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The Flamboyant Friar Who 'Discovered' the Falls

Artwork by Minnesota Historical Society

This paining, “Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony,” is on display in the Governor’s Reception Room at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.



The Flamboyant Friar Who 'Discovered' the Falls


One of the Upper Mississippi River’s first explorers was a man who devoted his life to God, ministered to Native Americans and French voyageurs, and, oddly enough, brashly promoted himself and embellished his adventures of an exploratory expedition of the river valley. Father Louis Hennepin, credited as one of the first Europeans to see the Mississippi in present day Minnesota, made an epic canoe journey in the spring of 1680. His legendary trip took him and two others from the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to Lake Pepin, where he was captured by a Dakota war party and forced to travel with them to their village near Lake Mille Lacs in northern Minnesota. He later wrote a book of the journey, which brought him a degree of fame and then shame when some of his exaggerations were exposed. 

Hennepin was born in 1640 in Ath, Belgium, and heard the call of God early in his life. He entered the monastery in Béthune, France, as a young adult and in 1666 was ordained a Recollect friar. Recollects, commonly called Franciscans, are best known for taking a vow of poverty, and for their missionary efforts in North America, particularly among French Canadian voyageurs and Native Americans.

Hennepin’s early ministry took him across Europe – Italy, Germany, Holland and France – and his travels served to either satiate or intensify his wanderlust. While living on the Atlantic coast in France, he became consumed with listening to the stories of ship captains returning from long voyages. He is quoted as saying, “I would have spent entire days and nights without sleeping, listening to them, because I always learned something new.” He was also a chaplain in Belgium during the Franco-Dutch War, which led to a fortuitous meeting with Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut (anglicized as Duluth) at a battle on August 11, 1674. Four years later Duluth would rescue Hennepin from his Dakota captors.

Stories of the sea and far-off lands likely sparked Hennepin’s zeal for adventure, prompting him to volunteer for service in North America. He traveled across the Atlantic and arrived in Quebec, Canada, in 1675. There he spent three years in the eastern St. Lawrence River Valley ministering to colonists, voyageurs and American Indian tribes. The tall tales of fur trade voyageurs undoubtedly whetted his appetite for more adventure. Voyageurs were rough and rowdy men who spent long hours canoeing rivers, running rapids and often carrying at least two 90-pound packs over grueling portages. When Hennepin learned in 1678 that René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle (commonly known as La Salle) was leading a party to explore the Upper Mississippi, he surely lobbied for a spot and was no doubt thrilled to be chosen. 

In 1680, the expedition traveled by water through the Great Lakes region to the Illinois River, and eventually to the confluence of the Mississippi, where La Salle instructed Michel Accault, Antoine Auguel dit Le Picard du Gay and Hennepin to travel north to explore the northern portion of the river. From Hennepin’s book “Description of Lousiana By Canoe to the Upper Mississippi River in 1680” we learn that he was living out the adventure of his dreams. He wrote: “With much pleasure and without much hindrance we had been examining the Colbert [Mississippi] River to find whether it was navigable in its upper and lower reaches.” 

They began paddling in early March and reached Lake Pepin on April 11. Then things got dicey. At 2 p.m., they saw 33 canoes “descending the river with great speed.” In them were 120 Dakota warriors bent on attacking neighboring tribes of Miami, Illinois and Tamaroa. The Indians began shooting arrows toward them and soon surrounded the quivering trio. One in 

Hennepin’s party reached into his pack and retrieved a ceremonial peace pipe and thrust it high into the air to show they came in peace but a young warrior grabbed it and others dragged their canoe to shore, where they planned to bludgeon them to death with clubs. The explorers offered tobacco for smoking in the peace pipe but the Indians refused it and held a council to decide what to do with the men.

Hennepin and the others quickly offered up other gifts, including food, more tobacco, six hatchets and 15 knives. Then Hennepin allegedly did something that spared their lives. “Bowing my head, I showed them 
they could kill us with a hatchet if they wished,” he recalled in his book.

While that act appeased the chiefs, the men still feared that their lives hung in the balance. That night Hennepin listened to his mates make a plan to fight for their freedom. Surprisingly, the captives still had their guns and swords. Hennepin, on the other hand, was willing to peacefully accept his fate. “I had set out to preach to the Indians of a God who had been falsely accused, unjustly condemned, and cruelly crucified, yet held no resentment against those who brought him to his death,” he wrote.

The chiefs decided to let the men live but forced them to travel with them to their village near Mille Lacs. They remained captive until Duluth, who was on his own expedition, showed up and successfully negotiated their release on July 25. 

