During the summer of 1673, Father Jacques Marquette became the first Frenchman to explore the Mississippi River. To this day, these explorations remain among the most fascinating that occurred in North America.
Born in France, the twenty-nine-year-old Marquette arrived in New France (Canada) in 1666. Trained as a Jesuit missionary, Marquette came to North America to introduce Native Americans to Catholicism.
After operating Indian missions at present-day Sault Ste. Marie and Ashland, Wisconsin, Marquette heard about a great river that he hoped might be the Northwest Passage – the elusive shortcut to the Pacific Ocean.
Marquette’s opportunity to explore this river came after he opened a mission on Mackinac Island. On May 17, 1673, Marquette and Louis Jolliet, a Canadian-born fur trapper and explorer, along with five other men described as “simple, hardy, and unwashed,” set out in two canoes from St. Ignace.
They traveled along the northern shore of Lake Michigan and paddled about thirty miles a day. Marquette wrote in his journal, “Our joy at being chosen for this expedition roused our courage and sweetened the labor of rowing.”
In two weeks, they reached present-day Menominee, Michigan. The local Indians warned the Frenchmen if they went farther they would meet Indians “who never show mercy to strangers but break heads without any cause.” The Indians also told Marquette and Jolliet that the great river “was full of horrible monsters, which devoured men and canoes one bite.”
Despite these forewarnings, the Frenchmen pressed on. After crossing present-day Wisconsin, they paddled into the Mississippi River on June 17. Being the first Frenchmen to see the great river, Marquette claimed they felt a “joy” that he could not express.
Marquette and Jolliet followed the river, but near present-day Arkansas, they turned around after realizing the river flowed south, not west. By late summer, the Frenchmen reached the French mission at present-day Green, Bay, Wisconsin. They had traveled more than 2,500 miles since leaving St. Ignace.
Jolliet went back to Mackinac, but Marquette stayed among the Illinois Indians. In the spring of 1675, Marquette headed back to St. Ignace. He never made it. Weakened by dysentery, the thirty-eight-year-old priest died on May 18. He may have died near the mouth of the Marquette River (present-day Ludington), but the exact location remains a mystery. Marquette’s remains were later removed to St. Ignace, but the exact site of his burial is unknown.
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