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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

July 16, 1673: At the Quapaw Village

Editor's Note:

The French explorers have now travelled deep into the lower Mississippi Valley, far south of modern Memphis and only a few days from the Louisiana-Arkansas boundary. Marquette's "Akamsea," from which is derived our modern name of Arkansas, was one of four villages of the Quapaw tribe. The first was called by the French Kappa, on the west bank 21 miles north of the Arkansas River; the second was Tongigua, on the east bank 11 miles north of the Arkansas; two others, Tourima and Osotouy, were located up the Arkansas River. We don't know which is being decribed here by Marquette. The language spoken by these Indians was Siouan, related to those of the Osage, Omaha and Ponca.

In 1541 De Soto had attacked their largest town, west of the Mississippi in modern Phillips County, Arkansas, where archaeological remains and local conditions bear out the 16th-century description. You can see a description of the region by De Soto's secretary in our American Journeys collection.

The Quapaw did not see white people again for more than 130 years, when Marquette arrived. Nine years later, in 1682, LaSalle visited them, and the next year his lieutenant, Henri Tonti, built a fort at the mouth of the Arkansas after which time they had regular contact with the French, to whom they were consistently friendly. The Quapaw were decimated in the 1690s by smallpox, which killed most of the women and children in two of their villages.

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Marquette's Journal: "We embarked early on the following day, with our interpreter; a canoe containing ten [Michigamea] went a short distance ahead of us. When we arrived within half a league of the Akamsea [Arkansas River], we saw two canoes coming to meet us. He who commanded stood upright, holding in his hand the calumet, with which he made various signs, according to the custom of the country. He joined us, singing very agreeably, and gave us tobacco to smoke; after that, he offered us sagamite, and bread made of Indian corn, of which we ate a little. He then preceded us, after making us a sign to follow him slowly.

"A place had been prepared for us under the scaffolding of the chief of the warriors; it was clean, and carpeted with fine rush mats. Upon these we were made to sit, having around us the elders, who were nearest to us; after them, the warriors; and, finally, all the common people in a crowd. We fortunately found there a young man who understood Illinois much better than did the interpreter whom we had brought from Mitchigamea. Through him, I spoke at first to the whole assembly by the usual presents. ...

"We afterward asked them what they knew about the sea. They replied that we were only ten days' journey from it -- we could have covered the distance in five days; that they were not acquainted with the nations who dwelt there, because their enemies prevented them from trading with those Europeans; that the hatchets, knives, and beads that we saw were sold to them partly by nations from the East, and partly by an Illinois village situated at four days' journey from their village westward.

"They also told us that the savages with guns whom we had met were their enemies, who barred their way to the sea, and prevented them from becoming acquainted with the Europeans, and from carrying on any trade with them; that, moreover, we exposed ourselves to great dangers by going farther, on account of the continual forays of their enemies along the river, because, as they had guns and were very warlike, we could not without manifest danger proceed down the river, which they constantly occupy. ...

"The men go naked, and wear their hair short; they pierce their noses, from which, as well as from their ears, hang beads. The women are clad in wretched skins; they knot their hair in two tresses which they throw behind their ears, and have no ornaments with which to adorn themselves. Their feasts are given without any ceremony. They offer the guests large dishes, from which all eat at discretion and offer what is left to one another. Their language is exceedingly difficult, and I could succeed in pronouncing only a few words, notwithstanding all my efforts. Their cabins, which are made of bark, are long and wide; they sleep at the two ends, which are raised two feet above the ground.

"They never see snow in their country, and recognize the winter only through the rains, which there fall more frequently than in summer. We ate no other fruit there than watermelons. If they knew how to till their soil, they would have fruits of all kinds.

"In the evening, the elders held a secret council, in regard to the design entertained by some to break our heads and rob us; but the chief put a stop to all these plots. After sending for us, he danced the calumet before us, in the manner I have already described, as a token of our entire safety; and, to relieve us of all fear, he made me a present of it."

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