Father Louis Hennepin, a Recollect friar, is best known as an early explorer of Minnesota. He gained fame in the seventeenth century with the publication of his dramatic stories of the exploration of the Mississippi River. Father Hennepin spent only a few months in Minnesota, but his influence is undeniable. While his widely read travel accounts were more fiction than fact, they allowed Hennepin to leave a lasting mark on the state.
Louis Hennepin was likely born in 1640, although some sources suggest it was as early as 1626. The son of a wealthy banker, he was baptized in the small town of Ath in what is now Belgium on April 7, 1640. Hennepin joined the Recollect Friars at a monastery in Béthune, France, and was ordained a priest in 1666. A few years later, Hennepin asked his superiors for permission to join the Recollect missionaries in North America. In 1675, he sailed to Quebec.
The Recollects were a French branch of the Franciscan order. They were active throughout France's territory in North America. Hennepin spent his first three years as a missionary in the area of the eastern St. Lawrence River, ministering to voyageurs, colonists, and American Indian communities. In 1678, Hennepin was chosen to accompany René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle on his exploration of the Mississippi. In 1680, while on La Salle's expedition, Hennepin and two other members of the party, Michel Accault and Antoine Auguelle (Picard du Gay), were sent to explore the section of the Mississippi north of the Illinois River.
The three men set out early in March 1680, progressing north while avoiding ice that remained on the river. They had just reached Lake Pepin on April 11 or 12 when they encountered a Dakota war party. The Dakota took the three men captive and transported them to a village near Lake Mille Lacs. Hennepin, Accault, and Auguelle lived in the Dakota village until late June or early July of 1680.
At midsummer, Hennepin and Auguelle received permission from the Dakota to canoe down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Wisconsin River. There they planned to collect supplies that the La Salle expedition had left for them. During this trip Hennepin and Auguelle first encountered the waterfall on the Mississippi that Hennepin named in honor of his patron saint, St. Anthony of Padua.
During his own expedition, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, heard rumors that the three men were being held captive. On July 25, 1680, Greysolon arrived at the Dakota village to negotiate the release of Hennepin, Accault, and Auguelle. By August, the three captives had begun their journey back to French forts in the east. Hennepin left Canada in the fall of 1681 and returned to France.
Once in France, Hennepin embarked upon the literary career that would bring him both fame and criticism. His first book, A Description of Louisiana, newly discovered to the South-West of New France, was published in Paris in 1683. It detailed his travels, his experiences living with the Dakota, and his discovery of St. Anthony Falls. From the start, Hennepin's work was a blend of myth and fact. In his travel accounts he made waterfalls much higher and wildlife far more dangerous. He depicted the American Indian populations of North America as barbarous savages. An egotistical and vain man, Hennepin portrayed himself as La Salle's favorite and most trusted confidant.
In his following two books, published in 1697 and 1698, Hennepin exaggerated further. He claimed that he had traveled from Illinois down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and back before being captured by the Dakota. The details of his improbable canoe trip, covering some three thousand miles in only a month, were taken directly from accounts of La Salle's own trip down the Mississippi two years after Hennepin's time in Minnesota. While his books continued to circulate widely, his reputation was significantly damaged.
Little is known about the end of Hennepin's life. Around 1700 he traveled to Rome to seek funding from Franciscan authorities. Some say that Hennepin died in Rome around 1701, while other sources suggest he returned to Utrecht and died in 1705. Hennepin's memory lives on in the many parks, landmarks, schools, and streets, including one in his home city in Belgium, named in his honor.
Adams, Percy G. Travelers and Travel Liars, 1660-1800. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.
Severin, Timothy. Explorers of the Mississippi. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Zalusky, Joseph W. "Fr. Hennepin: Minnesota's Own!" Hennepin County History 19, no. 3 (Winter 1960): 10-13.
Father Louis Hennepin, while a captive of the Dakota in 1680, encounters and names St. Anthony Falls after his patron saint, St. Anthony of Padua.