In 1672, letters from Quebec informed Marquette that the government had taken up the project of exploring the Mississippi, and that he was the missionary selected to accompany the expedition. His heart exulted at the prospect. The hope of a glorious martyrdom while opening the way to future heralds of the Cross buoyed him up, though in his humility he never spoke of martyrdom. To him it was but a death, “to cease to offend God.”
The winter was spent by the two explorers in studying all that had yet been learned of the great river, in gathering around them every Indian wanderer, and amid the tawny group drawing their first rude map of the Mississippi, and the water courses that led to it. And on this first map, traced doubtless kneeling on the ground, they set down the name of each tribe they were to pass, each important point to be met. The undertaking was dangerous, but it was not to be rash: all was the result of calm, cool investigation. In the spring they embarked at Mackinaw in two frail bark canoes; each with his paddle in hand, and full of hope, they soon plied them merrily over the crystal waters of the lake.
“They happily glided into the great river.”
All was new to Marquette. He had now attained the limit of former discoveries, the new world was before them; they looked back a last adieu to the waters, which, great as the distance was, connected them with Quebec and their countrymen; they knelt on the shore to offer, by a new devotion, their lives, their honor, and their undertaking to their beloved mother the Virgin Mary Immaculate; then, launching on the broad Wisconsin, they sailed slowly down its current, amid its vine-clad isles and its countless sand bars.
No sound broke the stillness, no human form appeared, and at last, after sailing seven days, on the 17th of June they happily glided into the great river. Joy that could find no utterance in words filled the grateful heart of Marquette. The broad river of the Conception, as he named it, now lay before them, stretching away hundreds of miles to an unknown sea.
“The Mississippi River,” he writes, “has its source in several lakes in the country of the nations at the north; it is narrow at the mouth of the Wisconsin; its current, which runs south, is slow and gentle. On the right is a considerable chain of very high mountains, and on the left fine lands; it is in many places studded with islands. On sounding we found ten fathoms of water. Its breadth varies greatly; sometimes it is three quarters of a league broad, and then narrows in to less than two hundred yards. We followed its course quietly, as it bears south and southeast to the forty-second degree.
“Then we perceive that the whole face of the country changes. Scarcely a forest or mountain is now in sight. The islands increase in beauty and are covered with finer trees; we see nothing but deer and elk, wild geese and swans unable to fly, as they are here moulting. From time to time we encounter monstrous fish, one of which struck our canoe with such violence that I took it for a large tree that would knock our frail craft to pieces. Another time we perceived on the water a bearded monster with a tiger’s head, a pointed muzzle like a wild cat; ears erect, a gray head but a jet-black neck. It was the only one we beheld.
“When we cast our nets we took sturgeon, and a very strange fish resembling a trout, but with larger mouth and smaller eyes and snout. From the last projects a large bone, three fingers wide, and a cubit long; the end is round and as wide as a hand. When the fish leaps out of water, the weight of this bone often throws it back.
“Having descended the river to 41° 2´, still keeping the same direction, we found that turkeys took the place of other wild birds, and wild cattle replaced other animals. We call them wild cattle, because they resemble our domestic ones. They are not longer, but almost as bulky again, and more corpulent. Our man killed one, and the three of us could move it only with great difficulty. The head is very large, the forehead flat and a half yard broad between the horns, which resemble exactly those of our oxen, but are black and longer. A large crop hangs down from the neck, and there is a high hump on the back. The whole head, neck, and part of the shoulders are covered with a great mane like a horse’s; it is a foot long and gives them a hideous appearance, and as it falls over the eyes prevents their seeing straight ahead.
“The rest of the body is covered with a coarse curly hair like the wool of our sheep, but much stronger and thicker. This is shed every summer, and then the skin is as soft as velvet. At this time the Indians employ the skins to make beautiful robes, which they paint with various colors. The flesh and fat are excellent, and furnish the best dish at banquets. They are very fierce, and not a year passes without their killing some Indian. When attacked, they take a man with their horns, if they can, lift him up, and then dash him on the ground, and trample him to death.
“When you fire at them from a distance with gun or bow, you must throw yourself on the ground as soon as you fire, and hide in the grass, for if they perceive the person who fired, they rush on him and attack him. As their feet are large and rather short, they do not generally move fast, unless they are provoked. They are scattered over the prairies like herds of cattle. I have seen four hundred of them in a band.”
At last, on the 25th of June, they descried footprints on the shore. They now took heart again, and Joliet and the missionary, leaving their five men in the canoes, followed a little beaten path to discover who the tribe might be. They traveled on in silence almost to the cabin doors, when they halted, and with a loud halloo proclaimed their coming. Three villages lay before them; the first, roused by the cry, poured forth its motley group, which halted at the sight of the newcomers and the well-known dress of the missionary.
“They deputed four old men to come and speak with us,” says Marquette. “Two carried tobacco pipes richly adorned and trimmed with feathers of many kinds. They walked slowly, lifting their pipes toward the sun, as if offering them to him to smoke, but yet without uttering a single word. They were a long time coming the short distance between us and the village. Having at last reached us, they stopped to examine us carefully.
“On seeing these ceremonies which are used only with friends, I took courage, more especially as I saw they wore European goods, which made me judge them to be allies of the French. I therefore spoke to them first, and asked them who they were. They answered: ‘We are Illinois,’ and in token of peace they offered us their pipes to smoke. They then invited us to their village, where the whole tribe impatiently awaited us.
“At the door of the cabin in which we were to be received was an old man awaiting us in a very remarkable attitude. It is their usual ceremony in receiving strangers. This man stood perfectly naked, with his hands stretched out and raised toward the sun, as if he wished to screen himself from its rays, which nevertheless passed through his fingers to his face. When we came near him, he addressed this compliment to us: ‘How beautiful is the sun, O Frenchman, when thou comest to visit us! All our town awaits thee, and thou shalt enter all our cabins in peace,’ He then took us into his, where there was a crowd of people, who devoured us with their eyes, but maintained the deepest silence. We heard, however, these words occasionally addressed to us: ‘Well done, brothers, to visit us!'”
Then the great peace calumet was brought and solemnly smoked, and the two Frenchmen were conducted to the village of the great sachem. Here, too, they were received with pomp, and the calumet was again smoked. Marquette explained the object of their voyage to visit the nations living on the great river, and announce to them the word of God their Creator. They told the Illinois that they were sent by the great chief of the French, and asked information as to the nations between them and the sea.
The sachem presented them an Indian slave, saying: “I thank thee, Blackgown, and thee, Frenchman, for taking so much pains to come and visit us; never has the earth been so beautiful, nor the sun so bright as to-day; never has our river been so calm, nor so free from rocks, which your canoes have removed as they passed; never has our tobacco had so fine a flavor, nor our corn appeared so beautiful as we behold it to-day. Here is my son, whom I give thee, that thou mayst know my heart. I pray thee to take pity on me and all my nation. Thou knowest the Great Spirit who has made us all; thou speakest to Him and hearest His word. Ask Him to give me life and health, and come and dwell with us that we may know Him.”
They feasted the two Frenchmen, and gave them a calumet of peace as a safeguard against hostile tribes, but tried to persuade them to go no farther.