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 a 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 one 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.”
The portage route between the rivers stretched about four miles crossing mostly prairie grass and woods. The trail, long ago erased by farming and residential development, was was well known among 17th-century trappers, who learned of it from Indian guides.
Because Jolliet placed the St. Joseph River on a map in 1674, historians suspect he knew of the portage and may have chosen that route when he accompanied an ailing Marquette from Illinois back to the Great Lakes in 1675.
“The question of who was first may not ever be answered without qualification,” Bennett said.
This much is definite. The French beat the English to Indiana — some of them merely passing through on their way elsewhere and others setting up forts or hunting for beaver in the lucrative fur trade. In the 17th and 18th centuries, France's North American empire stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and two northern Indiana rivers held a strategic position.