Iowa History Project





On June 17, 1673, two canoes bearing seven Frenchmen swept out of the Wisconsin River onto the bosom of a mighty stream unknown to voyagers.  On the right of these men were the broad meadows, fringed by hills where now stands the city of Prairie du Chien.  Across the water were lofty cliffs and rugged elevations, with dense woods covering them and extending clear to the shore.

For the first time, so far as records show, the eye of a white person rested on the soil of what is to-day Iowa.  The pretty town of McGregor was not then hereabouts; no smoke curled up toward the sky; not a sign of human life was visible.  Only the eagle circled above the trees, the deer browsed in the valley, and the buffalo was dimly outlined on a distant prairie.

The Frenchmen were Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, Louis Joliet, a fur trader, and five companions whose names have not been handed down.  But all were brave, else they would not have started on a journey which even the friendly Indians who guided them refused to continue.

Marquette was a monk of the Order of St. Francis.  He was a noble missionary, who labored faithfully to teach the Indians the religion of Christianity, and finally laid down his life for his work.  His station in the New World was at Point St. Ignace, in the present State of Michigan, on the north shore of the Mackinaw Straits, about half way between Lakes Huron and Michigan.

Rumors had come to his ears, as to the ears of many others in New France, of the existence westward some miles of a great river that perhaps flowed into the South Sea, or into the Pacific Ocean.  When Jacques Cartier has discovered the St. Lawrence, a chief had said to him:

"Still farther toward the setting sun is another great river, which flows to the land from which the sweet winds of the southwest bring us health and happiness, and where there is neither cold nor snow."

Romance has it that in 1528 a Spaniard, by name Cabeza de Vaca, with a company of adventurers, set out to conquer all the lands on the northern shore of the Mexican Gulf.  He was captured by the Indians, and was worshiped as a god.  It is claimed that going from tribe to tribe he crossed the continent from ocean to ocean.  he must have seen the river; maybe he was in Iowa; but his reputed journey is not recorded in a manner that indicates clearly his course.

The Mississippi Valley still awaited exploration.  The Mississippi River still was called the Hidden River and the Inland Sea.  Then, in 1541, Ferdinand de Soto, having resigned his governorship of Cuba, and having landed an army in Florida and marched from the gulf to this stream for which he was seeking, died on its banks.

De Vaca and de Soto were but adventurers.  Marquette was inspired solely by a wish to spread the gospel.  His companion, Joliet, was moved by a desire to profit in his trading.

On May 17, 1673, the two leaders and party of five left St. Ignace, and paddling through the straits of Mackinaw entered Lake Michigan.  In Green Bay they passed into the Menomonic River, which they ascended.  They stopped with the Menomonies, or "Wild Rice Indians."  It was the Menomonies who assisted the Sioux in the massacre of Pe-ah-mus-ka and his band of Foxes, at the mouth of the Wisconsin, in 1828, and we have read of the revenge of the remaining Foxes took.

The Menomonies tried to dissuade the Frenchmen from going to the Mississippi.  They said the banks were inhabited by ferocious people, who put to death every stranger; there was a demon in the river whose roaring could be heard for miles, and who would swallow all who came near; the hear of the climate was so great that no one from the north could survive it.

But Marquette told them he was not afraid, and after he had taught the Indians a prayer he and his men set out again, southward along the western shore of Lake Michigan.  Then they entered the Fox River.  Wild rice surrounded them, birds filled the air and swam on the water, and on the prairies bordering the stream grazed deer and elk.

The explorers crossed Winnebago Lake, and on the seventh of June reached a great village of Mas-coutins, Miamies and Kickapoos.  The Mas-coutins, it will be remembered, at one time lived on Muscatine Island, Iowa.

In three days the party again embarked, having been furnished with two Indian guides to show the way to the Wisconsin River, which was said to flow into the big river for which the Frenchmen sought.  All the village flocked to the bank to see the voyagers off and marveled at the wonderful bravery of the white men.  Now on up the Fox they went.

At last Wisconsin-on maps of early date called Mesconsin and Quisconsin-was attained, the canoes being carried overland across the strip of country separating it from the Fox.  The guides would go no farther, so unattended by any Indian the little party glided out into the current.  The members of the company did not know what was ahead.  Nobody save Indians had been down the Wisconsin.  Marquette and Joliet had only been informed that it emptied into what they hoped was the Hidden River.  Their followers trusted them.

At night all slept on the shore beneath the canoes turned bottom up.  Smoked meat and Indian corn supplied food.  The scenery that surrounded them, afloat and ashore, was exquisite.

Suddenly, after they had been traveling a week since leaving the village, they saw before them, through the trees lining the course of the stream, a broad expanse of water.  Quickly, almost without realizing what they had done, they were out of the Wisconsin and into a current flowing nearly at right angles with it.

"With a joy," writes Marquette, "which I cannot express" they turned southward, for they had found the Mississippi.  This was June 17, 1673.

They paddled down the Mississippi for a week.  We can imagine what sights they saw.  The river then was much wider than it is now.  Within the memory of living persons the volume of water has decreased, so what must it have been centuries ago?  Possibly the annual June freshet was raging, and the melting snows of the north had added to the stage.  The tales of the Indians had excited the fancies of the party, and they were watchful for new sights.

