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Marquette & Joliet

On a May morning more than 300 years ago, two unlikely explorers set out on a four-month voyage that carried them thousands of miles through the heart of North America. The two were Father Jacques Marquette, a studious Jesuit two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, and Louis Joliet, a 27-year-old philosophy student turned fur trader. Their voyage helped to initiate the first white settlements in the North American interior that introduced Christianity into 600,000 square miles of wilderness, gave French names to cities from La Crosse to New Orleans, transformed traditional Indian cultures, and nearly exterminated the fur-bearing mammals of the Upper Midwest.

In two canoes paddled by five voyageurs, Marquette and Joliet crossed Wisconsin in the summer of 1673 and followed the Mississippi hundreds of miles south to Arkansas — far enough to confirm that it drained into the Gulf of Mexico but not so far that they would be captured by the Spanish. Both men kept records of the voyage. Marquette's journal lay unread in a Jesuit archive in Montreal for nearly 200 years. The following spring, Joliet headed home with the expedition's other records but outside Montreal his canoe overturned and all his notes were lost. A few weeks later, he was interviewed about where he had gone and what he had seen.

Marquette and Joliet did not discover the Mississippi. Indians had been using it for thousands of years, and Spanish explorer Hernan De Soto had crossed it more than a century before them. They did confirm, however, that it was possible to travel easily from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by water, that the native peoples who lived along the route were generally friendly, and that the natural resources of the lands in between were extraordinary. Equipped with this information, French officials led by LaSalle would erect a 4,000-mile network of trading posts to systematically exploit those riches over the next century and a half.

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