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

The First Exploration of the Mississippi River


Father Marquette and M. Joliet had astronomical instruments with which they ascertained, with much accuracy, the latitude of all their important stopping places. As they state that the two villages, which they visited, were on the western side of the Mississippi, at the latitude of forty degrees north, and upon the banks of a stream flowing into the Great River, it is supposed that these villages were upon the stream now called Des Moines, which forms a part of the boundary between Iowa and Missouri. The Indians called the villages Pe-ou-a-sea and Moing-wena. They were probably situated about six miles above the present city of Keokuk.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, of a day near the end of sunny, blooming June, when our voyagers resumed their adventurous tour. Nearly the whole tribe they had visited stood upon the bank to bid them adieu. They floated along through a very dreary country of precipitous rocks and jagged cliffs, which quite shut out from their view the magnificent prairie region which was spread out beyond this barrier.

Upon the smooth surface of one of these rocks, apparently inaccessible, they saw, with surprise, two figures painted in very brilliant colors and with truly artistic outline. They thought that the painting would have done honor to any European artist. The figures were of two rather frightful looking monsters, about the size of a calf, in red, green, and black. Stoddard, in his history of Louisiana, says that these painted monsters, between the Missouri and the Illinois Rivers, still remain in a good degree of preservation.

"As we were discoursing of them," writes Father Marquette, "sailing gently down a beautiful, still, clear water, we heard the noise of a rapid, into which we were about to fall. I have seen nothing more frightful. A mass of large trees, entire, with branches, real floating islands, came rushing from the mouth of the river Pekitunouei, so impetuously that we could not, without great danger, expose ourselves to pass across. The agitation was so great that the water was all muddy, and could not get clear."

This was the rush and the roar of the incoming billows of the terrible Missouri, the most tremendous river upon this globe. It enters the Mississippi through a channel half a mile in breadth, rushing down with a sort of maniacal fury, from its sources among the Rocky Mountains at the distance of three thousand and ninety-six miles. Its whole course, from its rise to its entrance into the Gulf of Mexico, is four thousand three hundred and forty-nine miles. More than two hundred and fifty years after this, Mr. George Catlin ascended this river in the first steamer which ever ventured to breast its torrent.

It took the steamer three months to ascend to the mouth of the Yellowstone, two thousand miles from the city of St. Louis. At this point the American Fur Company had erected a very substantial fort, three hundred feet square, for the protection of their property against the savages. The banks of the stream were lined with the villages of the Indians. Their wigwams were of a great variety of structure. The scenes presented were astonishing in their wild and picturesque aspect. Crowds of weird-like savages would often be collected on the bluffs, watching the appalling phenomenon of the passing steamer.

The Missouri is different, perhaps, from any other river in the world. Its boiling, turbid waters rush impetuously on, in an unceasing current, for hundreds of leagues, with scarcely a cove, an eddy, or any resting place where a canoe can be tranquilly moored. The Indian name of the river signifies Muddy Water. It is so opaque, like a cup of chocolate, that a newly coined shilling, placed in a tumbler, cannot be seen through the eighth part of an inch of the water.

For nearly a thousand miles the whole bed of the stream was impeded with gigantic trees, torn from the rich alluvial banks, forming snags and sawyers and rafts, through which, often with difficulty, the steamer cut her way. Every island and sandbar was covered with dreary looking masses of driftwood of every conceivable variety.

This desolate and savage aspect of the rushing flood is much relieved by the aspect of marvellous beauty often presented on the banks. It was almost a fairy scene. Hills and vales, bluffs and ravines, were continually presented in successions of sublimity and beauty which charmed the eye. Prairies were often spread out before them of boundless expanse, upon which vast herds, often numbering thousands, of buffaloes, elks, and antelopes, were seen grazing. In the gloomy forests, wolves were roaming. Mountain goats bounded over the cliffs. And at times, the air seemed darkened with the myriad birds which rose from the tall grass.

