Jesuit missionary and discoverer of the Mississippi River, b. in 1636; d. May 19, 1675
Marquette, JACQUES, S.J., Jesuit missionary and discoverer of the Mississippi River, b. in 1636, at Laon, a town in north central France; d. near Ludington, Michigan, May 19, 1675. He came of an ancient family distinguished for its civic and military services. At the age of seventeen he entered the Society of Jesus, and after twelve years of study and teaching in the Jesuit colleges of France was sent by his superiors (1666) to labor upon the Indian missions in Canada. Arriving at Quebec he was at once assigned to Three Rivers on the Saint Lawrence, where he assisted Druillettes and, as preliminary to further work, devoted himself to the study of the Huron language. Such was his talent as a linguist that he learned to converse fluently in six different dialects. Recalled to Quebec in the spring of 1668 he repaired at once to Montreal, where he awaited the flotilla which was to bear him to his first mission in the west. After laboring for eighteen months with Father Dablon at Sault Ste. Marie (the Soo) he was given the more difficult task of instructing the tribes at the mission of the Holy Ghost at La Pointe, on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior, near the present city of Ashland. Here we meet for the first time the account of the work of Marquette as told by himself and his first reference to the great river with which his name will be forever associated (Jesuit Relations, LII., 206). To This mission on the bleak bay of a northern lake came the Illinois Indians from their distant wigwams in the south. They brought strange tidings of a mighty river which flowed through their country and so far away to the south that no one knew into what ocean or gulf it emptied. Their own villages numbered eight thousand souls, and other populous tribes lived along the banks of this unknown stream. Would Marquette come and instruct them? Here was a call to which the young and enthusiastic missionary responded without delay. He would find the river, explore the country, and open up fields for other missionaries. The Hurons promised to build him a canoe; he would take with him a Frenchman and a young Illinois from whom he was learning the language. From information given by the visitors Marquette concluded that the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of California; and on learning that the Indians along its banks wore glass beads he knew they had intercourse with the Europeans.
So far had he gone in his preparations for the trip that he sent presents to the neighboring pagan tribes and obtained permission to pass through their country. However, before he could carry out his designs the Hurons were forced to abandon their village at La Pointe on account of a threatened attack of the Dakotas. The missionary embarked with the entire tribe and followed the Indians back to their ancient abode on the northwest shore of the Straits of Mackinac. Here a rude chapel was built and the work of instructing the Indians went on. There is extant a long letter from his pen in which Marquette gives some interesting accounts of the piety and habits of the converted Hurons (Jesuit Relations, LVII, 249). But Marquette was yearning for other conquests among the tribes which inhabited the banks of the Mississippi. He concluded this letter with the joyful information that he had been chosen by his superiors to set out from Mackinac for the exploration which he had so long desired. In the meanwhile accounts of the Mississippi had reached Quebec, and while Marquette was preparing for the voyage and awaiting the season of navigation, Joliet came to join the expedition. On May 17, 1673, with five other Frenchmen, in two canoes, Marquette and Joliet set forth on their voyage of discovery. Skirting along the northern shore of Lake Michigan and entering Green Bay, pushing up the twisting current of the Fox River, and crossing a short portage, the party reached the Wisconsin. This river, they were told, flowed into the great stream which they were seeking. The report proved true, and on the June 17 their canoes glided out into the broad, swift current of the Mississippi. Marquette drew a map of the country through which they passed and kept a diary of the voyage; this diary with its clear, concise style is one of the most important and interesting documents of American History (Jesuit Relations, LIX, 86, 164). He describes the villages and customs of the different tribes, the topography of the country, the tides of the lakes, the future commercial value of navigable streams, the nature and variety of the flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Down the river the party sailed, passing the mouth of the muddy Missouri and the Ohio until they reached the mouth of the Arkansas, and learned with certainty from the Indians that the river upon which they were navigating flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
This was the information which they sought; and fearing danger from the Spaniards if they went further, they turned the prows of their canoes northward. “We considered”, writes Marquette in his diary,” that we would expose ourselves to the risk of losing the fruits of the voyage if we were captured by the Spaniards, who would at least hold us captives; besides we were not prepared to resist the Indian allies of the Europeans, for these savages were expert in the use of firearms; lastly we had gathered all the information that could be desired from the expedition. After weighing all these reasons we resolved to return.” On coming to the mouth of the Illinois they left the Mississippi and took what they learned from the Indians was a shorter route. Near the present city of Utica they came to a very large village of the Illinois who requested the missionary to return and instruct them. Reaching Lake Michigan (where Chicago now stands), and paddling along the western shore they came to the mission of Saint Francis Xavier at the head of Green Bay. Here Marquette remained while Joliet went on to Quebec to announce the tidings of the discovery. The results of this expedition were threefold: (I) it gave to Canada and Europe historical, ethnological, and geographical knowledge hitherto unknown; (2) it opened vast fields for missionary zeal and added impulse to colonization; (3) it determined the policy of France in fortifying the Mississippi and its eastern tributaries, thus placing an effective barrier to the further extension of the English colonies. A year later (1675) Marquette started for the village of the Illinois Indians whom he had met on his return voyage, but was overtaken by the cold and forced to spend the winter near the lake (Chicago). The following spring he reached the village and said Mass just opposite to the place later known to history as Starved Rock. Since the missionary’s strength had been exhausted by his labors and travels, he felt that his end was fast approaching; he, therefore, left the Illinois after three weeks, being anxious to pass his remaining days at the mission at Mackinac. Coasting along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, he reached the mouth of a small stream near the present city of Ludington, where he told his two companions, who had been with him throughout his entire trip, to carry him ashore. There he died at the age of thirty-nine. Two years later the Indians carried his bones to the Mission at Mackinac. In 1887 a bill was passed by the Assembly at Madison, Wisconsin, authorizing the state to place a statue of Marquette in the Hall of Fame at Washington. This statue of Marquette from the chisel of the Italian sculptor, S. Tretanove, is conceded to be one of the most artistic in the Capitol. Bronze replicas of this work have been erected at Marquette, Michigan, and at Mackinac Island. Thus have been verified the prophetic words of Bancroft, who wrote of Marquette: “The people of the West will build his monument.”
HENRY S. SPALDING