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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

July, 1673: Signs of Europeans

Editor's Note:

Marquette and Joliet passed the site of modern St. Louis during the days that are tersely summarized in the opening sentence of this entry.

Scholars suspect the encounter with the Indians took place in the vicinity of modern Memphis, Tennessee. Who these Indians were has never been ascertained. Had they been a southern band of Illinois, Marquette and Joliet would have found it easier to communicate with them. Their trade goods are thought by some scholars to have come from English settlements in the East, because Spanish goods were not allowed up the Mississippi by powerful tribes nearer to its mouth; and their cursory acquaintance with Christianity may have come from Franciscan missionaries operating in Georgia. These suppositions have led some researchers to suggest they may have been related to the Chickasaw. The explorers will meet them again on the way back upriver, when they will perform a very unusual and remarkable service.

"Manitou" was the European translation of a word in Algonkian languages that as a noun denoted a spirit being, and as an adjective carried connotations of holy, sacred, or spiritual. We hear it today in the Wisconsin place name of Manitowish Waters. In one of the ironies of cross-cultural contacts, the missionaries typically identified such beings as devils, and so rather than being thought of as holy or sacred, many places in the northeastern parts of the continent bear the adjective "Devil" or "Devil's" in their name - - the direct opposite of how the Indians thought of the location.

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Marquette's Journal: "After proceeding about twenty leagues straight to the south, and a little less to the southeast, we found ourselves at a river called Ouaboukigou [the Ohio River], the mouth of which is at the 36th degree of latitude. Before reaching it, we passed by a place that is dreaded by the savages, because they believe that a manitou is there, that is [word missing] to travellers; and the savages, who wished to divert us from our undertaking, warned us against it. This is the demon: there is a small cove, surrounded by rocks twenty feet high, into which the whole current of the river rushes; and, being pushed back against the waters following it, and checked by an island near by, the current is compelled to pass through a narrow channel. This is not done without a violent struggle between all these waters, which force one another back, or without a great din, which inspires terror in the savages, who fear everything. But this did not prevent us from passing, and arriving at Waboukigou [the Ohio River].


"While drifting down with the current, in this condition, we perceived on land some savages armed with guns, who awaited us. I at once offered them my plumed calumet, while our Frenchmen prepared for defense, but delayed firing, that the savages might be the first to discharge their guns. I spoke to them in Huron, but they answered me by a word which seemed to me a declaration of war against us. However, they were as frightened as we were; and what we took for a signal for battle was an invitation that they gave us to draw near, that they might give us food. We therefore landed, and entered their cabins, where they offered us meat from wild cattle and bear's grease, with white plums, which are very good. They have guns, hatchets, hoes, knives, beads, and flasks of double glass, in which they put their powder. They wear their hair long, and tattoo their bodies after the Hiroquois fashion. The women wear head-dresses and garments like those of the Huron women.


"They assured us that we were no more than ten days' journey from the sea; that they bought cloth and all other goods from the Europeans who lived to the east; that these Europeans had rosaries and pictures; that they played upon instruments; that some of them looked like me, and had been received by these savages kindly. Nevertheless, I saw none who seemed to have received any instruction in the faith; I gave them as much as I could, with some medals.


"This news animated our courage, and made us paddle with fresh ardor. We thus push forward, and no longer see so many prairies, because both shores of the river are bordered with lofty trees."

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