Louis Jolliet (September 21, 1645 – May 20, 1700), also known as Louis Joliet, was a French Canadian explorer known for his discoveries in North America. Jolliet and jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, a Catholic priest and missionary, were the first Europeans to explore and map the Mississippi River on may the 17th of 1673.
Jolliet was born in 1645 in a French settlement near Quebec City. When he was seven years old, his father died and his mother remarried a successful merchant. Jolliet's stepfather owned land on the Ile d'Orleans, an island in the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec that was home to native Americans. Jolliet spent much time on Ile d'Orleans, so it was likely that he began speaking Native American languages at a young age. During his childhood, Quebec was the center of the French fur trade. The Natives were part of day-to-day life in Quebec, and Jolliet grew up knowing a lot about them.
On May 17, 1673, Jolliet and Marquette departed from St. Ignace with two canoes and five other voyageurs of French-Indian ancestry (today's Métis). They followed Lake Michigan to the Bay of Green Bay, then up Fox River, nearly to its headwaters. From there, they portaged their canoes a distance of slightly less than two miles through marsh and oak plains to the Wisconsin River. At that point Europeans eventually built a trading post, Portage, named for its location. From there, they ventured on and entered the Mississippi River near present-day Prairie du Chien on June 17.
The Jolliet-Marquette expedition traveled down the Mississippi to within 435 miles (700 km) of the Gulf of Mexico, but turned back at the mouth of the Arkansas River. By this point, they had encountered natives' carrying European goods, and they feared an encounter with explorers or colonists from Spain. They followed the Mississippi back to the mouth of the Illinois River, which they learned from local natives was a shorter route back to the Great Lakes. Following the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers, they reached Lake Michigan near the location of modern-day Chicago. Marquette stopped at the mission of St. Francis Xavier in Green Bay in September, while Jolliet returned to Quebec to relate the news of their discoveries.
The party returned to the Illinois Territory in late 1674, becoming the first Europeans to winter in what would become the city of Chicago. As welcomed guests of the Illinois Confederation, the explorers were feasted en route and fed ceremonial foods such as sagamite.
Jolliet married Claire-Francoise Bissot, who was Canadian. In 1680, he was granted the Island of Anticosti, where he erected a fort and maintained soldiers. In 1693 he was appointed "Royal Hydrographer", and on April 30, 1697, was granted the Seigneurial system of New France seigneury (fiefdom) of Jolliet, southwest of Quebec City, making him a minor "lord", roughly the colonial equivalent of a hereditary baronet with the title of "Sieur Jolliet" (Sir Jolliet). Louis Jolliet died around May 20, 1700, being lost on a trip to one of his land holdings. His body was never found.
Jolliet was one of the first people of European descent born in North America to be remembered for significant discoveries. Though no authentic period portrait is known to exist, Jolliet is often portrayed wearing either typical frontiersman garb consisting of buckskins and fur hat or in sharp contrast, ensconced in the European nobleman's accoutrement his personal wealth and prestige would have commanded when living in colonial society.
Louis Jolliet's legacy is most tangible in the Midwestern United States and Quebec, mostly through geographical names, including the cities of Joliet, Illinois; Joliet, Montana; and Joliette, Quebec (founded by one of Jolliet's descendants, Barthélemy Joliette). Variations in the spelling of the name "Jolliet" reflect spelling that occurred at times when illiteracy was common and spelling unstandardized. Jolliet's descendants live throughout Canada and the United States. The Louis Jolliet rose, developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was named in his honour.