History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century/1/3

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FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE, a French Jesuit, who had long lived on the frontier, in 1669 determined to explore the far west to the great river. He enlisted the cooperation of M. Talon, the Intendant, to aid him in fitting out an expedition. Father Marquette was one of the most devoted of missionaries, who had for years spent his life among the Indians in the French possessions. He had built up churches among them, learned their language, and endeared himself to the Indians by devoted friendship and kindly intercourse.

An intelligent French explorer and Indian trader, at Quebec, Louis Joliet, was selected by M. Talon to accompany Marquette on this expedition. On the 13th day of May, 1673, Marquette and Joliet, with five experienced voyagers, embarked from Michilimacinac in two birch canoes. When they arrived at Green Bay, the Indians, who had a warm affection and great veneration for the good missionary, who had devoted the best years of his life to their welfare, implored him to abandon the dangerous enterprise. They told him fearful stories of the Mes-as-se-pi country, and besought him with tears to give up such a hazardous expedition and remain with them. But his religious zeal, and the love of adventure, prompted him to make light of the apprehended dangers, and eager to go forward into the unexplored valley of the great river which it was believed no white man had seen, he pressed on. The party sailed up Green Bay to the mouth of Fox River and ascending this stream some distance, came to a village of the Miami and Kickapoo Indians. This was the extreme western limit of French explorations, and here Marquette engaged Miami guides to pilothis company to the Wisconsin River. Upon reaching this river, the guides returned to their tribe, leaving the fearless leaders of the expedition to find their way as best they could through the unknown region they had now entered.

Floating down the Wisconsin, they finally saw before them the broad waters of the Mississippi. It was on the 17th day of June, 1673, that Marquette and Joliet looked out on the bold bluffs of the western shore a few miles below where McGregor now stands. They were the first white men who ever saw Iowa. Pushing out into the current they beheld a wild, beautiful landscape. On the Wisconsin side was a level prairie shore stretching northward for many miles, covered with tall grass waving in the June breeze. Deer and elk were grazing on the meadow, Eastward were the bluffs which in prehistoric times had been washed by a torrent to which the Mississippi of modern days is but a little remnant. Westward, coming down to the water's edge were lofty, wooded, rocky hills and deep gorges fringed with rich foliage and flowers. Once out upon the waters of the largest river of the continent, they felt the inspiration of a great discovery. All about them was an unknown region. Not a human being was seen. The solitude of an uninhabited country surrounded them. They landed from time to time, made camps, killed game, and caught fish. They ascended the bluffs and saw in the distance boundless prairies upon which herds of buffalo and elk could be seen. Fringes of trees and bushes in the distance marked the course of creeks winding through the meadows. Here and there were beautiful groves, rising up like islands in the sea. The atmosphere was laden with the perfume of flowers. The air was soft and balmy as the breezes were wafted over the luxuriant vegetation. The woods were vocal with the music of birds. Squirrels, quail, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, and other game, were found in great abundance. The explorers passed between shores of unsurpassed beauty, where Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, Rock Island, Muscatine,


Father Marquette Discovers Iowa - History of Iowa.jpg
FATHER MARQUETTE DISCOVERS IOWA, JUNE 17, 1673
(From Photo Owned by Dr. John R. Bailey)


Burlington, and other flourishing cities were to be built more than one hundred and fifty years later.

On the 25th day of June they landed on the west shore, and discovered human footprints in the sand. They followed them to a path which led up the bluff to the westward. Leaving their boats in care of their companions, Marquette and Joliet ascend an elevation, and standing upon the bluff, gazed westward over an ocean of green grass waving in the breeze like the long swell of the sea. As far as the eye could reach were elevations covered with miniature groves, serving as guides to the natives in their wanderings. The stillness of a desert pervaded the beautiful landscape, which had a charm of wildness unsurpassed.

Following a path for several miles in a westerly direction, they saw a fringe of woods extending from the north, southeasterly. Columns of smoke were ascending in the distance, sure indications of human beings. Soon they came in sight of wigwams erected in a grove which they discovered to be a part of an Indian village. It was built on the banks of another river much smaller than the Mississippi. Its shores were shaded by a wide belt of oak, elm, walnut, maple and sycamore.

