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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Early History of Illinois

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.
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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p89  Chapter V

Return up the Mississippi to the Illinois river

The adventurous Father and his companions toiled up the rapid stream for many a weary day, oppressed with the heat, annoyed by the insects, and with the ordinary demands of appetite but scantily supplied, yet no murmurs escaped him, no despondency overwhelmed him, the chosen instrument of heaven to plant the standard of the cross in the wilderness he had entered, and whose bosom glowed with the single desire to accomplish his high and holy mission.

To the tribes he encountered, he revealed the Christian's God, attracted their attention by the forms of Christian worship, and failed not to make a favorable impression by his humility, meekness and sincere devotion to the cause in which he was embarked.

Soon they approached the entrance of the Illinois, and anon their light canoes are borne up its tranquil water, promising but slight resistance  p90 to their progress, flowing, as it does, into its great reservoir with a motion scarcely perceptible. As they proceeded onward, the appearance of the country delighted them; it seemed an earthly paradise, and their eyes were never weary with the view of the beautiful prairies which, at intervals, approached the margin of the water, covered with flowers of every tint, and with the most luxuriant herbage, depasturing immense herds of buffalo and deer; varied by island groves, and skirted by the deep blue forests in the distance. Innumerable wild fowl, scared from the little coves and indentations of the shore, and from the bright bosom of the water, and from their perches in the woods, decked with every variety of plumage, and singing every variety of note. The timid deer and the shaggy buffalo coming to drink and bounding away at the sound of their paddles, enlivened the solitude; while the whole scene awakened anew their gratitude to Him who had, in his beneficence, spread out those lovely plains, poured out those rivers, and reared up those mighty forests.

But few Indians were discovered — a straggling hunting or fishing party — until they arrived at Peoria lake, the seat of one of the principal villages  p91 of the Illinois Nation. These Indians were so much pleased with Marquette's simplicity of manners, marked kindness and benevolence, that they entreated him to remain with them, but he pursued his voyage to Green Bay, where he arrived at the close of September, 1673; thus accomplishing in a few months a most perilous and arduous enterprise, giving an empire to his sovereign and immortality to himself.1

Joliet returned immediately to Canada to proclaim the results, but the devoted philanthropist and Christian, the good Marquette, instead of rushing into the world to hear the praises which would accompany his daring, and be associated with his name, mourned, with unaffected sincerity, in the solitude of his little cell, over the fallen and degraded condition of the tribes he had met upon the Illinois — recalled to his mind the earnest entreaty made him by the Peorias. His bosom groaned to comfort them, as he had the scattered and forlorn, but once powerful, Hurons, and he resolved to return to them and devote the remainder of his life to their service, and thus perform, truly and sincerely, the obligations of his order, and keep in letter and in spirit his oft‑repeated  p92 vow. Strong indeed must be that faith which could inspire such a resolution; pure and unspotted from the world must be the sentiment which could prompt such disinterestedness, such benevolence, such philanthropy.

Accordingly, in the same year, before the close of autumn, he returned to the mission of St. Louis at Peoria lake, to pursue, through cold and suffering and hunger, his labors of Christian love, until in 1675, attempting to prosecute a voyage in his canoe to the mission of Saint Ignace, by way of the Chicago and Lake Michigan, he entered a little river on the eastern shore of that lake, and erecting a rude altar upon its bank, in the presence of his canoe men only, he performed the sacrifice of the mass. After he had concluded it, he desired to be left alone for a few moments to his own private devotions, and ere his companions returned to him his spirit had departed, and the place of his last prayer at the altar by the lovely lake was the place of his burial, his grave a hole scratched in the sand, and his only memorial there the babbling stream that bears his name.2

 p93  There, in that obscure and forgotten grave by the lake shore is the discoverer of Illinois,  p94 his only dirge the sullen moan of that wild water, his only requiem the plaintive note of the lone whip-poor‑will.

 p95  What a resting place for such distinction; what a sepulchre for so much glory; what obsequies  p96 to so much piety, so much fortitude, so much energy, so much unflinching zeal!

 p97  For years did this devoted man, silent and unobserved, by the lovely lake, in the gloomy forest, amid untamed savages, forsaking home, kindred, all the endearments of life, fired by a holy zeal, exert his energies to exalt the condition of abject and degraded humanity, and in the accomplishment of his mission, a domain more than imperial, destined to nourish multitudes as countless as those of the plains of India, was opened to the world! Yet no monument has been reared for him, nor does the hunter, as he passes the spot where his ashes repose, or the fisherman, as he casts his line into the stream that flows by them, bestow even the poor tribute of a sigh to his memory.

