Jolliet, Louis and Marquette, Jacques

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Jolliet, Louis and Marquette, Jacques

Louis Jolliet


Beauport, Canada


Quebec, Canada


Jacques Marquette

June 1, 1637

Laon, France

May 18, 1675

on Illinois River

Jesuit missionary

French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary, were the first Europeans to travel down the Mississippi River. Beginning their voyage in 1673, the two explorers traveled from New France (now Quebec) in French North America (now Canada), down the Mississippi to a point just north of the present border between Arkansas and Louisiana. Marquette became ill and could not continue the return trip. He died two years later, but his journal provided a valuable record of the expedition. Jolliet went on to explore the Hudson Bay in 1679, as well as the coast of Labrador (a peninsula between Newfoundland and Quebec) in 1689 and 1694. Engaged in trade with Native American groups he issued warnings about English traders that foreshadowed eighteenth-century conflicts between England and France.

Enters fur trade

Louis Jolliet was born in the town of Beauport, in the colony of New France in 1645. He was the son of a craftsman who died while Jolliet was still a child. His mother was widowed twice before she married Jolliet's father. The couple settled in Beauport, near Quebec City. At the age of eleven Jolliet entered the Jesuit college in Quebec. There he studied philosophy and prepared to enter the priesthood. He also studied music and played the organ at the cathedral in Quebec for many years. In 1666 he defended a thesis before Bishop François Xavier de Laval of Quebec. The bishop was so impressed by Jolliet's work that he became one of the young man's principal financial supporters.

In 1667 Jolliet gave up his seminary studies and borrowed money from Laval to spend a year in France. During his stay he studied hydrography (the science of charting bodies of water). Upon his return to Quebec he entered the fur trade, which was the main business in New France. He was also one of the signers of a document in which the French claimed possession of the Great Lakes region. The French would enter into conflicts with the English over this prosperous area of trade during the eighteenth century. Pennsylvania fur trader George Croghan (see entry) would become instrumental in the success of the English in this region.

Meets Marquette

In 1672 Jolliet was chosen to lead an expedition to search for the Mississippi River. He was selected by the two highest officials in New France, Louis de Baude, Count de Frontenac, the governor, and Jean Talon, the intendant (administrator). The French learned of the existence of the river through reports from their Native American trading partners. They were uncertain, however, whether the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico or farther west, into the Gulf of California.

Jolliet's party left Quebec on October 4, 1672. By early December they had reached the mission and trading post at Michilimackinac, which is now the town of St. Ignace on the Mackinac Peninsula between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Jolliet and his party remained at the mission for the winter. During his stay, he met the priest in charge of the mission, Father Jacques Marquette. Jolliet had brought instructions that Marquette was to accompany him on his voyage in order to preach to Native American tribes along the way. Marquette had settled in New France in 1666. There Jesuits were actively founding missions and converting Native Americans. Initially, Marquette's most important accomplishments were learning six Native American languages and founding a mission at St. Ignace (in present-day Michigan) in 1671.

Explore northern Mississippi

In May 1673 Jolliet and Marquette left Michilimackinac with five men and two canoes. They probably traveled westward along the north shore of Lake Michigan to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, then up the Fox River. From there they portaged (carried boats overland) to the Wisconsin River, and then descended to the Mississippi on June 15, 1673. During this voyage, they traveled down the Mississippi past the Missouri and Ohio Rivers. Jolliet and Marquette stopped at the mouth of the Arkansas River, about 450 miles south of the mouth of the Ohio River. This point is just north of the present boundary between Arkansas and Louisiana. Here they encountered the Quapaw tribe, from whom they heard reports of the Spanish approaching from the west. The unfriendliness of the Quapaws, as well as the knowledge that the Mississippi must run into the Gulf of Mexico, convinced the explorers to turn back without having reached the mouth of the Mississippi. As a result, they had explored only the northern portion of the river. During the trip Marquette kept a journal that provided a first-person account of the expedition.

Marquette dies on mission trip

In mid-July the expedition began the return trip up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, making the portage at Chicago into the southern part of Lake Michigan. Jolliet and Marquette separated at the Saint Francis Xavier mission at Green Bay. Jolliet went on to Montreal to report on their discoveries, but Marquette had become ill, requiring him to stay at the mission. By the summer of 1674 he had recovered and had set out to fulfill a promise to build a mission for the Kaskasia tribe in present-day Illinois. By fall Marquette's illness had returned, however, and he was forced to spend the winter at a camp on a site in what is now suburban Chicago. On March 30, 1675, he continued his journey, traveling to a village on the Illinois River. On the Thursday before Easter he preached a sermon to a gathering of two thousand members of the Illinois nation. Although Marquette was quite ill by this time, he nevertheless tried to reach St. Ignace. He died along the way and was buried at the mouth of the river that was named for him, on the site of present-day Ludington, Michigan.

