Jacques Marquette

Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) was a French Jesuit, missionary, and explorer who followed the Illinois and Mississippi rivers on a journey of discovery.

Jacques Marquette was the son of a seigneur of Laon. In 1654 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Nancy, went on to teaching, and began theological studies in 1665. He pleaded to be allowed to become a missionary, feeling that he was not suited to theology. He was accordingly sent to New France, arriving in Quebec in September 1666.

For about 2 years Marquette studied the Montagnais language at Trois-Rivières. Then, in May 1668, he left by canoe from Montreal to join a mission at Sault Sainte Marie. In 1669 he founded a mission at the far western end of Lake Superior. Here he met for the first time the Illinois Indians, whom he came to enjoy and to admire. When they were forced to shift eastward owing to pressure from the Sioux, Marquette went too and in 1671 founded the mission of St-Ignace (named after Ignatius of Loyola) on the north shore of the Straits of Michilimackinac (Mackinac).

In December 1672 Louis Jolliet arrived at St-Ignace, carrying with him a commission from Quebec to explore the western rivers. The French had already acquired some knowledge of the Illinois country from the Indians and were anxious to explore it further. The winter of 1672/1673 was spent discussing and arranging the expedition for the spring, and in mid-May 1673 Marquette and Jolliet left together on their epic exploration of the Illinois and Mississippi.

They got a long way south, beyond the present city of Memphis, and probably to about the northern border of Louisiana at 33°N, in other words, nearly 800 miles south of St-Ignace. There they had to stop. Jolliet, although he spoke six Indian languages, could no longer make himself understood, and increasing Indian hostility made it seem undesirable to proceed further, although they believed—erroneously—that they were only 150 miles from the sea. They turned north about mid-July, and using the Illinois River and the Chicago portage they were back at Lake Michigan in September.

Jolliet went on to Sault Sainte Marie, where he wintered (1673-1674), going on to Quebec in the spring. But Marquette was unwell; he stayed at a mission at Baie des Puants (Green Bay) for a whole year, returning south to the Illinois country in October 1674. Bad weather and Marquette's recurring dysentery forced them to winter not far from present-day Chicago. They were helped by visits from Marquette's old friends, the Illinois, and in Easter week of 1675 he was sufficiently well to visit a magnificent gathering of Indian braves and chiefs on the Illinois River. Marquette headed northward to St-Ignace but died in May, near present-day Ludington, Mich.


Further Reading on Jacques Marquette

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites (73 vols., 1896-1901), contains in volume 59 what is reputed to be Marquette's account of his expedition. A good deal of controversy has arisen in recent years over the authenticity of this account. The opposition to Marquette's reputed role is led mainly by Francis Borgia Steck in his Marquette Legends (1960). The older and probably still standard account is Louise Phelps Kellogg, The French Régime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (1925). Joseph P. Donnelly, Jacques Marquette, S. I. (1968), defends the traditional view of Marquette. The work by Jesuit scholar Raphael N. Hamilton, Marquette's Explorations: The Narrative Reexamined (1970), is a critical analysis. Marquette figures in a reissue of an old work whose original edition is a collector's item because of its maps and sketches, Justin Winsor, Cartier to Frontenac: Geographical Discovery in the Interior of North America in its Historical Relations, 1534-1700 (1894; repr. 1970).