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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

June 25, 1673. Contact!

Editor's Note:

After traveling nearly two weeks without seeing another person, the two explorers were excited to finally encounter signs of humanity. Mark Twain thought that Marquette's description of coming upon footprints in the sand in the middle of a seemingly uninhabited wilderness was as powerful as Defoe's account in chapter 11 of Robinson Crusoe of stumbling on footprints on his deserted isle. Defoe's novel was published in 1719, long after Marquette's report was first printed in 1681, and one can speculate on whether or not the novelist had read it.

Marquette spoke six languages, including Latin and French as well as the languages of the Indians around the Great Lakes. He had met some Illinois Indians three years before at the La Pointe Mission on Lake Superior, and Joliet had likely met them as well during his fur trading career on the western rivers and lakes.

At the time, the Illinois were in fact a large nation composed of several related communities that roamed over most of the Mississippi Valley between Wisconsin and Arkansas. From Marquette's description, historians believe that these summer villages were probably on the Des Moines River, near the modern Iowa - Missouri border. They were occupied by the Peoria and the Tapouaro Illinois, and Marquette and Joliet stayed with them for the next several days to learn as much as they could about the region further south.

Throughout the voyage we will frequently encounter different nations of the Illinois and see them through the eyes of some of the earliest Europeans to meet them. All the Illinois tribes became good friends and allies of the French.

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Marquette's Journal: "Finally, on the 25th of June, we perceived on the water's edge some tracks of men, and a narrow and somewhat beaten path leading to a fine prairie. We stopped to examine it; and, thinking that it was a road which led to some village of savages, we resolved to go and reconnoiter it. We therefore left our two canoes under the guard of our people, strictly charging them not to allow themselves to be surprised, after which Monsieur Jollyet and I undertook this investigation -- a rather hazardous one for two men who exposed themselves, alone, to the mercy of a barbarous and unknown people.

"We silently followed the narrow path, and, after walking about two leagues [5 miles], we discovered a village on the bank of a river, and two others on a hill distant about half a league from the first. Then we heartily commended ourselves to God, and, after imploring His aid, we went farther without being perceived, and approached so near that we could even hear the savages talking.

"We therefore decided that it was time to reveal ourselves. This we did by shouting with all our energy, and stopped, without advancing any farther. On hearing the shout, the savages quickly issued from their cabins, and having probably recognized us as Frenchmen, especially when they saw a black gown - - or, at least, having no cause for distrust, as we were only two men, and had given them notice of our arrival - - they deputed four old men to come and speak to us.

"Two of these bore tobacco-pipes, finely ornamented and adorned with various feathers. They walked slowly, and raised their pipes toward the sun, seemingly offering them to it to smoke, without, however, saying a word. They spent a rather long time in covering the short distance between their village and us. Finally, when they had drawn near, they stopped to consider us attentively. I was reassured when I observed these ceremonies, which with them are performed only among friends; and much more so when I saw them clad in cloth, for I judged thereby that they were our allies.

"I therefore spoke to them first, and asked them who they were. They replied that they were Illinois; and, as a token of peace, they offered us their pipes to smoke. They afterward invited us to enter their village, where all the people impatiently awaited us. These pipes for smoking tobacco are called in this country calumets. This word has come so much into use that, in order to be understood, I shall be obliged to use it, as I shall often have to mention these pipes."

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