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Odd Wisconsin Archive

What's the Michissipi, and Where Does It Go?

333 years ago this week, two unlikely explorers set out on a four-month voyage through the heart of America. They were Father Jacques Marquette, a studious Jesuit priest two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, and Louis Joliet, a 27-year-old former philosophy student who had taken up fur trading. They were the first Europeans to cross Wisconsin, to descend the Mississippi, or to set eyes on thousands of miles of the great Midwest.

In 1670 French officials in Montreal began looking for someone to explore "the great river that they call Michissipi, and that is thought to empty into the Sea of California." In June of 1672 they received the King's permission to start such an exploration, and settled on Joliet to lead it. He had already spent several years in the western Great Lakes, knew Indian languages, and had a reputation for skill, stamina, and integrity. He was an obvious choice to investigate how the interior of North America related to the English settlements in the Southeast and the Spanish ones in the Southwest.

At the same time, the Jesuits wanted to expand their missionary activities. In 1670, When stationed on Wisconsin's Madeline Island, Marquette had written a letter reporting that, "When the Illinois [Indians] come to La Pointe, they cross a great river which is nearly a league in width, flows from North to South... It is hard to believe that that great River discharges its waters in Virginia, and we think rather that it has its mouth in California. If the Savages who promise to make me a Canoe do not break their word to me, we shall explore this River as far as we can..." When in 1672 the Jesuits heard about the proposed government voyage, they instructed Marquette to accompany Joliet.

"Accordingly, on the 17th day of May, 1673," Marquette wrote, "we started from the mission of St. Ignace at Michilimakinac, where I then was. The joy that we felt at being selected for this expedition animated our courage, and rendered the labor of paddling from morning to night agreeable to us... we joyfully plied our paddles on a portion of Lake Huron, on that of the Illinois, and the Bay des Puants [Green Bay]."

So began a harrowing voyage that produced some of the most precise and compelling accounts of early American history, and inspired romantic paintings and stories. Joliet and Marquette did not discover the Mississippi; Native Americans had known about it for 10,000 years, of course, and it had been crossed and explored more than a century earlier by DeSoto. But they proved that it flowed not into the Atlantic or west into the Pacific but rather southward, and emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.

Last summer we streamed Marquette's diary and other sources out to the Web two or three times a week via RSS feed. We also compiled a day by day summary of the trip. At our American Journeys digital collection, you can read Marquette's diary straight through. At Turning Points in Wisconsin History you'll find manuscript notes from an interview conducted with Joliet after he returned, as well as all the other important sources on French missionaries and traders in Wisconsin.

Don't have time or taste for the original sources? Get the big picture quickly in our Short History of Wisconsin, or simply browse the timeline in our online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.
:: Posted in Curiosities on May 17, 2006

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