Adventures of Chevalier de La Salle - John S. C. Abbott

Marquette's Last Voyage, and Death


Father Marquette spent the winter and the whole summer of 1674 at Green Bay, actively engaged in the services of the mission, though in a very feeble state of health. It is said that he was remarkably genial and companionable, fond of pleasantry, ever greeting others with pleasant words and benignant smiles. He had promised the Illinois Indians that he would return to them, to teach them the religion of peace and good-will brought to the world by the Son of God.

His health being somewhat recruited, he set out, by direction of his superiors, with two boatmen, Pierre and Jacques, to establish a mission among these Indians, who were anxiously awaiting his arrival. The mission at Green Bay was at the southern extremity of that inland sea. Taking their canoe and all their effects upon their shoulders, they crossed the peninsula, which separated the bay from the lake, through an Indian trail about thirty miles in length. They then launched their canoe upon the broad surface of Lake Michigan. The cold gales of November had now begun to plough the surface of this inland sea. Their progress was very slow. Often the billows were such that the canoe could not ride safely over them. Then they landed, and, in the chill November breezes, trudged along the shore, bearing all their effects upon their shoulders!

Ice formed upon the margin of the water, and several snow-storms impeded their march, adding greatly to their discomfort. But not a repining word escaped the lips of Father Marquette. It was but a dismal shelter they could rear, for the night, on the bleak shore. Through this exposure his health began rapidly to fail. It took them nearly four weeks to reach the mouth of the Chicago River. They ascended the river several leagues, until they came to a small cluster of Indian wigwams. The savages were poor, but few in number, and their abodes comfortless. But Pere Marquette was so sick that they could go no farther. These Indians were of the Miami tribe.

Here the voyagers built a small log-cabin, and, destitute of what many would deem the absolute necessaries of life, passed the remaining weeks of the dreary winter. One would suppose that the lone missionary must at times have contrasted painfully his then situation, with the luxuries he had enjoyed in the ancestral castle in which he was cradled. A few wretched wigwams were scattered over the snow-whitened plains, where poverty, destitution, and repulsive social habits reigned, such as is perhaps never witnessed in civilized life.

His home was but a cabin of logs, with the interstices stuffed with moss. The roof was covered with bark. The window was merely a hole cut through the logs. In storms a piece of cloth hung over it, which partially kept out wind and rain. The fireplace was one corner of the room, with a hole in the roof through which the smoke ascended. Often the state of the atmosphere was such that the cabin was filled with smothering smoke. A few mats, woven coarsely from bulrushes, covered a portion of the earth floor. A mat was his bed. A log, covered with a mat, was his chair; his food was pounded corn, and fishes and flesh of animals, broiled on the coals; his companions, savages. Such was the home which this noble man had cheerfully accepted in exchange for the baronial splendors of his ancestors. It was two hundred years ago. Father Marquette has received his rewards. His earthly labors and sacrifices were for but about twenty years. For two hundred years he has occupied a mansion, which God reared for him in heaven. There he is now, with his crown, his robe, and his harp, with angel companionship. And there he is to dwell forever.

There is something exceedingly beautiful in the simplicity of the Gospel of Christ. God, in the person of his Son, came to earth and suffered and died to make atonement for human sin. All who will abandon sin, and try to live doing nothing wrong, and endeavoring to do everything that is right, He will forgive, and make forever happy in heaven.

This is the Gospel; the Good News. God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. The loitering Indians, ignorant, degraded, wicked, gathered in constant groups around the fire, in the cabin of the sick Christian teacher. And when he told them of that happy world where they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, and where God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, the truth came home to their hearts, and became its own witness.

And yet here, as elsewhere, the Gospel of Jesus found its bitter antagonists. With the Indians, as in every city and town in Christendom, there were those who did not wish to be holy. They hated a Gospel which demanded the abandonment of sin. These men, with bloody tomahawks and gory scalping knives, and who, from infancy, had been practising the hideous war-whoop; who consider the glory of their manhood to depend upon the number of enemies they had slain, and whose greatest delight consisted in listening to the shrieks, and witnessing the convulsions of their agonized victims at the stake, denounced the Christian teacher, as the Jews denounced the Son of God, crying out "Crucify him."

Every day Father Marquette was sinking in languor, which both he and his companions supposed to be a monition of speedily approaching death. And yet he was a cheerful and happy man. All incomers at his cabin were greeted with smiles. Death had no terror. Brighter and brighter grew the path, as he drew nearer to the celestial city. His log-cabin was continually crowded with those who sought instruction. The two humble companions who attended him were devout men, though uneducated, and in life's lowly station. They joined heartily in the devotions of the cabin. The voices of the three were joined in matins and vespers, and floated sweetly over those dreary wastes, where such heavenly strains had never been heard before.

Louis XIV. was then upon the throne of France. He was one of the greatest, most powerful, most opulent of all earthly monarchs. The wealth and the genius of earth could construct nothing more grand than his palaces at Marly and Versailles. His banqueting-hall was unsurpassed by any other hall ever reared upon this globe. His chambers, his saloons, his galleries, are still visited by astonished and admiring thousands. And yet no one, familiar with his life, will deny that Father Marquette, in his log-cabin, surrounded by Indian wigwams, probably passed a happier winter than did Louis XIV., amidst the most dazzling splendors which ever surrounded a mortal.

Christmas came. It was made by the three a season of special devotion, that God would so reinvigorate Father Marquette, as to enable him to fulfil his promise, and visit the Illinois Indians, and teach them the Gospel. These devotions were called a Novena, which was a nine days' prayer-meeting. Their prayers were heard. Contrary to all reasonable expectation, he so far regained his strength as to be able, on the 29th of March, to resume his journey. The chill winds of departing winter still swept the plains. Storms of sleet often beat upon them. The ground, alternately thawing and freezing, was frequently whitened with snow. And still these heroic men, with chivalry never surpassed in the annals of knighthood, pressed on. Their journey was slow. Sometimes they floated upon the stream. Again they followed the Indian trail through forest and prairie. After traversing a route about a hundred and fifty miles in length, they reached, on the 8th of April, the Kankakee River, an important tributary of the Illinois. At this point, which is now in the present county of Kankakee, and near where the village of Rockport stands, the Illinois Indians had their large and populous village.

The missionary was received, we are told, as an angel from heaven. He assembled all the chiefs of the tribe, with the renowned warriors, that with imposing ceremonies he might announce to them the object of his coming, and impress them with the momentous importance of his message. There was no wigwam sufficiently capacious to accommodate such a multitude as the occasion would assemble.

Near the village there was a smooth, verdant, beautiful prairie, richly carpeted with the velvet green of early spring. On a mild and sunny morning a wonderful crowd of savages—men, women, and children—were seen crowding to the appointed station. The chiefs were dressed in truly gorgeous habiliments, of plumes, skins richly embroidered and fringed, and brilliantly colored. Their robes were more showy than any court-dress ever witnessed at Windsor Castle or the Tuileries. The warriors, with proud demeanor and stately tread, marched along, with quivers of arrows at their backs, and bows in their hands. Tomahawks and scalping knives were ostentatiously displayed, and the scalps of enemies dangled at their javelin points, as badges of their nobility. Of these they were more proud than were ever English, French, or Spanish grandees of the decoration of stars or garters. The women and the dogs came next. They were alike regarded as necessary drudges to bear burdens, and to be fed with the refuse which their masters left. Then came the boys and girls, many of them half naked, shouting, laughing, racing, engaging in all the uncouth merriment of a savage gala day.

The spot selected for the council was decorated according to the most approved fashion of the people and their times. The ground was covered with mats, made of the skins of bears and other animals. Posts were planted, draped and festooned with green boughs. Upon each of the four sides of the square, the good father, who had ever been taught to regard with the utmost veneration the Mother of Jesus, hung a picture of the Blessed Virgin, that all might gaze upon her sad yet beautiful features.

