The Mississippi River – Historic Landmarks

THE first Europeans who are certainly known to have discovered and explored this river, were two Frenchmen, Father Marquette and M. Joliet, in the year 1673. Marquette was a native of Picardy, and Charlevoix calls him ” one of the most illustrious missionaries of New France,” adding that he travelled widely, and made many discoveries besides that of the Mississippi. He had resided some time in Canada, and attained a proficiency in the languages of the principal native tribes, who resided in the regions bordering on the Upper Lakes. The first settlement of the old town of Michillimackinac, in 1671, is ascribed to his exertions and influences.

The Indians had given many accounts of a great river at the West, which flowed southwardly, and which they called Mississipy, as the word is written by Marquette. It became a matter of curious speculation, what course the river pursued, and at what place it disembouged itself into the sea. There were three opinions on this subject. First, that it ran towards the southwest, and entered the Gulf of California; secondly, that it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico; and thirdly, that it found its way in a more easterly direction, and discharged itself into the Atlantic Ocean somewhere on the coast of Virginia. The question was not less important in a commercial and political view, than interesting as a geographical problem.

To establish this point, and to make such other discoveries as opportunities would admit, M. de Frontenac, the Governor of Canada, encouraged an expedition to be undertaken. The persons to whom it was intrusted were M. Joliet, then residing at Quebec, and Father Marquette, who was at Michillimackinac, or in the vicinity of that place. Marquette wrote an account of his tour and voyage down the Mississippi, which was sent to France, and published eight years afterwards in Paris. From this account the following particulars are chiefly taken. In some parts the translation is nearly literal, and all the prominent facts are retained.

On the 13th of May, 1673, Father Marquette and M. Joliet, with five other Frenchmen, embarked in two canoes, with a small provision of Indian corn and smoked meat, having previously acquired from the Indians all the intelligence they could afford respecting their proposed route.

The first nation through which they passed, was the Folles Avoines (Wild Rice), so called from the grain of that name, which abounds in the rivers and marshy lands. This plant is described as growing about two feet above the water, resembling European oats, and gathered by the savages during the month of September. The ears are dried, separated from the chaff, and prepared for food either by pounding into meal, or simply boiling the grain in water.

The natives, having been made acquainted by Father Marquette with his design of visiting the most remote nations and preaching to them the Gospel, did their utmost to dissuade him from it, representing the cruelty of some of the tribes, and their warlike state, the dangerous navigation of the river, the dreadful monsters that were found in it, and, finally, the excessive heat of the climate.

He thanked them for their good advice, but declined following it; assuring them that, to secure the success of his undertaking, he would gladly give his life; that he felt no fear of the monsters they described; and that their information would only oblige him to keep more on his guard against surprise. After having prayed, and given them some instructions, he parted from them, and arrived at the Bay of Puans, now called ‘Green Bay, where considerable progress had been made by the French priests in the conversion of the Indians.

The name of this bay has a less unpleasant meaning in the Indian, than in the French language, signifying also salt bay, which induced Father Marquette to make strict researches for salt springs in this vicinity, but without success. He concluded, therefore, that the name was given to it in consequence of the ooze and mud, deposited there, from whence, as he thought, arise vapours that produce frequent and violent thunderstorms. He speaks of this bay as about thirty leagues long, and eight leagues wide at its entrance, gradually contracting towards its head, where the flux and reflux of the tides, much like those of the sea, may be easily observed.

Leaving this bay, they ascended the river, since known as Fox River, that empties into it. At its mouth, he says, the river is broad and deep, and flows gently; but, as you advance, its course is interrupted by rapids and rocks; which he passed, however, in safety. It abounds with bustards, ducks, and teal, attracted by the wild rice, which grows there. Approaching the village of Maskoutins, or Nation of Fire, he had the curiosity to taste the mineral water of a stream in its vicinity. The village consisted of three several nations, namely, Miamis, Maskoutins, and Kikabeaux. The first were the most friendly and liberal, and the finest-looking men. Their hair was long over their ears. They were good warriors, sucessful in their expeditions, docile, and fond of instruction. They were so eager to listen to Father Allonezo, when he was among them, that they allowed him no repose, even in the night. The Maskontins and Kikabeaux were coarser, and less civilized; their wigwams were constructed of rushes (birch bark being scarce in this country), and might be rolled up in bundles and carried where they pleased.

In visiting these people, Father Marquette was much gratified at seeing a large cross erected in the centre of the village, decorated with thank offerings to the Great Spirit, for their success during the last winter. The situation of the village was striking and beautiful, it being built on an eminence, whence the eye overlooked on all sides a bound-less extent of prairie, interspersed with groves and forests. The soil was good, producing abundantly Indian corn, grapes, and plums.

