Father Marquette Meets the Illinois


In the summer of 1672, the Intendant of New France asked the fur trader Louis Jolliet to undertake an expedition to explore the Mississippi River.  French traders, explorers, and missionaries had heard long rumors of the river from the Indians they encountered, but no one had, as yet, seen it.  Since the days of Jacques Cartier, the French had hoped to find a river which flowed to the Pacific.  The Saint Lawrence had proved a dead-end, but perhaps this Michi sippi or "Great River" as the Indians called it might be the long-sought highway through the continent.


The expedition set out from the Mission of Saint Ignace (Saint Ignace, Michigan)  in April 1673.  Jolliet took with him a Jesuit priest, Father Jacques Marquette, to serve as both chaplain and missionary.  It was a good choice.  A native of Laon, France, the thirty-six-year-old Marquette had lived seven years in the colony and had worked at the Jesuit missions of Sault Ste. Marie, Chequamegon, and Saint Ignace for four of these.  Personally fearless and a devout Catholic, he wanted nothing more than to die in the wilderness teaching Christianity to the Indians.  At the same time, he had a gentle sense of humor and an almost child-like fascination with the country: its people,  its animals, even its plants.  During the five months that Jolliet, Marquette, and their five French paddlers explored the Mississippi, nothing seems to have escaped his notice and he kept a detailed journal of his experiences.


Most of what we know about the expedition comes from this journal.  On his way back to Quebec to report to the Intendant, Jolliet's canoe capsized and he lost his journals and the maps he had painstakingly drafted of the river.  The two had  failed in their quest to find a route to the Pacific.  By the time they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, they had pretty well concluded that the Mississippi flowed south to the Gulf of Mexico.  Indian reports  that the sea lay only ten day's journey on seemed to confirm it, and so they had  turned back north in mid-July.  On the other hand, their report sent French traders swarming into the new country and set La Salle on his great quest for a colony in the Mississippi Valley.  For us today, his journal offers the earliest description of Illinois and its people.  The passage below describes Marquette's first encounter with the Peoria, one of the nations of the Illinois Confederacy at their village in southeastern Iowa.  Departing the Peoria Village, they then descend the river to its confluence with the Missouri.





  Here we are, then, on this so renowned River, all of whose peculiar features I have endeavored to note carefully. The Missisipi River takes its rise in various lakes in the country of the Northern nations. It is narrow at the place where Miskous empties; its Current, which flows southward, is slow and gentle. To the right is a large Chain of very high Mountains, and to the left are beautiful lands; in various Places, the stream is Divided by Islands. On sounding we found ten brasses (fathoms) of Water. Its Width is very unequal; sometimes it is threequarters of a league, and sometimes it narrows to three arpents. We gently followed its Course, which runs toward the south and southeast, as far as the 42nd degree of Latitude. Here we plainly saw that its aspect was completely changed. There are hardly any woods or mountains; The Islands are more beautiful, and are Covered with finer trees. We saw only deer and cattle, bustards and Swans without wings, because they drop Their plumage in This country. From time to time, we came upon monstrous fish, one of which struck our Canoe with such violence that I Thought that it was a  great tree, about to break the Canoe to pieces.e makes it spread its wings, as if about to fly; at other times, he puts it near the mouths of those present, that they may smoke. The whole is done in cadence and this is, as it were, the first Scene of the Ballet.


The second consists of a Combat carried on to the sound of a kind of drum, which succeeds the songs, or even unites with them, harmonizing very well together. The Dancer makes a sign to some warrior to come to take the arms which lie upon the mat, and invites him to fight to the sound of the drums. The latter approaches, takes up the bow and arrows, and the warhatchet, and begins the duel with the other, whose sole defense is the Calumet. This spectacle is very pleasing, especially as all is done in cadence; for.one attacks, the other defends himself; one strikes blows; the other parries them; one takes to flight, the other pursues; and then he who was fleeing faces about, and causes his adversary to flee. This is done so wellwith slow and measured steps, and to the rhythmic sound of the voices and drumsthat it might pass for a very fine opening of a Ballet in France. The third Scene consists of a lofty Discourse, delivered by him who holds the Calumet; for, when the Combat is ended without bloodshed, he recounts the battles at which he has been present, the victories that he has won, the names of the Nations, the places, and the Captives whom he has made. And, to reward him, he who presides at the Dance makes him a present of a fine robe of Beaverskins, or some other article. Then, having received it, he hands the Calumet to another) the latter to a third, and so on with all the others, until everyone has done his duty; then the President pre­sents the Calumet itself to the Nation that has been invited to the Ceremony, as a token of the everlasting peace that is to exist between the two peoples.



Here is one of the Songs that they are in the habit of singing. They give it a certain turn which cannot be suffi­ciently expressed by Note, but which nevertheless constitutes all its grace.


Ninahani, ninahani, ninahani, nani ongo.





We take leave of our Ilinois at the end of June, about three o'clock in the afternoon. We embark in the sight of all the people, who admire our little Canoes, for they have never seen any like them.


We descend, following the current of the river called Peki­tanoui, which discharges into the Mississipy, flowing from the Northwest. I shall have something important to say about it, when I shall have related all that I have observed along this river.


While passing near the rather high rocks that line the river, I noticed a simple which seem to me very Extraordinary. The root is like small turnips fastened together by little filaments, which taste like carrots. From this root springs a leaf as wide As one's hand, and half a finger thick, with spots. From the middle of this leaf spring other leaves, resembling the sconces used for candles in our halls; and each leaf bears Five or six yellow flowers shaped like little Bells.


We found quantities of Mulberries, as large as Those of france; and a small fruit which we at first took for olives) but which tasted like oranges; and another fruit as large As a hen's egg. We cut it in halves, and two divisions appeared, in each of which 8 to 10 fruits were encased'; these are shaped like almonds, and are very good when ripe. Nevertheless' The tree that bears them has a very bad odor and its leaves resemble Those of the walnuttree. In These prairies there is also a fruit similar to Hazelnuts but more delicate; The leaves are very large, and grow from a stalk at the end of which is ahead similar to That of a sunflower, in which all its Nuts are regularly arranged. These are very good, both Cooked and Raw.


While Skirting some rocks, which by Their height and Length inspired awe, We saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made Us afraid, and upon Which the boldest savages dare not Long rest their eyes. They are as large As a calf; they have Horns on their heads Like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard Like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body Covered with scales, and so Long A tail that it winds all around the Body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a Fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three Colors composing the Picture. Moreover, these 2 monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in france would find it difficult to paint so well,and, besides, they are so high up on the rock that it is difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately The shape of these monsters) As we have faithfully Copied it.