IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
BOYS AND GIRLS
THE DISCOVERY OF IOWA
More than two hundred and fifty years have passed since white men first saw the land that is now Iowa. On June 17, 1673, two bold Frenchmen with five companions in two canoes floated out on the broad Mississippi from the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Across the Father of Waters they saw the high, wooded hills and deep valleys of the region near the present town of McGregor, Iowa. One of these Frenchmen was Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest; the other was Louis Joliet, a fur trader and woodsman. The five companions were rugged oarsmen or voyageurs who paddled the canoes.
One month had passed since these men had set out from the distant mission at St. Lgnace on the Straits of Mackinac. For years rumors had come to New France about a great river to the west. Some thought it might flow into the Pacific Ocean, or the South Sea. Others believed that it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. Count Frontenac, the governor of New France, sent Joliet to discover this river and to map its course. Marquette received permission to go with him to teach religion to the Indians. We learn about this trip from a journal kept by Marquette. All the notes written by Joliet on the journey were lost when his canoe upset on the way back to Quebec.
On the 17th of May, 1673, the two leaders and their companions left St. Lgnace and paddled through the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Michigan. Near Green Bay they stopped at a village of the Menomonee or "Wild Rice" Indians. When these Indians heard what the white men planned to do they tried to get them to turn back. They said that ferocious Indians who killed strangers lived along the great river; that there was a monster in the river whose roaring could be heard a long way off and who would swallow both men and canoes. They said, too, that the climate along the great river was so hot that no white men could stand it. But the Frenchmen replied they were not afraid and pushed on.
They entered the Fox River. Along the banks they noticed much wild rice which the Indians used for food. Deer and elk were seen on the prairies along the river.
The explorers paddled on across Lake Winnebago. On the seventh of June they reached a village of the Mascoutin Indians. After three days of rest the Frenchmen prepared to leave with two Indian guides to show them the way to the Wisconsin River. All the Indians of the village came down to the bank to see the brave explorers depart.
If you look at a map you will notice that at one place the Upper Fox River and the Wisconsin River are not far apart. Over this distance the Frenchmen had to carry their canoes and supplies. Such a crossing is called a portage. When they reached the Wisconsin River the two Indians guides left them to return to their village.
Alone in this wilderness the Frenchmen launched their canoes and glided down the Wisconsin. Suddenly, about a week after they had left the village of the Mascoutins, their canoes swept out from the mouth of the swift Wisconsin upon the broad Mississippi. They had discovered the great river!
"With a joy which I cannot express," wrote Marquette in his journal, they turned the prows of the two canoes downstream. They paddled on until twilight. Then beaching their frail craft they built a campfire with dry driftwood. They prepared a simple meal of Indian corn and smoked-meat. Father Marquette asked a blessing and they ate heartily after a day of toilsome paddling.
After a short rest the boatmen carefully extinguished the dying coals of their campfire and again launched the canoes. The explorers paddled on until dark. Then, while one boatman paced the shore on guard, the others slept in the canoes anchored some distance from the shore.
At sunrise they were on their way. They seemed to be alone on the great river. Sometimes its surface was smooth as glass, again it was churned to white-capped angry waves by a stiff wind. High bluffs and hills along the shore gave way to lower hills and prairies.
Herds of deer and buffaloes appeared along the bank. Once a huge catfish struck Marquette's canoe, and almost upset it. Other kinds of fish which the Frenchmen had never seen arused their interest and their wonder. But not a canoe, not a hut or tepee, not a single sign of human life did they see for eight days.
On the 25th of June, 1673, as the exploring party drifted along the Iowa shore, one of the group noticed footprints on the sand near the water's edge. Quickly the two canoes were beached. Marquette and Joliet, leaving the boatmen to guard the canoes and supplies, set out unarmed to follow the tracks. This was a bold thing to do, for neither knew what dangers lay at the end of the narrow path that led up the bank and across the prairie. No one knows the exact spot in Iowa where this happened. Some think it was near the mouth of the Des Moines River; others believe it was farther north near the mouth of the Iowa River.
