Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
Historians aren’t sure which white man stepped first on Hoosier soil, but he most certainly was French and he likely arrived in the 1670s — 150 years before Indiana statehood.
“Possibly it was an obscure Frenchman whose adventures were never recorded — if he lived to tell the tale,” wrote the historians John Barnhart and Dorothy Riker in their book, “Indiana to 1816,” the first in a five-volume history published for the state’s sesquicentennial in 1971.
Perhaps it was Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit priest sent to New France — now Canada — as missionary to the Indians. He explored the Mississippi River with Louis Jolliet and returned to northern Michigan possibly by way of northern Indiana in 1675.
Or it may have been René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who set up camp at present-day South Bend in 1679 during a portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River. LaSalle would later explore the Mississippi River and claim the surrounding land for France, dubbing it Louisiana in honor of the French king.
A historic marker installed in 1950 marks the spot 1 mile east of where LaSalle and his party camped overnight at South Bend. The marker declares LaSalle “the first white man to enter Indiana,” though subsequent scholarship has cast doubt on the claim, said Pam Bennett, director of the Indiana Historical Bureau.
The bureau is in the process of updating older markers in time for the state’s bicentennial in 2016. The revisions will reflect new research as well as more demanding standards for documentation of a subject’s historic significance.
Another LaSalle marker installed in 2000 on the Kankakee River near the Starke and LaPorte county lines is less definitive. It describes the explorer’s canoe trip “down the meandering Kankakee River through vast marsh-swamp-dune ecosystems that covered over 625 square miles and teemed with game including fish, waterfowl and mammals.”