There was one twelve-pound, and three or four eight-pound cannon on board the steamer. At every village which was passed, the banks would be crowded with the astounded natives. Mischievously, the captain would order all the cannon to be simultaneously discharged. The effect upon the terrified savages was ludicrous in the extreme. They were all thrown into utter consternation. The more devout threw themselves upon the ground, and, hiding their faces, cried to the Great Spirit for protection. The cowards, with the women and the children, ran screaming back into the prairie, or behind the hills. Occasionally, a little band of veteran warriors, the bravest of the brave, would stand their ground, ready to meet the terrors of even a supernatural foe.

"Sometimes," writes Catlin, "they were thrown neck and heels over each other's heads and shoulders—men, women, children and dogs; sage, sachem, old and young, all in a mass—at the frightful discharge of the steam from the escape-pipe, which the captain of the boat let loose among them, for his own fun and amusement."

As our voyagers, in their birch bark canoes, passed the mouth of this wonderful stream, they had no conception of the scenes which were transpiring in thousands of Indian villages on its far-distant waters. They began now to think, from the course of the Mississippi, that it must flow into the Gulf of Mexico. They had however learned, from the Indians, that if they were to ascend the Missouri, or, as they called it, Pekitanouei, five or six days' sail, they would come to a very beautiful prairie, ninety-five miles long. This splendid country, which was represented as an Eden of loveliness, the Indians said could be easily crossed, carrying their canoes. They could then take another river which ran southwest into a small lake. This was the source of another large and deep river, which emptied into the western sea.

In subsequent years, this description of the Indians was found to be unexpectedly correct. By ascending the Missouri to the Platte River, and following that stream to its source among the Rocky Mountains, the traveller is brought within a few leagues of the Colorado, which flows into the Gulf of California. Having passed the dangerous rush of the Missouri, as it entered into the Mississippi, and floating upon the surface of their combined waters, they came, after the sail, as they judged, of about sixty miles, to the mouth of another large river, of gentle current, and whose waters were of crystal purity, flowing in from the east. The Indians very appropriately called it Wabash, which signified Beautiful River. The French subsequently called it La Belle Riviere. We have given it the name of Ohio, appropriating the name Wabash to one of its most important tributaries.

The voyagers learned that this stream was fringed with a succession of Indian villages. The various tribes were peaceful, averse to war. In one district there was a cluster of twenty-three villages; in another, of eighteen. But alas for man! It would seem that the fallen children of Adam were determined that there should be no happiness in this world. The ferocious Iroquois would send their war parties, hundreds of miles through the wilderness, to make unprovoked attacks upon these unwarlike people. They would rob them of their harvests, wantonly burn their wigwams, kill and scalp men, women, and children, and carry off captives to torture and burn at the stake, in barbarian festivities.

Near the mouth of this river they found deposits of unctuous earth, having quite brilliantly the colors of red, purple, and violet. Father Hennepin rubbed some of the red upon his paddle. The constant use of that paddle in the water, for fifteen days, did not efface the color. This was a favorite resort of the Indians to obtain materials for painting their persons.

They now entered the region of that terrible pest, the mosquito. Elephants, lions, tigers, can be exterminated. The mosquito bids defiance to all mortal powers. The Indians would build a scaffolding of poles, a mere grate-work, which would give free passage to smoke. A few pieces of bark, overhead, sheltered them from the rain, and the excessive heat of the sun. Upon these poles they slept, kindling smouldering fires beneath. They could better endure the suffocating fumes which thus enveloped them and drove away their despicable tormenters, than bear the poison of their stings. The voyagers were greatly annoyed by these insects.

As they were thus swept down the infinite windings of the stream, day after day, mostly at the will of the current, they perceived one morning, much to their surprise, a small band of Indians on the shore, armed with guns. The savages seemed very much at their ease, and waited the approach of the canoes. Father Hennepin stood up and waved toward them his peace calumet, with its imposing decoration of feathers. His companions held their muskets in readiness to repel any assault. Drawing near the shore, the father addressed them in the Huron language. They did not understand him, but made friendly signs for the party to land. The Indians led the Frenchmen into their wigwams and feasted them upon buffalo steaks, with bear's fat, and some very delicious wild plums.