Immediately on their arrival, Father Marquette and M. Joliet assembled the chiefs, and explained to them the objects of their expedition, expressing their determination to proceed at all risks, and making them some presents. They requested the assistance of two guides, to put them in their way; which request the natives readily granted, returning for their presents a mat, which served them as a bed during the voyage. The next day, being the l0th of June, the two Miamis, their guides, embarked with them in sight of all the inhabitants of the village, who looked with astonishment on the hardihood of seven Frenchmen in under-taking such an expedition.

They knew that within three leagues of the Maskoutins was a river which discharged itself into the Mississippi; and further, that their course must be west southwest; but so many marshes and small lakes intervened, that the route was intricate; the more so, as the river was overgrown with wild rice, which obstructed the channel to such a degree that it was difficult to follow it. On this account their guides were necessary, who conducted them safely to a portage, which was about two thousand seven hundred paces across. The guides aided them in transporting their canoes over the portage to the river, which ran towards the west, and then they left them and returned.

The travellers quitted the waters, which flow towards Quebec, five or six hundred leagues from that place, and embarked on an unknown stream. This river was called Mesconsin (Wisconsin). It was very broad, but its bottom was sandy, and the navigation was rendered difficult by the shoals. It was full of islands, overgrown with vines; and the fertile banks through which it flowed were interspersed with woods, prairies, and groves of nut, oak, and other trees. Numbers of bucks and buffaloes were seen, but no other animals. Within thirty leagues of their place of embarkation, they found iron mines, which appeared abundant and of good quality. After continuing their route for forty leagues, they arrived at the mouth of the river, in forty-two degrees and a half of latitude; and on the 17th of June, they entered with great joy the waters of the Mississippi.

This river derives its source from several lakes in the north. At the mouth of the Mesconsin its channel was narrow, and it flowed onwards with a gentle current. On the right was seen a chain of high mountains, and on the left fertile fields interrupted by islands in many places. They slowly followed the course of the stream to the south and southwest, until, in forty-two degrees of latitude, they perceived a sensible change in the surrounding country. There were but few hills and forests. The islands were covered with beautiful trees.

From the time of leaving their guides, they descended the two rivers more than one hundred leagues, without discovering any other inhabitants of the forests, than birds and beasts. They were always on their guard, kindling a fire on the shore towards evening, to cook their food, and afterwards anchoring their canoes in the middle of the stream during the night. They proceeded thus for more than sixty leagues from the place where they entered the Mississippi, when, on the 25th of June, they perceived on the bank of the river the footsteps of men, and a well-beaten path leading into a beautiful prairie. They landed, and, leaving the canoes under the guard of their boatmen, Father Marquette and M. Joliet set forth to make discoveries. After silently following the path for about two leagues, they perceived a village, situate on the margin of a river, and two others on a hill, within half a league of the first. As they approached nearer they gave notice of their arrival by a loud call. Hearing the noise, the Indians came out of their cabins, and, having looked at the strangers for a while, they deputed four of their elders to talk with them, who slowly advanced. Two of them brought pipes ornamented with feathers, which, without speaking, they elevated towards the sun, as a token of friendship. Gaining assurance from this ceremony, Father Marquette ad-dressed them, inquiring of what nation they were. They answered that they were Illinois, and, offering their pipes, invited the strangers to enter the village, where they were received with every mark of attention, conducted to the cabin of the chief, and complimented on their arrival by the natives, who gathered round them, gazing in silence.

After they were seated, the calumet was presented to them, and, while the old men were smoking for their entertainment, the chief of all the Illinois tribes sent them an invitation to attend a council at his village. They were treated by him with great kindness, and Father Marquette, having explained to him the motives of this voyage, en-forcing each part of his speech with a present, the chief in reply expressed his approbation; but urged him, in the name of the whole nation, not to incur the risks of a further voyage, and rewarded his presents by the gift of a calumet.

The council was followed by a feast, consisting of four courses, from each of which they were fed with much ceremony; and afterwards they were conducted in state through the village, receiving many presents of girdles and garters from the natives. The following day they took leave of the chief, promising to return in four moons, and were accompanied to their canoes, with every demonstration of joy, by more than six hundred savages.