Silently following the path for four or five miles, the two explorers came to the top of a hill from which they could see an Indian village in the valley below. Distant about a mile from the first were tow other Indian villages.
It was a quiet day in June. Smoke curled slowly above the lodges. Indian braves lay asleep in the shade, or sat smoking long-stemmed pipes. Indian women were pounding corn into meal. Children were resting or playing in the shade.
Marquette and Joliet were able to approach the first village without being seen until they could hear the Indians talking. Then the visitors gave a loud shout. In an instant the village was in an uproar. Braves swarmed out in the sunlight, pipes were tossed aside for weapons, and the women rushed about in wild excitement. Then suddenly the tumult quieted. Someone doubtless recognized the strangers as Frenchmen and friends. Some one perhaps had seen the black-robed missionaries and buckskin-clad fur traders on the shore of Lake Superior or beside Green Bay.
Four old men stepped out of the crowd and advanced slowly toward the strangers. Two to them held aloft calumets, or peace pipes, gay with feathers. When they drew near, Father Marquette asked in an Indian dialect, "Who are you?'
The Indians understood him and answered, "We are Illinois." Then they offered the strangers the calumet to smoke and invited them to their village.
As they approached the village they saw a chief standing in front of his lodge with his hands extended toward the sun. When the group drew near, the old man said: "How beautiful is the sun, O Frenchmen, when thou comest to visit us! All our village awaits thee, and thou shalt enter all our cabins in peace."
This pleased the two explorers and they entered the lodge of the chief. In the midst of a crowd of curious but silent savages they again smoked the pipe of peace with the elders. During this ceremony of friendship a messenger arrived who asked the strangers to come to the cabin of the great chief of the Illinois in the next village.
Marquette and Joliet set out with the elders to visit the chief. The unusual sight of the Frenchmen in their village attracted all the Indians. Some lay in the grass along the path and watched the procession pass. Others ran on ahead, then stopped in order to see the strangers again.
When they reached the village of the great chief they saw him standing at the entrance of his lodge between two old men. The chief welcomed the party and drew them inside his lodge. Again they smoked the calumet.
Then Marquette gave the chief four tokens, or presents. He told the Indians that he and Joliet were making a journey down the river to the sea. He told them about the great governor of the French and about God. Then he asked the chief for information about the Mississippi.
The chief replied: "I thank thee, Blackgown, and thee, O Frenchman, for having taken so much trouble to come to visit us. Never has the earth been so beautiful or the sun so bright as to-day. Never has our river been so calm or so free from rocks, which they canoes have removed in passing. Never has our tobacco tasted so good or our corn appeared so fine as we now see it. Here is my son whom I give thee to show thee my heart.
Then he gave the strangers a little Indian slave boy who stood near-by, and a calumet. He begged the white men to go no farther on account of dangers ahead.
Meanwhile Indian women had prepared a feast for the visitors. A master of ceremonies fed the strangers with a wooden spoon which he filled from a bowl of Indian meal boiled with grease. Then he picked pieces of fish from a platter, removed the bones, blew upon the bites to cool them, and with his fingers thrust them into the mouths of the priest and the fur trader. Roast dog and buffalo meat concluded the feast.
Then the hosts conducted Marquette and Joliet about the villages where the Indians gave them many presents. That night they slept in the lodge of the chief.
On the next afternoon the two Frenchmen returned to the Mississippi accompanied by the chief and nearly six hundred Indians. Taking with them the little slave boy, the white men departed amid the shouts of their new friends. The first visit of white men to red men in what is now Iowa was ended.
Marquette and Joliet never returned to Iowa. They paddled on down the Mississippi past the Missouri and Ohio Rivers to the mouth of the Arkansas. By this time they had learned that the great river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, and they decided to turn back.
They returned to Lake Michigan by way of the Illinois and Chicago Rivers. Joliet went on to Quebec; Marquette stopped at Green Bay to recover from an illness. Later he returned to Illinois to visit the Indians. Again he became ill, and two friendly Indians started to take him to St. Ignace in a canoe. Marquette grew weaker and weaker, and before they reached home, he died. He was deeply mourned by the red men.
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