Groseiliers and Radisson: The First Europeans at the Head of the Lakes

Frederick Remington’s 1905 painting of Grosseillers and Radisson. (Image: Public Domain)

If the Kensington rune stone is eventually accepted as genuine, thus establishing the presence of explorers of the white race in Minnesota in 1362, it would not be incredible to suppose that Lake Superior, the most important inland water and presumably well-known to the nomadic Indians, was discovered by white people in that century.

That, however, is merely suppositious and no reference to Lake Superior comes into European or Canadian records until the second decade of the seventeenth century.

The First Map of Lake Superior (1629) A map drawn by Samuel de Champlain in 1629, and published in 1632, outlined the inland waters of the land Champlain had claimed or hoped to claim, in the name of the King of France. One of these waters is supposed, by some students, to represent Lake Superior, but others believe it to be Lake Michigan. It is known that Champlain had not visited Lake Superior before drawing the map, or indeed at any subsequent time, but it is claimed that Etienne Brule, who discovered Lake Huron, almost fifteen years earlier, also discovered, or knew of, Lake Superior. Indians may have conveyed the information, but the map serves no further purpose than to indicate a possibility that Lake Superior was discovered by white people a few decades earlier than other records show.

Discovery of Lake Superior – Nicolet, “an interpreter, sent on by Champlain, was probably in the vicinity of the Sault Ste. Marie” in 1639, and may have seen Lake Superior; Jaques and Raymbault, Jesuit missionaries, were at the Sault in 1641; but the first white men known to enter and extensively navigate the waters of Lake Superior were the French explorers and traders, Groseilliers and Radisson. The year of their coming cannot be determined from records written by Radisson and, unfortunately, Medart Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, left no written record. Other records, however, including the “Jesuit Relations” and the “Journal of the Jesuits” corroborate the Radisson writings, and “the best opinion fixes the time of the termination of the two western voyages (of Radisson and Groseilliers) at 1656 and 1660.” Two years were spent in the first expedition, so that the coming of the two Frenchmen into Minnesota would thus be in’ 1655, seeing that they spent the first winter in the region of Mackinac and Green Bay. Apparently, they did not reach Minnesota by way of Lake Superior, however. The narrative shows that “in the early spring, before the ice and snow which forbade the use of canoes were gone, these Frenchmen, with about 150 Indian men and women, traveled almost fifty leagues on snowshoes, coming to a riverside, where they spent three weeks in making boats.” On the Mississippi – It is thought that the journey was from the vicinity of Green Bay, in northeastern Wisconsin, across that state to the Mississippi at a point in southeastern Minnesota, and that after three weeks spent at that point in boat-building, the party voyaged eight days up the river, replenishing their supplies at the villages of two Indian tribes, probably near Winona, and eventually “they came to the first landing isle,” which is thought was Prairie Island, on the Minnesota side of the main channel of the Mississippi River, a few miles above Red Wing.

Upper Mississippi Discovered – Incidentally, this constitutes, if correctly identified, the first voyage upon the Upper Mississippi by white men, previous voyageurs having explored the lower and middle reaches only, Pinzon and Solis, with Amerigo Vespucci, in 1498, Pineda in 1519, Narvaez in 1528 and De Soto in 1541. Joliet and Marquette voyaged down the Mississippi from the Wisconsin River to the Arkansas in 1673; La Salle explored the Mississippi from the Illinois to its mouth in 1682, two years after Hennepin and Duluth were upon its waters above the Wisconsin. Hennepin and Michael Ako, or Accault, voyaged to within five leagues of “St. Antoine’s Falls” in 1680, and Le Sueur and Charleville were above the Falls of St. Anthony in 1685-90. But most of the voyaging was a long way from the waters that lead down into Lake Superior, and it would hardly be feasible to suppose that Groseilliers and Radisson on their first voyage returned to the St. Lawrence from the Upper Mississippi by way of what is now known as the Schoolcraft route, going down the St. Louis River into Lake Superior in 1656. It is possible, of course, but far from probable, and it is generally believed that they returned the way they had come, eventually reaching Green Bay, where they had left their heavier lake boats.

Return to Montreal – The voyageurs reached Montreal and Quebec in August, 1656. Then followed an expedition to the Onondaga country, from which adventure Radisson returned in March, 1658.

His brother-in-law, Groseilliers, had not accompanied him, but upon his return they both joined in preparations for another voyage to the far West.

