The Discovery of the Mississippi
Although the Spaniards under De Soto, in 1541, came upon and crossed the Mississippi River, little importance was attached to the event. The fact to them was a passing incident scarcely worthy to be remembered, for their minds were full of the mythical El Dorado of the New World of which they were in search.
More than a century later, tales of a wonderful river to the westward were brought to the French Jesuits, who had established missions among the Indians about the Great Lakes. None of the talebearers had looked upon its waters, but they called it "Mississippi" and described it as rising in the north and flowing southward through a region of mystery and terror.
In 1673, Joliet, a fur trader, and Marquette, a priest, were sent by Count Frontenac, then governor of New France, to find this river and to learn whither it ran. They were eager to obey his commands, the first with an eye to future business, the second for the glory and advancement of his religion.
Their preparations were simple. For their party they secured five men; for food, a small supply of smoked meat and Indian corn; for transportation, two birch canoes. On the 17th of May, from Point St. Ignace on the north side of the Strait of Michilimacinac connecting Lake Michigan with Lake Huron, they set out on their adventure. They skirted the shore of Lake Michigan westward to a Jesuit mission at the head of Green Bay; then following up Fox River, on the 7th of June, they arrived at the chief town of the Mascoutins, Miamis and Kickapoos. A council was called. Joliet in a speech informed the Indians that his party were sent to discover new countries and asked for guides to show the way to the Wisconsin River. The request was granted. Provided with two guides, on the 10th of June, they set forward, still proceeding up Fox River. Through a maze of lakes and marshes choked with wild rice, the channel twisted its devious way, but at length brought them to the portage. For a mile and a half they carried their boats and supplies over the divide and set them afloat, this time on the Wisconsin River down which they were to pass into the unknown West.
On the seventh day after their departure from the Town of the Mascoutins, -it was the 17th of June, 1673- they saw with joy the stream they sought. They steered into it and traveled with the current, but proceeded with caution not knowing what dangers might surround them. The high bluffs were wrapped in forests. On the prairies grazed herds of buffalo. For a fortnight they met no human being and saw no sign or trace of human habitation. Then, on the 25th of June, in the mud of the western bank, they noticed footprints and a well-trodden path.
Leaving their men to rest during their absence, Joliet and Marquette followed the path to find, if they could, the people whose travel back and forth had left this evidence of their presence. They had walked for five miles or more through forests and across prairies when there came in view an Indian village on the bank of the river. Perhaps a mile away were two other villages. They shouted to attract attention.
The sudden appearance and the call of the travelers, who up to this moment had not been noticed, excited a commotion among the residents of the village. Presently there came toward them four of the chief men, two of whom held up peacepipes decorated with feathers as a token of amity. Marquette was relieved to note they wore French cloth which indicated trading and friendliness. To his question, who they were, they answered they were "Illinois." After the pipes were smoked as evidence of goodwill, the two whites were conducted to a large wigwam where they were received with much formality.
At the conclusion of this ceremony, the Frenchmen were invited to visit the great chief of all the Illinois who dwelt in one of the other villages. An invitation so agreeable to their desires could but be accepted. Quite in modern fashion their arrival there was made an occasion for the delivery of an address of welcome. Marquette in response announced himself as a messenger from God who had made them and whom they should recognize and obey. The great chief seems to have been versed in the art of compliment. Again speaking, he assured his visitors that their presence added flavor to his tobacco, made the river more calm, the sky more serene, and the earth more beautiful.
To show due honor and proper hospitality after their fashion to these unexpected visitors, the Indians gave a feast. It was served in four courses. First, a wooden bowl containing cornmeal boiled with grease was set before them. One of this they in turn were fed its contents with a single large wooden spoon. Then was brought in a platter of fish. The master of ceremonies, picking out the bones with his fingers and blowing on the morsels to cool them, placed these directly in the mouths of the guests. Boiled dog which had been prepared as a special delicacy was next offered them. They record what may readily be believed, that it did not tempt their appetites to hearty eating. The final dish was fat buffalo-meat, which proved more palatable and satisfied their hunger.
On Marquette's map of this journey, these villages are placed near the mouth of a river and given the name "Peouarea." Some distance up the river is located another village, which is given the name "Moingouena." From the latter is undoubtedly derived the name "Des Moines," which the river itself now bears.
Down the Mississippi the explorers drifted, seeing its current swelled by the waters of the Illinois, of the turbid Missouri and of the Ohio. Coming at length to the mouth of the Arkansas, opposite to which was an Indian village, they landed and debated their situation. Alarmed at the hostility they were led to believe confronted their further advance, and now feeling certain the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, they resolved to return to Canada and report what they had seen.
It was the 17th of July, just thirty days after they caught the first glimpse of the object of their quest, when the party turned their faces homeward. The return was slow and toilsome. When they came to the Illinois, they turned up that river, passing from its headwaters to Lake Michigan at the end of September and arriving at Green Bay after an absence of about four months, during which they had paddled their canoes somewhat more than twenty-five hundred miles.
The first men of white race, of whom there is any account, to set foot in Iowa and enjoy its hospitality, were Joliet and Marquette on this expedition.
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