To the north and west of the fourteen colonies, in the region of the St. Lawrence basin, the French built upon the work of Cartier and Champlain. The St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes gave the French easy access to the heart of the continent, in contrast to the Appalachian ranges that stood between the English and the Mississippi River.
The French were also impelled westward by their search for furs, which are goods of great value and comparatively small bulk, easily carried in canoes and small boats. Moreover, led by the Jesuits, the Catholic French showed far greater missionary zeal than did the Protestant English. The priest, as well as the coureur des bois (literally, “rover of the forest,” or fur trapper), led the push westward.
The sieur de La Salle (1643-1687) discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 1682 he took formal possession of a vast region for France. His work was built upon that of a young American-born Frenchman, Louis Joliet (1645-1700), a fur trader, and Father Jacques Marquette (1635-1675), one of six Jesuit missionaries in the vast interior who had passed far enough down the great river before turning back to prove that it flowed into the sea.
Able French colonial governors further enhanced French strength, prestige, and authority among the native peoples. By 1712 the French had built up a line of isolated trading posts, with miles of unoccupied land between, thinly populated by Native Americans who were coerced or persuaded into cooperation, so that the territory of New France and that of Louisiana (named after Louis XIV) were linked.
Impressive though this French imperial thrust looked on the map, it was far too lightly held to be able to push the English into the sea. It was a trading empire with military ambitions, and except in Quebec it never became a true colony of settlement. Enough French settlers simply did not go overseas, and those who did spread themselves out over vast distances as traders and adventurers.