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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

July 17, 1673: Starting Back

Editor's Note:

Marquette and Joliet did not reach the sea. The honor of being the first European to travel the entire length of the Mississippi River would fall nine years later to Rene Robert Cavelier, sieur de LaSalle. An account of that voyage by the explorer's friend, Fr. Louis Hennepin, is in our American Journeys online collection.

At the opposite end of the river, other explorers would puzzle over the source of the Mississippi for another century and a half. In 1820, shortly after the United States won control of the southern shores of the Great Lakes, geologist Henry Schoolcraft traced it to northern Minnesota. His account of that expedition, as well as the manuscript diary of James Doty, one of his companions on the trip, are in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History collection.

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Marquette's Journal: "[At the Quapaw village,] Monsieur Jolliet and I held another council, to deliberate upon what we should do -- whether we should push on, or remain content with the discovery which we had made. After attentively considering that we were not far from the Gulf of Mexico, the basin of which is at the latitude of 31 degrees 60 minutes, while we were at 33 degrees 40 minutes, we judged that we could not be more than two or three days' journey from it; and that, beyond a doubt, the Mississippi River discharges into the Florida or Mexican Gulf, and not to the east in Virginia, whose sea-coast is at 34 degrees latitude, - - which we had passed, without, however, having as yet reached the sea - - or to the west in California, because in that case our route would have been to the west, or the west-southwest, whereas we had always continued it toward the south.

"We further considered that we exposed ourselves to the risk of losing the results of this voyage, of which we could give no information if we proceeded to fling ourselves into the hands of the Spaniards who, without doubt, would at least have detained us as captives. Moreover, we saw very plainly that we were not in a condition to resist savages allied to the Europeans, who were numerous, and expert in firing guns, and who continually infested the lower part of the river. Finally, we had obtained all the information that could be desired in regard to this discovery.

"All these reasons induced us to decide upon returning; this we announced to the savages, and, after a day's rest, made our preparations for it. After a month's navigation, while descending Mississippi from the 42nd to the 34th degree, and beyond, and after preaching the Gospel as well as I could to the nations that I met, we start on the 17th of July from the village of the Akensea, to retrace our steps."

Joliet's explanation of why they turned back at the mouth of the Arkansas River, was told the following year in an interview he gave to Fr. Claude Dablon after returning to Montreal:

Joliet's account, as recorded by Dablon: "Toward the end, they learned from the Savages that they were approaching European settlements; that they were only three days, and finally only two days distant from these; that the Europeans were on the left hand; and that they had to proceed but so??? leagues farther, to reach the sea. ...

"They felt certain that, if they advanced farther, they would fling themselves into the hands of the Spaniards of Florida, and would expose the French who accompanied them to the manifest danger of losing their lives. Moreover, they would lose the results of their voyage, and could not give any information regarding it, if they were detained as prisoners - as they probably would be, if they fell into the hands of Europeans. These reasons made them resolve to retrace their steps, after having obtained full information about everything that could be desired on such an occasion."

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