It appeared that these Indians were a band of warriors, probably from the Tuscarora nation. They had seen the Spaniards, on the Florida coast, and had purchased of them guns, axes, and knives. They kept their powder in strong glass bottles. From them they learned that a ten days' voyage down the rapid current of the Mississippi would bring them to the ocean. The indefatigable missionary endeavored to give them some idea of God, and of salvation through Jesus Christ, who came to seek and save the lost.

And now, with renewed courage, our adventurers entered their canoes and resumed their paddles. The prairies, which had so long delighted their eyes, gradually disappeared, and the dense forest lined both sides of the stream. It was very evident, however, that upon the other side of the forest-crowned eminences, the prairies continued to extend in all their sublimity and beauty; for they often heard the bellowing, as the roar of distant thunders, from thousands of wild cattle roving the plains.

They had now descended to nearly the thirty-third degree of north latitude, when they came to a large Indian village, situated upon a plain raised but a few feet above the level of the water. These Indians had undoubtedly received some great outrage from the Spaniards; for no sooner did they catch a sight of the Europeans than they were thrown into great commotion, and all their warriors rallied for battle. They were evidently aware that a few men, armed with the dreadful musket, might overpower a large number who wielded only the Indian weapons of warfare.

These warriors were armed with bows and arrows, javelins, and war clubs. They seemed to know that the invisible bullet could strike with death far beyond the reach of any of their missiles. They moved therefore with great caution. In those southern latitudes the birch tree, from whose bark the canoes of the northern Indians were made, did not thrive. Their boats were made of large logs, hollowed out and neatly shaped. They were often ornamented with infinite labor. Some of the warriors prepared to overwhelm the strangers with a shower of arrows from the land. Others embarked in their larger boats to ascend the river, and others to descend, so as to cut off all possibility of retreat.

As the voyagers drew near the shore, Father Marquette stood up in his canoe, though exposed to imminent danger of being pierced by their arrows, and earnestly waved the calumet of peace, at the same time, as he writes, imploring the aid of "our patroness and guide, the Blessed Virgin Immaculate. And indeed," he continues, "we needed her aid, for we heard, from afar, the Indians exciting one another to the combat by continual yells."

In the terror and tumult of the moment the calumet had not been seen. But as soon as some of the chiefs caught sight of it, they rushed into the water, threw their bows and arrows into the canoes, which they seized and brought to the shore. Father Marquette and M. Joliet were so familiar with the customs of the Indians that they understood this to be a friendly movement, and they no longer felt any great anxiety; though they were aware that, through some sudden outbreak of the savage sense of revenge, they might lose their lives. The good father addressed them in six Indian languages, none of which they understood. At last an old man came forward, who spoke a little Illinois.

Very friendly relations were soon established. They made the Indians several valuable presents, and informed them of their desire to find the way to the ocean. "They perfectly understood our meaning," writes Father Marquette, "but I know not whether they understood what I told them of God, and the things which concerned their salvation. It is a seed cast in the earth, which will bear its fruit in season."

The Indians, in return, presented them with corn pounded into meal, and some fishes. They said that, at some distance farther down the river, there was a large village called Akamsea; that there they could learn all they wished to know respecting the course and the out-flow of the Father of Waters. The voyagers slept in the wigwams of the Indians during the night, though the father confesses that it was not without some uneasiness. The Akamsea, to which the Indians referred, was what we now call Arkansas.

It is supposed that this village was near the Indian village of Guachoya, where the unhappy De Soto, whose romantic history we have given in a previous volume of this series, breathed his last, one hundred and fifty years before. In the narrative which has descended to us of that ill-fated and cruel expedition the historian writes:

"The same day, July 2, 1543, that we left Aminoya, we passed by Guachoya, where the Indians tarried for us in their canoes."

