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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Aug. 4, 1673: A Letter from Memphis

Editor's Note:

Marquette's letter given here ultimately made its way from the Mississippi to William Byrd, in Virginia, and then into a British manuscript collection. It was first discovered and published in 1920; this English translation is from Donnelly, Joseph P. Jacques Marquette, 1637-1675 (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1968), page 227. It was first published in Clarence W. Alvord, "An Unrecognized Father Marquette Letter," American Historical Review XXV (1920): 676-680.


The quotation from Gravier is on pp. 107-109 of his report, cited earlier. The "wood-pigeons" mentioned were the extinct passenger pigeon. Marquette commented on them 18 months later, during his trip to visit the Illinois Indians. Here is a picture of one drawn by Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, who visited North America about 100 years after Marquette's voyage, from our American Journeys collection.

Marquette's letter: Near the site of modern Memphis, Marquette and Joliet again encountered the Chickasaw (?) band whom they had met a month earlier. Knowing that they had communicated with Europeans, Marquette drafted the following letter in Latin and gave it to the Indians. Its language suggests that he expected it to find its way to the Spanish Catholics in Florida:


"I salute in the Lord whoever receives this letter.


I, who am nothing, except by virtue of obedience, seeking to lead anyone I could to Christ, our Saviour, happened, under divine direction, to meet Indians whom I believe are in contact with Europeans. Since they could not give me any information about this, I should like to learn who you are, where you live and who these Indians are. In the meantime know this about me. God called me to the Society of Jesus so that in this region of Canada I might spend my life working for the salvation of the Indians whom He redeemed with his Blood. I am certain that if the Immacualte Virgin Mother of God were present to me in this pitiable country, she would not wish me to render up my soul, which Christ saved with such bitter torment and she preserves, until I succeeded. Let us each pray that if we do not meet in this life we may do so in heaven.


"Done on the River of the Conception
At the 35th latitude and
Approximately the 275th longitude
4 August 1673


"Your servant in Christ Jesus
And the Immaculate Conception
Jacques Marquette Societ. Jesu"



Miraculously, this letter actually reached Col. William Byrd in Virginia more than two years later.


Marquette left no details about working their way upstream through this stretch of river. Twenty-seven years later, Fr. Jacques Gravier left this description of it, going in the opposite direction.


Gravier's Relation: "We started on the 16th of October from the Mouth of the Ouabachi [Ohio River], in very fine weather; and we found the Mississipi less rapid than above Ouabachi. As we had a great quantity of meat, we hastily dried a portion of the best of it and the great heat compelled us to throw away the remainder. We saw so great a number of wood-pigeons that the sky was quite hidden by them. We traveled all day in a South-Southeasterly direction; and 5 leagues below Ouabachi, On the South side, we found lofty Sand-cliffs, where an iron mine is said to exist."


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