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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Early September,1673: At the Illinois village

Editor's Note:

The reports of Jesuit priests such as Marquette and early explorers such as LaSalle are the chief written evidence we have about what Native American life was like in the Midwest at the time of white contact 350 years ago. Although the learned fathers and the ambitious French commanders couldn't escape seeing through their own cultural filters, - - can most of us say we are today any different? -- they at least recorded on paper vivid impressions and lively details from which we can deduce some facts about Indian life. Used in combination with tribal oral traditions, archaeological investigations, and artifacts preserved in museums both on and off reservations, their texts help us understand what life was like when Europeans and Native Americans first met.

The descriptions at left by Marquette and LaSalle portray the center of the Illinois nations at the end of the 17th century, near the modern town of Utica in La Salle County, Illinois.

Marquette's two accounts at left are the first of many French descriptions of it. Although LaSalle's Official Report is written in the third person, he is generally believed by historians to have been the author of it or to have dictated it to its anonymous creator.

In the first excerpt here, from early 1679, LaSalle was exploring the Illinois River route to the interior in the hope that it might be navigable by vessels larger than canoes. He had to return to Canada unexpectedly and when he came back to Illinois at the end of the year, he found that Iroquois warriors had launched a wholesale invasion, driving the Illinois tribes back to the Mississippi and destroying their towns.

Although the town was rebuilt, along with a fort housing French troops, several of the Illinois nations moved further south and west toward modern St. Louis, farther from the risk of another Iroquois attack.

Marquette's 1673 Journal and 1675 Diary: "In the spring and during part of the summer there is only one portage of half a league. We found on it a village of Ilinois called Kaskasia, consisting of 74 cabins. They received us very well, and obliged me to promise that I would return to instruct them." Marquette did return to them 18 months later, and left this account in his 1675 diary, writing about himself in the third person:

"On at last arriving at the village, he was received as an angel from Heaven. After he had assembled at various times the chiefs of the nation, with all the old men, that he might sow in their minds the first seeds of the Gospel, and after having given instruction in the cabins, which were always filled with a great crowd of people, he resolved to address all in public, in a general assembly which he called together in the open air, the cabins being too small to contain all the people. It was a beautiful prairie, close to a village, which was selected for the great council; this was adorned, after the fashion of the country, by covering it with mats and bear-skins. Then the Father, having directed them to stretch out upon lines several pieces of Chinese taffeta, attached to these four large pictures of the Blessed Virgin, which were visible on all sides. The audience was composed of 500 chiefs and elders, seated in a circle around the Father, and of all the young men, who remained standing. They numbered more than 1500 men, without counting the women and children, who are always numerous, the village being composed of five or six hundred fires."

LaSalle visited the great Illinois village five years later, in January of 1680, and put this description into his Official Report:

"...he reached the Illinois village on the 1st of January, 1680. This village is situated in Illinois, forty degrees of latitude, on a somewhat marshy plain, upon the right bank of the river, which is at this point as wide as the Seine at Paris, and is diversified by some very fine islands. The village contains four hundred and sixty lodges, built like long arbors, and thatched with double mats of flat reeds, so well sewn as to be impervious to wind, snow, and rain. Every cabin has four or five fires, and about every fire are one or two families, living all together on good terms. ..."

LaSalle returned 11 months later, after the village had been wiped out by Iroquois attacks:

"On the 1st of December he reached the village, where he found nothing but signs of fire and of the rage of the Iroquois. There remained standing only some charred stakes, showing what had been the extent of the village. Upon most of these stakes the heads of the dead had been fixed to be devoured by the crows. There were more skulls at the gates of the Iroquois fort, with a mass of burnt bones and some remains of French utensils and clothing, which he perceived by certain signs to have lain there for some time. In the fields were to be seen many carcasses half gnawed by the wolves; tombs were demolished, bones dragged from the graves and scattered about the plain; the trenches wherein the Illinois hide their utensils when they go away to hunt all opened; their kettles and their pots all broken. Most of the Indian corn was still standing, and in various parts half-burnt heaps of it were seen. The horror of the scene was increased by the bowls and screams of the wolves and the crows. It is easy to imagine the astonishment of M. de La Salle at this spectacle."

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