Before leaving this nation, Father Marquette remarked some of their peculiarities. The name Illinois, in the native language, signifies men, as if implying thereby, that other tribes are brutes in comparison, which in some sense Father Marquette thought to be true, as they were more civilized than most of the tribes. Their language, on the borders of the river, was a dialect of the Algonquin, and was understood by Father Marquette. In the form of their bodies the Illinois were light and active. They were skilful in the use of arms, brave, but wild and tractable in disposition. They were entirely ignorant of the use of leather, and iron tools, their weapons being made of stone, and their clothing of the skins of wild beasts. The soil was rich and productive, and game abundant.

After this peaceful interview with the natives, the voyagers embarked again, and passed down the stream, looking out for the river Pekitanoni (Missouri), which empties into the Mississippi from the northwest. They observed high and steep rocks, on the face of which were the figures of two monsters, which appeared as if painted in green, red, and blue colours; frightful in appearance, but so well executed as to leave Father Marquette in doubt whether they could be the work of savages, they being also at so great a height on the rocks as to be inaccessible to a painter.

As they floated quietly down a clear and placid stream, conversing about the figures they had just passed, they were interrupted by the sound of rapids before them; and a mass of floating timber, trunks and branches of trees, was swept from the mouth of the Pekitanoni with such a degree of violence, as to render the passage dangerous. So great was the agitation, that the water was thereby made very muddy, and it did not again become clear. The Pekitanoni is described as a large river flowing into the Mississippi from the northwest, with several villages on its banks.

At this place Father Marquette decided, that unless the Mississippi altered its previous course it must empty its waters into the Gulf of Mexico; and he conjectured from the accounts of the natives that, by following the stream of the Pekitanoni, a river would be discovered, which flowed into the Gulf of California.

About twenty leagues south of the Pekitanoni, and a little more to the southeast, they discovered the mouth of another river, called Ouabouskigou (Ohio), in the latitude of thirty-six degrees; a short distance above which, they came to a place formidable to the savages, who, believing it the residence of a demon, had warned Father Marquette of its dangers. It proved nothing more than a ledge of rocks, thirty feet high, against which the waves, being contracted by an island, ran with violence, and, being thrown back with a loud noise, flowed rapidly on through a narrow and unsafe channel.

The Ouabouskigou came from the eastward, where the country was thickly inhabited by the tribe of Chuouanons, a harmless and peaceful people, much annoyed by the Iroquois, who were said to capture them as slaves, and kill and torture them cruelly.

A little above the entrance of this river were steep banks, in which the boatmen discovered iron ore, several veins of which were visible, about a foot in thickness, portions of it adhering to the flint-stones; and also a species of rich earth, of three different colours, namely, purple, violet, and red, and a very heavy red sand, some of which, being laid on an oar, left a stain during fifteen days. They here first saw tall reeds, or canes, growing on the shores, and began to find the maringouins (mosquitoes) very troublesome; the attacks of which, with the heat of the weather, obliged the voyagers to construct an awning of the sails of their canoes.

Shortly afterwards they saw savages armed with muskets, waiting their approach on the bank of the river. While the boatmen prepared for a defence, Father Marquette presented his calumet, and addressed them in Huron, to which they gave no answer, but made signals to them to land, and accept some food. They consequently disembarked, and, entering their cabins, were presented with buffalo’s meat, bear’s oil, and fine plums. These savages had guns, hatchets, knives, hoes, and glass bottles for their gunpowder. They informed Father Marquette that he was within ten days’ journey of the sea; that they purchased their goods of Europeans, who came from the east; that these Europeans had images and beads, played on many instruments, and were dressed like himself ; and that they had treated them with much kindness. As they had no knowledge of Christianity, the worthy Father gave them what instruction he could, and made them a present of some medals. Encouraged by the information received from these savages, the party proceeded with renewed ardour on their voyage, between banks covered with thick forests, that intercepted their view of the prairies; in which, however, they heard at no great distance the bellowing of buffaloes. They also saw quails upon the shores, and shot a small parrot.

They had nearly reached the thirty-third degree of latitude, steering towards the south, when they discovered a village on the river’s side, called Metchigamea. The natives, armed with bows and arrows, clubs, and tomahawks, prepared to attack them; some in canoes, trying to intercept their course, others remaining on shore. Father Marquette in vain presented his calumet of peace. They were ready to attack, when the elders, perceiving at last the calumet, commanded the young warriors to stop, and, throwing their arms at the feet of the strangers, as a sign of peace, entered their canoes, and constrained them to land, though not without some uneasiness.

