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In 1672, Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet were sent by Governor Frontenac of New France (now Canada) to look for a route to the Pacific Ocean. The Governor had been hearing tales of a mighty river to the south, and it was this river that Marquette and Joliet were being sent to find. He thought that if the river existed it might offer the passage to China that many explorers of the New World had been seeking (the fabled Northwest Passage). He also thought that if the river did exist but did not provide a passage to China it might at least offer a direct route from the St. Lawrence to Mexico.
In May, 1673, Marquette, Joliet, and five other Frenchmen paddled across Lake Michigan to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, then up the Fox River to what is now Portage, Wisconsin. From there they carried their canoes across land to the Wisconsin River, where their two Indian guides deserted them for fear of what lay ahead. The Marquette-Joliet party pushed on alone.
The expedition went down the Wisconsin River until, on June 17, they suddenly came to a broad, majestic stream -- the Mississippi River. They went south on the Mississippi, stopping for a peaceful meeting with the Illinois Indians. The chief of the Illinois gave them a calumet (peace pipe), which later saved their lives.
Marquette and Joliet paddle down
the Mississippi River
Marquette and Joliet led their party down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River. Strange Indians with guns suddenly surrounded them there. Only the sight of the calumet kept these Indians from attacking. Some of them became friendly enough to tell Marquette that the guns came from white explorers who were about 10 days' journey farther south. These could only be Spaniards, and it would have been dangerous to go on, so the French explorers ended their trip down the Mississippi and returned to Canada by way of the Illinois River. They passed the present site of Chicago on this part of the trip, and returned to Green Bay in late September. Their four-month journey had carried them more than 2,500 miles.
The Marquette-Joliet expedition proved that the Mississippi River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, and its members were probably the first white men to enter what is now Illinois.
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This page was last updated on June 16, 2018.