A new book is reexamining the legacy of Jolliet and Marquette's famous Mississippi River expedition, 350 years later
Three hundred and fifty years ago, a French fur trader and Jesuit missionary became the first Europeans to traverse and map out the mighty Mississippi River.
Mark Walczynski is the park historian for the Starved Rock Foundation, and author of the new book Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition.
Walczynski said the expedition's legacy should be viewed not as an isolated journey, but a pivotal turning point in North American history on par with the later Lewis and Clark expedition to the American West.
"This was the first expeditionary group to actually go to these lands. And it's quite a big thing, because everything that happened after this expedition, the settlement of the Illinois Country, the French settlement of the Mississippi Valley, the establishment of towns such as New Orleans, and all that, was based on this expedition," he said. "These guys were the point guys for what would happen, or what the French would do, in later years."
Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette left St. Ignace, a settlement on the modern-day Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in May 1673. They traveled across Wisconsin to the banks of the Mississippi River. They journeyed south along the river, far enough to confirm the waterway connected to the Gulf of Mexico. That connection between the Great Lakes and the gulf was pivotal for trade.
"Now they could build a boat right over here, fill it, and float it down to the Gulf of Mexico. So that expedition was the first penetration into this area of which everything, like a funnel, kind of like followed after it," Walczynski said.
The return trip brought the explorers back up the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Illinois River, then up to the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Portage.
The Jolliet and Marquette expedition has been written about extensively since the 19th century, but Walczynski said a re-examination is overdue.
"What happens is bad information or incorrect information, whatever you'd like to call it, gets perpetuated for 100 years. And it becomes, as they say, entombed in amber. So what I tried to do is go back to the originals, with my arsenal of science, linguistic and archeology to say, look, let's start all over again and see what we have," he said.
One example comes with the place name Pimiteoui, which is commonly cited as the Native American word for Peoria Lake. A Frenchman recorded Pimiteoui as meaning "fat lake," in reference to the abundance of wild game in the Peoria area. Walczynski said that's not necessarily an entirely accurate translation, but it stuck. He said academic efforts to reconstruct now-extinct Native languages can shed new light on their perspectives.
Reconstructing the expedition required pulling in a number of sources. Jolliett didn't leave many written records, but Marquette made extensive accounts for his reports that included maps, Walczynski said. Records from later French explorers can also be used to compile an accurate picture of what the territory was like in the late 17th century.
Walczynski said there were two main factors that made the expedition possible. One was the Little Ice Age, a prolonged climatic anomaly that drove animals south from Canada to warmer environs. Traders looking to harvest furs followed. The second was the general growth of the European trade ecosystem.
The book is coming out on Aug. 1 through the University of Illinois Press. Walcyznski encourages readers to purchase the book at Starved Rock State Park or a local bookstore.