People & Events: Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) and Louis Joliet (1646-1700)
While Louis XIV reigned in France, plans were made to investigate the American continent that had been visited by French, English and Spanish explorers and settlers. Two young men, Louis Joliet, a fur trader, and Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, were chosen to lead an expedition from a mission at the northeast corner of Lake Michigan into the center of the unknown continent. Joliet was an experienced map-maker and geographer, Marquette an accomplished linguist who spoke half a dozen Native American languages. Joliet's mission was to find the river the natives called Messipi, "the Great Water," and follow it to the sea. Marquette's goal was to spread the word of his god among the people they encountered.
On May 17, 1673, Marquette, Joliet, and five men on two birchbark canoes set off. Following the northern and western shores of Lake Michigan, they paddled down the Fox River, portaged to the Wisconsin River, and then found themselves on the Mississippi. More than a month into their journey, Marquette and Joliet, leaving their men to guard their canoes, walked unarmed into an Illinois Indian village. Marquette's robes were recognized and they were welcomed into the village and fed. On their departure, the chief of the village gave them a calumet, a peace pipe, to present to potentially hostile tribes, and lent them his own ten-year-old son, who would help guide them on their journey.
Past the Ohio River, near the present site of St. Louis, the calumet came in handy. A swarm of Arkansas Indians surrounded the canoes and prepared to defend their territory. Marquette told his men to hold their fire and raised the pipe as high as he could, even as a club flew past his head. When the calumet was recognized, the conflict was immediately over and the Frenchmen were taken to Akansea, the chief village of the tribe, near the mouth of the Arkansas River. There the elders told the explorers that further down the Mississippi were other foreigners with guns. From the descriptions they were given, the two Frenchmen inferred that the Mississippi led to the Gulf of Mexico, occupied by the Spanish. Not wanting to risk losing this valuable information, the party turned back toward Quebec.
This time, the Illinois chief's son informed them of a more easterly short cut back to the lake, via the Illinois River. That river brought them through fertile tall grass prairie that Joliet recognized as ideal for settled agriculture. There was no need to deforest a plot here; one merely had to sow the seeds into this flat expanse and they would grow. The group portaged to the Chicago River and back to Lake Michigan, Joliet dreaming of returning to settle the area and take advantage of its abundance. The priest, Marquette, had his own plan, to found a Christianizing mission for the Kaskaskia Indians. The two adventurers returned to their starting point at the end of September, having traveled 2500 miles.
Marquette returned to the area the next year to proselytize and became ill with dysentery. He died on May 18, 1675, on the shore of the Michigan river that was named for him. His journal of the voyage was published in 1681.
Joliet's return to Quebec was disastrous. His canoes capsized, losing two of his men and the Indian boy, and all of his notes. Joliet himself managed to survive by clinging to the rocks of the Sault St. Louis for four hours before he was rescued. He made his report from memory and explained that the area of the portage was a continental divide from which water flowed out through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, and in the opposite direction, south down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. From that spot, a settlement could control trade for a huge mass of the American territory. All that was needed to secure this nation was a short canal connecting Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, through an area that was covered by stinkweed, called "chicaguoa" by the locals.
The French colonies did not have the resources to colonize Joliet's planned settlement, and remained content to profit from the fur trade, not agriculture.
Joliet retired to an island on the St. Lawrence. He spent time as a teacher before his death in 1700.
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