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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Joliet and Marquette Head into the Wild

"Accordingly, on the 17th day of May, 1673," Fr. Jacques Marquette wrote in his diary, "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]."

340 years ago this week, two unlikely explorers set out on a four-month voyage through the heart of America. They were Fr. 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.

Who Were Marquette and Joliet?

French politicians had begun looking for someone to explore "the great river that they call Michissipi, and that is thought to empty into the Sea of California" three years earlier. In June of 1672 they received the King's permission and chose 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.

At the same time, the Jesuit order wanted to expand its missionary activities. In 1670, while stationed on Wisconsin's Madeline Island, Marquette wrote 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..." So when the Jesuits caught wind of the proposed government voyage, they instructed Marquette to accompany Joliet.

Where Did They Go?

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. They travelled down the shore of Green Bay, across the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, and down the Mississippi to Arkansas. At that point friendly tribes told them they were a few days from the sea and described Spanish soldiers in the area. Rather than risk being captured by enemies of France, they turned homeward.

Joliet and Marquette did not discover the Mississippi. Native Americans had known about it for 10,000 years, and it had been crossed more than a century earlier by Hernan DeSoto. But they proved that it flowed not east into the Atlantic or west into the Pacific but rather southward, and emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next 30 years French explorers used this information to establish a chain of military and trading posts that arced from Quebec, through the Great Lakes, and southward through St. Louis to New Orleans.

Learn More about Marquette and Joliet

A few years ago we blogged Marquette's diary of the voyage and other primary sources two or three times a week. 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. And at Turning Points in Wisconsin History you'll find manuscript notes from an interview Joliet gave after he returned, as well as all the other important sources on French missionaries and traders in Wisconsin.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on May 16, 2013
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