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Traveling to Unknown Shores


The tall young Black Robe was a beloved and respected man.

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marquetteFather Jacques Marquette S.J.

Black Robe," said  a young man, resting his oar on his knees and looking out over a vast stretch of sluggish water, islands, willows, and wild vines studded with grapes not yet bigger than peas, "we must be drawing near to the great river now.  The Mother of God has protected us as you said." 

For it was not easy for Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet to persuade the five other men to go with them.  They were métis, sons of French men and Indian women.  From the French they had learned the Catholic Faith, but from their own people they had heard tales of the wild river we call the Wisconsin, thick with evil spirits, whirlpools, and falls, not to mention bizarre formations of rock carved out by the last "lap" of the retreating glaciers. 

If you're a French Canadian, you likely have native blood in you, and that's because the French were never so stand-offish or hostile toward the Indians as the English further south were.  When Lewis and Clark, nearly a hundred and fifty years later, went on their famous expedition to the north-west and the Pacific Ocean, they availed themselves of the experiences of a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea.  That showed what white men and Indians could do when they acted in concert.  What's forgotten is that Sacagawea was not their interpreter and guide.  That was her husband, a French fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau.  A rover like him would naturally pick up quite a few of the native tongues. 

Charbonneau was more of a rascal than a Catholic.  He was a distant echo of the French missionaries who traveled through Canada and around the Great Lakes to bring to the savage nations, ever at war with one another, the knowledge of the Prince of Peace.  Jacques Marquette was such a man.  He could speak six native languages, often making mistakes and causing the women and children who taught him to burst out into happy laughter.  The tall young Black Robe was a beloved and respected man.  The Indians saw how hard he worked, and how he had given up all that makes life sweet to come live among them and teach them of their Father-God in heaven.  He had arrived in New France seven years before, in 1666, and had been sent west to establish outposts of faith in geographically critical places, for instance along the Saint Mary's River, draining Lake Superior into Lake Huron, at which natural trading center they built the mission of Sainte-Marie-du-Sault. 

Then Marquette heard from some Illinois Indians of a great river, the "Mesippi," that flowed far south into the sea.  Could it be true?  If it was, which sea?  The Atlantic?  The Gulf of Mexico?  Might it even be the sea that could take ships to China? 

Marquette and Joliet had to find out.  If they could claim the river and its lands for France, they could evangelize the Indians in the Catholic Faith and block the English from pressing west and encircling them.  Both priest and layman cared for the salvation of souls, and both layman and priest were loyal to the crown of France. 

The Mighty River

Let these men not be mere names in history books.  Marquette had left his beloved home expecting never to return.  He knew of the brutal deaths of Jean de Brébeuf and his companions, and he hoped in his heart that God would grant him the gift of such a death.  At the best, preaching among the Indians was slow and discouraging.  Some of the tribes would pride themselves on being the Black Robe's best disciples, but if the priest had to leave them for some time, they would revert to their old ways.  So Father Marquette rebuked the Hurons once, on the very day when they were welcoming him back to the mission at La Pointe du Saint-Esprit, telling them that "the intercourse which they have so long had with the infidels had nearly effaced from their minds all vestiges of religion." 

The Hurons thought about that and were abashed, and told the Black Robe that they would work harder in the future. 

Then there was the poor food, mainly game and corn, and the bitter winters and mosquito-ridden summers; rough housing, always the threat of violence from an enemy tribe like the Iroquois; the boulder-field of language; and physical exertions that only men of great stamina could long endure.  And for what cause?  To bring the Gospel to our brothers.

But Marquette encouraged them: "Let us kneel together in this vast wilderness and commend ourselves to the Mother of God.

See, then, a few birchbark canoes, seven men living by what they could shoot on the shores or hook from the water, lugging the canoes from the headwaters of the Fox River to the Wisconsin.  They were utterly alone and not at all sure of what they were about to do.  But Marquette encouraged them: "Let us kneel together in this vast wilderness and commend ourselves to the Mother of God.  We will ask her today, and every day, to intercede with her Son to protect us and guide us safely through this perilous journey." 

Finally on June 17,1673, the explorers reached the confluence of the Wisconsin and the Mississippi, with bluffs four hundred feet high on the far side.  They entered the mighty river, Marquette wrote, "with a joy that I cannot express."  Marquette kept careful notes, drawing a map for future missionaries, using an astrolabe to record the latitudes, and describing the plants and animals of the countrysides they passed.  He was the first European to describe the buffalo.Jean de Brebeuf

They continued downriver.  They passed the mouth of the Missouri, which when it empties into the Father of Waters has traveled 2,400 miles.  They passed the far more dangerous mouth of the Ohio, which at its confluence more than doubles the Mississippi's bulk, and causes it to bend in a great oxbow, turning north and then doubling back upon itself.  They reached the mouth of the Arkansas, where they began to see Indians with firearms, who must have encountered the Spanish.  Fearing capture — not by Indians, but by their fellow Europeans — and loss of the fruits of their labor, they turned back, paddling upriver all the way to the Illinois, where they took a short cut toward home by way of Lake Michigan.  The entire journey took two years and covered some three thousand miles.  Marquette is justly called the Discoverer of the Mississippi. 

What it was all about

A reporter was once accompanying Mother Teresa as she cleaned the ulcerous sores of a dying man.  The stench was overpowering.  "I wouldn't do that for a million dollars," said he. 

"Neither would I," said Mother Teresa. 

What earthly reward did Father Marquette expect?  None, not even the pleasant confidence that he had made many friends who would remember him as their benefactor.  Philanthropists do not do what Marquette did.  There's no glory in it, nor even much of what the philanthropist would call success.  And what is a philanthropist, but a disgruntled man who tries to be a Christian without Christ? 

Two days after their arrival at the Mississippi, Marquette and Joliet noticed footprints on the shore.  What should they do?  What else?  Marquette had written of "the blessed necessity of exposing myself for the salvation of all these peoples."  So he and Joliet followed a path till they came upon the camp of some Peoria Indians. 

Four elders approached the Black Robe in silence.  Father Marquette said that they had come in peace.  The elders led him to the chief, who broke out in delight, "How beautiful is the sun, O Frenchman, when you have come to visit us! All our village awaits you." 

That evening, after they had eaten and had smoked the peace-pipe, Father Marquette spoke. 

"I announced to them," he wrote, "that God, who had created them, had pity on them, inasmuch as, after they had been so long ignorant of him, he wished to make himself known to all the peoples."  Every true missionary repeats the message of the angels: "I bring you good tidings of great joy." 

"Never has the earth been so beautiful," replied the chief, "or the sun so bright as today."  The Black Robe, he said, knew "the great spirit who has made us all," and spoke to him, and heard his word.  "Beg him to give me life and health, and to come and dwell with us, in order to make us know him." 

Father Marquette never would return to the Peorias.  The journey broke his health.  He died on the return, at one of his old missions on bare Mackinac Island, on May 18,1675. He was only thirty-seven years old. 

"Now he belongs to the ages," they said at the death of Lincoln.  It's a fine thing to say of someone who has attained glory in the world.  Jacques Marquette does not belong to the ages.  He belongs to eternity. 

(If you wish to read more about this holy man, I recommend the book that has served me well, Jacques Marquette, by Joseph P. Donnelly, S.J.)



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: "Traveling to Unknown Shores." Magnificat (June, 2017).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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