The natives were greatly astonished at the sight of the visitors, but no hostile demonstrations were made, while they gazed with wonder upon the white men who had so suddenly come among them. It is likely that few, if any of these Indians, had ever before seen a European. The Indians made signs of friendship and offered the Frenchmen the pipe of peace. The natives proved to be a band of the Illinois tribe, and had two other villages a few miles distant. The river upon whose banks they were living, was called by them the Mon-in-go-na. Marquette was well enough acquainted with the language of the Illinois nation to be able to converse with the villagers. When he had explained to them who their visitors were, the object of their voyage, and his pleasure at meeting some of theinhabitants of this beautiful country, the Indians gave the strangers a most cordial welcome. One of the chiefs addressed them in the following terms:

“I thank the Black Gown Chief (Father Marquette) and his friend (Joliet) for taking so much pains to come and visit us. Never before has the earth been so beautiful, nor the sun so bright as now. Never has the river been so calm or free from rocks which your canoes have removed as they passed down. Never has the tobacco had so fine a flavor, nor our corn appeared so beautiful as we behold it to-day. Ask the Great Spirit to give as life and health, and come ye and dwell with us.”

At the close of the chief's address, the visitors were invited to a feast which the squaws had prepared, a description of which is given by Marquette:

“It consisted of four courses. First there was a large wooden bowl filled with a preparation of corn meal boiled in water and seasoned with oil. The Indian conducting the ceremonies had a large wooden spoon with which he dipped up the mixture (called by the Indians tagamity), passing it in turn into the mouths of the different members of the party. The second course consisted of fish nicely cooked, which was separated from the bones and placed in the mouths of the guests. The third course was a roasted dog, which our explorers declined with thanks, when it was at once removed from sight. The last course was a roast of buffalo, the fattest pieces of which were passed to the Frenchmen, who found it to be most excellent meat.”

Marquette and Joliet were charmed with the beauty of the country, the fertile prairies with their mantles of luxuriant grass and wild flowers stretching away westward; the fish and game most plentiful, and their friendly reception by the Indians. This was Iowa, as it was first seen by white men, and no more enchanting land ever met the gaze of explorers. For six days the Frenchmen remained with their Indian friends, traversing the valley of the river, hunting elk, buffalo and prairie chickens, fishing and bathing in the pure waters, feasting on the choicest of the products of the fields, forests and streams. The natives exerted themselves to provide every entertainment possible for their white visitors, and urged them to prolong their stay. When Marquette and his party could not


A Typical Iowa Prairie - History of Iowa.jpg
A TYPICAL IOWA PRAIRIE


be prevailed upon to remain longer, more than six hundred Indians escorted them back to the Mississippi where their canoes were anchored, and regretfully bade them good-bye. The Indians watched the white men, waving their farewells, until they disappeared in the bend of the river.

The exact location of the point on the Mississippi where Marquette and his party landed is not known; but from the meager description that was given, nearly all investigators agree that it must have been near where the town of Montrose now stands, in Lee County, at the head of the lower rapids. The village at which the explorers were entertained was called by the Indians Mon-in-go-na. Whether the same name was given to the river along which their villages were built, is not certain. Nicolet gives the following version of the matter, and of the origin and meaning of the name “Des Moines,” which was given to the river by the earliest white settlers in its valley. He writes:

“The name which they gave to their settlement was Monin-gouinas (or Moingona, as laid down in the ancient maps of the country), and is a corruption of the Algonkin word Mikouaug, signifying at the road. The Indians, by their customary elliptical manner of designating localities, alluding, in this instance, to the well-known road in this section of their country, which they used to follow as a communication between the head of the lower rapids and their settlement on the river that empties itself into the Mississippi to avoid the rapids. This is still the practice of the present inhabitants of the country.