Father Marquette took his seat upon a mat, in the centre of the enclosure. Then the chiefs, and the veteran warriors, who in many a bloody foray had won renown, took their seats around him. Silently and with the dignity becoming great men, they assumed their positions. The young men, who had not yet signalized themselves, and who were ever eager to go upon the war-path, that they might return with their trophies of gory scalps, to receive the applause of the nation as braves, came next.

In respect to the war spirit, which is one of the most direful traits of our fallen race, there is but little difference between the civilized and uncivilized man. I was once breakfasting with one of the most distinguished officers of a European army. To my question whether the officers generally wished for peace or war, he replied:

"War, of course. In times of peace promotion comes slowly. But upon the battle field promotions are very rapidly made."

The young warriors counted about fifteen hundred. Outside of their circle, the women and the children were clustered. It was estimated that the whole population of the village amounted to about three thousand.

The Illinois Indians were at war with the Miamis, among whom Father Marquette had passed the winter. The Illinois chiefs had obtained of the traders a few guns. Immediately upon Marquette reaching their village, they hastened to entreat of him powder and ball, that they might fit out an expedition against their foes. Father Marquette rose at the council, and after presenting the chiefs with some valuable gifts, in token of the sincerity of his desire to be their friend and do them good, addressed them in substance as follows:

"I have not brought you any powder or balls. I do not wish you to fight your brethren the Miamis. You are all the children of the same Father. You should love one another. I have come to tell you of God, and to teach you to pray. God, the Great Spirit, came to the world, and became a man, whose name was Jesus. He died upon the cross to atone for the sins of all men. And now, if you will cease to sin; if you will love your Father, the Great Spirit, pray to Him and do everything in your power to please Him, He will bless you, and when you die will take you to dwell with Him and will make you happy forever."

Such was, in general, the address of Father Marquette. Such was ever, in substance, his teaching. Jesus the Christ, and Him crucified, was his constant theme. Two or three days were spent in similar exercises. The Indians crowded around the father constantly. They listened to his teachings with respectful and apparently with even joyful attention. He was pale and emaciate. Even the Indian could perceive, from his feeble voice and emaciate steps, that he was not far from the grave. On Easter Sunday, the faithful missionary, with solemn and imposing ceremonies, took, if we may so speak, spiritual possession of the land, in the name of Jesus Christ.

The rapidly failing health of the missionary, rendered it expedient for him to endeavor to return to his friends at Green Bay. The poor Indians really mourned at the idea of his departure. Time hung heavily upon their hands. They had but little to think of, and but little to do. Loitering indolently around, from morning till night, it was a great source of enjoyment to them, to crowd the large wigwam they had built for the father, to listen to his words, to question him, and to witness the ceremonies with which he was accustomed to conduct his devotions. They were therefore much troubled at the thought of his departure, and were but partially comforted by his repeated assurances that he would either soon return again, or send some one else to continue the mission which he had thus commenced.

Slowly and feebly he set out on his long journey back to Green Bay. It was ninety miles from Kankakee to the southern extremity of Lake Michigan. They could paddle in canoes over a portion of the route. But there were also weary miles of portage which they had to pass over, through Indian trails, carrying their canoe, and all their effects, upon their backs. It was a severe undertaking for a sick man, who was so feeble that even if a horse could have been provided for him to ride, he could scarcely have held himself upon the saddle.

A large party of the Indians accompanied the father, on this weary journey to the lake. They administered to his wants with the tenderest care, relieving him of every burden, and aiding him over the rough ways. At the night encampments, they provided for him a shelter, kindled his fire, cooked his food, and spread for him a couch of leaves and twigs. When they reached a small stream, which ran into the lake, they placed him as comfortably as possible in his canoe, and intrusting him to the care of his two faithful boatmen, Jacques and Pierre, bade him an affectionate farewell.

The savages, after these deeds of almost Christian kindness, returned to their wigwams, to sharpen the edges of their tomahawks, the points of their javelins, the barbs of their arrows; and were soon, with hideous yells, rushing upon their foes the Miamis, burning, killing, scalping—performing deeds of cruelty which ought to cause even demons to blush.

