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French explorer Jacques Marquette is best known as the first European to see and map the northern portion of the Mississippi River.
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Jacques Marquette was born in Laon, France, on June 1, 1637. He joined the Society of Jesus at age 17 and became a Jesuit missionary. He founded missions in present-day Michigan and later joined explorer Louis Joliet on an expedition to discover and map the Mississippi River.
Frenchman Jacques Marquette became an explorer in the mid-1600s, not only because of his interest in travel and discovery of new lands, but also because of his religion. At age 17, Marquette—who was born in Laon, France, on June 1, 1637—joined the Society of Jesus and became a Jesuit missionary.
Marquette studied and taught in the Jesuit colleges of France for about 12 years before his superiors assigned him in 1666 to be a missionary to the indigenous people of the Americas. He traveled to Quebec, Canada, where he demonstrated his penchant for learning indigenous languages: Marquette learned to converse fluently in six different Native American dialects and became an expert in the Huron language.
In 1668, Marquette sent to establish more missions farther up the St. Lawrence River in the western Great Lakes region. He helped establish missions at Sault Ste. Marie in what is now Michigan—the state's first European settlement—in 1668 and at St. Ignace, also in Michigan, in 1671.
On May 17, 1673, Marquette and his friend Louis Joliet (also spelled "Jolliet"), a French-Canadian fur trader and explorer, were chosen to lead an expedition that included five men and two canoes to find the direction and mouth of the Mississippi River, which natives had called Messipi, "the Great Water."
Despite sharing a goal to find the river, the two leaders' ambitions were different: Joliet, an experienced mapmaker and geographer, was focused on the finding itself, while Marquette wanted to spread the word of God among the people he encountered on the way there.
Marquette's group traveled westward to Green Bay in present-day Wisconsin, ascended the Fox River to a portage that crossed to the Wisconsin River and entered the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien on June 17, 1673. Following the river to the mouth of the Arkansas River—within 435 miles of the Gulf of Mexico—Marquette and Joliet learned that it flowed through hostile Spanish domains. Fearing an encounter with Spanish colonists and explorers, they decided to return homeward by way of the Illinois River in mid-July.
While Joliet continued on to Canada to relay news of the expedition and its discoveries, Marquette stayed behind in Green Bay. In 1694, he set out to found a mission among the Illinois Indians. As a result of the cold winter weather, he and two companions camped near the site of what is now Chicago, becoming the first Europeans to live there. In the spring, Marquette reached the Indians he sought, but illness—dysentery he contracted while on his mission—forced him to return home. He died on May 18, 1675, en route to St. Ignace at the mouth of a river later named Père Marquette in his honor.
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Throughout the centuries, brave explorers have fearlessly traveled the globe and beyond to discover new lands, people, animal species, riches and glory. Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal proved the world is round with his mission to sail around the world. His fellow countryman Vasco da Gama commanded the first European ship around the southern tip of Africa to reach India by sea. Norseman Leif Eriksson is regarded as the first European to reach North America, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus, who is credited with discovering the “New World” of the Americas. Juan Ponce de León scoured Puerto Rico and Florida in his quest for the fountain of youth. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed new trails during their Corps of Discovery Expedition across the western half of the United States. Traveling to new heights of discovery were mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the peak of Mount Everest, and U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. These intrepid explorers and more have made an indelible mark on human history. See all Explorers.
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