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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Mid-June, 1673: Down the Wisconsin. Origin of the Name "Wisconsin"

Editor's Note:

This passage contains the first use of the geographical name that would become "Wisconsin." Its origin is explained on our page devoted to the state's name. Marquette's "Meskousing" was turned into "Ouisconsin" a few years later by the great explorer LaSalle, and only became "Wisconsin" in the nineteenth century. In Miami, the language of the guides from whom Marquette heard it, it meant "stream that meanders through someplace red" -- probably a reference to the reddish sandstone bluffs along the lower reaches of the Wisconsin River. Follow the link above for more details.

Anyone who has crossed the river on I-94 or, better yet, canoed down stretches of it will recognize Marquette's description as accurate. The mine that he mentions is probably one of the many lead mines in southwestern Wisconsin. For a review of early French and Indian mining in the region, see this 1895 article by Reuben Gold Thwaites at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

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Marquette's Journal: "The river on which we embarked is called Meskousing. It is very wide; it has a sandy bottom, which forms various shoals that render its navigation very difficult. It is full of islands covered with vines. On the banks one sees fertile land, diversified with woods, prairies, and hills. There are oak, walnut, and basswood trees; and another kind, whose branches are armed with long thorns. We saw there neither feathered game nor fish, but many deer, and a large number of cattle. Our route lay to the southwest, and, after navigating about thirty leagues, we saw a spot presenting all the appearances of an iron mine; and, in fact, one of our party who had formerly seen such mines, assures us that the one which we found is very good and very rich. It is covered with three feet of good soil, and is quite near a chain of rocks, the base of which is covered by very fine trees. After proceeding 40 leagues on this same route, we arrived at the mouth of our river; and, at 42 and a half degrees of latitude, we safely entered Missisipi on the 17th of June, with a joy that I cannot express."

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