Dubuque County Historical Society Images

The Pathfinders

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Louis Jolliet & Jacques Marquette

Louis Jolliet was born at Beauport, near Quebec in 1645. Louis' father died when he was five years old, and at age nine, he attended the Jesuit College at Quebec and received minor orders when he was sixteen. Five years later, Jolliet left the seminary, travelled to France for a year and then returned to New France.

Jacques Marquette was born at Laon, France on June 1, 1637, one of six children. He entered the Catholic Society of Jesus noviciate at Nancy in 1654 where he studied at the seminary and taught. At the age of twenty-eight, after having taught for seven years, Marquette's application for a position with the foreign mission was granted. He arrived in New France and came to Quebec in 1666, the same year he was ordained to the priesthood. Marquette served as missionary in New France for the next six years.

In 1672, Jolliet was commissioned to explore the river known to the Indians as the Messi-Sipi, or the great river. The Mississippi River had already been discovered by the Native Americans and again by De Soto in 1541, but the French knew little about the true path of the river.

Jolliet's expedition was to explore the great river, and Jolliet was granted a "conge" or trading license, which allowed him to trade with Indians to defray his costs. The purpose of the expedition was to find if the great river in the west flowed into the Gulf of California, which would have enabled the French to reach the Pacific and the far east. Jolliet received the official appointment and was charged to report on the findings. Marquette was appointed chaplain, and his duties were to look after the spiritual needs of the men and to expose native tribes to Catholicism.

In 1672, Jolliet entered into contract with seven men to finance the trading mission with the Indians, and five of the seven agreed to make the voyage as paddlers. In 1673, Jolliet and his men came to Michilimackinac to meet Fr. Marquette and begin their journey.

The expedition took their two birchbark canoes along the coast of Lake Michigan, up the Fox River, and then portaged to the Wisconsin River. From the Wisconsin, they entered the Mississippi and for seven days, they paddled the great river without seeing another human soul. On the eighth day, they saw human footprints in the sand along the western shore of what is now Iowa. Jolliet and Marquette followed the trail into the trees, leaving the other voyageurs with the canoes and supplies. The two explorers encountered members of the Peorias (Illinois) tribe and offered signs of friendship. The two Frenchmen were welcomed into the villages and feasted with roasted buffalo, but they refused the offerings of freshly killed dog meat.

Leaving the Peoria Indians, the expedition continued downriver. On the voyage, they encountered "monstrous fish," one of which struck the canoe so hard that Marquette felt the canoe might be broken by the blows. They noted the giant herds of buffalo along the river banks. Once they were awakened by a thunderous roar which turned out to be a great vortex where the Missouri River entered the Mississippi.

Below the mouth of the Arkansas River, the expedition met with Indians who informed them that the river flowed south into the sea. These Indians had cloth, glass, guns, and hatchets which indicated that they had obtained these through trade with Europeans, presumably the Spanish. Having thus determined the flow of the river and fearing the Spanish, Marquette and Jolliet decided to return home.

They reached the French Jesuit Mission of De Pere, Wisconsin in September, 1673, but Marquette was ill from the Voyage and could not leave until October, 1674, when he returned to Illinois to found a new mission. He passed the winter with two servants on the Chicago River and died near Ludington, Michigan in 1675 while journeying back to St. Ignace at the Mackinac Straits.

Jolliet wintered at De Pere, and returned home in the spring of 1674. His canoe was upset at the Lachine rapids at Sault St. Louis, the last rapid above Montreal. The canoe capsized, killing three companions. Jolliet was unconscious and was retrieved after four hours in the water, only to discover that he had lost all his papers including his journal and his map of the river. He redrew the map from memory and tried to reconstruct his notes. He later wrote that he passed forty-two rapids only to have his canoe capsize at the entrance of the first house he left two years ago.

He made explorations to Hudson Bay in 1679 and in 1680 was granted the Island of Anticosti as reward for his explorations of the Illinois county and the Hudson Bay region. Jolliet then made two voyages to Labrador and charted the Labrador coast and prepared a map of the St. Lawrence. He was appointed hydrographer of Quebec on April 30, 1697 - a position he held until his death three years later.

Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette discovered and explored the Mississippi River, opening up a century and a half of French exploration and commerce and another century and a half of American settlement and growth. The expedition confirmed rumors of the Great River and provided a description of the Father of Waters, its tributaries, and its final destination into the Gulf of Mexico.



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