Hennepin returned to France in the fall of 1681 and quickly penned and published his adventures. Notable were his descriptions of Native American customs – not often complementary – and his “discovery” of the only waterfall on the Mississippi River. The Dakota were already familiar with the cataract and had a variety of names for it: Owahmenah (falling water), Ha-Ha Tank (big waterfall), Minirara (curling water) and O-Wa-Mni (whirlpool). 

Hennepin boasted that the falls were 40-50 feet high, but they were likely half that, according to observations of other early explorers. Nonetheless, he gave them the name we know them by today: the Falls of St. Anthony, named in honor of his patron saint, St. Anthony of Padua. 

Sadly, the falls no longer possess their magnificent splendor. They were dramatically altered by the timber and flour mills of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the lock and dam in downtown Minneapolis that now bears their name.



Captured on the River


Michel Accault barked instructions to his canoe mates to stay calm but his words fell on deaf ears. He could see the intense fear in their eyes, and he felt it too when he noticed the throngs of sharp-tipped arrows darting overhead. Bobbing on the choppy current of a frigid river buffeted by a blustery April wind, they watched breathlessly as a flotilla of a hundred warring Indians closed in on them and surrounded their vessel. Amidst frightening whoops and howls, and piercing looks from scornful eyes intent on shedding blood, Accault slowly reached into his pack and grabbed a peace pipe. Holding it with white knuckles, he thrust it high to show the warriors they were traveling peacefully. It was a fruitless gesture. One Indian quickly grabbed the pipe while others took hold of their canoe and dragged them to shore. Some already on land had clubs in hand, ready to strike the invaders with death-bludgeoning blows.

“Give them some tobacco!” Accault screamed to his right-hand man, Antoine Auguel dit Le Picard du Gay. He quickly rummaged through his sack and produced a bundle of dark, aromatic leaves. This piqued the curiosity of two chiefs, who stepped forward, took the tobacco and waved off the young, angry warriors who were intent on killing their captives. As the chiefs discussed what to do, the explorers produced additional gifts – food, more tobacco, knives and hatchets – and laid it before the Indians, hoping the offerings would appease them. The Indians quickly gathered the items and watched in amazement at what happened next. Father Louis Hennepin, the Recollect friar accompanying the explorers, stepped forward, slowly removed the pointed hood of his robe and bowed his half-bald head before the nearest Indian who was holding a hatchet, indicating that he could kill him immediately if he wished. The act made a great impression on the tribal leaders and they agreed to spare the men’s lives.


That night the captives were restless and fitful, not fully convinced they were free from danger. They huddled together around a small fire and whispered softly as they discussed their fate.

“Do you think they’ll kill us tomorrow?” asked Picard du Gay, directing his question to Accault, their leader.

“I’m not sure,” he said. A steely look of defiance could be seen on his face in the glow of the soft firelight. “But if they try, they’re in for a fight.”

“But the odds are too great. We don’t have a chance. It’s three against more than one hundred.” They looked at Hennepin, who was slowly shaking his head no.

“I won’t fight,” he said, gazing into the fire rather than at his companions. Then he looked at each and gave his reasoning. “I came to preach to the Indians, not kill them. They need to hear about God and the love and grace he has for all of mankind.”

Those weren’t words the others wanted to hear but each expected as much. Picard du Gay turned his attention to Accault and awaited his response.

“Okay,” he finally said. “But I’m still not going to go without a fight.”

“Hopefully, it won’t come to that,” said Hennepin in a soothing, reassuring tone. “I believe if they were going to kill us they would have done it by now.”

Knowing it was futile to discuss their situation any longer, the men lay down near the fire and closed their eyes, searching desperately for sleep, which would elude them most of the night.

When dawn came, they rose and were invited to join the Indians for a meal of boiled fish and vegetables. The breakfast warmed their shivering, tired bodies and gave them hope that this day wouldn’t be their last.

One of the chiefs approached them and attempted to communicate using simple gestures. They quickly understood that their lives would be spared but that they would remain as captives. Next, the chief found a stick and drew a simple map in the dirt to show them where they would be traveling. It appeared they would canoe a considerable distance to a village located near a large lake in the north.

All of the Indians were grim faced and disgusted as they broke camp and loaded their canoes for the return trip, forcing the explorers to do the same. They were deeply angered at having lost the element of surprise in their quest to attack a neighboring tribe they had been pursuing for the past several days. Soon the fleet of canoes was in the river and the explorers were required to take the lead as they paddled north. The sun was now rising over the bluff and wisps of fog swirled over the river. The Indians howled and moaned in revulsion at returning to the village without a victory, let alone without even fighting a battle. As Hennepin listed to their cries, a faint smile creased his face. With his canoe mates paddling feverishly to stay ahead of the more skilled Indians, Hennepin looked around and thought, this is going to be a great tale to tell.

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