June 17, 1673 – Canoeing down the Wisconsin River, Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet encountered a broad, swift current of a mighty stream that Indians told them surged south—the Mississippi River.
Several years ago, while visiting one of my favorite states, Minnesota, I looked from a bus traveling across a bridge connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was the first time I had ever encountered the northern part of the Mississippi, and I took a deep breath at what I beheld and imagined what lay just beyond my sight.
But my vision was nothing compared with what greeted Marquette and Joliet. I had guidebooks, friends offering sightseeing advice, bus schedules, and countless tales of travelers and historians recounting adventures along the river over the years. Marquette and Joliet had nothing but the word of natives, which could be excellent reporting, fabulous fantasy or a mixture of the two.
Moreover, while I encountered a post-industrial, digitally conscious metropolis; the two Frenchmen beheld a primeval wilderness, the fulfillment of Edmund Burke’s later criteria of “the sublime and beautiful”—i.e, "that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”
As a kid, I thought of “Marquette and Joliet” as practically a brand name, a phrase that ran together fast—like Ruth and Gehrig, Smith and Dale, Sears & Roebuck. But the phrase only represented names and dates to be memorized for a test. Years later, I knew little or nothing about where they came from, what motivated them, what they found, and how it affected them.
At the time of their discovery, Marquette was a 37-year-old priest who had used seven years in Canada to establish Indian missions and become fluent in six different Native American dialects. Joliet, nine years his junior, at one time might have followed his fellow explorer into the priesthood, but decided instead to venture out into the Canadian wilderness and make his fortune as a trapper.
From a mission outpost in Lake Superior, Marquette heard accounts from the Illinois Indians about a great river. Yet nobody seemed to know the mouth of this body of water. But along its banks lived thousands of Indians—potential new souls to be instructed in Christ and saved. Marquette jumped at the chance to go. The governor of New France, Count Frontenac, dispatched Joliet--one "experienced in these kinds of discoveries and who had been already very near the river”—to join him. The two spent the winter of 1672-73 eliciting information from the Indians and creating maps.
With five other Frenchmen, Marquette and Joliet embarked from St. Ignace Mission on their voyage of discovery in two canoes, moving first along the northern shore of Lake Michigan, then entering Green Bay. The Menonomee natives they encountered here gave them an unmistakable warning: don’t go any further—not only would the tribes along the great river massacre any stranger, but monsters and demons lay in danger for them.
The explorers chose to go on into the then into the Fox River, where they reached the Mascouten village on June 7. Joliet addressed the tribe elders, requesting two guides—and received two Miami Indians. The guides proved handy, Marquette noted in a report, because “the road is broken by so many swamps and small lakes that it is easy to lose one’s way, especially as the River leading thither is so full of wild oats that it is difficult to find the Channel.” The guides led them to a portage, then the Frenchmen plunged ahead into the Wisconsin River, “alone in this Unknown country, in the hands of providence.”
Their great discovery might be described best by Francis Parkman in La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, part of his historical epic France and England in the New World. Having seen the river in something close to its untouched beauty, the 19th-century New England was undoubtedly better able to appreciate than us the thrill of discovering this majestic river:
“On the 17th of June, they saw on their right the broad meadows, bounded in the distance by rugged hills, where now stand the town and fort of Prairie du Chien. Before them a wide and rapid current coursed athwart their way, by the foot of lofty heights wrapped thick in forests.”
At this point, it might be useful to discuss here the source of Marquette’s exploration zeal—his religious faith. Mark Twain’s explanation, in Life on the Mississippi, evinces something of the satirist’s deep religious skepticism, but there’s also a kind of admiration for the Jesuit’s persistence:
“Marquette had solemnly contracted, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, that if the Virgin would permit him to discover the great river, he would name it Conception, in her honor. He kept his word. In that day, all explorers traveled with an outfit of priests. De Soto had twenty-four with him. La Salle had several, also. The expeditions were often out of meat, and scant of clothes, but they always had the furniture and other requisites for the mass; they were always prepared, as one of the quaint chroniclers of the time phrased it, to 'explain hell to the salvages.'”
After paddling along further, Marquette’s canoe was struck by “monstrous fish” so violently, the missionary observed, that “I Thought that it was a great tree, about to break the Canoe to pieces.” At this point, he undoubtedly called to mind the warning they had received earlier from Indians about a demon “whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.”
The explorers passed the mouth of the Missouri, then the mouth of the Ohio River, then all the way down to Arkansas. The Frenchmen were ready to risk Indians they did not know, but not Spaniards who, they were told now, were further south. The Spaniards, they knew, would seize their notes and maps, and possibly subject them to Indian allies expert in the use of firearms. In any case, the Frenchmen had learned what they’d come to find out: the mighty Mississippi did not empty into the Gulf of California or the Atlantic Ocean, but instead the Gulf of Mexico.
Ironically, after making his way all the way back to Montreal, Joliet lost all his papers from his journey when his canoe was overturned. Nevertheless, his oral report of the journey back in France guided the colony’s administrators in its policy of fortifying the Mississippi and its tributaries, erecting a barrier against English encroachment that would not be breached for nearly another 100 years.
Nearly two years to the day after his great voyage of discovery, Marquette died at age 39 of a lingering cold. His remains were transported back to the Catholic mission at Mackinac in present-day Michigan. Joliet lived on for another quarter century, still restless in his quest to carve out a niche in what he believed to be a mercantile empire in the making for himself and his descendants.