The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Marquette, Jacques
(June 1, 1637–May 18, 1675)

–missionary priest, explorer, and first European to set foot in Iowa—was born in Laon, France. His father, Nicolas Marquette, was a wealthy government official, and his mother, Rose de la Salle Marquette, was a homemaker. After a rudimentary education at home, Marquette began a Jesuit course of study in 1646. He entered the Society of Jesus on October 7, 1654, and continued his studies at the University of Pont-a-Mousson. From 1658 to 1664 Marquette taught in a number of Jesuit schools across France. By 1665 he was an instructor at his alma mater.

    Yet Marquette had little interest in a career as a teacher. As a Jesuit novice, he had expressed his desire to do missionary work, and he never abandoned his quest. He finally got his call to the missions in New France in 1665 and was ordained a Catholic priest on March 7, 1666.

    Marquette arrived in Quebec on September 20 and within a month was sent to the mission at Three Rivers. There he became a student of Indian languages and was assigned to work among the Ottawa. He continued among that tribe for the next two years and was then ordered to the mission at Sault St. Marie, in what is now Michigan. After about 18 months working among the Chippewa, he moved again, this time to the Holy Spirit of La Pointe mission near what is now Ashland, Wisconsin. At La Point, Marquette first heard of a mighty river that flowed south. He felt called to explore that river.

    His opportunity came in the summer of 1673 when his superiors permitted Marquette to join Louis Jolliet on a quest to find the Mississippi River. The journey began on May 17 at what is now St. Ignace, Michigan, and proceeded along the northern and western shoreline of Lake Michigan to Green Bay. At the mouth of the bay, the explorers traveled up the Fox River and down the Wisconsin until they reached the juncture with the Mississippi River on June 17.

    Marquette devoted considerable time to recording all of the details of the river in his journal. He was the first European, for example, to describe catfish and buffalo, among other wildlife. Both Marquette and Jolliet were eager to find evidence of human life. Paddling along the western edge of the river, now Iowa's eastern border, the party discovered human footprints. The two men left their canoes and moved inland, where they came upon several Peoria villages, a part of the Illinois nation. The Frenchmen were welcomed by the Peoria leaders. After sharing a meal and exchanging gifts, Marquette and Jolliet returned to their canoes and continued their journey.

    The journey of discovery continued south until the men reached the mouth of the Arkansas River on July 17. They had traveled more than 1,700 miles. Assured by friendly Indians that the Mississippi continued to flow south to the Gulf of Mexico, and apprehensive about capture by Spanish explorers, Marquette and Jolliet turned their canoes back north. The explorers followed the Mississippi to the Illinois River and then continued up the Illinois to the Indian community of Kaskaskia. From there, they continued north and east to what is now the city of Chicago and into Lake Michigan. By September 30 they had arrived at the Jesuit mission in Green Bay.

    Marquette had promised the Indians at Kaskaskia that he would return to minister to them, and he made good on his pledge in April 1675. But his health was fragile, and by the end of April he was traveling north to recuperate at St. Ignace. He never made it but died on May 18 at the present site of Ludington, Michigan.
Sources Marquette's voyage of exploration is well documented in his journals, which have been translated and published in numerous editions. The most recent biographical studies of Marquette are Joseph Donnelly, S.J., Jacques Marquette, S.J., 1637–1675 (1968); and Raphael N. Hamilton, S.J., Marquette's Explorations: The Narrative Reexamined (1970).
Contributor: Timothy Walch