Louis Jolliet: Voyager extraordinaire

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-r8wV7TwL15.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘Mannequin of Louis Jolliet in a diorama in the Visitor’s Center at Starved Rock State Park.’);

Louis Jolliet was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1645, and he played an important role in the early history of the United States and Illinois. When we hear his name, we immediately think of his namesake city—Joliet, Ill. But Joliet was his baptismal name. Somewhere along the line someone dropped the “l.”

His birthplace, Quebec City, was in what was then called New France. As a boy, he attended a school in Quebec run by Jesuit priests, and he began to study for the priesthood as a teen-ager. He changed his mind, however, and dropped out at the age of 22. His parents were well-to-do, and he was able to go to France, where he studied cartography and became a skilled map-maker.

When he returned to New France, he established a trading post at Sault Ste. Marie in what is now Ontario, Canada. He traded guns, knives, and other items to Indian trappers in exchange for beaver pelts, which brought great profit to France. In his dealings with the Indians of the Great Lakes region, he learned about a great waterway that flowed to the sea, and this piqued his interest and that of the Governor General of New France. To find a direct waterway that led to the Pacific Ocean would be of tremendous value to France, so the Governor General, with the blessing of the King of France, authorized Joliet to mount an expedition to determine if the Indian’s “great river that flows to the sea” actually made its way to the Pacific.

In May of 1673, Jolliet and a Jesuit priest named Jacques Marquette, accompanied by five other men, set out in two canoes (loaded with smoked meat and Indian corn) from St. Ignace on northern Lake Michigan to try to find a passageway to the great ocean to the west. Jolliet was 27, and Marquette was 35 when they embarked.

They followed that river downstream to the Mississippi. The first Indians they encountered were the Illinois who were delighted to meet the travelers and gave them a peace pipe to use as they pushed on into relatively unknown territory.

As they paddled down the Mississippi, it became obvious the river flowed south instead of west, and as the days passed, they became convinced that it was headed for the Gulf of Mexico and not the Pacific Ocean. Yet, they pushed on to the mouth of the Arkansas. Here, friendly Indians told them the sea was only a few days away, but that they would be in danger from hostile tribes and Spaniards before they reached the great gulf. So, not wishing to be captured or killed by Indians or Spanish, they decided to return by an easier route described by their Indian friends—up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines River, and back to Lake Michigan.

About half way up the Illinois, in August of 1673, they came to a rather large Indian village called Kaskaskia, just across the river from what is now Starved Rock State Park. By this time, the intrepid explorers were weary, so they decided to rest there and recuperate. Jolliet reviewed and refined the maps he had drawn on their journey, and Fr. Marquette spent his time in the area attempting to convert the Indians to Christianity.

Marquette apparently was a persuasive evangelist as most of the Indians were converted to Catholicism. Marquette established The Mission of the Immaculate Conception at this site, the first mission to be established in Illinois. The parish that developed from the mission is still in existence today, but is now located on Kaskaskia Island, near the present town of Chester, Ill.

Leaving the present-day Ottawa and Utica location, the group made its way to Lake Michigan, and the De Pere mission at the head of Green Bay. There, the two firm friends took their leave of each other. Jolliet returned to Quebec, and Marquette, having promised the Indians at Kaskaskia that he would return, remained at Green Bay.

During Jolliet’s return to Quebec, his canoe overturned, and all of his maps and diary notations on the regions they had explored, including descriptions of the flora and fauna, were lost. He attempted to duplicate them from memory, but admitted the new ones were not as accurate as he would have desired.

The Governor General was not at all pleased with Jolliet’s failure to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean, but was enthused with the new geographical data he provided. He made other important mapping excursions to the Hudson Bay and Labrador regions and compiled valuable military information by spying on the British. In 1697, he was appointed hydrographer to the King and taught navigation at a Jesuit college in Quebec. For his services to France, Jolliet was awarded various tracts of land. He died in 1700, being lost on a trip to one of his land holdings.

The names of Louis Jolliet and Fr. Jacques Marquette will forever be linked with the history of Illinois. A trip to the new visitor’s center at Starved Rock State Park is highly recommended for those desiring more information on these two men and their contributions to our state.

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