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MARQUETTE, Jacques. (Laon, France, June 1, 1637-near Ludington, MI, May 18, 1675). For nearly two hundred years after the discovery of America, England, France and Spain were each fiercely determined to possess the continent. The English perhaps suffered the most since its colonists were intensely interested in settling the country, building towns and farming. The French were often seen as simply interested in the fur trade with trappers moving easily among the Native Americans and leaving no trace behind.

French missionaries brought with them political instructions and a state policy that they were were establish and enforce. This policy was that all organizations and communities, whether church or state were to show the unquestioned political and ecclesiastical supremacy of France. (1)

Frenchman Jacques Marquette became an explorer in the mid-1600s. At age 17, Marquette joined the Society of Jesus and became a Jesuit missionary. He studied and taught in the Jesuit colleges of France for about twelve years before his superiors assigned him in 1666 to be a missionary to the native people of the Americas. (2) He traveled to Quebec, Canada, where he demonstrated his talent for learning Native American languages. Marquette learned to fluently speak in six different Native American dialects and became an expert in the Huron language. (3)

In 1668, Marquette was sent to establish more missions farther up the St. Lawrence River in the western Great Lakes region. He helped establish missions at Sault Ste. Marie in what is now Michigan—the state's first European settlement—in 1668 and at St. Ignace, also in Michigan, in 1671.

On May 17, 1673, Marquette and his friend Louis JOLLIET , a French-Canadian fur trader and explorer, were chosen by Frontenac, governor of New France, to lead an expedition that included five men and two canoes to find the direction and mouth of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER, which natives had called Messipi, "the Great Water." (4) From information given by members of the Huron tribe, Marquette believed that the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of California, and on learning that the Indians along its banks wore glass beads he knew they had had meetings with other Europeans.

Despite sharing a goal to find the river, the two leaders' ambitions were different: Jolliet, an experienced mapmaker and geographer, was focused on the finding itself, while Marquette wanted to spread the word of God among the people they met.

Marquette's group traveled westward to Green Bay in present-day Wisconsin, ascended the Fox River to a portage that crossed to the Wisconsin River and entered the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien on June 17, 1673. He became the first European known to have viewed the river north of the 38th parallel and had no idea where it began or where it flowed. He marked the occasion by raising the French flag upon a tall cedar tree on a cliff opposite the mouth of the Wisconsin River. When he returned a year later, he left with the chiefs of the tribes whom he had converted to Christianity, a number of extra flags. The chiefs were instructed to replace a flag when it became worn with another. He also distributed rosaries and other emblems of religious and civic policy of France. Several of these artifacts were discovered in 1875 among a tribe living west of the Missouri River. (5)

Explorers and scholars in Europe were still in agreement with Columbus that "the waters flowing into the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico by some mysterious and unknown passages lead to the Indian Ocean." Despite the discoveries of Cortez, Pizarro, and De Soto that such passage did not flow out of or into these seas, denial of Columbus' observation was considered nearly a sin. (6)

Following the river to the mouth of the Arkansas River—within 435 miles of the Gulf of Mexico—Marquette and Joliet learned that it flowed through hostile Spanish territory. Fearing an encounter with Spanish colonists and explorers, they decided to return by way of the Illinois River in mid-July.

On the way to Quebec, Joliet's canoe capsized. His companions were drowned and all his records lost. He made an oral report to the governor and later sent a letter to him in which he told of his trip. Because of this loss, we learn much of their travels from Marquette's journal. (7)

While Joliet continued on to Canada to relay news of the expedition and its discoveries, Marquette stayed behind in Green Bay. In 1694, he set out to found a mission among the Illinois Indians. As a result of the cold winter weather, he and two companions camped near the site of what is now Chicago, becoming the first Europeans to live there. (8) In the spring, Marquette reached the Indians he sought, but illness—dysentery he contracted while on his mission—forced him to return home. He died on May 18, 1675, en route to St. Ignace at the mouth of a river later named Père Marquette in his honor.

Having established a French claim to the Mississippi Valley, Marquette left behind a written account of his explorations that would be published in 1681. (9)



1. "Early Local History," The Daily Herald, August 13, 1876, p. 4

2. Moeller, Hubert. "The First White Men to Visit Iowa," The Des Moines Register, September 11, 1933

3. Ibid.

4. "Early Local History..."

5. Ibid.

6. Catholic Encyclopedia. "Jacques Marquette," http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09690a.htm

7. Moeller.

8. Jacques Marquette. Biography - Facts, Birthday, Life Story http://www.biography.com/people/jacques-marquette-20984755

9. Jacques Marquette. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1149.html

First Day of Issue cover honoring Jacques Marquette. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding