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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

What Became of Marquette & Joliet

Editor's Note:

This is the last entry in the Marquette-Joliet diary blog, which we began streaming out twice a week last May. You can learn about the documents presented here in the opening entries, or see all of them on a single page by clicking "Full Archives..." below.

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Marquette returned to Wisconsin in the fall of 1673 with his health badly damaged. He wintered at the mission of Saint-François-Xavier, near the present-day De Pere, and stayed there through the subsequent summer. As we saw, he had promised the Illinois Indians that he would return to them, and so in October 1674 he left Green Bay with two voyageurs for the Illinois country.

Unfortunately they were delayed by stormy autumn weather and frigid temperatures. Marquette became very ill with dysentery, and they were forced to spend the harsh winter in the suburbs of Chicago. Groups of Illinois Indians visited them and helped them survive until, on 30 March 1675, Marquette headed for the village on the Illinois River. He reached it on 8 April, 1675, and promptly preached in the open air to an enormous gathering of elders and warriors.

His health, however, had not recovered and he was already a dying man. Shortly after Easter, he left for the Saint-Ignace mission at Mackinaw via the east shore of Lake Michigan, but never made it home. He died at the mouth of the Michigan river since named after him, and two years later his remains were brought to Saint-Ignace by friendly Indians.

During this last, fatal, voyage Marquette kept a journal which you can read here, in our American Journeys online collection. His piety, compassion, and self-discipline leap off nearly every page, and it is easy to see why he became the most beloved of all the Jesuit missionary-explorers in Wisconsin’s early history. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography speaks for many modern readers when it describes him as “a robust, optimistic, gentle, and truly zealous missionary who exercised an intense personal influence over the Indians, and whose reputation for great missionary initiative as well as personal holiness began with his own immediate contemporaries.” Marquette did not establish as many missions as some Jesuits in North America, nor did he save as many souls. He did not have the administrative clout of Fr. Claude Dablon or the diplomatic skills of Fr. Claude Allouez, in whose wake he largely traveled the western lakes. Many observers, starting with Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix only a generation after his death, felt that the Mississippi expedition itself was mainly successful due to Joliet. But Marquette’s unmistakable personal qualities, preserved in the diary given here in these pages as well as in the second diary linked above, have ensured him an unshakable place in early American history.

Joliet’s story is both more and less tragic than Marquette’s. He spent the winter of 1673–74 at DePere or at Sault Ste.-Marie, like Marquette copying and organizing his records of the expedition. He also had business affairs to settle and furs to collect from Indian hunters. In late May 1674 he headed for civilization, carrying one set of his notes with him and leaving a duplicate set in Sault Ste.-Marie. At the end of June, in the rapids just outside Montreal, disaster struck. Here's his own description, from a 1674 letter:

“When I was just about to reach Montreal, my canoe capsized, and I lost two men and the box in which were all my papers and journals, with some rarities of those far-off countries. I am much grieved over the loss of a little ten-year-old slave boy who had been presented to me. He was of a good disposition, quick-witted, diligent and obedient; he could express himself in French and had begun to read and write. I was saved after having spent four hours in the water, having lost consciousness, by some fisherman, who never go to this strait and who would not have been there if the Blessed Virgin had not obtained for me this grace from God, who stayed the course of nature in order to save me from death.” To add insult to injury - - and forever impoverish our knowledge of the expedition - - the copies of his journals and maps left at Sault Sainte-Marie were destroyed by fire that summer or fall.

After these disasters Joliet, aged 29, settled in Montreal and in October 1674 married 19-year-old Claire-Françoise Byssot. The next year he was denied permission to start a colony in Illinois, and instead became an important fur trade merchant and community leader. In 1679 he was commissioned to explore the northern fur countries and investigate the reach of the English around Hudson Bay, and in the same year was given territory in Labrador on which to establish a trading post and fishing colony. By 1681 he was on Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where over the next decade he and his family lived during the summer months (they wintered in Quebec). Joliet made maps and conducted his fishing and fur trade businesses until, during hostilities between the French and British, English ships destroyed his settlement in 1692 and he was financially ruined.

In 1694 Joliet navigated and mapped the Labrador coast more thoroughly and further north than anyone had previously done. His record of that 1694 trip contains the first comprehensive account of the Eskimo. Of the last five years of his life little is known, though he continued to map eastern Canada. He died in the summer of 1700, after having explored nearly from the Arctic to the Gulf Coast; the exact date and place of his death are unknown.

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