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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Early July, 1673: At the Missouri River

Editor's Note:

Marquette here states for the first time the vision that, 130 years later, would result in the Lewis and Clark expedition. Of course, he underestimates the difficulty of crossing the continent; but in the first words by Europeans about it, he briefly lays out the geography of the northern plains and the Missouri River.

Long before this the Spanish had wandered through the southern plains, including parts of the modern states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Read notes from the Coronado expedition of 1540-42 in our American Journeys collection.

Marquette's wish of exploring the Missouri would not be granted to him. The first to explore that river would not be the humble scholar-priest but his polar opposite, a renegade French trader named Veniard de Bourgmont (b. 1679; death date unknown) whose report is also in American Journeys. He followed Missouri Indians from the lower Mississippi Valley back to their homelands in 1714. We'll have occasion to quote from parts of his memoir of that trip later on.

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Marquette's Journal: "While conversing about these monsters [see previous entry], sailing quietly in clear and calm water, we heard the noise of a rapid, into which we were about to run. I have seen nothing more dreadful. An accumulation of large and entire trees, branches, and floating islands, was issuing from the mouth of the river Pekistanoui [Missouri], with such impetuosity that we could not without great danger risk passing through it. So great was the agitation that the water was very muddy, and could not become clear.

"Pekitanoui is a river of considerable size, coming from the northwest, from a great distance; and it discharges into the Missisipi. There are many villages of savages along this river, and I hope by its means to discover the Vermillion or California Sea. Judging from the direction of the course of the Missisipi, if it continue the same way, we think that it discharges into the Mexican Gulf. It would be a great advantage to find the river leading to the Southern Sea, toward California; and, as I have said, this is what I hope to do by means of the Pekitanoui, according to the reports made to me by the savages. From them I have learned that, by ascending this river for five or six days, one reaches a fine prairie, twenty or thirty leagues long. This must be crossed in a northwesterly direction, and it terminates at another small river, on which one may embark, for it is not very difficult to transport canoes through so fine a country as that prairie. This second river flows toward the southwest for ten or fifteen leagues, after which it enters a lake, small and deep, which flows toward the west, where it falls into the sea.

"I have hardly any doubt that it is the Vermillion Sea, and I do not despair of discovering it some day, if God grant me the grace and the health to do so, in order that I may preach the Gospel to all the peoples of this new world who have so long grovelled in the darkness of infidelity."

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