“After the French had established themselves on the Mississippi they adopted this name; but with their custom (to this day that of the Creoles of only pronouncing the first syllable, and applying it to the river, as well as to the Indians who dwelt upon it, they would say 'la riviere des Moins'—'the river of the Moins'; 'allez chez les Moins'—'to go to the Moins' (people). But, in later times the inhabitants associated this name with that of the Trappist monks (Moines de la Trappe), who resided with the Indians of the American bottom.

“It was then concluded that the true reading of the riviere des Moins was the 'Riviere des Moins,' or river of monks, by which it is designated on all the modern maps.

“The Sioux or Dakotah Indians call the Des Moines Inyan-sha-sha-watpa,or Redstone River, from inyan, stone; sha-sha, reduplication of sha, red; and watpa, river. They call the upper east fork Inyan-sha-sha-watpa sunkaku, the brother of Redstone River.”

This discovery of the valley and river of the upper Mississippi, and the beautiful prairie country, which has since been named Iowa, attracted but little attention in European countries at that time. Another great river had been added to the list of discoveries in the far west, hundreds of miles beyond the farthest frontier posts, and that was all. It is greatly to be regretted that the elaborate report made by Joliet of this discovery of the upper Mississippi and the exploration of its valley was lost. Father Marquette's chief interest, in all of his daring expeditions into unknown regions, was the conversion of the Indians to Christianity. He has not given especial attention in his writings to many facts relating to the country through which he traveled. We gather enough from the imperfect records, however, to draw a picture of the “beautiful land” as it was when he first looked upon it.

Tribes of red men who roamed over its boundless prairies, camped in its valleys and paddled their canoes along rivers and lakes, made no substantial improvements. Their houses were of the most temporary character; their villages could be moved at a day's notice. They had no roads, farms, or orchards. A few years effaced every mark of their occupancy. In a country abounding in game, fish and wild fruit, they found enough to satisfy their wants with very little labor.

Generations of Indians had grown up and passed away, leaving no monument or record of their existence. Their predecessors, the Mound Builders, when they possessed Iowa, had constructed enduring works which gave a key to their history; but the buffalo has left as many and enduring marks of its occupancy as the Indian.

Fierce feuds and savage warfare had prevailed among various tribes of the natives, but the first white men who came among them met with a warm welcome and substantial tokens of friendship. The French had, in America, treated the Indians with kindness, and respected their rights. The people of nearly all other nations had regarded them as savages, “having no rights that a white man was bound to respect.” The French lived in peace and security with them, while the English, Spaniards, and Portuguese made war upon them that brought retaliation in massacres of men, women and children.

Father Marquette won their confidence, esteem and veneration. When he and his party bade farewell to the Illinois chief, the latter presented to him the pipe of peace-the sacred calumet-ornamented with brilliant feathers. This, suspended from his neck, was to be a safeguard among all the strange tribes that he might encounter in his voyage.

He and his party continued their journey down the river, floating with the current by day and landing at night. They often made excursions into the country, exploring woods and prairie, and paddling up many rivers flowing into the Mississippi. They passed the mouth of a large river, the waters of which were of a muddy hue, discoloring the water for miles below the junction. They learned that the Indian name of this river was Pe-ki-ta-no-ni, afterward called by the French Missouri. Passing between heavily timbered banks, the explorers occasionally saw immense prairies to the eastward covered with a growth of grass as high as a man's shoulders. In the distance rose hills almost mountain high. Next they came to a broad stream of clearer water which the Indians had named the “Beautiful River.” This was the Ohio.

The journey was continued along low swampy shores shut in by forests and canebrakes until the heat became intolerable. Swarms of insects tormented the travelers. Herds of buffalo were frequently seen in the open country, and game was found in great abundance and variety.

In latitude 33° they encountered a fierce tribe of Indians of the Michigamie nation. These natives hadlearned by tradition of the invasion by De Soto's army a hundred and thirty-five years before, and of the atrocities perpetrated upon their ancestors. At the first sight of the canoes manned by white men, the alarm was sounded. A large band of warriors assembled, and embarking, armed with bows, arrows, tomahawks and war clubs, and with yells of defiance, advanced upon the seven Frenchmen. The fearless Marquette, unawed by the impending danger, held aloft the sacred calumet. Seeing the token of peace, the Indian chief restrained his braves, and in return made signs of peace. He invited Marquette and his companions to the village, where for several days they were entertained with hospitality.

