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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

August, 1673: the Kaskaskia

Editor's Note:

In late August of 1673, Joliet, Marquette, their voyageurs and their young Indian slave passed by the site of modern St. Louis on their way north. Because Marquette had described this area on their way downriver, he was silent about it on the return trip. We know that the Kaskaskia tribe of Illinois Indians occupied the vicinity, so we've excerpted a description of them by one of the most colorful characters in early American history, Etienne Véniard de Bourgmont. He visited the Kaskaskia a generation after Marquette and Joliet passed through, and left the account at left in his Exact Description of Louisiana.

Veniard de Bourgmont was a renegade French soldier and trader who in 1714 became the first European to explore the Missouri River. After a checkered military career in the Great Lakes that ended in charges of dereliction of duty, he fled into the wilderness as a coureur de bois, or illegal trader. He spent several years working his way south, during which he visited the Kaskaskia village described here, and drawing the ire of missionaries and officials for leading an inter-racial entourage that appeared to value sex and brandy more than Christian piety or obedience to authority.

His intimate Indian connections, however, gave him entry to tribes far up the Missouri and onto the Great Plains. He wrote the first account of that part of North America, which you can read in our American Journeys online collection. He later established a French fort on the site of modern Kansas City, brought peace to the lower Plains, and ensured that the Plains tribes allied themselves with France rather than Spain. For these services he was eventually elevated by the French King to the nobility, despite his common origins and dissolute past.

The Kaskaskia were a tribe of the Illinois who occupied most of the southern third of today's state of that name. As this excerpt shows, they welcomed French missionaries and settlers.

Report of Etienne de Bourgmont, 1714:

"Continuing up the Missicipi for 40 leagues higher to the right as you go up, 2 leagues up a little river, the tribe of the Kaskassia are settled, a tribe who are friends and allies of the French. This village is composed of about 400 men, very good people. There are 2 Jesuit missionaries who settled there a long time ago. The greatest part are Christians and married in the face of the Church. They have a very pretty church, there are about 20 French voyageurs who settled there and married Indian women. They built a windmill there, they grow wheat and have inspired the Indians to grow some, from which they find much pleasure in eating French bread. This country is like [that of] the Ouabache [the Ohio River] in its beauty.

"The Indians also grow some tobacco, which they twist into cylinders, according to their habit. This little mission and colony has a very fine appearance, on the edge of a prairie. They have some lead mines from which they take more than they need for their customary use. There are found also in all these regions from the Ouabache to Kaskassia some bits from copper mines, almost all pure, although without locating the mine exactly. This always gives reason to believe that there are some copper mines there. There is also to be found along the course of the Missicipi some rock crystal, but I do not know the exact spot."

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