I embarked with M. Joliet, who had been chosen to conduct this enterprise, on the 13th May, 1673, with five other Frenchmen, in two bark canoes. We laid in some Indian corn and smoked beef for our voyage. We first took care, however, to draw from the Indians all the information we could, concerning the countries through which we designed to travel, and drew up a map, on which we marked down the rivers, nations, and points of the compass to guide us in our journey. The first nation we came to was called the Folles-Avoines, or the nation of wild oats. I entered their river to visit them, as I had preached among them some years before. The wild oats, from which they derive their name, grow spontaneously in their country. . . .

I acquainted them with my design of discovering other nations, to preach to them the mysteries of our holy religion, at which they were much surprized, and said all they could to dissuade me from it. They told me I would meet Indians who spare no strangers, and whom they kill without any provocation or mercy; that the war they have one with the other would expose me to be taken by their warriors, as they are constantly on the look-out to surprize their enemies. That the Great River2 was exceedingly dangerous, and full of frightful monsters who devoured men and canoes together, and that the heat was so great that it would positively cause our death. I thanked them for their kind advice, but told them I would not follow it, as the salvation of a great many souls was concerned in our undertaking, for whom I should be glad to lose my life. I added that I defied their monsters, and their information would oblige us to keep more upon our guard to avoid a surprize. And having prayed with them, and given them some instructions, we set out for the Bay of Puan,3 where our missionaries had been successful in converting them. . . . The next day, being the 10th of June, the two guides [Miamies] embarked with us in sight of all the village, who were astonished at our attempting so dangerous an expedition. We were informed that at three leagues from the Maskoutens, we should find a river which runs into the Mississippi, and that we were to go to the west-south-west to find it, but there were so many marshes and lakes, that if it had not been for our guides we could not have found it. . . .

Before embarking we all offered up prayers to the Holy Virgin, which we continued to do every morning, placing ourselves and the events of the journey under her protection, and after having encouraged each other, we got into our canoes. The river upon which we embarked is called Mesconsin [Wisconsin]; the river is very wide, but the sand bars make it very difficult to navigate, which is increased by numerous islands covered with grape-vines. The country through which it flows is beautiful; the groves are so dispersed in the prairies that it makes a noble prospect; and the fruit of the trees shows a fertile soil. These groves are full of walnut, oak, and other trees unknown to us in Europe. We saw neither game nor fish, but roebuck and buffaloes in great numbers. After having navigated thirty leagues we discovered some iron mines, and one of our company who had seen such mines before, said these were very rich in ore. They are covered with about three feet of soil, and situate near a chain of rocks, whose base is covered with fine timber. After having rowed ten leagues farther, making forty leagues from the place where we had embarked, we came into the Mississippi on the 17th of June [1673].4

The mouth of the Mesconsin [Wisconsin] is in about 42½° N. lat. Behold us, then, upon this celebrated river, whose singularities I have attentively studied. The Mississippi takes its rise in several lakes in the North. Its channel is very narrow at the mouth of the Mesconsin, and runs south until it is affected by very high hills. Its current is slow, because of its depth. In sounding we found nineteen fathoms of water. A little further on it widens nearly three-quarters of a league, and the width continues to be more equal. We slowly followed its course to the south and southeast to the 42°, N. lat. Here we perceived the country change its appearance. There were scarcely any more woods or mountains. The islands are covered with fine trees, but we could could not see any more roebucks, buffaloes, bustards, and swans. We met from time to time monstrous fish, which struck so violently against our canoes, that at first we took them to be large trees, which threatened to upset us. We saw also a hideous monster; his head was like that of a tiger, his nose was sharp, and somewhat resembled a wildcat; his beard was long; his ears stood upright; the color of his head was gray; and his neck black. He looked upon us for some time, but as we came near him our oars frightened him away. When we threw our nets into the water we caught an abundance of sturgeons, and another kind of fish like our trout, except that the eyes and nose are much smaller, and they have near the nose a bone like a woman's busk, three inches broad and a foot and a half long, the end of which is flat and broad, and when it leaps out of the water the weight of it throws it on its back.

