Jacques Marquette & Louis Jolliet

Jacques Marquette & Louis Jolliet

(1637-1675; 1645-1700)

The team of Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet broke new ground in the French effort to colonize the continent of North America. Jacques Marquette was born in Laon, France. He became a Jesuit priest in 1654 and was sent to Canada. After he showed an aptitude for learning Native American languages, he was sent on a mission to the territory of the Ottawa Indians. In 1671, he founded the mission of St. Ignace on the north side of the Straits of Mackinac.

Louis Jolliet was born at Beaupre, Quebec. As a young man he entered the Jesuit seminary, but soon gave up the idea of becoming a priest and devoted himself to becoming an explorer instead.

Jolliet became an expert cartographer. In 1672 he was chosen to lead an expedition to locate the mysterious great river south and west of the Great Lakes that the Indian tribes called Mississippi, meaning “Father of Waters.” Marquette was chosen as the chaplain of the expedition.

They left St. Igance on May 17, 1673, with five other men in two birch-bark canoes. The group went by way of Green Bay and the Fox River, and then followed the Fox River to the Wisconsin River. On June 17, 1673, Marquette and Jolliet entered the much stronger flow of the Mississippi itself; they were the first Frenchmen to see the great river.

The explorers continued south until they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River. There they heard from natives that the Mississippi eventually flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. When they also learned that there were Spaniards on the lower banks of the Mississippi, the French party turned around and went north. They returned by way of the Illinois River, and on this trip Father Marquette established the first parish in Illinois, the Misson ofthe Immaculate Conception.

Marquette’s strength was depleted by the journey. When he returned to Illinois and attempted to start another mission in 1674— this one among the Illinois tribe—he fell sick with a lung infection. He returned home to his mission at St. Ignace and died there. Because Marquette’s diary was preserved, he became the more famous of the two men. Today there are cities, counties, a river, and even a university named after him.

Jolliet returned east. His canoe overturned just above Montreal on July 21, 1673, and all his maps and charts were lost. Jolliet married Claire Bissot in 1675 and went on to own a successful business. The couple lived on Anticosti Island in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River, which had been granted to him as a reward for his work.