It was at Aminoya that De Moscoso, who succeeded De Soto, built his little fleet of seven strong barges, with which the Spaniards descended, in a voyage of sixteen days, to the mouth of the river. The Spaniards were as ignorant of the sources of the mighty river upon which they were sailing, as were the French of the termination of the majestic flood, which they had discovered nearly two thousand miles, far away amidst the lakes and prairies of the north.

The next morning, at an early hour, the Frenchmen resumed their voyage. A party of ten Indians accompanied them, leading the way in one of their large boats. The old man, who understood a little of the Illinois language, also went with them as an interpreter. When they had descended the river nearly thirty miles, and were within about a mile and a half of the Arkansas village, they saw two boats, crowded with warriors, push out from the shore, and advancing to meet them. The keen eyes of the savages had probably discerned the Indian boat which led the frail canoes of the Frenchmen. They knew that persons thus approaching could come with no hostile attempt.

The chief of this party, distinguished by his gorgeous dress, stood up in his boat, and, waving the plumed calumet, sung, in a very plaintive but agreeable tone, some Indian ode of welcome. He came with smiles and friendly signs alongside of the two birch canoes which kept close together. First, having taken a few whiffs from the pipe, he presented it to them to smoke. Then, having given them some bread, made of Indian meal, he made signs for them to follow him to the shore.

The chief had a large scaffolding, such as we have before described, as a protection from the mosquitoes. It also afforded a cool shelter from the rays of an almost tropical sun. The ground floor was carpeted with very fine rush mats. In the centre of this spacious awning, the Frenchmen were seated, as in the post of honor. The head chief, with his subordinates, surrounded them. Then the encircling warriors, several hundred in number, took their seats. A motley but perfectly orderly crowd of men, women, and children gathered around as witnesses of the scene.

Fortunately there was a young warrior there who had travelled, and who was much more familiar with the Illinois language than the old man who had accompanied the voyagers as interpreter.

"Through him," says the faithful missionary, "I first spoke to the assembly by the ordinary presents. They admired what I told them of God, and the mysteries of our holy faith, and showed a great desire to keep me with them to instruct them."

In answer to inquiries in reference to the sea, they said that it could be easily reached, in their canoes, in ten days. They, however, stated that they knew but little about the nations who inhabited the lower part of the river, because they were their enemies. These Indians had hatchets, knives, and beads. This proved that, in some way, they had held intercourse with Europeans. Upon being consulted on this question, it appeared that they had obtained them through the Spaniards in Florida and Mexico. They warned the voyagers not to go any farther down the river, as they would certainly be attacked and destroyed by the war parties of these hostile bands.

While this conference was going on, which continued for several hours, the Indians were continually presenting their guests with plates of food, which consisted principally of meal-pudding, roast corn, and dogs' flesh. The Indians were very courteous. But it was not a powerful or war-like tribe. They often had but a meagre supply of food, as the ferocity of their surrounding enemies prevented them from wandering far in pursuit of game.

Their main reliance was upon corn. They sowed it at all seasons, raising three crops a year. While some fields were just sprouting, others were in the soft and milky state suitable for roasting, and other fields were waving with the ripe and golden harvest. These southern tribes were generally much more advanced in the arts than those farther north. They manufactured many quite admirable articles of pottery for household use. It is said that some of them were hardly inferior in form and finish to the exquisite vases found in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Still they were in many respects degraded savages, of loathsome habits, but little elevated above the brutes. Many of the men wandered about without any clothing. The women were not regarded with any honor. They were beasts of burden, dressed in wretched skins, without any ornaments. Their wigwams were long and wide, made of bark, with a single central entrance. Almost like the cattle, they slept together at the two extremities, upon mat-covered elevations, raised about two feet from the ground. From the description of Father Marquette, we should infer that, in this melancholy village, the chiefs alone enjoyed the luxury of sleeping upon poles enveloped with suffocating smoke to drive away the mosquitoes.

"We ate no fruit there," writes Marquette, "but watermelons. If they knew how to cultivate their grounds they might have plenty of all kinds."