The Editor's Notes:

1 See Appendix A.

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2 Note A. — In the absence of authentic documents, such as the original narrative of Father Marquette, and the account of his doings, prepared by Father Dablon in 1678, which have since been found and published by John Gilmary Shea of New York, in his work on the discovery and exploration of the Mississippi Valley, issued in 1852, and several volumes more recently issued by Francis Parkman at Boston, the learned judge has fallen into an error by supposing that Marquette returned to Peoria lake from Chicago in the year 1673, where he then, through the winter, pursued his missionary labors, until 1675, when, as related by the author, he died upon the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

But the facts are, that after his voyage in 1673, when he discovered the Mississippi river, he passed through Chicago and returned to Green Bay, where he suffered from prostration, but in the fall of 1674, recovering his health, he determined to visit the missions he had planted in Illinois, at Utica, the site then called or known as Kaskaskia, and at Peoria, but being again taken sick when he reached Chicago, in December, he spent the entire winter at this place, from December, 1674, to the following March, 1675.

This episode, so interesting to the people of Chicago, requires a more extended notice, which is taken from the narratives of Marquette as published in Mr. Shea's book, and from Mr. Shea's collection.

It is there stated that Father Marquette upon his returning from the Mississippi, after his discovery of that river with Joliet, met the Peoria and Kaskaskia Indians on the Illinois; he promised them to return and begin a mission among them the next year (1674); that returning to the mission (St. Ignace) at Green Bay, his health gave way and he was utterly prostrated by disease.

Receiving the necessary orders from Quebec in the summer of 1674, he started in October for Kaskaskia on the Illinois river to establish his Illinois missions. He set out with a canoe and two Frenchmen, and was escorted by bands of Pottowatamies and Illinois Indians. They coasted along Green Bay‑Inlet, which nearly intersects the Peninsula, and he made the portage across to Lake Michigan. With his canoe and the two Frenchmen — accompanied by his Indian escorts — he coasted along the shore of Lake Michigan. Marquette himself often walked along the beautiful beach of the lake, embarking only at the rivers. There being no portage to make, and the landings easy, he says that there was little or no difficulty when they did not persist in sailing, and the winds and waves were high. The soil, except in the prairies, was poor, but game was abundant and they were bountifully supplied.

On the 23d of November, we are told that the good missionary was again seized by his old malady (dysentery), but that he pushed on undaunted, amidst snows and storms, until on the 4th of December, 1674, he and his companions found themselves at the mouth of our Chicago river!! The river was frozen, but they knew that the Chicago connected through Mud lake, by Des Plaines river, with the Illinois. Mr. Parkman says, they moved about two leagues from the entrance of the river, and there rested to build his cabin. He was compelled to abandon further progress, and on the 14th of December it was at last resolved that the missionary should winter at Chicago. Here then a cabin was built, and undoubtedly here was erected, by himself and his two French companions, the first abode of a civilized white man within the limits of the present State of Illinois. It was occupied the whole of that winter from December until March, 1675. And it was here that his Indian escorts left the three Frenchmen, while they proceeded to their own homes about sixty miles distant on the Illinois river.

Mr. Shea, in his narrative, states that within fifty miles of them were two other Frenchmen, trappers or traders, one of whom was a surgeon, near some Indian village. These traders had prepared a cabin for the missionary, and one of them (the surgeon probably) came to visit him, having heard that Marquette was ill. The Indians had also heard this, and so anxious were they that he should not suffer from want, that they offered to send a party to carry him and all his baggage to their own village. Marquette refused, and found it hard to tell them that if his malady continued, he would find it difficult to keep his promise to visit them in the spring.

This so alarmed them (it is said), that the sachems of the tribe assembled and deputized three of their number to visit the "Black-gown," and they went bearing three sacks of corn, dried meats and pumpkins, and twelve beaver skins. First, to make him a mat; second, to ask him for powder; third, to prevent his being hungry; four, to get some merchandise!

To the deputation the missionary it is said answered their several proposals: "He could not give them powder as his mission was peace, and did not wish them to begin a war. He would encourage the French to bring them merchandise, but they must make reparation to the traders for the beads taken from them, while the surgeon was with him. In exchange for their presents, however, he gave them axes, knives and trinkets as a mark of his gratitude for their coming twenty leagues to visit him, and promised them that, if possible, he would go to their village in the spring, if only for a few days." On this they bade him take heart and stay and die in their country, as he had promised to stay a long time.

