Marquette and Jolliet: Mississippi Mission

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13032

A priest and a fur trader teamed up to find a Great River that had eluded other French explorers. Could it be reached from the Great Lakes? Where did it go, and what would they find along the way?


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Do you speak more than one language? Would you like to learn another language, or are you studying one now?

New World explorers and settlers often tried to learn native languages. They probably found them very difficult to learn! Read the section below, written in the Wyondat language that the Huron spoke:

Estenniayon de tsonwe Iesous ahatonnia onn' awatewa nd' oki n' onyouandaskwaentak ennonchien eskwatrihotat n'onyouandiyonrachatha Iesous ahatonnia, ahatonnia.

Iesous ahatonnia. Ayoki onkiennhache eronhiayeronnon iontonk ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion Warie onn' awakweton ndio sen tsatonnharonnion Iesous ahatonnia, ahatonnia. Iesous ahatonnia.

Now, read the English translation:

'Twas in the moon of winter-time When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria."
Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high...
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria."

(1926 English version by Jesse Edgar Middleton)

Jean de Brebeuf, an early missionary in Canada, wrote this song in the Wyondat language to help them learn about Christianity. It's called The Huron Carol.

Listen to a recording of The Huron Carol, sung in Wyondat, French, and English:

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  • What are some other reasons why explorers and settlers wanted to learn native languages?

In this lesson, you'll learn about two explorers who excelled at learning languages!

Jacques Marquette, a Catholic priest, and Louis Jolliet, a fur trader, teamed up to become the first Europeans to explore the northern Mississippi River and the interior of the North American continent.

They were an unusual pair, with their own particular goals and unlike personalities. But they had some similarities as well. Both could learn new languages easily. Marquette was a quick learner and picked up at least 6 native languages within a short time. Like Marquette, Jolliet also had a talent for learning languages. He spoke English, French, Spanish, and several Indian languages. They both had courage, perseverance, and a spirit of adventure. And so they were able to work together well, and each was able to accomplish his own goals without interfering with the other's.

Jacques Marquette was born in 1637 in Laon, France. He was a devout young man, and felt that God was calling him to be a missionary to spread the Christian faith to people who had never heard of Christ. At 17, he joined the Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests, and asked that he be sent to the Indies to preach there. However, because he was very intelligent, he was sent to college, first as a student and then a teacher, for several years. He finally got his wish in 1666, when he was sent to the Jesuit missions in Quebec, Canada.

Father Jacques Marquette

Image by Donald G. McNab [cropped], via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Father Marquette's quick intelligence was very helpful in the French Jesuit missions (Missions were places where natives could come and learn about the Christian God, learn new skills, and get other kinds of help). He founded a mission called Sault St. Marie, way at the top of Michigan, between the Great Lakes Huron and Superior. It was here that he first heard of a river that the natives called "Misi-ziibi," meaning "Great River."

He worked for a few years at that mission and was then sent to the mission of Pointe du Saint-Esprit, meaning "Point of the Holy Spirit," in what is now northern Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior (In geography, a "point" is a narrow strip of land that sticks out into the water). Soon after this, he met some Indians of the Illinois tribe for the first time. They also knew of the "Great River" and could tell him how to get there. So he spent some time learning their language, hoping he would be able to go exploring — while also teaching Christianity, of course.

Fr. Marquette was sent out from there to start some more missions. In 1671, he started a new mission called St. Ignace (St. Ignatius), in what is now northern Michigan.

Now, let's meet his partner, Louis Jolliet (sometimes you'll see his name spelled with only one "l").

Louis Jolliet statue

Image by Jean Gagnon [cropped], via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Louis Jolliet was the first major explorer born in North America. He was born in 1645 near Quebec. His father died when Jolliet was young, and his mother married a man who owned land on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Jolliet spent most of his time there, learning the native way of life. Interestingly, like Marquette, Jolliet also went to a Jesuit school and started to study for the priesthood. However, he found that he was meant for a different kind of life.

