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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Late June, 1673: Buffalo and Other Mysterious Animals.

Editor's Note:

This is another entry that exhibits Marquette's interest in and careful description of natural phenomena. The fish that nearly overturned their canoes was probably a channel catfish, which were recorded in the early 19th century as weighing as much as 200 pounds. The spatula-nosed fish is presumed to be the alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), though it has not been found north of the Illinois River in modern times. The tiger-like mammal was probably a bobcat (Lynx rufus) or Canada lynx (L. canadensis).

Marquette's long description of the American buffalo (Bison bison) shows how Europeans were fascinated by anmimals not found in their homelands. The first description of the buffalo which dates from 1536, is by Spanish explorer Alvar N��ez Cabeza de Vaca, whose fascination was echoed by nearly every other European traveler who saw them. The ruby-throated hummingbird evoked a similar fascination.

During the course described here the explorers have traveled from the mouth of the Wisconsin, past Rock Island, and along the length of the entire Iowa shore to the vicinity of its modern boundary with Missouri.

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Marquette's Journal: "Here we plainly saw that [the river's] aspect was completely changed. There are hardly any woods or mountains; the islands are more beautiful, and are covered with finer trees. We saw only deer and cattle, bustards [Canada geese], and swans without wings, because they drop their plumage in this country.

"From time to time, we came upon monstrous fish, one of which struck our canoe with such violence that I thought that it was a great tree, about to break the canoe to pieces. On another occasion, we saw on the water a monster with the head of a tiger, a sharp nose like that of a wildcat, with whiskers and straight, erect ears; the head was gray and the neck quite black; but we saw no more creatures of this sort. When we cast our nets into the water we caught sturgeon, and a very extraordinary kind of fish. It resembles the trout, with this difference, that its mouth is larger. Near its nose, which is smaller, as are also the eyes, is a large bone shaped like a woman's busk, three fingers wide and a cubit long, at the end of which is a disk as wide as one's hand. This frequently causes it to fall backward when it leaps out of the water.

"When we reached the parallel of 41 degrees 28 minutes, following the same direction, we found that turkeys had taken the place of game; and the pisikious, or wild cattle [buffalo], that of the other animals. We call them "wild cattle," because they are very similar to our domestic cattle. They are not longer, but are nearly as large again, and more corpulent. When our people killed one, three persons had much difficulty in moving it. The head is very large; the forehead is flat, and a foot and half wide between the horns, which are exactly like those of our oxen, but black and much larger. Under the neck they have a sort of large dewlap, which hangs down; and on the back is a rather high hump. The whole of the head, the neck, and a portion of the shoulders, are covered with a thick mane like that of horses; it forms a crest a foot long, which makes them hideous, and, falling over their eyes, prevents them from seeing what is before them. The remainder of the body is covered with a heavy coat of curly hair, almost like that of our sheep, but much stronger and thicker. It falls off in summer, and the skin becomes as soft as velvet. At that season, the savages use the hides for making fine robes, which they paint in various colors.

"The flesh and the fat of the pisikious are excellent, and constitute the best dish at feasts. Moreover, they are very fierce; and not a year passes without their killing some savages. When attacked, they catch a man on their horns, if they can, toss him in the air, and then throw him on the ground, after which they trample him under foot, and kill him. If a person fire at them from a distance, with either a bow or a gun, he must, immediately after the shot, throw himself down and hide in the grass; for if they perceive him who has fired, they run at him, and attack him. As their legs are thick and rather short, they do not run very fast, as a rule, except when angry. They are scattered about the prairie in herds; I have seen one of four hundred.

"We continued to advance, but, as we knew not whither we were going, for we had proceeded over one hundred leagues without discovering anything except animals and birds, we kept well on our guard. On this account, we make only a small fire on land, toward evening, to cook our meals; and, after supper, we remove ourselves as far from it as possible, and pass the night in our canoes, which we anchor in the river at some distance from the shore. This does not prevent us from always posting one of the party as a sentinel, for fear of a surprise.

"Proceeding still in a southerly and south-south-westerly direction, we find ourselves at the parallel of 41 degrees, and as low as 40 degrees and some minutes, -- partly southeast and partly southwest, -- after having advanced over 60 leagues since we entered the river, without discovering anything."


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