May 12, 1626, Ath, Hainaut, Belgium-1705, Rome
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One of the most famous explorers in the wilds of North America during the seventeenth century. In his writings he always refers to himself as a Fleming. Very little is known of his childhood and early manhood, but, after a proper course of education, he entered upon a novitiate in the Récollet branch of the Franciscan Order, whose members adopted the most austere regimen and undertook most arduous labours. he passed his novitiate in the Récollet monastery at Béthune, province of Artois (now the department of Pas-de-Calais), France. During his youth he had been sent to Ghent in Belgium for the purpose of learning the Dutch language, and, at the time, had mentioned to one of his sisters residing there the strong inclination which he had always felt to travel about the world. His sister attempted to dissuade him from such a design, but Hennepin continued under the sway of two impulses, of which one is described in his own language thus: “I always found in myself a strong inclination to retire from the world and to regulate my life according to the rules of pure and severe virtue, and, in compliance with this humor, I entered the Franciscan Order, designing to confine myself to an austere way of living.
Naturally enthusiastic for travel and deeply impressed by the examples of the missionaries of his own order, Hennepin soon had opportunities for realizing his ambition. Shortly after his ordination to the priesthood, Hennepin made a journey to Italy, and, in obedience to the orders of his superior, visited all the great churches and most important convents of the Franciscan Order both in that country and in Germany. In narrating the next ensuing events of his life, Hennepin states; “Having returned to the Netherlands, the Reverend Father William Herenx, late bishop of Ypres, manifested his averseness to the resolution I had taken of continuing to travel by detaining me in the convent of Halles in Hainaut, where I was obliged to perform the offices of preacher for a year.” After this experience, Hennepin, with the consent of his superior, went into Artois, France, and was thence sent to Calais, as he himself states, “to act the part of a mendicant there in time of herring-salting.”
While at Calais he took every possible opportunity of hearing the stories of the various voyages and experiences in other lands related by shipmasters and sailors. To use his own language, he used ofttimes to frequent “victualling-houses to hear the seamen give an account of their adventures. The smoke of tobacco was offensive to me and created pain in my stomach, while I was thus intent on giving ear to their relations, but for all that I was very attentive to the accounts they gave of their encounters by sea, the perils they had gone through, and all theaccidents which befell them in their long voyages. This occupation was so agreeable that I have spent whole days and nights without eating; for thereby I always came to understand some new thing concerning the customs and ways of living in remote places and concerning the pleasantness, fertility, and sights of the country where thesemen have been.” Hennepin’s desire to wander was gratified by journeys as a missionary to most of the towns of Holland. At Maastricht he remained for eight consecutive months during the year 1673, and was in the midst of the war then in progress between the French and the Spanish. He states: “During the eight months I administered the sacraments to over eight thousand wounded men. In which occupation I ventured many dangers among the sick people, being taken ill both of a spotted fever and of a dysenterie which brought me very low and near unto death; but God at length restored me my former health by the care and help of a very skillful Dutch physician.”
The young monk continued his career among scenes of battle for some time, and, during the succeeding year, was present at the Battle of Seneffe (1674), where he busied himself in administering comfort to the wounded. He then received orders from his superiors to go to Rochelle, France, in order to embark there and go to Canada as a missionary. While waiting for the sailing of the ship upon which his voyage was to be made, Hennepin performed at a place near Rochelle the duties of a curate for nearly two months at the request of the local pastor, who had occasion to be absent from his charge. At last, during the summer of the year 1675, Hennepin was destined to realize his fondest hopes, because he had then set sail, 14 July, for the New World, leaving France as a member of an expedition approved by Colbert and placed by “Le Grand Monarque”, Louis XIV, under the leadership of the famous cavalier, René Robert, Sieur de la Salle, who had been recently endowed with a title, and had been appointed to the governorship of Fort Frontenac, one of the principle outposts of “Le Nouvelle France”, as the French dominions in America were then called. The ship arrived in Quebec in September, having successfully withstood the attacks by Turkish, Tunisian, and Algerian pirates. The first experience of the young missionary was to serve during the first four years of his life in Canada as a preacher in Advent and Lent in the cloister of St. Augustine in the hospital in Quebec, in addition to performing the usual duties of the monastic life. This appointment as preacher was due to the favour acquired by Hennepin, during his voyage, in the opinion of François de Laval de Montmorency, newly appointed bishop of Quebec, who had been a passenger on the ship which brought Hennepin to New France.
