In 1673, La Salle learned that two Frenchmen, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, had paddled down what Indians called the Father of Waters, the Mississippi River.
They had not reached the Gulf of Mexico but had turned back at the mouth of the Arkansas River. La Salle was disappointed to learn that the Mississippi did not reach the Pacific Ocean, but he realized the economic potential of the great waterway.
In 1677, he went to France and told King Louis XIV of the splendid, untamed country and its promise of riches beyond their dreams. The king, inspired by La Salle’s vision of a French empire, granted him a monopoly to build trading posts and forts in the Mississippi Valley.
In February 1682, La Salle led an expedition of 23 Frenchmen and 31 Indians, including members of the Illinois, Miami, Shawnee, and Abnaki tribes, down the Mississippi River.
Along the way, La Salle shrewdly negotiated with Indians, using gifts and flattering language to convince them of his friendly intentions. Still, he claimed their land for Louis XIV, erecting wooden crosses with the arms of France and crying, “Vive le Roil”.
On April 6, 1682, La Salle arrived at the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire Mississippi River and its tributaries. He named the colony Louisiana, after the king. In one journey, La Salle had created a French colony several times larger in area than the French nation.