Second Voyage West – Radisson’s manuscript states that this second western voyage extended over two years, and included a trip even to Hudson Bay, but the finding of the “Great North Sea” by Radisson is supposed to have been an event of his third expedition, 1661-62, and it is thought probable that their second western voyage, which brought them into Lake Superior, and far into that lake, did not begin until August of 1659, as several reliable records indicate that the expedition terminated in August, 1660, when the two adventurous Frenchmen returned to Montreal laden with furs.

First White Men to Reach Chequamegon Bay – The premier place among the early explorers of Lake Superior is generally accorded to Medart Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers and his brotherin- law, Pierre Esprit Radisson, just as the first place in the history of the City of Duluth is accorded to Daniel de Gresolon, Sieur Duluth.

It has been argued that Groseilliers and Radisson reached Superior and Duluth bays during their second voyage, and although that is possible, there is nothing apparently convincing in the Radisson records to support the argument, whereas the records of Duluth’s voyages convey convincing proof that he, at least, actually was in Duluth waters. Groseilliers and Radisson may have reached the western extremity of Lake Superior, but the general belief is that they made their headquarters in Chequamegon Bay, which, in the absence of maps, or other knowledge to the contrary, might have readily been taken to be the head of the lake

A 1671 map of Lake Superior, then know as Lac Tracy by the French. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Map of 1670-71 – Allouez found hostile Sioux at the mouth of the St. Louis River in 1665, and to him may, perhaps, be attributed the knowledge conveyed to the Jesuit cartographers who drew the map of 1670-71, and marked thereon a river flowing into Lake Superior at its western extremity. It is not illogical to assume that the river marked was, indeed, the St. Louis, although it would be illogical to argue that such marking would strengthen the assertion that Groseilliers and Radisson reached the very headwaters of Lake Superior.

The map undoubtedly is of much value, historically; for one thing, it makes convincingly clear the fact that the administrative headquarters of civilizing endeavor on Lake Superior at that time was Chequamegon Bay. It is clear that LaPointe was the center of missionary effort at that time. The bay is well delineated on the map, and the point is designated “La Pointe du St. Esprit,” the “Mission du St. Esprit,” also apparently being in that vicinity. Radisson’s middle name was Esprit, yet it would surely be stretching credulity unduly to think that his association with the place, rather than the ever-present divine association with their earthly mission and life, was the factor that influenced the Jesuits to so name La Pointe and their mission. There is a greater likelihood that the Jesuit cartographers drew their map from information gleamed from the Indians by missionaries, or by actual explorations of “men of the Cloth,” for instance, Father Allouez, rather than from traders. (The church, in general, frowned upon the “coureurs de bois.”) So that the map could not be convincingly brought forward in association with Groseilliers and Radisson, at least not in connection with the marking of the St. Louis River.

Judge Carey, who wrote the “History of Duluth and Northern Minnesota,” stated that Groseilliers and Radisson returned to Lake Superior from the Upper Mississippi by way of’ the St. Louis River, but he does not seem to place much significance on the passing, and his statement has not met general acceptance. He wrote, regarding Groseilliers and Radisson: In those early days, the fur trade was one of the great avenues for acquiring wealth. In the year 1659, Groselliers and Radisson arrived at Chaqwamagon Bay, on which Ashland, Wis., is located, on their way to visit certain Indian tribes, then known as the Hurons, Ottawas and Tinontates, called by the French Petuns, with whom they had formerly traded. These tribes were by the Iroquois of New York driven from the country east of Lake Huron, and after having been forced to leave their homes and country, wandered along the shores of Lake Michigan, reaching the Mississippi River, and from there, through the hostility of the savage and warlike Sioux, went northward to the country bordering Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Black, Chippewa and Wisconsin Rivers, where the Hurons and Petuns temporarily located, while the Ottawas moved northeastward and located at Chaqwamagon Bay. Entering the country southwest of Lake Superior, Groselliers and his companions, after a six days’ journey, reached the headwaters of the Black, Chippewa and Wisconsin Rivers. From that region they journeyed northwest, and spent the winter of 1659-60 among the Sioux villagers in the Mille Lac region. From there they returned to the head of Lake Superior by way of the upper Mississippi, Sandy Lake, and the St. Louis River, and spent the spring and part of the summer of 1660 in trading around Lake Superior. In August of that year they returned to Montreal with 300 Indians and 60 canoes loaded with furs.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
  • Menu