strongly recommended us to honor, the loss of our chapel. We attributed to it even the dearth of provisions from which we had hitherto suffered. In short, there was nobody whose hatred it had not incurred. I consecrated one of my axes to break this god of stone, and then, having yoked our canoes together, we carried the largest pieces to the middle of the river, and then threw all the rest also into the water, in order that it might never be heard of again. God rewarded us immediately for this good action, for we killed a roebuck and a bear that very day.

The explorers were surprised to find no evidence of salt in Lake St. Clair. This lake, based on Indian tales, was then known as the Salt Water Lake.” The name was changed to St. Clair by La Salle and Hennepin in 1679.

From the St. Clair River the three canoes followed the eastern shore of Lake Huron. The party apparently landed on various beaches on this northbound route. Galinée’s map shows several rivers running into Lake Huron. Excellent hunting was reported near a small stream in the Goderich region, but in other areas game was scarce.

Galinée stated:

We travelled about 200 leagues on this lake, and were really afraid of being short of provisions because the animals of this lake appear very unprolific. However, God did not will that we should lack in His service; for we were never more than a day without food. It is true that we happened several times to have nothing left, and to pass an evening and a morning without having anything to put in the kettle; but I did not see that anyone became discouraged or troubled on that account.

On the nature of Lake Huron Galinée made the following comments:

Although this lake is as large as the Caspian Sea, and much larger than Lake Erie, storms do not arise in it either so violent or so long, because it is not very deep. Thus, in many places , after the wind has gone down, it does not require more than five or six hours, whilst it will be necessary sometimes to wait one or two days until Lake Erie has calmed down.

Along the Canadian shore of Lake Huron Galinée did not mention having seen a single individual other than members of his group. The Neutrals, Hurons and other Indian tribes had been driven out or exterminated by the Iroquois in the 1640s. The Canadian shore was destined to remain a vast wilderness for another hundred and fifty years. Galinée, Casson and their seven men were the first known Europeans to sail a northbound route on Lake Huron.

If it was a clear day when the party reached Cape Hurd, at the northwestern extremity of the Bruce peninsula, they probably gazed upon Manitoulin Island before venturing upon the dangerous intervening waters. This island proved to be an excellent area for moose hunting.

From the western end of the Manitoulin the Frenchmen crossed to Mackinac Island. Later they retraced part of their route to the mouth of the St. Marys River. They arrived at Sault Ste. Marie on May 25, 1670, and went directly to the Jesuit fort of Fathers d’Ablon and Marquette. They were surprised to learn that the Jesuits had already sent a missionary to the Potawatomis.

Being anxious to return to Montreal as quickly as possible and having obtained the services of a guide, the Galinée and Casson party left Sault Ste. Marie on May 28, 1670. On this final portion of their voyage they followed the northern route via Lake Nipissing and the Ottawa River.

Galinée noted:

Full route of expedition

We arrived at last in Montreal, on the 18th of June, after twenty-two days of the most fatiguing traveling that I have ever done in my life. Moreover, I was attacked towards the end of the journey with tertian fever, which somewhat moderated the joy I should have had in arriving at Montreal, on seeing myself at last back in the midst of our dear brethren. We were received by everybody, and especially by the Abbé de Queylus, with demonstrations of particular kindness. We were looked upon rather as persons risen from the dead than as common men.

The nine stout-hearted Frenchmen had been away from Montreal for 347 days.

From a missionary viewpoint it could be said the expedition was a failure. The Sulpician priests did not reach their original goal   — the various Indian tribes near the Ohio River. Their fervent desire to be the first order to send a missionary to the Potawatomis was frustrated by prior action of the Jesuits.

Activity in exploration, political and economic fields, however, was probably accelerated by the arduous voyage. The expedition, in conjunction with Jolliet’s 1669 trip, located a new water route from Lake Superior to Montreal. The intrepid explorers sailed around practically all of Ontario south of Lake Nipissing. By 1671 La Salle had explored the Ohio River area. In 1673 Jolliet and Marquette were on the Mississippi. New forts and trading posts were established and more and more land was added to the great crescent empire of the French king.


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About the Author: Mr. McLeod Orford, a resident of Hamilton, Ontario, was born along the eastern shore of Lake Huron and is now a retired civil servant. AS a boy his interest in ships was aroused by several lake captains who had homes in or near Tiverton, Ontario, his native village. Among these men was Captain Angus MacKenzie of the Juniata. At an early age Mr. Orford sailed all five of the Great Lakes. He has published articles on marine history in The London Free Press, Toledo Blade, INLAND SEAS , and other periodicals. He is a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, the Marine Historical Society of Detroit and the Ontario Historical Society.

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