He began as a trader of furs and other goods, or what the French called a "coureur de bois," meaning, "runner of the woods." Like the frontiersmen of later years in the U.S., the "coureur de bois" wore buckskins and raccoon-tail caps and knew how to live off the land, communicate with the natives, and find their way to just about anywhere they wanted to go.

coureur de bois in typical dress

Image by Arthur Heming, via Wikimedia Commons from the National Archives of Canada, is in the public domain.

Jolliet became skilled at geography and making maps as well, which are great skills for an explorer to have!

Historians are not exactly sure how Fr. Marquette met Jolliet, but they believe the meeting happened at Sault Ste. Marie.

At this time, the governor of New France — Frontenac — approved a plan to send explorers to find and navigate the "Great River" and see if it flowed toward the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico. Jolliet was excited to lead the project. He gathered together some other fur traders and lead them to Fr. Marquette's mission at St. Ignace. He had somehow gotten permission for the priest to go with him on the expedition. Jolliet must have been impressed with Fr. Marquette's skills and spirit of adventure and thought they would make a good team.

They set out in May of 1673, with five men and two canoes. Marquette and Jolliet were both eager to find the Mississippi and to discover where it led. They both wanted to meet the natives who lived along its banks and open up the area for further French exploration. But they also had different goals, of course. Jolliet wanted to open up new areas for trading. Fr. Marquette was most interested in establishing more missions to teach the natives about God.

Père Marquette and the Indians

Image by Wilhelm Lamprecht, via Wikimedia Commons from the Raynor Memorial Library at Marquette University, is in the public domain.

Together, they went along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Here the natives urged them not to go any farther, claiming there were monsters in the water who would overturn their canoes and eat them! But they pressed on and found the Fox River, where they had to paddle upstream. They portaged (carried their canoes over land) about 2 miles through the forest to the Wisconsin River. They met the Mississippi River on June 17th and paddled down it, discovering the Missouri River along the way. They both made maps and took excellent notes describing everything they saw and experienced. They described the Indian villages, the people they met, the landscapes, plants, flowers, trees, birds, and animals. They continued journeying until they met the Arkansas River. Here they decided to turn back, just 400 miles before the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Why did they turn back?

By this time, they realized that the Mississippi had to run into the Gulf of Mexico because it had not turned toward the west. They had also met some natives carrying items they had gotten from the Spanish. Marquette and Jolliet feared encountering the Spanish and being captured by them (Remember that Spain already had claimed land in the New World and would not want the French coming into their territories). If the explorers had been captured, all their work would have been for nothing because the news of their discoveries would never have gotten back to the French.

On the way back, they decided to travel by the Illinois River. Natives had told them it was an easier route to the Great Lakes, and they followed it until they reached the area that is now Chicago. Then, Jolliet returned to Quebec to report on their discoveries, and Fr. Marquette went to the Green Bay area and stayed at the St. Francis Xavier mission there.

Visit the The Explorers: Jacques Marquette 1673, at the Canadian Museum of History, to view the route they took.

The next year, Fr. Marquette founded a mission among the Illinois tribe, whom he had met on the voyage, and then returned to the Chicago area where he was the first European to spend the winter. However, he had gotten sick during the expedition with Jolliet, and he wanted to return to the St. Ignace mission. He thought he was dying and wanted to pass his last days there. He traveled along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and came to a small stream near where the city of Ludington, Michigan, is today. He did not even have the strength to walk anymore, so he asked his friends to carry him on shore. He died there on May 18, 1675. That stream is now called the Père (French for "Father") Marquette River, and it leads into the Père Marquette Lake.

Louis Jolliet went on to do some more exploring. He sailed from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along the coast of Labrador, and was the first European to make a description of that coastline and the lives of the Inuit natives.

He died some time in 1700. His body was never found, and there are no details of his death.

The town of Joliet, Illinois is named after him because he and Fr. Marquette camped there during their travels. Also, there is town called Joliet in Montana and one in Quebec.

There are several towns named after Marquette, too — in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Both explorers also have colleges named in their honor, which is very fitting for men who loved to study and learn.

Now, move on to the Got It? section, where you'll decide if Marquette and Jolliet met the goals they started out with!

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