Studying French Explorers


In studying exploration, we tend to focus on the conquistadors of Spain and the great explorers of Italy: Columbus, Magellan, Da Gama, Vespucchi, and Cortez. When we’re thinking of exploration in North America, though, we should remember the French explorers.

There were French explorers during the Great Age of Exploration, including Jaques Cartier, who claimed Canada for France. However, France was engaged in wars during much of the Great Age, and didn’t get serious about exploration until somewhat later. French explorers like la Salle, la Harpe, Marquette, and de Bienville explored the New World in the later 1500s and 1600s, mapping the Mississippi and establishing towns like St. Louis and New Orleans. In the 1700s and 1800s, French explorers like De Surville, Bougainville,  du Fresne, and d’Urville explored Polynesia and what is now New Zealand.

Begin your study of French explorers by learning a bit about France. use our Country Study lesson plans as a starting point. Some online resources:

  • Paris 3D is an impressive introduction to the capital city of France. Play the Saga, an interactive exploration of the city that allows you to choose various buildings and different time depths.
  • See modern Paris in 3D with Google Earth. The video below gives you a tour, but students may enjoy exploring the city and surrounding countryside on their own. Be sure to turn on the 3D buildings layer.

Once students have a sense of where these explorers were coming from, it’s time to do some research on the individual explorers.

  • Have students choose an explorer from Wikipedia’s list of French explorers or the list from the Virtual Museum of New France. Each student can choose one and prepare a report for the class. As a class, determine the minimum information each report should include (consider full name, date of birth, hometown, parents’ occupations, first experience with exploration, reason for choosing this career, and main accomplishments).  Upper elementary school students can find a lot of that information at the sites linked above, but secondary level students should branch out. A search for an individual is a relatively easy way to get started with online research, since there’s little difficulty with synonyms or commercial uses of those names.
  • Use file folders, as we did in our Study of Heroes, and create a tablescape of French explorers. Be sure to add each to the class timeline. you can also mark the explorers’ main discoveries on your class map, or have students create a map for their reports.

mini presentation board


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