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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Strange Fate of Marquette's Journal


Few people are as famous in Wisconsin history as Fr. Jacques Marquette (1637-1675). Every school child in the country learns about his 1673 voyage down the Mississippi River with Louis Joliet. Here in Wisconsin, they might also learn about his years of missionary service in Ashland, DePere, Sault Ste. Marie, and Illinois. But almost no one realizes that nearly all the evidence of his explorations perished. If it hadn't been for a little good luck, most of us might never have heard about Marquette at all.

Expedition's Records Destroyed

In the summer of 1673, Marquette and Joliet paddled down Green Bay, ascended the Fox River, and entered the Wisconsin at Portage. They reached the Mississippi River on June 17th and paddled south all the way to Arkansas, where they realized that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. To avoid a hostile encounter with the Spanish, the two explorers turned around on July 17th and reached home again at the end of September. They stayed at De Pere until the following spring, when Joliet headed for Montreal with their records and Marquette returned to central Illinois to minister to the Indians there.

Both men had spent the winter of 1673-74 preparing the official account of their voyage. They assumed this would be published as part of the 1673 "Jesuit Relation," an annual report printed at Paris, and Joliet was delivering the manuscript when disaster struck. Just as he reached Montreal, his canoe capsized in the rapids. "I lost two men and the box in which were all my papers and journals," he wrote to his superiors. "I was saved after having spent four hours in the water, having lost consciousness… Except for this shipwreck, Your Excellency would have had a quite interesting relation, but all I saved was my life."

Jesuit officials immediately requested another copy of the report from Marquette, who polished his journals into a second chronological narrative. He sent this to Montreal in the fall of 1674, and authorities forwarded a copy to Paris for publication. But by then the French government had seized control of church affairs in Paris and suppressed the annual reports. No volume covering 1673 was ever issued.

Joliet's records had sunk in the St. Lawrence and Marquette's were filed away out of sight in France. Meanwhile, Marquette himself died in the wilderness at age 38.

Lost for 200 Years

In Paris, a copy of the report was leaked to the printer Melchesedec Thevenot. In 1681 he stripped out all Marquette's religious remarks and combined the text with other obscure travelogues in a tiny book (online here). Although Thevenot's book also contained the very first map to show the whole Mississippi River, it quickly went out of print.

The two copies of Marquette's manuscript went unread for nearly two centuries.

The manuscript sent to Paris was paraphrased or cited by a few writers in the late-17th and 18th centuries but never published. In 1773, the Jesuit order was suppressed in France, and huge quantities of its records and publications were burned. Marquette's manuscript miraculously escaped this persecution, bounced from place to place, and ultimately came to rest in the 1940s in a Jesuit institution at Chantilly.

The manuscript in Montreal nearly perished in 1763 when the British outlawed Jesuit institutions and plundered their archives. The last elderly priest in the city managed to hide a few files, including Marquette's journal and hand-drawn map of the voyage. In 1800, he left a bundle of papers with the nuns who tended his death bed. They tucked these away in the hospital and went on treating the sick.

Marquette's manuscript lay ignored in a hospital store-room for four more decades. When a Jesuit college was started in Montreal in 1842, the nuns recalled the package left by the dying priest. They gave it to the new College Sainte-Marie, where historians discovered Marquette's journal for the first time. It was finally published in its entirety in 1852, in New York.

The first scholarly edition of Marquette's 1673 journal appeared in "The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents," a 73-volume set edited by Society director Reuben Gold Thwaites between 1896 and 1901. We published it online, with day-by-day commentary and excerpts from other contemporary documents, in our Historic Diaries collection.

Other Evidence of the 1673 Journey

Marquette's report was not the only record of the expedition.

Although Joliet's notes were lost when his canoe capsized, he gave an interview to the head of the Jesuits in Canada shortly afterwards. You can see the original interview notes and an English translation at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. At the end is a letter Joliet wrote about the trip on Oct. 10, 1674, describing his narrow escape from death and the loss of the expedition's records.


:: Posted in Curiosities on May 31, 2012
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