Father Marquette was too weak to wield the paddle. He reclined in the bottom of the canoe, with his head slightly elevated, so that he could see all the beauties of the scenery through which they were passing. His prayer-book was in his hand; his talk was of heaven; he was cheerful and happy. His companions have testified to the wonderful amiability, gentleness, and joy he maintained. He told them plainly that he should die upon the voyage, but encouraged them to bear courageously all the hardships they were to encounter on the way, assuring that the Lord would not forsake them.

As his attendants plied their paddles he read prayers to them, sang sweet hymns of devotion, and in many fervent utterances commended them and himself to God. He was in no pain. His eye sparkled with animation. His soul was triumphant. It may be doubted whether, on the broad continent of North America, there were, in these hours, an individual to be found more happy than he.

It was one of the mornings of lovely May, when this frail birch canoe, with its three inmates, emerging from a small stream, entered upon the ocean-like expanse of Lake Michigan. On the north and the east the majestic inland sea spread out to the horizon, with no bounds but the sky. For some unexplained reason they decided to take the eastern shore of the lake, on their return voyage, though their outward voyage had been by the western shore. They had still a journey of three hundred miles before them.

Father Marquette was so weak that he could no longer help himself. He could neither move nor stand, and had to be carried from the canoe to the shore like an infant. At each encampment the attendants would draw the canoe, with Father Marquette in it, gently upon the beach. They would then hastily rear a shelter, spread for him a couch of the long and withered herbage, and lay him tenderly upon it. The only food they could prepare for the fainting invalid, was corn pounded into coarse meal, mixed with water, and baked in the ashes, with perhaps a slice of game broiled upon the coals.

Thus they moved along, day after day, expecting almost every hour that the death summons would come. On Friday evening, the 27th of May, 1675, he told them, with a countenance radiant with joy, that on the morrow he should take his departure for his heavenly home.

He gave them minute instructions respecting the place he wished to be selected for his burial; directed how to arrange his hands and feet, and how to wrap him in his robes, for he could have no coffin. While one was to read the burial service the other was gently to toll the small chapel bell which he bore with him on his mission. The canoe was gliding along near the shore, as the father gave these instructions, reclining upon his mat. The setting sun was sinking apparently into the shoreless waters of the lake, in the west. They were all examining the land, the boatmen searching for a suitable spot for their night's encampment, and the father looking for a good place for his dying bed and his burial.

They came to the mouth of a small, pleasant river, which presented a sheltered cove for their canoe. There was an eminence near by, crowned by a beautiful grove, and commanding a wide prospect of the lake and of the land. It had a sunny exposure, drained of moisture, and composed of just such soil as seems suitable for a grave. Father Marquette pointed to the eminence in the lone, silent, solitary wilderness, and said, "There is the spot for my last repose."

The boatmen ran their canoe up the mouth of the river, a few rods, and landed. Hastily they threw up a frail camp, kindled a fire, spread down a mat for a couch, and placed their revered spiritual father upon it. He was then left entirely alone, with his God, while his companions were engaged in unloading the canoe. They were silent and sad, for they could not but perceive that the dying hour was at hand.

When they returned, Father Marquette gave them his last instructions. "I thank you, my dear companions," he said, "for all the love and tenderness you have shown me during this voyage. I beg you to pardon me for the trouble I have given you. Will you also say to all my fathers and brethren in the Ottowa mission that I implore their forgiveness for my imperfections. I am now very near my home. But I shall not forget you in heaven. You are very weary with the toils of the day. I shall still live probably for several hours. I wish you would retire and take that rest which you so greatly need. I will call you as soon as the last moments arrive."

They left the cabin with stricken hearts and weeping eyes. The dying Christian was left alone with his God. Who can imagine the peace and joy which must then have filled his heart and suffused his eyes. The victory was won. Death was conquered. The chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof were waiting at the door of the humble cabin, to transport the victor, through the pathways of the stars, to his throne and his crown. Glorious death! Blissful journey!