It was in such terms that this simple representative of religion and culture of a proud race and the first white settler of Chicago exchanged the courtesies of life with the native barbarian tribes of a remote wilderness. This is the account as transmitted by himself of the colloquy which took place on the site of Chicago, two centuries ago. The American republic had not yet been born. It had neither a name nor history. Even the territory of that republic then belonged to a foreign power. Would it not be interesting to the half million of people now here to look upon the spot of ground upon which this scene was enacted, where the cabin stood, and to know where the door was at which the colloquy took place! What a historical picture that cabin door, and that group of persons would furnish to the painter!

A deputation from the native sons of the soil upon the one hand, bearing their rude offerings to the humble black-gowned missionary of peace and religion on the other. And then imagine you hear him stipulating with them as to the terms upon which he would stay with them or go away, and the conditions upon which trade should be carried on with his country. Does he not dictate even the terms of peace and war, while he refuses them powder to carry on war, and in the spirit of his mission bids them to be at peace with their enemies, the Miami tribes?

Here upon the site of Chicago, nearly a century and a half before "Fort Dearborn" was built, came a herald of civilization, proclaiming a gospel, which to the tribes of this region meant peace, as well as civilization. At that time the United States had no place among nations, the native tribes of the continent had not been forever driven back or marked for extermination, and what prophet could have foretold that the wild waste of waters and the vast solitude of prairie deserts bounding all sides of the horizon, which marked the site of that solitary cabin, would become the great metropolis of Chicago. That half a million of people would make here their homes, while the aboriginal race would disappear from the scene? And now where is the stone or tablet to mark the spot where stood the cabin of that first herald as he preached to those barbarians? Has no antiquary discovered it? Why should it not be found as a place of pilgrimage and curiosity on account of its historical interest or value, even though it were not otherwise memorable on account of its religious associations in connection with the self-sacrifice of so great a pioneer as Marquette?

It is true, that trade has little in common with sentiment, yet time and history do at last come to hallow and make venerable all places associated with great enterprises.

Now there are data stated and given in these accounts of the location which Marquette and his two Frenchmen selected to build their cabin that memorable winter, that enable us, with reasonable certainty, if not to fix the precise spot of ground, yet to point to the near vicinity of its erection.

It is stated by Parkman, that Marquette moved two leagues from the mouth of the river. The river was frozen over, and it is not probable that they paddled the canoe up the stream two leagues or four miles.a But as the mouth of the river was then at the foot of Madison street, they moved across the prairie to the south branch, and up along the branch to the vicinity of Mud lake, about where it now comes in as a tributary of the south branch, above McCormick's present reaper factory. If we place the location between that and the bridge over the branch at Western avenue, we will have about the two leagues or four miles traveled over to get there from the foot of Madison street. This location was just where, in times of high water, canoes were carried through Mud lake, to the Des Plaines river, and so the portage was made down to the Illinois and Kankakee rivers.

Besides the accounts of both Parkman and Shea agree, that in the following spring, in the month of March, the ice breaking up, the ground where the cabin stood was flooded, and the cabin was moved. The inmates suffered from the wet, etc.

All the conditions agree in pointing out this as the location. The 12th of March, 1849, will be memorable in this city for a disaster connected with the rising of the same waters that occurred in the breaking up of the ice that spring, which destroyed a large amount of shipping in the south branch of the river. The flood of water coming down from the junction of Mud lake swelled the river and increased its current to a torrent.

The distance of two leagues, or four miles, is a strong circumstance, because taking a line across the prairie from the mouth of the river at Madison street, or following up the thread of the stream, the distance would be counted about the same to Bridgeport or a point beyond that, being the only route to effect the necessary portage, makes it very probable that it was the direction taken in leaving Lake Michigan. See Parkman's Discovery of the Great West, pp67, 68, 69.

Thayer's Note:

a A league was not three miles. The French league in use in the 17c was roughly 3.25 km, or almost exactly two English miles. We must therefore read four miles wherever the printed text of the editor's note has "six miles". I've made the correction thruout, although at first blush this then appears to vitiate the details of the editor's argument: but it turns out that something may have gone wrong in the printing, since 
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	 the Western Avenue bridge is in fact not 6 miles from 
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	 the foot of Madison Avenue, but about 3.9 miles as the crow files: the location is therefore correct after all.

That said, the site of Père Marquette's death has long been a matter of controversy, with current opinion — 2016 — placing it somewhere near 
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	 Ludington, Michigan: on what grounds, I don't know. (Zoom out seven levels to locate the place on the map.) It is, however, undeniable that he spent his last winter in what is now Chicago, and the City erected 
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	 the Marquette Winter Monument at 2701 S. Damen Avenue — the next bridge down the river.

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18