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Chapter 6

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.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p101  Chapter VII

Father Hennepin

A passing notice of Hennepin seems not to be inappropriate, as he gave to Louisiana and to the Falls of the Mississippi the names they bear, thus perpetuating forever those of his sovereign and his patron saint, under whose auspices he acted, and preserved, in spite of other efforts to change them, the aboriginal names of the streams he embarked upon.

Many of our great natural monuments bear silent testimony in his favor, and conspire to yield him honor and renown.

He was a native of the Spanish Netherlands, and in early life manifested a strong inclination to withdraw from the busy world, that he might regulate his life by rules of the severest virtue, not precisely from the same motive that prompted Saint Anthony, the father and author of monastic life, who in the year 270 retired to the wilderness, there to spend his days  p102 in prayer and penance, nor by that which inspired another religious devotee in the year 289, the monk Saint Paul, who, fleeing from the persecution of Decius, retired into the desert of Thebais, and there passed ninety years in a loathsome cave in conversation with his God, but by a desire to withdraw from temptation, and yet spend his life in action, doing good to his kind.

For this purpose he joined the order of St. Francis, a branch of the Carmelite friars,a who had, about the year 1200, made their appearance in Europe from Mount Carmel, where they had received a rule from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was a mendicant order, vowed to the lowest poverty, and the severest penance, gray coats and bare-feet as badges of distinction and an entire devotion to the precept, "preach my gospel to the heathen," marked its members. From this, and its kindred order, the Dominicans, has holy Church been supplied with many popes, cardinals, bishops and other noted ecclesiastics, while in saints they have been most wonderfully fruitful.

The voyages and travels of the brethren of this order, a visit to Italy and Calais in obedience  p103 to his vows, the stories he heard from the mariners he met with at Dunkirk on his return, their travels, perils and wonders they had seen in foreign and distant lands, excited in him an undying desire to travel also, and whilst gratifying his curiosity, contribute at the same time his little mite to the amelioration of man.

An opportunity soon presented itself, by an invitation from the Bishop of Quebec to accompany him thither, to labor in fields where but a few of his brethren had entered, and among a race whose destitute condition awakened his liveliest sympathies.

Arriving at Quebec some time before La Salle's return from France, he had ample opportunities to discipline himself by encountering every hardship to which the performance of his vows exposed him, and although he was appointed a priest to the cloister of St. Augustine, he yet contrived to spare sufficient time from his monastic duties to make excursions to the Indians of that region; his baggage drawn on the snow in the winter season by a dog, and he himself exposed to all the fury of the elements, with no covering but his cloak, and often without food. He was the very man to  p104 be captivated by such an adventure as the genius of La Salle opened to him, to roam into new and unexplored regions, to see nature in her grandest forms and in her most sequestered haunts, and to offer the sign of salvation to those untutored beings, who, not knowing their bountiful giver, looked upon them with indifference.

It is unnecessary to recapitulate all the incidents of the voyage up the Saint Lawrence and through Lake Ontario to the Niagara river, performed in November, 1678, nor of the building and equipment of a vessel above the Falls, of sixty tons, mounting five small cannon, and three large muskets, fired by a match, the little pioneer of those multitudes that now whiten those waters, and called "the Griffin;" nor of their progress in her, to an island at the entrance of Green Bay, nor of her subsequent loss in a storm on her voyage back, in charge of the pilot and five men, and loaded with peltries and furs, nor of their voyage thence in canoes to the southern end of Lake Michigan, it being sufficient to state they reached the latter point, landing at the mouth of a river, coming from the south, called Miamis, about  p105 the middle of November, 1679, after encountering hardships almost incredible, and dangers and difficulties the most formidable and appalling.

Here a stockade was erected which occupied them until the end of that month, and here perplexity and doubt arises as to the spot called the mouth of "the Miamis," whether it was the mouth of the Saint Joseph on the south-eastern side of the lake, or that of the Chicago or Calumet on the south-western side.

By Hennepin's narrative it would seem that having left the mouth of the Miamis on the second day of December, 1679, "they rowed twenty-five leagues (seventy-five miles),b in a south-west direction," and reached the Illinois, "navigable for canoes to within one hundred paces of its source."

Now no stream near Chicago gives such a length of navigation in that direction, and by the Saint Joseph to the portage to the Kankakee the course would be rather south-east, yet that must have been the route, and the Kankakee regarded as the Illinois, which they found navigable for canoes, at the point at which they reached it by the portage.

 p106  At the mouth of the Saint Joseph, years before, the faithful missionary, the Jesuit Allouez, had collected together the scattered bands of the Hurons, and established a missionary station, thereby making it a point known to these adventurers, and one which, knowing, they would endeavor to reach.

It was in the dead of winter as they paddled their weary way down the Kankakee, flowing through fraction marshes, destitute of game, and the whole country presenting a most cheerless aspect.

The pains of hunger sorely distressed them, until alleviated by the fortunate capture of a half-famished buffalo struggling in the river. The bones of that animal whitened the whole surface of the plains, and added to their otherwise cheerless desolation.

"How dead the vegetable kingdom lay,

How dumb the tuneful." —

Every difficulty attended them, yet the courage and perseverance of their leader faltered not. He was gay, cheerful and decided amid them all, and inspired, by his own intrepid bearing, a manly confidence in his less resolute followers. The friars, too, called the devotional  p107 feelings of the party into exercise, and by the joint operation of these influences, they reached, without accident, the Illinois river, and on Christmas, the "Illinois lake," whose bank was spotted with five hundred cabins, the principal village of the "Illinois Nation," though then all deserted, their savage owners being out up their usual winter hunt.


Thayer's Notes:

a The Franciscans are not a branch of the Carmelites.

[decorative delimiter]

b As elsewhere, Breese makes the league equivalent to three English miles, which it is not. The French league of the 17c was 3.25 km, or almost exactly two miles. Thus the distance was not seventy-five miles, but fifty, and the author's argument in the next paragraph is vitiated.


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