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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Spring 1673: Making Preparations

Editor's Note:

The French had been hearing Indian accounts of a great river in the heart of the continent for decades. In 1670 government officials in Montreal had begun looking for someone to explore "the great river that they call Michissipi and that is thought to empty into the Sea of California." In June of 1672 they received the King's permission to start the exploration, and settled on Jolliet to lead it. Already having spent several years on the western Great Lakes, he was well-known for his skill, stamina, and integrity, and was an obvious choice to discover how the interior of the continent connected to the English settlements in the Southeast and the Spanish ones in the Southwest.

At the same time, the Jesuit order wanted to extend its missionary activities to new peoples. Marquette had himself been interested in exploring the Mississppi for some time. When stationed at the west end of Lake Superior he wrote a letter, probably in 1670, reporting that, "When the Illinois come to la Pointe, they cross a great river which is nearly a league in width, flows from North to South, and to such a distance that the Illinois, who do not know what a Canoe is, have not yet heard any mention of its mouth. They simply know that there are some very large Nations lower down than themselves, some of whom, toward the East-Southeast of their Country, raise two crops of Indian corn in a year. ... It is hard to believe that that great River discharges its waters in Virginia, and we think rather that it has its mouth in California. If the Savages who promise to make me a Canoe do not break their word to me, we shall explore this River as far as we can, with a Frenchman and this Young man who was given me, who knows some of those languages and has a facility for learning the others. We shall visit the Nations dwelling there, in order to open the passage to such of our Fathers as have been awaiting this good fortune for so long a time. This discovery will give us full knowledge either of the South Sea or of the Western Sea." [Jesuit Relations, vol. 54: 188-189]

When late in 1672 the head of the Jesuits agreed they should participate in the government voyage of exploration, they instructed Marquette to accompany Jolliet who reached Marquette with this welcome news on Dec. 8, 1672. While they waited for the spring thaw, the two men made the preparations Marquette describes above.

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Marquette's Journal: "We were not long in preparing all our equipment, although we were about to begin a voyage, the duration of which we could not foresee. Indian corn, with some smoked meat, constituted all our provisions; with these we embarked -- Monsieur Jollyet and myself, with five men -- in two bark canoes, fully resolved to do and suffer everything for so glorious an undertaking. ... And because we were going to seek unknown countries, we took every precaution in our power, so that, if our undertaking were hazardous, it should not be foolhardy. To that end, we obtained all the information that we could from the savages who had frequented those regions; and we even traced out from their reports a map of the whole of that new country; on it we indicated the rivers which we were to navigate, the names of the peoples and of the places through which we were to pass, the course of the great river, and the direction we were to follow when we reached it."

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