During his period of residence at Quebec, Hennepin employed his leisure time with great industry in travelling to regions within twenty or thirty leagues of that city—often on snow-shoes, his luggage being transported upon sledges drawn by dogs, sometimes travelling in a canoe—always with a view to learning the languages and customs of the Indians so as to prepare himself for missionary labours among the savages of the North American Continent. He was an acute observer, and his books contain most minute and accurate descriptions of the characteristics, arts, and customs of theIndians. Hennepin’s first independent labours in America began when he was sent in company with Father Luke Buisset to take care of a mission at a place on the north shore of Lake Ontario near the headwaters of the River St. Lawrence. The mission station had borne the Iroquois name, Catarokouy, and was the place at which Count Frontenac, Governor-General of Canada, had built in 1673 a fort which subsequently bore his name. This site is now occupied by the city of Kingston, Ontario. After remaining two years and a half at Fort Frontenac, where they built with their associates a large mission-house and laboured assiduously for theconversion of the natives, the two missionaries went down the River St. Lawrence in a canoe. Upon reaching Quebec, Hennepin entered the Récollet convent of St Mary’s, in order, as he states, to prepare and sanctify himself for the long expedition to the westward under the leadership of La Salle, which was then in process of preparation. On 18 September 1678, La Salle inaugurated his expedition by sending forward from Fort Frontenac in a brigantine of about ten tons burden a detachment of his followers under the command of Pierre deSt-Paul, Sieur de la Motte-Lussiére, a French military officer, with directions to establish a post on the Niagara River near Lake Erie and to make preparations for the building of a ship for the navigation of the Great Lakes. This detachment arrived at the River Niagara on 6 December after encountering great perils. On 20 January La Salle arrived at the same place and took command. During the winter Hennepin went to Fort Frontenac but returned to theNiagara outpost shortly before 30 July, 1679, accompanied by two other Récollet Fathers, Gabriel de la Ribourde and Zénobe Mambré, who, in common with Hennepin, had been directed by the superior of their order to accompany the expedition of the Chevalier de la Salle. Meanwhile La Motte had disconnected himself entirely from the expedition and returned to Fort Frontenac.
On 7 August, 1679, the famous expedition sailed from the Niagara River on a ship which had been built during the preceding winter and was named “Griffon”, a griffin being one of the figures on the coat of arms of La Salle. The mouth of the Detroit River was reached on 10 August, and received from La Salle the name which it has since borne. Sailing up this river and through Lake St. Clair, named by the same explorer after the saint on whose feast-day he first beheld it, they passed through the St. Clair River and up Lake Huron, and late in the same month arrived at a place, called by theIndians Michilimacinac, and christened by the famous Marquette with the more religious name, St-Ignace. Leaving this place on 2 September, the expedition soon reached Green Bay, made a short stop there, and departed for the south on 19 September. Storms prevailed and great dangers were encountered, but on 1 November, La Salle and his followers reached the mouth of a river, then called the River of the Miamis and now named the River St. Joseph, the greater part of which lies within the present State of Michigan. At the mouth of this river La Salle built a fort, and on 20 November his principal lieutenant, an Italian named Enrico di Tonti, arrived with certain members of the expedition who had come along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, while La Salle, Hennepin and the rest followed the western shore. Setting out on 3 December, the expedition traversed the River St. Joseph to a point near its headwaters, then made a portage to the Kankakee River, and went down that river to the stream called by Hennepin “the River of theIllinois ” and still called the Illinois River. Down this stream the expedition travelled until they arrived, during the latter days of December, at a village of theIllinois Indians, which lies, as Hennepin states, one hundred and thirty leagues from the fort built at the mouth of the River St. Joseph.
They continued their journey, a halt was soon made and a celebration held upon the banks of the river on 1 January, 1680. Mass was celebrated and all wished a Happy new Year to M. de la Salle, the missionaries adding words of encouragement and congratulation to their leader and at the same time exhorting all the members of the expedition to preserve confidence and fidelity. On the same day the expedition passed through a lake which has since been known as Lake Peoria, and soon after reached the principal village of theIllinois Indians. The members of the La Salle expedition here smoked the calumet with the Indians and enjoyed a brief rest. A short distance below the outlet of the lake, a fort was constructed which La Salle called Fort Crève-coeur, so named, according to Hennepin, “because the desertion of our men, and the other difficulties we laboured under had almost broken our hearts”. Other authorities, however, express the opinion that the name was given in compliment to Louis XIV, and in reference to his capture during the year 1672 of a fortress named Crève-coeur near Bois-le-due in the Netherlands.
Leaving Tonti in charge of the fort, La Salle departed for a journey on foot to Fort Frontenac and Quebec, having given directions to Hennepin to proceed down the Illinois River, and then up the Mississippi River as far as possible upon a voyage of discovery. The members of this expedition were the intrepidRécollet and two Frenchmen — Antoine* Augelle, born at Amiens at Picardy, and surnamed Picard du Gay, and Michel Accault, a native of the province of Poitou. These three men started out from Fort Crève-coeur on 29 February, 1680, soon after reached the Mississippi River, and then turned northwards. On 12 April they were captured by a band of the Issati Sioux, living on or near the shores of a lake called by the original European explorers “the Lake of the Issati” (afterwards called Lac Baude in honour of count Frontenac, his family name being Baude), and now known as Mille Lacs, one of the largest lakes in the state of Minnesota. Hennepin’s captors were on their way to make war against the Miamis and the Illinois, but abandoned their design and turned back toward their homes carrying with them the three explorers. They travelled nineteen days, passing en route Lake Pepin, which was named by Hennepin the Lake of Tears because of the demonstrative grief demonstrated at a certain place upon its banks by an Indian chief mourning for his son who had been killed in battle. On 21 April they stopped at an Indian village situated about fifteen miles below the present site of the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. At this point they left their canoes and travelled on foot to the principal village of the Issati at or near the place where a river, called by Hennepin the River St. Francis and now known as the Rum River, emerges from Mille Lacs.
