CHAPTER 7: The Military Empire
New France Expands
A soldier of the Compagnies franches de la Marine dressed for an expedition, mid-18th century
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From the early seventeenth century onward, the French ventured deeper and deeper into the heart of the continent. Between 1658 and 1662, Pierre Radisson explored Lake Superior, went as far as Hudson Bay via the Albany River, and discovered the upper Mississippi. Other explorers followed. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Marquette followed the great river which the Amerindians called the Mississippi to Arkansas. Going even further afield, Robert Cavalier de La Salle set off from Montreal and reached at the Gulf of Mexico in 1682. He took possession of the territories he traversed in the name of King Louis XIV, calling them Louisiana. The strategic and geopolitical significance of these explorations did not escape the French, who perceived the potential for an immense empire based on control of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers. Two years later, La Salle left France with a fleet of several ships carrying settlers and about 100 soldiers to establish a new colony on the lands that he had discovered. He failed to find the mouth of the Mississippi, however, and finally met with disaster on the shores of Texas, where he was killed. Nevertheless, colonization continued from the north. Missionaries and merchants, followed by some settlers from Canada attracted by more temperate southern climes, established small posts on the upper Mississippi, called the Illinois country.
In 1699, d'Iberville founded Biloxi, and France gained a firm foothold on the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the efforts of the Canadians. By the 1720s, a chain of forts along the Mississippi ensured communications between New Orleans and the Illinois. Small forts were then constructed as well on the banks of the Arkansas and Missouri rivers, extending French reach to the Amerindian nations of the Great Plains. Finally the La Vérendryes, father and sons, searched for the "great western sea" from 1730 to 1743, dotting their path with a series of forts as far as the Rocky Mountains and spreading French influence over another large portion of the North American continent.
As with other empires of the past, the military would have a prominent role to play in building the one that France planned to forge in North America. In order to be successful, France had to control access to the interior of the continent. Although solid alliances were established with many Amerindian nations, France still needed to devote considerable human and military resources to pursuing the war with the Foxes, the allies of the Iroquois, and to impeding the expansion of the English and Spanish colonies to the east and south. In the end, it would fall to the soldiers and officers of the Compagnies franches de la Marine to carry out much of this phase of French empire-building in North America, by providing escorts for exploring expeditions, subduing the enemies of France, or protecting and administering the conquered territories.