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Father Jacques Marquette

[jahk mar ket'] co-explorer of the Mississippi River

Father Jacques Marquette

Jacques Marquette was born in Laon, France. During his childhood his mother often entertained him by telling him tales of the brave Jesuit Fathers who went out into far-away lands to carry the gospel to the Indians. Those tales must have made quite an impression on Jacques, for he began to study with the Jesuits at the age of sixteen. When his training was over he settled down as a teacher in the Jesuit college.

The quiet life did not suit Marquette, however, for he dearly wanted the life he had heard about in his mother's stories. He finally got his wish when, in 1666, Father Marquette was ordered to go to Canada. Initially posted at Quebec, he was subsequently sent into the western forests to a region known as the Country of the Upper Lakes. He spent some time at a mission on Chequamegon Bay, on Lake Superior, and then came back to the rapids in the Saint Mary's River, where he started a mission at the place now called Sault Ste. Marie. After some months he opened another mission farther south, at Michilimackinac on Mackinac Strait.

At every posting Marquette went to great lengths to learn the language and customs of the Indians he was charged with converting. This, and the fact that he never denigrated the Indians' beliefs or tried to force them to Christianity, earned him many friends and allies among the Native Americans, and Marquette was able to travel with little fear.

Ever since his coming to Lake Superior, Marquette had been hearing tales of a great river far to the south, and he hoped to some day see the Missi Sepe (father of waters, as the Indians called it). He finally got his wish when, in 1673, French fur trader Louis Joliet invited him to join an expedition to find the river and discover where it flowed. He accepted with little hesitation. Marquette, Joliet, and four other Frenchmen did indeed find the Mississippi River, and boated down the river to its junction with the Arkansas River, in present-day Arkansas. The men intended to follow the river all the way to its mouth, but area Indians told them that there were other explorers about ten days to the south. Marquette and Joliet knew that those explorers had to be Spanish, and rather than risk confrontation with them they chose to end their journey at the junction and begin the return trip home.

Although Marquette's principal mission during the expedition was to make converts of the Indians along the way, he was also keenly interested in the exploration end of the trip. He tasted the mineral waters of Wisconsin, examined the colored clay used by the Shawnee Indians for coloring their skins, and even took his fair turn at wielding the canoe paddles. He also, of course, made friends with most of the Indians he met along the way.

Marquette was sick and weak by the time he returned home, but his wanderlust had not been completely spent. In 1674 he set out with a small band of convert Indians to pay a visit to the Kaskaskia Indians on the Illinois River. He got no farther than the present site of Chicago, however, when he again became ill and was obliged to spend the winter among the Indians of this region. In the spring of 1675 he was able to continue on to establish a mission to the Kaskaskia. Once again struck by illness, he was forced to make a return trip to Mackinac. He died on this trip, on the shore of Lake Michigan, on May 18, 1675. He was buried near the mouth of the river which now bears his name.

death of Father Marquette

In 1677, some Indian converts found Father Marquette's grave and carried his remains to the mission at present-day St. Ignace, Michigan, where he was re-buried. A statue of him represents Wisconsin in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall.

Richards Topical Encyclopedia New York: The Richards Company, Inc., 1961

The Catholic Encyclopedia

Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
Louis Joliet
Marquette and Joliet Expedition

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This page was last updated on 12/03/2017.