Hennepin, Louis (1640-1701?)
Louis Hennepin (1640-1701?)
French explorer and naturalist
Background. Louis Hennepin’s fame rested on a journey into the wilderness of the upper Mississippi River valley and his subsequent narrative of his adventures, the Description de la Louisiane (1683). The story of his life in Europe remains obscure. He was born in Belgium, and when he was about twenty, he joined the Roman Catholic religious order of Franciscans. He served as a priest and military chaplain until 1675 when he immigrated to New France to become a missionary to the Native American tribes of the Saint Lawrence River, Great Lakes, and Mississippi River.
Explorer for God. There were many Jesuit and Franciscan priests in New France who devoted their lives to missionary work. They lived sparingly and dressed simply. The natives called them “bare feet.” In 1678 Hennepin set out from Quebec “in a little bark canoe with [a] portable altar, a blanket, and a rush matting which served as a mattress.” Under the leadership of René-Robert Caöelier de La Salle, Hennepin journeyed from Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls to Lake Erie, then on to Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and the Saint Joseph River, which flows into the southeastern corner of Lake Michigan. From the Saint Joseph, La Salle, Hennepin, and their men descended the Illinois River. At Fort Crève-coeur on the Illinois River La Salle ordered two boatmen and Hennepin to go down the river to reconnoiter the route to the Mississippi. But once they reached the Mississippi, Sioux warriors captured them and forced Hennepin and his companions to journey up the Mississippi to their villages in Minnesota. The ascent was long and difficult. The natives expected the French to paddle upstream for hours at a time with little rest and food. They remained prisoners of the Sioux, living in tepees and joining their hunts, for four months. Finally the Sioux released the priest upon the intervention of the Sieur Du Luth, a French colonist whom the natives respected. In 1682 Hennepin returned to France.
Geography of Louisiana. The French conceived of Louisiana as the entire region of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Hennepin initially saw Louisiana as a place for the extension of French power and as fertile ground to make Christian converts. But after his journeys and harrowing experiences he began to see the territory from the perspective of a scientist. Notwithstanding Hennepin’s lack of formal scientific training, he penned a geographic description of Upper Louisiana. He described in detail the extent and character of the Great Lakes. Niagara Falls deeply impressed him: the rapid current of the river approaching the falls, the terrifying sight of the falls accompanied by the thundering of the water, the high banks from which it was “frightening to look down.” He detailed as well the flora and fauna of the lakes and rivers, especially in respect to food sources. Fascinated by the buffalo, Hennepin discussed the animal’s physical characteristics and behavior. He reported on Indian hunting techniques and uses of the buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter. He informed his readers about river sources, lengths, direction of descent, and currents as well as the fertility of the soil.
Ethnographer. During the course of the narrative of his adventures and in a lengthy appendix to the book, Hennepin described in detail the society and customs of native tribes such as the Iroquois, Miami, and Sioux. Although Hennepin suffered abusive treatment from the Sioux, his comments were generally mild and objective. His biggest criticism of the natives was their lack of table manners and cleanliness. But he was clearly fascinated by their ability to survive in the wilderness. Even so, Hennepin realized these people often flirted with starvation. He was impressed by their dignity and bearing and wondered whether or not they were one of the lost tribes of Israel. He praised the skills and endurance of female natives, noting they were stronger than European males. Hennepin described women who give birth at night “without making the slightest disturbance and in the morning [act] ... as if nothing had happened.” He recorded their stories told around the campfire, marriage rituals, child-rearing practices, and celebrations. He wrote with approval of the calumet, or peace pipe, which was a “sort of safe-conduct” for the traveler going from tribe to tribe. Notwithstanding Hennepin’s sensitive portrait of Native American life, he concluded that Indians needed to give up their beliefs and culture and accept European civilization and Christianity.
Louis Hennepin, Description of Louisiana (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938).
Missionary, explorer; b. Ath, Belgium, May 12, 1626; d. probably Rome, Italy, after 1701. He entered the novitiate of the Récollet Order of Friars Minor at Béthune, France, was ordained, and served as a missionary in Holland (1673–74). On July 14, 1675, he sailed for Canada, where Bp. François de Laval de Montmorency of Quebec appointed him Lenten and Advent preacher. During this time he carefully studied native dialects and customs until appointed to an Iroquois mission at Fort Frontenac on Lake Ontario, near the present site of Kingston. In 1678, Hennepin accompanied René Robert, Sieur de la Salle, on his expedition westward. From a Niagara outpost on Lake Erie, they traveled through both Illinois and Louisiana country, navigated the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers named by La Salle, and founded Fort Crève-Coeur near Lake Peoria. Here La Salle left on foot for Fort Frontenac and Quebec while Hennepin and his companions continued toward the Mississippi River. On April 12, 1681, as they moved northward, they were captured by the Issati Sioux and obliged to accompany them in their wanderings. During one of these journeys, they stopped at a cataract in the Mississippi, which Hennepin named St. Anthony Falls. Through the intercession of the French explorer Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut the missionaries were finally released, and after a long and difficult journey Hennepin returned to Montreal, Canada, to report to Count Louis de Frontenac, the Governor General. At the suggestion of Laval, Hennepin spent the summer at the Franciscan monastery of Our Lady of the Angels, Quebec. In the autumn he returned to France to write Description de la Louisiana (1683), an account of his explorations. Experiencing difficulties with his superiors, Hennepin left Artois, where he had been stationed, and established himself in Utrecht, Netherlands. There he published two new versions of his travels, Nouvelle découverte (1697) and Nouvelle Voyage (1698), which were translated in more than 60 editions. In these books he claimed to have descended the lower Mississippi and discovered the Gulf of Mexico prior to La Salle. Rejecting his claims, historians have since debated his accuracy and originality. At this time Hennepin lost the favor of Louis XIV, and his books were dedicated to King William III of England. In 1698 Hennepin received a grant of money from William, for whom he offered to guide a fleet to the Gulf of Mexico. He did not accompany this fleet, however, but instead made his way to Italy, where his remaining days were spent in a monastery in Rome.
Bibliography: j. delanglez, Hennepin's Description of Louisiana (Chicago 1941) bibliog. 144–156, a leading American authority, who questioned the originality of Hennepin's writings. More recent, and based on documents favorable to Hennepin found in the State Archives, Mons, Belgium, are the writings of a. louant, "Le P. Louis Hennepin: Nouveaux jalons pour sa biographie," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 45 (1950) 186–211; "Precisions nouvelles sur le Père Hennepin," Academie Royale de Belgique. Bulletin de la classe des lettres … 42 (1956) 215–276; "Une Confirmation de l'identification du Père Louis Hennepin," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 52 (1957) 871–876. These documents have resulted in some revision of traditional biographical details.
[j. l. morrison]