Three hours passed away, and his feeble voice was heard calling his companions to his side. He threw his arms around the neck of each one, and drawing him gently down imprinted a kiss upon each cheek. Then, taking the crucifix, which he ever wore around his neck, he placed it in the hands of one of them, requesting him to hold that emblem of the atoning sacrifice of his Saviour before his eyes until the last moment. Then, inspired with the faith of Stephen the Martyr, clasping his hands and fixing his eyes upon this memorial of God manifest in the flesh, in fervent prayer he said:

"O Lord God, I thank Thee for the boundless grace Thou hast conferred upon me in permitting me to die in the service of Jesus Christ Thy Son. O God, I thank Thee, that I have been His missionary; and that I am permitted to die, in a cabin, in the depths of the forest, and far removed from all human aid."

There were a few moments of perfect silence. No sound fell upon the ear but the gentle breathing of the dying man. He was then heard feebly to say, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." Again he said, in accordance with the faith which he had received from childhood, "Mary! Mother of Jesus my Lord, remember me."

Suddenly he raised his eyes from the crucifix and looked upward, as if a vision of wonderful glory was bursting upon his entranced view. His countenance shone radiant with joy. A sweet smile was upon his lips. Without a struggle, without a sigh, his soul took its flight to its home in heaven. He had fallen asleep.

"Asleep in Jesus! Far from thee,

Thy kindred and their graves may be.

But thine is still a blessed sleep,

From which none ever wake to weep."

His two bereaved companions wept bitterly. They laid out the body as directed; wrapped it in the threadbare garments it so long had worn, and having dug the grave, placed the revered remains within it. While one devotedly covered the body with its mother earth, the other tolled the little bell which had so often summoned them to prayer. They remained upon the spot until the next day. A large cross was made, and planted firmly in the ground, in a position which would attract the attention of all passing along the shore of the lake. The two faithful boatmen, Jacques and Pierre, then, after kneeling upon the grave in fervent prayer, returned to their canoe and continued the long journey to Green Bay. They reached the mission in safety, with their sad tidings.

Father Marquette died at the early age of thirty-eight.

He had spent twenty-one years an earnest, self-denying minister of Jesus Christ. Twelve of these were in France. Nine were devoted to the savages of the New World. At the early age of nine years, he became an earnest Christian. Every Saturday was, with this wonderful child, a day of fasting and prayer.

There were quite a number of Christian Indians at the Mackinaw mission. They had long known Father Marquette, and revered and loved him. A band of these Indians were, some months after this, on the shores of Lake Michigan, upon a hunting excursion. They sought out the grave of Father Marquette. They took up the remains, carefully enclosed them in a box of birch bark, placed them in one of their canoes, and paddled them, three hundred miles, to the mission of St. Ignatius.

A convoy of canoes, thirty in number, in single file, formed this wonderful funeral procession. It is doubtful whether such a scene was ever before witnessed on this globe. For more than ten days this band of Indian hunters, in their picturesque costume, silently and solemnly paddled along the shores of the lonely lake, that the remains of their beloved pastor might repose where they could visit the spot, and honor them with their testimonials of gratitude.

As they approached the shore, where the mission was established, with its cross-surmounted chapel, surrounded with Indian wigwams, a courier was sent forward rapidly, in a canoe, to announce the arrival of the cortege. The whole community promptly gathered upon the beach. A funeral procession was formed, led by Fathers Nouvel and Pierson, who were Superiors of the two missions, one to the Ottawas, and one to the Hurons, which were located side by side. Interrogations were first made to verify the fact, that the body they bore was really that of Father Marquette.

The two ecclesiastics then chanted the sublime anthem,

"Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.

Lord, hear my voice; let Thine ears be attentive

to the voice of my supplications."

The canoes were still on the water, while quite a throng of the Indians crowded the shore. With the customary religious ceremonies, the body was conveyed to the chapel. It remained there for a day, covered with a pall. On the morning of the next day, which was the ninth of June, the remains were deposited in a grave, in the middle of the log chapel, which we infer had no floor but the earth; there to repose until the trump of the archangel shall sound, when all who are in their graves shall come forth.