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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Early History of Illinois

by
Sidney Breese

published by E. B. Myers & Company,
Chicago, 1884

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p83  Chapter IV

The Mississippi River; the first voyage down that river

If we except the steel-clad followers of the chivalric and romantic De Soto, who, Spanish story tells us, crossed the Father of Waters in 1535 and penetrated to Missouri in search of the glittering treasures supposed to have their home in that wilderness, and in whose wild bosom he found an unexpected grave, yet appropriate to his daring hardihood and enterprise, these were the first white men to behold it. Then, for the first time, was civilized man upon its banks.

This majestic river, having its source in a tranquil northern lake, traversing no regions of perpetual snow, and receiving no tributaries which, above the point where it was discovered by Marquette, presents an aspect wholly different from that which belongs to it, after receiving the vast volume of the Missouri rushing wild and foaming  p84 from the Rocky Mountains, and fed by the melting of the snows which repose upon their sides and summits, and within their deep recesses; nevertheless, he saw the storied "Mississippi," the theme of many an Indian tale, the long-sought object of his toil and peril, the new channel to a distant sea.

Their canoes glide safely on its placid bosom, the rapids of Rock Island are passed in safety, and they gaze with delight on the beautiful landscape which there unfolded itself to their view. The scenery of the shores captivated them, it was a pleasure to be in such a wilderness, and to revel in the loveliness of such a nature. Thus far not a human footprint had been seen since their guides parted with them at the Wisconsin, the whole region seemed to be uninhabited, save by beasts of prey and of the chase, until after passing the Lower Rapids, one is discovered in the sands of the western shore. They examine it, they follow it, and it leads them to the bank of another river shining with verdure and dotted over with Indian wigwams. They are met by their savage owners bearing the calumet, and are kindly received by the tribe. A great council is held, and Marquette announces his mission, tells them of  p85 the great king over the water, and of his power and willingness to protect them. Here they remained several days, and during the whole time were treated with the greatest hospitality and kindness, information given them of the tribes on the river, and of another large river below, coming from the west, which they called Pekitanoni, and on their departure, the chief accompanied them to their canoes with his painted warriors for an escort, and presented Marquette with the mystic calumet, decorated with feathers of the most gaudy dyes, and instructed him in the peculiar virtues it possessed.

Descending the current, they pass the mouth of the Illinois coming in from the east, then that stupendous wall of lime and sandstone, once the barrier to that vast water, which now flows so generally by it, when to its volume was added all that which now seeks the ocean by the St. Lawrence — then the pictured rocks of the Piasau, even now the wonder of the curious, when half hid by islands, the mouth of the Missouri is seen, its impetuous current driving their little barks to the eastern shore covered with lofty trees and shading a soil whose texture and richness extorted their admiration.

 p86  Again, upon the right bank, as they descend, highlands are seen, covered with the primeval forest, and rising beautifully from the water again abrupt cliffs of perpendicular mural rock, until they reach that portion of the river where the bottoms, extending on both sides, denote the bed of some vast lake which, in the infancy of this continent, spread out there and confined by that rocky barrier which even now bears marks of the attrition of its waters. There is seen the mouth of the modest and unobtrusive Kaskaskia, and the highlands at its confluence bordering the left bank for many miles below it, with a wide alluvion of black mould, covered with gigantic trees, upon the right.

Soon the scene changes, and abrupt cliffs or steep hills guard the right bank, and a dark impervious forest upon a low rich bottom, the left, the whole force of the current bearing upon it until its career is checked by another rocky cliff which, there, rises in awful majesty upon the left, a wonder nature puzzle to all who behold it, whilst just below, standing in the channel of the river, but near the right shore, they pause to gaze upon that huge tower of rock which lifts its head there, bewildered with conjecturing what convulsion could  p87 have riven it from its kindred layers or thrown it up from its ancient bed.

The mouth of the Ohio is reached. Some Indians of the Lawrence tribe, then occupying the site of the promised city, yet to rise full grown like another queen from the foam of the waters.

At length the region of the cane is reached, and a hotter sun beams upon them; red men are seen with steel axes for weapons, below the mouth of the Arkansas; but the peace pipe wards off all approach of danger, and manifests all its promised virtues. A religious celebration is had, the mysteries of their faith unfolded to the savages, when Marquette, being satisfied that the river he was upon, flowed neither to the Pacific ocean nor to the gulf east of Florida, prepared to ascend it on his return.

This voyage, under the auspices of the meek and humble Jesuit, the good old Father Marquette, is the first of which we have any knowledge, ever performed by a "pale face" upon our majestic river; his slender bark was the first to float upon its current, and its light paddle the first to break its ripple; and it is strange that it should be so, for, at the period when his voyage was  p88 undertaken, a settlement by men of our lineage had existed in Virginia sixty‑six years; in New York about fifty, and in New England more than forty years. Is it not then remarkable that its existence should have been unknown to all those colonists? That the natives of those several and district regions should have had no legend connected with it — no traditionary or other story of a far off and mighty river running to the south? And what had become of the relations made by De Soto's companions and now admitted to be true?

How could they have been kept so long from the knowledge of a prying, inquisitive and curious world It is said, too, that the Jesuit Father Duguerre had, twenty years before, in 1653, visited the tribes on the east bank of the river. If he did, he must have gained some knowledge of the river itself, and why should he conceal it, and leave the fact of its existence to be gathered by accident from wandering Sioux from its upper shores?

Yet it seems no story was generally current, and to Marquette is ascribed the glory and renown of communicating the fact to the world, thus adding another to the many trophies acquired by members of his order in all parts of the globe.


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