Jolliet encounters rapids

In the meantime, Jolliet had spent the winter of 1673–74 at Sault Sainte Marie (in present-day Upper Peninsula of Michigan), writing in his journal and making maps of the journey on the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, he later lost all of his papers when his canoe overturned on the Lachine Rapids near Montreal. The Lachine Rapids had first been spotted by French explorer Jacques Cartier (see entry) in 1535. After this disaster, Jolliet reached Quebec in the fall of 1674. He wrote another report of the trip entirely from memory. This narrative corresponds with Marquette's description, which is considered the official account of the journey.

Becomes active in fur trade

Marquette describes Mississippi trip

In 1673 Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette discovered the Mississippi River. Marquette's journal provides a first-person account of their historic expedition. The following excerpt describes the sights they saw during the trip down the river.

. . . we came into the Mississippi on the 17th of June.

Behold us, then, upon this celebrated river, whose singularities I have attentively studied. The Mississippi takes its rise in several lakes in the North. . . . We slowly followed its course to the south and southeast to the 42° N. lat. Here we perceived the country change its appearance. There were scarcely any more woods or mountains. The islands are covered with fine trees, but we could not see any more roebucks [deer], buffaloes, bustards [game birds] and swans.

We met from time to time monstrous fish, which struck so violently against our canoes, that at first we took them to be large trees, which threatened to upset us. We saw also a hideous monster; his head was like that of a tiger, his nose was sharp, and somewhat resembled a wildcat; his beard was long; his ears stood upright; the color of his head was gray; and his neck black. He looked upon us for some time, but as we came near him our oars frightened him away. . . .

Having descended the river as far as 41° 28' we found that turkeys took the place of game, and the Pisikious that of other animals. We called the Pisikious wild buffaloes, because they very much resemble our domestic oxen; they are not so long, but twice as large. We shot one of them, and it was as much as thirteen men could do to drag him from the place where he fell. . . .

As we were descending the river we saw high rocks with hideous monsters painted on them, and upon which the bravest Indians dare not look. They are as large as a calf, with head and horns like a goat; their eyes red; beard like a tiger's; and a face like a man's. Their tails are so long that they pass over their heads and between their fore legs, under their belly, and ending like a fish's tail. They are painted red, green, and black. They are so well drawn that I cannot believe they were drawn by the Indians. And for what purpose they were made seems to me a great mystery.

As we fell down the river, and while we were discoursing upon these monsters, we heard a great rushing and bubbling of waters, and small islands of floating trees coming from the mouth of the Pekitanoni [Missouri River], with such rapidity that we could not drink it. It so discolors the Mississippi as to make the navigation of it dangerous. This river comes from the north-west, and empties into the Mississippi, and on its banks are situated a number of Indian villages. We judged by the compass, that the Mississippi discharged itself into the Gulf of Mexico.

Having satisfied ourselves, we resolved to return home. We considered that the advantage of our travels would be altogether lost to our nation if we fell into the hands of the Spaniards, from whom we could expect no other treatment than death or slavery.

Reprinted in: Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America: 500 Years of America in the Words of Those Who Saw It. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 31–32.

Once back in Quebec, Jolliet got married and became a fur merchant. He requested permission from the French government to establish a colony in the Illinois country, but France was reluctant to start any new ventures because its meager resources were already spread thin in New France. Therefore, Jolliet devoted his efforts to the fur trade on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.

In 1679 Jolliet led a mission to explore an overland route to the rich fur-trading regions of Hudson Bay, which were being exploited by the English at the time. When he reached Hudson Bay he encountered English traders and observed the extent of their business activities. Upon his return to Quebec, he wrote a report saying that the French risked losing the fur trade if they allowed the English to continue trading in the area. As a reward for his successful mission, Jolliet was given trading rights and land on the north shore. He also was awarded Anticosti Island, which is located in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Although there are few details about Jolliet's later life, it is known that he had a successful career in the fur and fish trades on the St. Lawrence. He also embarked on several expeditions, including a mission to the coast of Labrador in 1689. In addition, Jolliet was named royal professor of hydrography at the Jesuit college in Quebec in 1992.

Explores Labrador

In 1694 Jolliet was commissioned to return to Labrador to map the coastline. Leaving Quebec on April 28, he sailed along the north shore and the coast of Labrador until he reached the settlement of Zoar in July. Jolliet drew the first maps of the area, described the landscape, and gathered information about the Inuit (Eskimo) inhabitants. He noted that the main economic resources in Labrador were whale oil and seal oil, which could be traded with the Inuit. In October 1694 he returned to Quebec, only to discover that Anticosti Island had been seized by the English during his absence. He died during the summer of 1700.

For further research

Art in the U.S. Capitol: Jacques Marquette. Available July 13, 1999.

Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America: 500 Years of America in the Words of Those Who Saw It. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 31–32.

Father Jacques Marquette National Memorial and Museum. Available July 13, 1999.

Hamilton, Raphael N. Father Marquette. Detroit: William B. Eerdmans Publisher, 1970.

Kent, Zachary. Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.

Vachon, André. Louis Jolliet. In Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 1. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1967.

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