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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

July 25, 1673: What They Thought of their Voyage

Editor's Note:

Though a sincerely religious man, Joliet evaluates the voyage primarily in economic and geographical terms. What did it add to our knowledge of the world?

Fr. Dablon was not only a priest but also the head of a powerful institution in New France, the Society of Jesus. He speculates on the boost the voyage will give not just to Jesuit missionary efforts but also to French imperial plans to colonize the interior of North America. Over the next 15 years those plans would be set in motion by the Sieur de LaSalle who, more than any other person, was responsible for the great arc of trading posts, forts and missions that stretched from Quebec, across the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Fr. Marquette, predictably, assessed the value of the voyage in more humble and practical terms. His willingness to sacrifice his life -- which he did less than two years later -- to "preach the Gospel to all the peoples of this new world who have so long grovelled in the darkness of infidelity" has endeared him to readers for generations.

Whether European imperialism and Christian proseletyzing caused more good than harm is a question that has occupied historians for more than a century. You can see some of the evidence bearing on it here in these entries: souls are "saved," material life is improved, smallpox breaks out, wars are waged. To make up your own mind, though, you may want to look at other sources brought together at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. See especially the documents and background essays on our pages called "The Arrival of the First Europeans" and "Colonialism Transforms Indian Life."

Before retracing Marquette and Joliet's route north, it may be useful to read their very different evaluations of the value of their voyage, as well as that of the head of the Jesuit order, Fr. Claude Dablon:

Joliet, in a letter dated Oct. 10, 1674, thinks of the economic potential of many new trading contacts: "I noticed on our route more than 80 villages of Indians, each of 60 to 100 houses, and even one of 300; we estimated that there must have been ten thousand souls among them all and "none that doeth good" [a play on the 53rd Psalm, where non-Christians are described with these words]."

Fr. Dablon's reasons why the expedition was a success:
"The first is, that it opens up to us a great field for the preaching of the Faith, and gives us entrance to very numerous peoples, who are very docile, and well disposed to receive it .. The second remark concerns the terminus of this discovery. The Father and sieur Jolliet have no doubt that it is toward the gulf of Mexico ? that is, Florida. ... The third remark is that, as it would have been highly desirable that the terminus of that discovery should prove to be the Vermilion sea [Pacific Ocean], ? which would have given at the same time access to the sea of Japan and of China, ? so, also, we must not despair of succeeding in that other discovery of the western sea, by means of the Mississipi. ... It is this that we seek, and it is all the more to be desired, because all these countries abound in lakes and are intersected by rivers, which offer wonderful communications between these countries, as the reader may judge. The fourth remark concerns a very great and important advantage, which perhaps will hardly be believed. It is that we could go with facility to Florida in a bark, and by very easy navigation. It would only be necessary to make a canal, by cutting through but half a league of prairie [near Chicago], to pass from the foot of the lake of the Illinois to the river Saint Louis. ... The fifth remark refers to the great advantages that would accrue from the establishment of new colonies, in countries so beautiful and upon lands so fertile."

Fr. Marquette, on the value of the voyage: "Had this voyage resulted in the salvation of even one soul, I would consider all my troubles well rewarded, and I have reason to presume that such is the case. For, when I was returning, we passed through the Ilinois of Peouarea, and during three days I preached the Faith in all their cabins; after which, while we were embarking, a dying child was brought to me at the water's edge, and I baptized it shortly before it died, through an admirable act of Providence for the salvation of that innocent soul."

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