The Indians spo ke of a great river to the south, a “father of waters” that flowed all the way to the sea. Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary from France, was determined to find the mysterious waterway. Perhaps it was the long-sought route to the Pacific. In the spring of 1673, he left northern Michigan with fur trader Louis Jolliet and five others in two canoes. In mid-June, the explorers shot down the Wisconsin River and reached the Mississippi.
They floated south through lands no Europeans had visited before, stopping to smoke the peace pipe with Indians they met. They passed the thundering mouth of the Missouri River in full flood and heard reports that it led to a western sea (reports that Lewis and Clark would later test). Buffalo with heads “a foot and a half wide between the horns” roamed the prairies. Marquette recorded that “from time to time we came upon monstrous fish, one of which struck our canoe with such violence that I thought that it was a great tree about to break the canoe to pieces.”
They traveled 1,700 miles to the mouth of the Arkansas River. By that time, they realized the Mississippi must drain into the Gulf of Mexico, rather than the Pacific. Wary of being captured by Spaniards, they turned and headed home.
The next year, Marquette set out to found a mission among the Illinois Indians. On December 4, 1674, he and two companions became the first white men to build a dwelling at a site that would someday become Chicago. But the intrepid priest grew ill, his strength failed, and he died in 1675 near Ludington, Michigan.
Father Jacques Marquette never discovered the fabled route to the western sea. But his explorations turned vague rumors into known facts, and helped open the way to America’s heartland.