Louis Jolliet (note the different spelling from the city named for him) and Father Jacques Marquette were not the first Europeans to discover the Mississippi River, but they were the first to explore the river’s length in its near entirety. Hernando de Soto discovered the mouth of the river in 1541 and named it Rio del Espiritu Santo.
He did not venture beyond its southern waters near the Gulf of Mexico, and, in any case, the original Algonquin name for the river–Mississippi (meaning “great river”)–persisted. It would be more than a century later before Jolliet and Marquette set off to make their own explorations from St. Ignace (at the head of Lake Michigan) in 1673, eventually finding themselves paddling canoes on the great river and laying the groundwork for a system of trade that would transform the Midwest forever.
Louis Jolliet was born just outside of Quebec, and though he studied to become a priest, he chose instead to enter the fur trade. Having been brought up by his merchant stepfather, Jolliet was accustomed to trade and to the Native Americans of the Great Lakes regions. He spoke French, English, Spanish, and many indigenous languages. Jacques Marquette was a Jesuit missionary who was also born near Quebec. He not only founded St. Ignace on Lake Michigan, but also Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan’s first European settlement.
Jolliet and Marquette set out in two canoes with five other French Canadian voyageurs. Their course southward followed the northern coastal stretches of Lake Michigan. They sailed to what is now present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, and then traveled southward on the Fox River. In fact, they paddled the entire expanse of Wisconsin before entering the Mississippi River near present-day Prairie du Chien, WI. Before entering the great river, they crossed marsh lands and forests of oak, not only documenting their exploration, but also the flora and fauna they encountered along their way.
The voyageurs continued down the Mississippi for hundreds of miles to reach the southernmost point of their journey at the mouth of the Arkansas River. Though they were a mere 435 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi, they decided to turn back. They were able to confirm from their contact with the Native Americans that the Mississippi did, in fact, flow down to the Gulf of Mexico. However, they noted that many of the tribes they came across possessed goods that could only have been procured through trade with the Spanish. So, to avoid possible capture, the voyageurs turned their canoes northward.
They took a different route home. Instead of following the Mississippi back to Wisconsin, they entered the Illinois River where it met the Mississippi south of St. Louis. As they neared the northern stretches of what would become the state of Illinois, they took a tributary of the Illinois River–the Des Plaines River–near present-day Joliet. From there, they followed the Chicago River to Lake Michigan near present-day Chicago.
Both Jolliet and Marquette took extensive notes during their travels. Unfortunately, Jolliet lost his notes the following spring when his canoe overturned. However, both men were able to draw maps and provide an extraordinary range of detail about the waterways connected to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Their maps would become the first map of the Mississippi River in its entirety. It was published in Paris in 1681. The map and Jolliet and Marquette’s accounts of their journey would inspire later explorers and settlers like Sieur de La Salle to travel in their wake.
Interestingly, it was Jolliet who believed that the huge territory that he explored could be controlled with a convenient settlement near the Illinois River and Lake Michigan. He wrote that all that was required was the building of a canal to link the two. The canal could be built across an unremarkable bit of land covered by stinkweed that the natives of the area referred to as “chicauoa.”