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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

June 27, 1673: At the Illinois Village

Editor's Note:

The Illinois were not one tribe but in fact a group of related tribes that moved throughout the central Mississippi Valley. They included several nations described by Marquette, Joliet, and their successors: the Cahokia (near St. Louis), the Kaskaskia (in central Illinois), the Mitchigamea (in far northeast Arkansas), the Moingwena (from whom Des Moines, Iowa, takes its name), the Peoria (in central Illinois), and the Tamaroa (near St. Louis). In the 17th century most of their population centered on the Illinois River between St. Louis and Chicago, but groups of varying size roamed over most of the Mississippi Valley, from Wisconsin in the north to Arkansas in the south.

In Marquette's time, their principal center was a large agricultural town near modern Utica, in La Salle County, Ill., where several thousand people lived. A few years later it was destroyed by the Iroquois and its residents fled south and west to the Mississippi; when LaSalle built a fort there two years later, they reassembled to the number of about 18,000 residents. Centers of Illinois population continued to shift for the next several generations.

Modern scholars believe that the most likely location of this village visited in late June of 1673 by Marquette and Joliet was about four miles up the Des Moines or Iowa River, near modern Oakville, Iowa. The Moingwena and the Peoria families living there soon relocated to the main community on the Illinois River, where Marquette found them again in 1675 when he fulfilled his promise to return and preach them the Gospel.

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Marquette's Journal: "At the door of the cabin in which we were to be received was an old man, who awaited us in a rather surprising attitude, which constitutes a part of the ceremonial that they observe when they receive strangers. This man stood erect, and stark naked, with his hands extended and lifted toward the sun, as if he wished to protect himself from its rays, which nevertheless shone upon his face through his fingers.

"When we came near him, he paid us this compliment: "How beautiful the sun is, 0 Frenchman, when thou comest to visit us! All our village awaits thee, and thou shalt enter all our cabins in peace." Having said this, he made us enter his own, in which were a crowd of people; they devoured us with their eyes, but, nevertheless, observed profound silence. We could, however, hear these words, which were addressed to us from time to time in a low voice: "How good it is, my brothers, that you should visit us."

"After we had taken our places, the usual civility of the country was paid to us, which consisted in offering us the calumet. This must not be refused, unless one wishes to be considered an enemy, or at least uncivil; it suffices that one make a pretense of smoking. While all the elders smoked after us, in order to do us honor, we received an invitation on behalf of the great captain of all the Illinois to proceed to his village where he wished to hold a council with us. We went thither in a large company, for all these people, who had never seen any Frenchmen among them, could not cease looking at us. They lay on the grass along the road; they preceded us, and then retraced their steps to come and see us again. All this was done noiselessly, and with marks of great respect for us."

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