Famous French Explorers

Valorie Delp
compass on a globe

During the 16th and 17th century in particular, France was quite industrious when it came to colonizing the New World and consequently, there are many famous French explorers. They set up colonies and settlements in many parts of North America, mostly as trading and exporting posts. There are many well known French explorers. While this list is by no means comprehensive, it does focus on some of the more well known expeditions.

Famous French Explorers You Should Know

You'll note today that French is spoken in many, many parts of the world including North America, Africa and even Asia. This is due to France's one time aggressive campaign of exploration. In particular, these explorers contributed significantly in one way or another to the French heritage in North America.

Jacques Cartier 1491-1557

Cartier was the first to claim what is now called Canada, for France. He mapped the Gulf of St. Lawrence and much of the St. Lawrence river. He tried a variety of settlements but all were fairly ill-fated.

Samuel de Champlain 1575-1636

Samuel de Champlain is considered the Father of New France. He founded Québec City and lived there as its administrator for the rest of his life. It was Champlain who opened up the fur trade from North American to France. Having the benefit of Cartier's expeditions of the St. Lawrence river, de Champlain explored the Ottowa River.

Jacques Marquette 1637-1675

Jacques Marquette founded Sault Ste. Marie which was Michigan's first European settlement. In addition, he and Louis Jolliet are credited with mapping the northern most point of the Mississippi River. Jolliet was a French Canadian.

Jean François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse 1741-1788?

Jean François de La Pérouse is a French explorer and Navy officer who is known to have explored the coasts of California, Japan, Russia, and Alaska. He met his demise on coral reefs outside of an island in the Pacific. La Chaussee Spit, is named after charts prepared for this explorer and is at the entrance of Lituya Bay (a fjord in Alaska).

Robert de LaSalle 1643-1687

La Salle is credited with claiming the basin of the Mississippi River for France. He also explored the Great Lakes region, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Despite his fame in American history books, he must not have been a terribly well liked captain. On his last expedition to set up a French settlement in the Gulf of Mexico, his crew mutinied and one of the men murdered him.

Louis Hennepin 1626-1705

Baptized Antoine, Louis Hennepin was a Catholic priest and missionary/explorer who explored much of the interior of North America. He is noted for discovering Niagra Falls and Saint Anthony Falls. Saint Anthony Falls are the only waterfalls on the Mississippi River.

French Exploration in the 16th and 17th Centuries

While the French had a lasting influence in North America, particularly in Canada, it seems that their period of colonization was ill fated. Most of their settlements (with the exception of those in Québec and a few others in Canada), eventually met their demise. In some cases it was due to hostile natives and in other cases the explorers simply missed their mark by poor navigation. Many explorers thought that they were traveling through to Asia. The last of the French colonies in the United States was sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

Also notable during the 17th century is France's control of much of the Lesser Antilles. Many islands such as Hispaniola, Martinique and Guadalupe, were originally settled by Jesuit missionaries who were refugees. France's claim to these islands was contested however, by the English, Dutch, and Spain. In the case of Hispaniola and St. Martin, the islands were divided in half. Hispaniola is divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic while St. Martin also has a Dutch side called St. Maarten.

Learning More About Famous French Explorers

If you're interested in learning in detail more about French exploration, make sure to check out these links:

  • Famous Explorers--Gives a brief overview of the various explorers and what they accomplished.\
Famous French Explorers