Father Louis Hennepin was a Franciscan missionary who in the late 17th Century accompanied Réne-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in exploring what are now called the Great Lakes and Illinois River. Some believe he may have been as interested in attaining historic distinction and wealth as he was in his evangelistic commission. Hennepin’s accounts of his adventures are taken with a grain of salt by historians.
Most allow, however, that it was Hennepin who first described for Europeans one of the most awesome wonders of the New World: Niagara Falls.
A Yearning for Evangelism & Adventure
Louis Hennepin was born circa 1640 in Ath, Belgium. He joined the priesthood as a young man and was sent to Calais on the French coast. A hankering to travel was in his blood, he confided to a sister, and at Calais he was drawn to the “victualling-houses” to listen to seafarers tell their tales.
His yearning for adventure was destined to become reality. In 1675, the Franciscans dispatched Hennepin as a missionary to the New World. He journeyed with La Salle across the Atlantic to Fort Frontenac on what is now Lake Ontario, where La Salle had been appointed governor by King Louis XIV.
For the next four years around Quebec, Hennepin carried out his duties as a frontier monastic, preaching and teaching. He loved to roam miles from the fledgling city, sometimes by dogsled and on snowshoes. He spent much time with native tribes, absorbing their customs and languages.
In 1677, Hennepin visited and described what we know now as Niagara Falls. Earlier explorers are believed to have witnessed the great natural wonder, but it was the missionary’s pen that brought it to the notice of Europeans back home.
Hennepin’s Further Adventures in the American Wilderness
La Salle in August 1679 set out from Fort Frontenac to explore the larger lakes to the west and the midwestern river systems. He divided his party, and one contingent—Father Hennepin with two other men—was to paddle down the Illinois River, as it is named today. (It was Hennepin who dubbed it “the river of the Illinois.”) One objective for these men was to establish contact with a native people who reportedly roamed the western frontier.
Not only did Hennepin make contact with the Sioux; he and his companions were taken captive in April 1680. They suffered many hardships as their captors moved from place to place. Finally, a French exploration party led by Daniel Greysolon, Sieur Dulhut, rescued the prisoners.
Father Hennepin’s Legacy
Louis Hennepin returned to Europe, and several of his records from the New World were published as books between 1683 and 1698. The first was Déscription de La Louisiane.
Historians note that his reports were exaggerated and he sometimes gave himself undeserved credit. In one chronicle, Hennepin claimed to have navigated the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and back northward to the Great Lakes, a logistically dubious feat during that time frame. He nonetheless contributed significantly to the early body of information about North America that was published in Europe.
Father Hennepin observed not only the cataclysmic falls at Niagara but, during his captivity, the lesser spectacle at what is now Minneapolis, Minnesota, which he named the St. Anthony Falls.
Hennepin is believed to have died in 1701 in Rome. Hennepin County, Minnesota, is named after him; Minneapolis is the county seat. Father Hennepin State Park in Minnesota is well-known for its wildlife and geological features.