Jacques Marquette - Louis Jolliet
French-Canadian explorers

Marquette 1637 - 1675 : Jolliet 1645 - 1700

Jacques Marquette was a French explorer and Roman Catholic missionary in North America. He joined the French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet on a trip down the Mississippi River. They were probably the first whites to explore the upper Mississippi and parts of Illinois and Wisconsin.

Marquette was born in Laon, France, and attended schools run by Jesuit priests. He joined the Jesuit order in 1656 and spent the next 10 years studying and teaching in France. In 1666, he was sent as a missionary to the French province, New France.

In New France, Marquette spent two years learning Indian languages. In 1668, he established a mission among the Ottawa Indians at Sault Sainte Marie in what is now Ontario. He went to the St. Esprit mission on Lake Superior in 1669 and worked among the Huron and Ottawa Indians. In 1671, he moved with them to the St. Ignace mission on northern Lake Michigan.

The Indians often talked about a great river called the Mississippi, a word that meant big river in their language. At that time, little was known about the geography of North America. Marquette and others thought the river might flow into the Pacific Ocean.

Governor General Comte de Frontenac of New France believed the Mississippi might provide an easy route to the Far East for traders. In 1673, he sent Louis Jolliet to find the river and trace its course. Marquette knew some Indian languages, and so he was chosen to go with Jolliet.

In May 1673, Marquette, Jolliet, and five other men set out in two canoes from St. Ignace. They paddled south on Lake Michigan, into the Fox River, and up through what is now Wisconsin. They traveled overland from the Fox to the Wisconsin River. At the mouth of the Wisconsin, they saw the Mississippi.

The explorers paddled down the Mississippi and realized that it flowed south. They decided that the river probably flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, rather than into the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, they met many friendly Indians. But when the men reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, they encountered hostile Indians. A friendly Indian told Marquette that whites lived farther south on the river. The explorers realized these people must be Spaniards who had settled along the Gulf of Mexico. Marquette and Jolliet feared that the Indians and Spaniards would attack them. Having learned the course of the river, they turned back.

The expedition traveled up the Mississippi to the Illinois River and from there to the Kankakee River. They journeyed overland from the Kankakee to the Chicago River and on to Lake Michigan. Their journey had taken about five months.

In 1674, Marquette set out from near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, to establish a mission among the Kaskaskia Indians near Ottawa, Illinois. But he became ill and spent the winter in a hut on the Chicago River. Marquette arrived in the spring of 1675, but his health became worse. He started out to St. Ignace for medical aid but died on the way.

Contributor: David P. Hardcastle, Ph.D., Writer, Historian.

Additional resources

Donnelly, Joseph P. Jacques Marquette, S. J., 1637-1675. Loyola Univ. Pr., 1968.

Kent, Zachary. Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. Children's Pr., 1994.

Louis Jolliet, also spelled Joliet, was a French-Canadian explorer who led an expedition down the Mississippi River. He and Jacques Marquette, a French missionary, were probably the first white explorers to reach the upper Mississippi and parts of Illinois and Wisconsin.

Jolliet was born near Quebec City in what was then the French province of New France (now Canada). As a boy, he attended a school in Quebec run by Jesuit priests. Jolliet began to study for the priesthood when he was a teenager. But he later changed his mind and left school at the age of 22.

From 1669 to 1671, Jolliet explored much of the Great Lakes region for the government of New France. During this time, he became a skilled mapmaker and also worked as a fur trader. About 1670, Jolliet established a fur-trading post at Sault Sainte Marie in what is now Ontario, Canada. He traded guns, knives, and other items to Indian trappers in exchange for beaver pelts, which brought great profits in France.

The Indians of the Great Lakes region often talked about a great waterway that flowed to the sea. They called it the Mississippi, which in their language meant big river. The French thought this river might flow west to the Pacific Ocean and provide a trading route to the Far East.

In 1673, Governor General Comte de Frontenac of New France sent Jolliet to find the Mississippi and trace its course. Marquette, a Jesuit priest who had worked among the Indians as a missionary and knew their languages, was chosen to accompany Jolliet.

In May 1673, Jolliet and Marquette, accompanied by five other men, set out in two canoes from St. Ignace on northern Lake Michigan. They traveled through what is now Wisconsin to the Mississippi.

As Jolliet and Marquette paddled down the Mississippi, they realized that the river flowed south, not west. They concluded that it probably emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. When the group reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, they began to encounter hostile Indians. A friendly Indian told Marquette that white people lived farther south on the Mississippi. Jolliet and Marquette assumed these people must be Spaniards who had settled near the Gulf of Mexico.

Fearing attacks by the Indians and the Spaniards, the party turned back. They returned to Lake Michigan through the area that became Illinois. Jolliet's canoe overturned in the St. Lawrence River near Montreal, and all his maps and records of the journey were lost. He later made some maps from memory. The entire expedition took about five months.

The government of New France gave Jolliet Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a reward for his service. He traveled up into Hudson Bay in 1679 and explored the coast of present-day Labrador in 1689 and 1694. On these expeditions, Jolliet made many hydrographs (maps of navigable waters). In 1697, he was appointed hydrographer of the king with headquarters in Quebec. He also taught navigation at a Jesuit college there.

Contributor: David P. Hardcastle, Ph.D., Writer, Historian.

Additional resources

Delanglez, Jean. Life and Voyages of Louis Jolliet, 1645-1700. Loyola Univ. (Chicago) Institute of Jesuit History, 1948.

Eifert, Virginia S. Louis Jolliet: Explorer of Rivers. Dodd, 1961.


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