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The French Connection
Three intrepid explorers helped France lay claim to our greatest waterway and left behind remnants of their presence.

Published: Sep/Oct 2002
By Gary Peterson

From the American Indians to whom he was preaching in what is now called Michigan, Father Jacques Marquette surmised that the legendary great western river he'd heard tales of emptied into the Gulf of California. If true, the strategic plum sought by France--a water transportation route to the Pacific--was within reach, and the vision of a great French empire in North America could be realized.

Marquette and Louis Joliet would be commissioned to explore the river, known then and still as the Mississippi, which means Father of Water in Choctaw. They would discover that it didn't flow to the west, but their journey, as well as the one by headstrong countryman Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, would lead the French to claim the Mississippi River Valley. And although the great empire never appeared, the claimed land would become the Louisiana Purchase and help the United States on its march to the Pacific.

Despite their relatively brief stay in America's midsection, the French left behind pieces of their culture, from the names of towns to abandoned fortifications, that can be experienced by those inclined to follow the journey of Marquette and Joliet.

On Wisconsin

The Marquette and Joliet expedition set out in 1673, sailing in canoes on Lake Michigan to what is now Green Bay, Wis. From Green Bay, the explorers paddled down the Fox River to the Wisconsin River and entered the Mississippi just below what later became Prairie du Chien, Wis.

Their path is preserved and celebrated through the Fox-Wisconsin Rivers Heritage Corridor, and a wealth of Wisconsin state history is housed and revealed along the corridor's length.

In Green Bay, Heritage Hill State Park recounts the past with 25 historic buildings set on 48 acres. The Neville Public Museum displays 12,000 years of Wisconsin heritage. To the south, in De Pere, aptly named Voyageur Park nestles next to the scenic Fox River. French missionaries set up residence in the area a year before Marquette and Joliet arrived.

The small town of Little Chute, once La Petite Chute, started life as a Catholic mission on a portage past rapids. High Cliff State Park, on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago, affords a stunning view of the lake, into and out of which the Fox River flows. Modern-day travelers can imitate the explorers in comparable luxury at Winneconne aboard a riverboat cruise. Farther west, the French didn't have the luxury of Portage Canal, which was completed in 1876 and made traveling between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers much more manageable. The canal, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is being restored.

American Indian heritage is prominent throughout the region, and there are stops along the Wisconsin where effigy mounds can be found: the cities of Muscoda and Wauzeka and Wyalusing State Park. The park also offers a splendid look at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. Just upstream, Prairie du Chien is the second-oldest settlement in the state. (Green Bay is the oldest.)

Headed South

Where the swift Mississippi carried the expedition between the shores of present-day Iowa and Illinois, there are several sites pertaining to the importance of North America's greatest river and the former presence of the French.

In Dubuque, Iowa, the Mississippi River Museum imparts the influence the river has had on human culture, as well as the influence humankind has had on the river. The journey of Marquette and Joliet is one of the tales told.

On the Illinois side of the river, forts dominate the scene and speak to France's intent to protect its holdings. Near Prairie du Rocher sits the rebuilt Fort de Chartres, which hosts year-round activities. In the early 1700s, the fort was the center of the French government and culture in the region. Fort Kaskaskia State Historical Site, near Ellis Grove, preserves the location of a French fort. Fort Massac State Park, near Metropolis, overlooks the scenic Ohio River. The park is the oldest in Illinois and was established on a spot considered strategic to American Indians and Europeans.

The Spanish first undertook colonial exploration of the area. Hernando DeSoto and his men erected rudimentary bulwarks here to defend themselves from hostile Indians. The French intended to construct a stone fortress, but necessary funding never materialized. A wooden fort was built on the site at the outset of the French and Indian War.

Pointed North

Marquette and Joliet advanced downriver as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River in present-day Arkansas. There, friendly Indians informed the expedition that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico through land held by belligerent tribes. Canoeing farther also meant that the Spanish, who controlled the region, could intercept the expedition. The decision was made to return to Canada.

On the return trip, Marquette and Joliet were told of a shorter route to Lake Michigan via the Illinois River. Two breathtakingly beautiful state parks mark the journey across Illinois.

Pere Marquette State Park, located at the confluence of the Illinois and the Mississippi near Grafton, is famous for its fall colors and bald eagle viewing during winter. It is an outdoors paradise all year long. The park's visitors center sports a three-dimensional map of the park, an aquarium and a host of other displays that share local history and geology. East of the park entrance a cross marks the site of the Marquette and Joliet expedition's landing.

Starved Rock State Park, just south of Utica, is a geologic wonder replete with unique rock formations left behind by a prehistoric sea and glaciation. Marquette established a mission nearby two years after passing through. A fort was built here in 1683 by La Salle, a year after his own journey down the Mississippi and his claiming of the immense region for King Louis XIV.

French heritage is displayed at Isle a la Cache (Island of the Hiding Place) Museum in Romeoville, which is situated on the expedition's return route.

Marquette and Joliet reached Lake Michigan where Chicago now stands, and their names live on. Joliet lent his name to the city that announces the western interstate approach to Chicago. Marquette is feted with a street and park in southern Chicago. And, just as he was in life, La Salle was not to be left out- a major downtown street bears his name.

Another Journey

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was an ambitious Frenchman bent on expanding the French presence across what is now the United States. The French monarchy shared his vision, and he was given the rank of nobility with lands in the New World. He also was authorized to explore the Mississippi River and build forts.

After mishaps and aborted missions, La Salle finally made the journey down the river to its mouth--the first European to do so. After completing the historic journey, La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France in 1682 and named it Louisiana. The following year he built a fort in north-central Illinois and founded a colony among the local Indians.

Still, La Salle had even grander designs, such as building forts around the Mississippi River's mouth and attacking Spanish provinces in Mexico. In 1684, La Salle led a four-ship flotilla from France en route to Louisiana. On the way, pirates in the Caribbean Sea captured one ship. Then, a navigation error precipitated the flotilla's landing at Matagorda Bay in Texas- missing the Mississippi's mouth by 500 miles.

The mistake foreshadowed imminent failure: A ship carrying many supplies sank; repeated attempts to find the Mississippi were futile; the rest of La Salle's ships sank; Fort St. Louis, founded after landfall in Texas, was overrun by Indians; and La Salle was murdered by his own men while leading an emergency overland trip back to Illinois in 1687.

The shipwreck of La Salle's last vessel, the Belle, was found in 1995 and the ship's hull artifacts were recovered. In addition, the Texas Historical Commission led an archaeological dig at the site of La Salle's fort. Items from both projects can be viewed temporarily at several Texas sites, including the Corpus Christi Museum of Science, Austin's Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria. An effort, entitled La Salle Odyssey, is under way to form a coalition of seven small-town museums in the region that will display various exhibits related to the excavations of the Belle and Fort Saint Louis sites.

Gary Peterson is an associate editor of Home & Away.

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