High hills along the banks were interspersed with meadows and prairies.  Buffalo stood and stared at the canoes, and one savage, yet stupid, old bull attracted especial attention from Marquette.  When a huge cat fish rose under Marquette's craft, nearly capsizing it, he was considerably startled, and all were amazed when in the net they caught a "spade fish"-a sturgeon, or maybe a spoonbill cat fish-an animal of which they never had heard.

At night they landed, made a fire just long enough to cook with, and quickly extinguished it lest it should draw attention from enemies.  They then paddled away from the spot, and anchored in the stream, and slept, with one man on watch.  Where they landed, we do not know.  Without doubt some places were on the west bank of the river, in Iowa.

By June 25 they had almost reached the southern boundary of Iowa, where the Des Moines River empties into the Mississippi.  Thus far they had not encountered a human being.  The whole country seemed deserted.  Marquette was looking out for Indians with whom he could converse, and to whom he could teach Christianity.  On this day on the west bank they found in the mud prints of feet, and saw a path leading inland through the grass.  Joliet and Marquette, leaving the other five to guard the canoes, started along this path.

The spot of land in Lee County.  River men say that taking Marquette's description of the vicinity and the journey, the mouth of Lemoiliese Creek, or Bloody Run, is the only place that answers in all particulars.  Old settlers assert that an Indian path, similar to the one followed by Marquette and Joliet, was here when the earliest settlements were made.  Montrose also has been selected as a probable point of landing, and Sandusky is a third location spoken of.  Whatever the exact spot, history marks it as the first bit of Iowa soil pressed by the foot of a white man.

The two Frenchmen walked inland for six miles, through forest and over prairies, ever peering ahead to see Indians, or a village.  They did not know but that they might even find an entirely new race of beings.  Finally they came to a place where they beheld an Indian village on the banks of a river.  A mile and a half away were two other towns, on a hill.

Marquette and Joliet were greatly excited, and quite nervous, because they could not foretell the kind of reception they would get.  But they boldly advanced until they could hear the Indians talking among the huts.  The Frenchmen stood forth in plain sight and shouted.  Instantly the village was in an uproar.  The inhabitants poured out of their houses.

Four chiefs came forward to meet the visitors.  They held in their extended hands calumets, or peace pipes, gay with feathers.

Marquette was rejoiced to see French cloth in the clothing of the chiefs, and he was still more rejoiced when he ascertained he could talk with them.  He spoke the dialects of the Algonquins, and the chiefs were of this family.  They said they were Illini, an Algonquin confederacy.

Marquette named the village Moingoeuna; one of the other villages he christened Peouaria.  From the first word comes Moingona, and Iowa town; Peoria, Illinois, has its derivation from the other word, which refers to the Peorias, a tribe in the Illini.  The river on which this village stood was the Des Moines.

Marquette and Joliet were royally treated.  After smoking the pipe of peace they went with their friendly hosts into the village.  The chief stood naked at the entrance to his wigwam, and pretended to shield his eyes with his hands.  While so doing he exclaimed:

"Frenchmen, how bright the sun shines when you come to visit us!  All our village awaits; and you shall enter our wigwams in peace."

The two explorers were very glad to hear such hospitable greeting.  They were escorted by the chief into the wigwam, and in the midst of a dense crowd of savages, who gazed at them in silence, they smoked again, this time with the old men and other dignitaries.  Then they were taken to the great chief of all the Illini, in one of the villages on the hill.

Here they smoked once more, the Indians gathering around in throngs.  All the people from all three villages seemed to be collected in that spot, and were very curious.  The chief was asked by Marquette for information concerning the Mississippi, and replied with a speech full of flowery compliment.  He said the guests made his tobacco taste better, made the river calmer, the sky more serene and the earth more beautiful.  He presented them with a slave and a peace pipe, but he did not tell them what they wanted to know.  On the contrary he begged them not to descend farther.

A feast of four courses was set before the Frenchmen.  A master of ceremonies fed the visitors as though they were babies, by dipping a large spoon into a porridge of Indian meal, boiled with grease, contained in a wooden bowl.  From a platter of fish he picked pieces, removed the bones, blew on the morsels to cool them, and thrust them into the mouths of the priest and the fur trader.  Dog and buffalo meat concluded the entertainment.

After spending the night with the Indians the two Frenchmen departed, the chief and six hundred of his men attending them to their canoes.

Marquette never again saw this region.  He and his companions proceeded past the Missouri and the Ohio and reached the Arkansas.  The peace pipe proved a valuable protection.  At the Arkansas they were forced to turn back.  The weather was proving weakening, and they had ascertained the river discharged, not into the Gulf of California, but into the Gulf of Mexico.  They entered the Illinois, and having ascended this river, were guided by Indians to Lake Michigan.  Joliet went on to Quebec.  Marquette remained behind at Green Bay, to recover from an illness.  He made a trip into the interior of Illinois, and soon after died in the woods of Western Michigan.  For a long time the Indians worshiped his memory.  Voyageurs crossing Lake Michigan, when caught in a storm, called on his name, and it was claimed the waters became still.

Marquette called the Mississippi the Conception.  De Soto referred to it as the Great River, or the river of the Holy Ghost.  La Salle christened it the Colbert River.  Later it was styled the River St. Louis.  From the lips of the Indians of the Algonquin language it has come to be known as the Mississippi (missisepe)-the Big River, a word compounded of missi, big, and sepe, or sepo, river.  For some years after the partial settlement of the territory adjoining it the stream was termed in books of the day "Missisipi."

Thus Iowa was discovered, but over a century elapsed ere white men sought a home within her borders.


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