Having descended the river as far as 41° 28' we found that turkeys took the place of game, and the Pisikious that of other animals. We called the Pisikious wild buffaloes, because they very much resemble our domestic oxen; they are not so long, but twice as large. We shot one of them, and it was as much as thirteen men could do to drag him from the place where he fell. . . .

We continued to descend the river, not knowing where we were going, and having made an hundred leagues without seeing anything but wild beasts and birds, and being on our guard we landed at night to make our fire and prepare our repast, and then left the shore to anchor in the river, while one of us watched by turns to prevent a surprize. We went south and southwest until we found ourselves in about the latitude of 40° and some minutes, having rowed more than sixty leagues since we entered the river.

We took leave of our guides about the end of June, and embarked in presence of all the village, who admired our birch canoes, as they had never before seen anything like them. We descended the river, looking for another called Pekitanoni [Missouri], which runs from the northwest into the Mississippi. . . .

As we were descending the river we saw high rocks with hideous monsters painted on them, and upon which the bravest Indians dare not look. They are as large as a calf, with head and horns like a goat; their eyes red; beard like a tiger's; and a face like a man's. Their tails are so long that they pass over their heads and between their fore legs, under their belly, and ending like a fish's tail. They are painted red, green, and black. They are so well drawn that I cannot believe they were drawn by the Indians. And for what purpose they were made seems to me a great mystery. As we fell down the river, and while we were discoursing upon these monsters, we heard a great rushing and bubbling of waters, and small islands of floating trees coming from the mouth of the Pekitanoni [Missouri], with such rapidity that we could not trust ourselves to go near it. The water of this river is so muddy that we could not drink it. It so discolors the Mississippi as to make the navigation of it dangerous. This river comes from the northwest, and empties into the Mississippi, and on its banks are situated a number of Indian villages. We judged by the compass, that the Mississippi discharged itself into the Gulf of Mexico. It would, however, have been more agreeable if it had discharged itself into the South Sea or Gulf of California. . . .

Having satisfied ourselves that the Gulf of Mexico was in latitude 31° 40', and that we could reach it in three or four days' journey from the Akansea [Arkansas River], and that the Mississippi discharged itself into it, and not to the eastward of the Cape of Florida, nor into the California Sea, we resolved to return home. We considered that the advantage of our travels would be altogether lost to our nation if we fell into the hands of the Spaniards, from whom we could expect no other treatment than death or slavery; besides, we saw that we were not prepared to resist the Indians, the allies of the Europeans, who continually infested the lower part of this river; we therefore came to the conclusion to return, and make a report to those who had sent us. So that having rested another day, we left the village of the Akansea, on the seventeenth of July, 1673, having followed the Mississippi from the latitude 42° to 34°, and preached the Gospel to the utmost of my power, to the nations we visited. We then ascended the Mississippi with great difficulty against the current, and left it in the latitude of 38° north, to enter another river [Illinois], which took us to the lake of the Illinois [Michigan], which is a much shorter way than through the River Mesconsin (Wisconsin], by which we entered the Mississippi. . . .

1Father Marquette was born at Laon, in France, in 1637, and died on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in 1675. Marquette had kept daily memoranda of his expedition, but during the return voyage up the Mississippi his papers were lost. He afterward composed from memory his narrative published under the title "Travels and Discoveries in North America." It has been printed in the "Historical Collections of Louisiana," and in Hart's "American History Told by Contemporaries."

In this Journey, occupying about four months, Marquette and Joliet paddled their canoes more than 2,500 miles. It has been maintained by some writers, and among them Mr. Thwaites, that Joliet and Marquette were as much the real discoverers of the Mississippi as Columbus was the discoverer of America. While Europeans had actually reached the Mississippi before them, just as Asiatics and Norwegians probably had reached America before Columbus, it was Joliet and Marquette who first wrote narratives of their expedition, prepared excellent maps, and were followed by others who opened the region to enterprise and settlement. Of de Soto's century-and-a-quarter earlier discovery, nothing came, while the contention put forth for La Salle that he made an earlier visit than Joliet and Marquette is based "on the merest surmise."
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2The Mississippi.
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3The arm of Lake Michigan, now called Green Bay.
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4The town of Prairie du Chien lies just north of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers.
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© 2002 by Lynn Waterman