Again embarking with a fresh supply of provisions, the explorers floated down to a village named Ar-an-sea. Through an interpreter, Marquette learned from the Indians that the course of the river was southward to the sea. They had now descended nearly to the mouth of the Arkansas River, a distance of more than eleven hundred miles. They had learned that the river they had discovered emptied into the Gulf of Mexico at a distance of about six hundred miles from where they were camped. The object of the expedition had been accomplished. The party had entered a region where the Algonquin dialect was unknown, and it was very difficult to communicate with, or procure information form the natives. The Indians were hostile, and might at any time attack the little company. Should these men be killed, all of their valuable discoveries would be lost to France. They were liable to come upon Spanish settlements or armed freebooters, of whom they were as much in fear as of the Indians.

After considering the situation, Marquette and Joliet agreed that it was their duty to return to Canada and report the results of their long and interesting journey. It was midsummer when it was decided to return. The heat was becoming intense. Slowly the oarsmen propelled the light canoes against the river's powerful flow.For weeks they ascended the river until they reached the mouth of the Illinois. Here they learned from the Indians that this river afforded a much shorter route to the great lakes than the Wisconsin. They ascended it for two weeks, and then crossed the Illinois prairies from its head waters to the Chicago River, and followed that stream to the shore of Lake Michigan.

Here the two leaders parted company; Father Marquette returning to his mission among the Huron Indians; Joliet going on to Quebec to report to his government the magnitude of the discoveries made by the expedition. The story of finding the great river and its large navigable tributaries, their broad and fertile valleys, the forests and boundless prairies, filled all of New France with rejoicing. The discovery gave France the right to occupy this entire region. Its resources of fertile soil, valuable timber, navigable rivers, natural meadows, fur-bearing animals and game, mineral wealth and genial climate, were unsurpassed by any country yet explored in America.

This territory embraced parts of what are now the States of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. It was found to be occupied by Indians in all respects similar to those living along the St. Lawrence and the great lakes. They spoke a variety of dialects, but careful observation showed but eight radically different languages. The Algonquin tongue, spoken along the St. Lawrence, the upper Mississippi, the Des Moines and the Illinois, was most widely diffused. It was heard from Cape Fear to the land of the Esquimaux, a thousand miles north of the sources of the Mississippi.

The Illinois Indians were kindred to the Miamis, and their country lay between the Wahash, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Marquette found a village of them within the limits of Iowa on the lower banks of the Des Moines River. At this time (1673) the entire tract embraced in Illinois contained only five or six Indian villages, so far as known. Marquette saw but one village along the Iowashore of the Mississippi from the mouth of the Wisconsin to that of the Des Moines.

Bancroft estimates that at the time of the discovery of America, the entire Indian population of the region now embraced in the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, was but little more than twenty-five thousand. And all of this land was still sparsely occupied one hundred and eighty years later. The extent and importance of the discoveries made by these energetic pioneers was not realized by France, and no effort was made by the government to occupy or further explore the new empire.

Joliet was but twenty-seven years old at this time. He was an expert draughtsman, and had carefully prepared maps and notes descriptive of their joint discoveries. But he met with a great misfortune in descending the St. Lawrence River, where his canoe was capsized and all of his valuable papers and maps lost. No complete history of the expedition was now in existence, and the only report he was able to make to the French Government was an imperfect narrative, from memory, of the results of the discoveries. Some years later he gathered all the data obtainable and reproduced the lost maps from memory as accurately as was possible, with a chart of the general course of the river. He added to it such proximate draught as he was able to make from information obtained from the Indians, of that portion of the lower valley and river beyond which their voyage extended.[1]


  1. Illinois has given the name of this young explorer to one of its large towns.