One was a former philosophy student. The other was a Jesuit priest. One was only 27 years old. The other was a few weeks shy of his 35th birthday. Together, their journey of 1673-1675 paved the way for French control of the interior of the North American continent. Their journey from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and back again paved the way for a 4,000 mile trade network on the waterways of North America.
Voyageurs, as the French called themselves, were a hardy sort. To be a voyageur in the 1600s was to be an explorer, fur tradesman, and a survivalist. The wilderness of the Great Lakes called for it. In fact, it demanded it. To travel up and down the waterways required a constitution like no other. In 1673, Pierre Marquette and Louis Joliet set out with other voyageurs across Lake Michigan to what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin. Their original mission had two purposes:
1. Bring Christianity to the interior of the continent
2. Explore the interior, mainly the Mississippi River, and see if it is suitable to establish a trading post
Marquette had arrived in the new world in 1666 in Quebec. His job was to Christianize the Indians. He found he had a gift for local languages, most notably – Huron. He kept moving westward. In what is the straits of Mackinac, Marquette was given permission in 1673 to travel west to a river the natives talked about as a “fanciful” river. Joliet was a map maker and fur trader. His skill set would come in handy in charting where the two had been. Setting out with five other voyageurs, Marquette and Joliet were unsure of what they would face.
Over the next two years, Marquette and Joliet would travel across what is now Wisconsin to the Mississippi River, down to Arkansas, back up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, portage across what is now Chicago and back into the Great Lakes. All that remains of their journey is small journal Marquette kept. Before the trip he writes:
Above all, I placed our voyage under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Immaculate, promising her that, if she granted us the favor of discovering the great river, I would give it the name Conception, and that I would also make the first mission that I should establish among those new peoples, bear the same name. This I actually have done, among the Illinois.
What Marquette and Joliet would not know until later in their journey was that the Spanish already had discovered it and had been using in what is now Louisiana and Mississippi.
Marquette often describes the Indians, whom he calls people of Folle Avoine, and their new oat – corn. Along the way south, Marquette describes in detail the peoples he meets, their customs, and a botantist’s dream – the plants and animals. He mistakenly refers to Buffalo as cattle. As the voyageurs make their way south, they meet mostly friendly Indians. When they begin to meet Indians with Spanish wares, they turn around and start heading north. But rather than go all the way up the Mississippi to what is now Prairie du Chen, they take a short cut using the Illinois River.
By this time, Marquette has fallen ill with dysentery. It will claim his life. However, it does not stop him from spreading the gospel. All throughout what they called Pays de Illinois, the Jesuit priest continues doing his part of the mission. The voyageurs camped in what is now Kaskaskia, Peoria, and Chicago. Although Marquette and Joliet did not find the elusive Northwest Passage, they did find the mouth of the Missouri. In addition, their expedition had many effects.
1. French Control of the Interior
For the next ninety years, the French would control the interior of the continent. They would set up forts as far east as what is now Pittsburgh to the west in St. Louis and up down the waterways of the Upper Midwest.
2. Fur Trade
By having these forts, the French also controlled the valuable fur trade until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.
3. A Canal
Joliet dreamed of a canal linking the Great Lakes to the Illinois River thereby linking the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and opening up the interior of the continent for trade. It would not be until the late 1830s when the Illinois & Michigan Canal was built.
4. French Culture
The culture established by the French is still felt throughout Illinois and Wisconsin. From the names of towns to a hunting fur trading and trapping culture, the French are ever present in what they called Pays de Illinois.
5. Furture Voyages of Exploration
LaSalle’s voyages would establish forts up and down the rivers
In the end, the voyages of Marquette and Joliet resulted in Marquette’s death from dysentery. Joliet, who lost all the maps and artifacts but Marquette’s journal, faced hard times before becoming a successful spy against the British. He would live until he was 55. Their effect on Illinois was huge.
Illinois would be settled along the rivers: The Ohio, Mississippi, Wabash, and Mississippi. And it would be settled from the South up. When most people think of Illinois, they think of Chicago. However, Chicago would not exist as a city until almost 20 years after Illinois became a state. In fact, Illinois’ early boundary ended in the north at the Illinois River.
After the voyage of Marquette and Joliet, people slowly arrived in the south of Pays de Illinois. There, in the Garden of the Gods where the Ohio and Mississippi merge, were deer, buffalo, other wild game, fish, fruits, and all kinds of things needed to live in the heavily forested region. A fur trader’s heaven, the forests of southern Illinois, western Kentucky, and southeast Missouri were a haven for wild game and money to be made back in Europe.
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