As the savages were not acquainted with any of the six languages spoken by Father Marquette, he addressed them by signs, until an old man was found who understood a little Illinois. Through this interpreter, he explained their intention of going to the borders of the sea, and gave the natives some religious instruction. In reply they answered, that whatever information he desired might be obtained at Akarnsca (Arkansas), a village ten leagues lower down the river; and presented them with food. After passing a night of some anxiety, they embarked the following morning with the interpreter; a canoe with ten savages preceding them. About half a league from Akamsca, they were met by two canoes full of Indians, the chief of whom presented his calumet, and conducted them to the shore, where they were hospitably received and supplied with provisions. Here they found a young man well acquainted with the Illinois language, and through him Father Marquette ad-dressed the natives, making them the usual presents, and requesting information from them respecting the sea. They answered, that it was within five days’ journey of Akamsca; that they knew nothing of the inhabitants on its borders, being prevented by their enemies from holding intercourse with these Europeans; that their knives and other weapons were purchased partly from the eastern nations, and partly from a tribe of Illinois, four days’ journey to the eastward; that the armed savages, whom the travellers had met, were their enemies; that they were continually on the river between that place and the sea; and that, if the voyagers proceeded further, great danger might be apprehended from them. After this communication, food was offered, and the rest of the day was spent in feasting.

These people were friendly and hospitable, but poor, although their Indian corn produced three abundant crops in a year, which Father Marquette saw in its different stages of growth. It was prepared for food in pots, which, with plates and other utensils, were neatly made of baked earth by the Indians. Their language was so very difficult, that Father Marquette despaired of being able to pronounce a word of it. Their climate in winter was rainy, but they had no snow, and the soil was extremely fertile.

During the evening the old men held a secret council. Some of them proposed to murder the strangers, and seize their effects. The chief, however, overruled this advice, and, sending for Father Marquette and M. Joliet, invited them to attend a dance of the calumet, which he after-wards presented to them as a sign of peace.

The good Father and his companion began now to consider what further course they should pursue. As it was supposed that the Gulf of Mexico extended as far north as thirty-one degrees and forty minutes, they believed them-selves not to be more than two or three days’ journey from it; and it appeared to them certain that the Mississippi must empty itself into that gulf, and not into the sea through Virginia, at the eastward, because the coast of Virginia was in the latitude of thirty-four degrees, at which they had already arrived ; nor yet into the Gulf of California, at the southwest, because they had found the course of the river to be invariably south. Being thus persuaded that the main object of their expedition was attained, and considering, moreover, that they were unable to resist the armed savages, who infested the lower parts of the river, and that, should they fall into the hands of the Spaniards, the fruits of their voyage and discoveries would be lost, they resolved to proceed no further, and, having informed the natives of their determination, and rested another day, they prepared for their return.

After a month’s navigation on the Mississippi, having followed its course from the forty-second to the thirty-fourth degree of latitude, they left the village of Akamsca, on the 17th of July, to return up the river. They retraced their way, slowly ascending the stream, until, in about the thirty-eighth degree of latitude, they turned into another river (Illinois), which abridged their route and brought them directly to Lake Illinois (Michigan). They were struck with the fertility of the country through which that river flowed, the beauty of the forests and prairies, the variety of the game, and the numerous small lakes and streams which they saw. The river was broad and deep, and navigable for sixty-five leagues, there being, in the season of spring and part of the summer, only half a league of portage between its waters and those flowing into Lake Illinois. On its banks they found a village, the in-habitants of which received them kindly, and, on their departure, extorted a promise from Father Marquette to re-turn and instruct them. One of the chiefs, accompanied by the young men, conducted them as far as the Lake; whence they proceeded to the Bay of Puans, where they arrived near the end of September, having been absent about four months.

Such is the substance of Father Marquette’s narrative; and the whole of it accords remarkably with the descriptions of subsequent travellers, and with the actual features of the country through which he passed, as to remove every doubt of its genuineness. The melancholy fate of the author, which followed soon afterwards, was probably the reason why his expedition was not in a more conspicuous manner brought before the public.

In addition to this narrative, nothing is known of Marquette, except what is said of him by Charlevoix. After returning from his last expedition, he took up his residence, and pursued the vocation of a missionary, among the Miamis in the neighbourhood of Chicago. While passing by water along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan towards Michillimackinac, he entered a small river, on the 18th of May, 1675. Having landed, he constructed an altar, performed mass, and then retired a short distance into the wood, requesting the two men who had charge of his canoe, to leave him alone for half an hour. When the time had elapsed, the men went to seek for him and found him dead. They were greatly surprised, as they had not discovered any symptoms of illness; but they remembered, that, when he was entering the river, he expressed a presentiment that his voyage would end there. To this day the river retains the name of Marquette. The place of his grave, near its bank, is still pointed out to the traveller; but his remains were removed the year after his death to Michillimackinac.