In the evening M. Joliet and Father Marquette held a conference in reference to their future course. They had ascertained that they were at 33 deg. 40' north latitude. The basin of the Gulf of Mexico was at 31 deg. 40'. Though the Indians had said that they could reach the sea in ten days, it was manifest that they could easily accomplish the distance in four or five. The question was consequently settled that the Mississippi ran into the Gulf of Mexico. To decide this point was the great object of their voyage. Spanish outrages had exasperated all the Indians along the southern coast. The voyagers could not prosecute their enterprise any farther, but at the imminent peril of their lives. Should they thus perish, the result of their discoveries would, for a long time, be lost to the world.

They feared the Spaniards even more than they did the savages. The Spaniards, jealous of the power of France, would certainly hold them as prisoners, if they could take them, and would not improbably put them to death to prevent the fact of their having descended the whole course of the Mississippi from being known. They therefore wisely determined to retrace their steps with all energy. On the 17th of July they left the village of Akamsea, near the mouth of the Arkansas River, to stem the strong current of the Mississippi on their return. At high-water the vast flood, a mile in width, rushed along at the rate of five or six miles an hour. They found it very difficult to force their way against this current. We have no particular account of the incidents of their long and laborious return voyage. When they had reached the latitude of thirty-eighth degree north, they came to the mouth of the Illinois River. The Indians informed them that this would be a shorter route to Lake Michigan than to go up the Mississippi still farther to the Wisconsin River. They therefore entered this stream, which takes its rise within six miles of the lake. In the glowing account which Father Marquette gives of this river, he writes:

"We had seen nothing like this river for the fertility of the land, its prairies, woods, wild cattle, stags, deer, wild-cats, bustards, swans, ducks, parrots, and even beavers. It has many little lakes and tributary rivers. The stream on which we sailed is broad, deep, and gentle, for sixty-five leagues. During the spring, and part of the summer, when the rivers are full, the portage is only a mile and a half in length."

They ascended the Illinois until, by a short portage, they could transport their canoes across the prairie to the Chicago River. Descending this stream to its mouth, where the thronged city of Chicago now stands, but which was then only a dreary expanse of marshy prairie, they paddled up the western coast of Lake Michigan until they reached the mission at Green Bay, about the middle of September. About two months were spent in the toilsome voyage from Arkansas.

General Wool, Inspector-General of the army of the United States, has made, from a personal acquaintance with the route, the following estimate of the distances of the several stages of this eventful journey:

From Green Bay up Fox River to the portage175
From the portage down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi 175
From the mouth of the Wisconsin to the mouth of the Arkansas 1087
From the Arkansas to the Illinois River 547
From the mouth of the Illinois to Chicago 305
From Chicago to Green Bay, by the lake shore 260
Total 2,549

The accompanying facsimile of a map attached to Marquette's Journal, reduced from the original, and which we take from Mr. Sparks's brief but admirable sketch of Marquette's Life, will give the reader a very clear idea of the route he pursued. The dotted line from the Mississippi to the Illinois, marked "Chemin du retour," is evidently a mistake, added by some other hand. It is clear, from the narrative, that the voyagers returned up the Illinois River.

Father Marquette, who was never known to utter a murmuring word, and who was serene and cheerful amidst the sorest trials, was so utterly exhausted by the toils of the expedition that he could proceed no farther than Green Bay. Here M. Joliet separated from him and continued his route, in a birch canoe, along the vast expanse of Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and down the St. Lawrence to Montreal. In descending the rapids of the river his canoe was over-set and all his papers lost, he narrowly escaping with his life. He subsequently dictated, from memory, a few pages of the incidents of the voyage; but the manuscript of Father Marquette alone remained to tell the wondrous story. This was sent to France, and there published.

Even Marquette had no conception of the true grandeur of that valley he had entered, extending from the Alleghany ridges to the Rocky Mountains. Still, when the tidings of his wonderful discoveries reached Quebec, the exciting intelligence was received with the ringing of bells, with salvos of artillery, and, most prominent and important of all, by nearly the whole population, led by the clergy and other dignitaries of the place, going in procession to the cathedral where the Te Deum was sung in thanksgiving to God.