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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Aug. 24, 1673: Passing the Missouri

Editor's Note:

By late August, Marquette and Joliet had paddled more than 600 miles against the Mississippi's current past the sites of modern Memphis, Cairo, Cape Girardeau, Ste. Genevieve, and St. Louis, and had written almost no words at all about those 600 miles. It's possible that the return trip was documented in Joliet's journal rather than Marquette's, but all the younger man's papers were lost when his canoe overturned outside Montreal the following year. It's also possible that Marquette, believing he had documented the lower Mississippi on the voyage downriver, did not want to use up ink and paper with descriptions of places he'd already described.


By the end of August, 1673, the two were about to enter the Illinois River shortcut home to the Great Lakes, when Marquette's journal resumes in more detail. The last landmark they passed before leaving the Mississippi was the mouth of the Missouri River.


As we saw in early July, Marquette hoped to explore the Missouri River himself. "I do not despair of discovering it some day," he had written when he passed its mouth for the first time, "if God grant me the grace and the health to do so."


But God did not. Marquette died in 1675 and the honor of "discovering" the Missouri fell to Etienne Véniard de Bourgmont, a man whose character and actions could not have differed more dramatically from the venerable Jesuit's.


For more on Veniard de Bourgmont, see the short biography at American Journeys.

As they were about to turn their backs on the Mississippi forever, Marquette and Joliet once again passed the Missouri River. "I do not despair of discovering it some day," Fr. Marquette had written when he passed its mouth for the first time, in early July, "if God grant me the grace and the health to do so." But four decades would pass before the first European would explore the other great river that waters America's heartland. Here is Veniard de Bourgmont's account of the Missouri, which he ascended as far as Pierre, South Dakota, in 1714.


Veniard de Bourgmont's 1714 account: "Some leagues further up, on the left side as you ascend, is the great Missouris River, so famed for its swiftness. Its water is always muddy, and especially in spring, making the Missicipi turbid for 400 leagues, and 20 leagues more towards the sea in spring at the time of the flood waters.


"The first river is 30 leagues along on the left side as you go up, called the Ausages [Osages] River on account of the tribe which lives there, who bear the same name. This river leads to about 40 leagues from the Cadaudakious, a tribe of almost the same sort. This Missouris River runs to the north and the northwest.


"I shall not give a description of this river. I will only tell which tribes occupy its banks, to my knowledge. There are the Missouris . . ., who are allies of the French. All their trade is in furs. They are not very numerous, they are of very good blood and are more alert than any other tribe. From all the Missouris River can be gotten furs of every kind, very fine and good, as the climate there is very cold.


"Higher up is found another river which flows, into the Missouris, called the Ecanza {Kansas] River, on which there is a tribe of the same name, allies and friends of the French. Their trade is in furs. These are the most beautiful countries and the most beautiful pieces of land in the world. The prairies there are like seas and full of wild beasts, especially buffalo, cows, hinds and stags, which are there in numbers that stagger the imagination. They almost always hunt with bow and arrow. They have very fine horses and are very good horsemen.


"Higher up is found the wide river called by the French and by the Indians the Nibraskier, which branch runs to the northwest and to the west-northwest. 10 leagues further along it are the Maquetantata, a tribe allied with and friendly to the French. They are on the bank of a small river whose water is salty and from which they make salt. All the trade of these Indians is in furs."

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