Early in the 17th century the French began to explore the rivers draining into the St Lawrence valley. Usually they gathered geographical information from natives, set objectives for exploration based on these accounts, and, when opportunity arose, travelled with native guides. Verbal accounts, maps, and journals transmitted the French discoveries. By the early 1680s officials in Québec were responsible for compiling and sending maps to the Ministère de la Marine in Paris where authorized personnel had access to them.
The search for a route across the continent was a continuing motive for exploration throughout the French regime, but usually was set within more limited objectives. Fur traders sought native suppliers; missionaries sought converts. Territorial claims and the search for minerals were sometimes important motives for exploration. Occasionally military expeditions yielded new geographical knowledge.
The direction and speed of exploration varied with motives and opportunities. By helping natives in their wars Champlain was able to explore much of the eastern Great Lakes basin; by expanding their missions Recollet, Jesuit, and Sulpician priests obtained new geographical information. After 1681, when the interior trade was legalized, French traders explored well beyond the Great Lakes. In the 18th century westward exploration accelerated under the pressure of British competition from Hudson Bay and the Ohio valley.
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This animated map shows the routes taken by French explorers during different periods from 1603 to 1751. Buttons below the map can be used to select one of 4 time periods, or view all at once. The user can explore portions of the map by clicking to zoom in and out, and dragging to pan around it.