Hennepin and his companions had then to undergo all of the hardships which would naturally be the lot of civilized men thrown into close associations with barbarians. Whenever the Indians moved about from place to place, according to their nomadic inclinations, they carried with them the Franciscan Father and the two other captives. During one of their excursions the wanderers stopped at the great cataract in the Mississippi which is now encircled by the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and which still bears the name of St. Anthony Falls, given to it by Hennepin in honour of St. Anthony of Padua. In July the Indians went down the St. Francis River, and, after camping there a while, permitted Hennepin and Augelle to leave them for the purpose of going down the Mississippi River to get the supplies which La Salle had promised to send and deposit at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. After making a journey down the river of about one hundred and sixty miles, a large band ofIssati overtook them and carried them back to the great camp at Mille Lacs. While on the journey to that place, Hennepin and his savage companions met the famousFrench explorer, Daniel Graysolon Du Lhut, who had been roaming about the region in the west and south-west of lake Superior. At the end of September, owing to the vigorous and determined insistence of Du Lhut, Hennepin and his companions were released by the Indians and accompanied Du Lhut and his followers down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Wisconsin, thence upon the Wisconsin River to the famous portage between the headwaters of that river and those of the Fox River, down the Fox River to theFrench settlement at Green Bay, and thence to St-Ignace.
At St-Ignace, Hennepin was agreeably surprised to meet a Jesuit named Father Pierson, whose birthplace was also Ath. After spending the winter there, pleasantly interspersing with his missionary labours some recreation, Hennepin left St-Ignace during Easter week in the year 1681, and arrived safely at Fort Frontenac soon after Pentecost Sunday. A few days later he arrived at Montreal where he made a report to Count Frontenac, the Governor-General of New France, concerning his wanderings and experiences. At the request of the govenor-general and his guest, Hennepin proceeded to Quebec. On the way, at Fort Champlain, they met Bishop Laval, who was ascending the St. Lawrence River on a tour of episcopal visitation. The bishop was greatly interested in the thrilling narrative of Father Hennepin, and, knowing his need of rest, granted him permission to retire to the Franciscan monastery, “Our Lady of the Angels”, in the city of Quebec. Having passed the remainder of the summer within the cloisters of this institution, Hennepin sailed for Europe in the autumn of the same year, and for a year or more was secluded in a monastery of his order at St-Germain-en-Laye, during which period he published his first book, entitled “Description de la Louisiane, nouvellement découverte au Sud-Oest de la Nouvelle France, par ordre du Roy. Avec le carte du Pays: Les Moeurs et la Manière de vivre des Sauvages. Dedièe à sa Majesté par le R. P. Louis Hennepin Missionaire Rècollet et Notaire Apostolique”. The book was printed at Paris and was issued during the month of January in the year 1683. This book is regarded as not only very interesting, but as fairly accurate. In the year 1697 Hennepin published at Utrecht another book, entitled “Nouvelle Découverte d’un tres grand Pays, situé dans l’Amerique”. In this book Hennepin claims for the first time that he had traversed not only the upper but the lowerMississippi, and had traced the course of the stream to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. As the time which elapsed between the date when Hennepin left the country of the Illinois and the date upon which he was captured by the Issati was not sufficient for a canoe voyage from Fort Crève-coeur to the mouth of the Mississippi and then upstream to a point near the present southern boundary of Mississippi, Hennepin has been denounced by many historians and historical critics as a arrant falsifier. Certain writers have sought to repel this charge by claiming that the erroneous statements are in fact interpolations by other persons. The weight of the evidence is however adverse to such a theory. The “Nouvelle Découverte” was follow by another book coming from the press at Utrecht in the year 1698. This was entitled “Nouveau Voyage”. Almost simultaneously, English translations of the two last-mentioned works appeared in London under the title “A new discovery of a vast country in America”. Both the “Nouvelle Découverte” and the “New Discovery” were dedicated to William the Third, King of England. At that time Hennepin had lost the favour of the French king, and the archives of the French government contain an order from Louis XIV directing the governor of New France to arrest the famous missionary and traveller in case of his appearance in America and to send him home.
Memorials of the expedition to the upper Mississippi exist in the name of certain places. The county in Minnesota wherein are situated the Falls of St. Anthony bears the name of Hennepin, and the same name appears on the map of the State of Illinois designating a township close to the site of Fort Crève-coeur. The last years of Father Hennepin were in all probability passed in Rome, since a letter is in existence written from that city by a man named Dubos, which contains mention of the fact that the famous Rècollet, then in his sixty-first or sixty-second year, was, at that time (1701), in a monastery at Rome and had hopes of returning soon afterwards to America under the protection of Cardinal Spada. The actual time and place of the death of Père Louis Hennepin are not recorded, but it is probable that he died at Rome soon after the date of the letter written by Dubos.
SOURCE: Catholic Encyclopedia