Rivers were the fluid highways that carried the seekers, wanderers, the unsettled in the earliest days of our nation to explore. Beginning in the late seventeenth century with the French coming down from Canada in search for a route to the Orient. It began Illinois history too.
Yes, nearly two hundred years after Columbus, an efficient path to Asia and the East was being sought; not through narrow dangerous straits or treacherous seas but perhaps by land or open seas. That’s what Jolliet and Marquette were looking for in 1673 when they first recorded sight the Illinois country.
They, with five engagés in two birch canoes set out from the small post at the head of Green Bay to portage to what is now Portage, Wisconsin and down the Wisconsin River to reach the mighty Mississippi June 17, 1673. Three days later they saw the rugged hills of northwest Illinois. Midwest history was begun.
A month later they’d reached the mouth of the Arkansas River and were told that the end of the Mississippi was not too far away. Greatly disappointed, they decided to turn back because, no, it wasn’t a route to the Orient and, too, there might just be Spaniards down river, they having claimed that territory as long before as 1541 when Bernardo de Soto discovered the delta at the Gulf.
The natives told them to take the Illinois River back to the great lake as it would be a much shorter, perhaps less arduous trip northward. About halfway up the Illinois they came upon the imposing sandstone bluff, the Rock, the French called it which towered over a hundred feet above them. On the opposite bank was a village of several hundreds of Peoria and Kaskaskia Indians, some seventy-four cabins and more.
These Indians, ironically, had met with Fr. Marquette near present day Ashland, Wisconsin previously and he had promised to visit them. How, in such a vast wilderness, coincidentally they could meet is strange, indeed. They didn’t have GPS or the advice of the AAA. It was obviously meant to be.
The little party stayed with exploration of the region and Marquette preaching to the gathered tribes. Because of his gentle nature and sincere character, doubtless, his message could be understood. When they were to leave, the priest promised to return to organize a mission.
Illinois River was ascended to its source, the marshes and swamps around a “post,” literally and figuratively, of what eventually became Chicago. They continued on to Green Bay where Marquette was to stay the winter in a small hut because of his chronic illnesses, severe hemorrhaging and etc. Jolliet would return to Canada where he’d pay towards the money he’d borrowed for the expedition. The canoes were laden with pelts and copies/originals of the maps, charts, notes, journals kept of the expedition. The second issues were to stay at Green Bay, then mission DePere, with Marquette/Jolliet set off with two young companions and was nearly back to Montreal when instead of portaging around some fierce rapids, they went over by canoe and capsized losing all the contents of the fragile boats, the two young men drowning.
Two fishermen later found Jolliet near death. He would have to work out his debt in some other way.
He was comforted by knowing that the copies/originals of the maps and journals they’d recorded were at Green Bay. But were they? No, the mission had burned and all was lost there, too. Jolliet (and Marquette) attempted to recreate the data from memory but little was found of that in later years. Not until 1955 was any of the history-making trip ever found, at least what is thought to have been Jolliet’s drawing because its signature was spelled with two L’s, not just one as were other discoveries.
What was the fateful reason for that memorable trip to be uncharted? Why were the main characters destined to ultimately die in such anonymous and mysterious ways?
Fr. Marquette did return to the Illinois country and established a mission near what is now Utica, Illinois, Mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, the third of his physical works, the other two being a mission at Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace which both have towns named for their missions in Michigan.
Fr. Marquette had been born in France (1637) and was educated by the Jesuits. He took his vows at seventeen and came to the New World in 1666 to evangelize among the Indians. He penetrated the frontiers of the west and was excited and grateful when Louis Jolliet asked him to accompany him to search for the mighty river that had been discussed almost as an aside at a council in 1671. What was the river?
Jolliet, though Canadian-born, had been educated in France and was a talented map maker. The governor of Canada, when Jolliet returned, appointed him the governments’ cartographer and hydrographer. Jolliet was of a pleasant nature and efficient so he regularly received commissions, land grants, appointments for work, etc. He was a natural to go in search of the Mississippi and the route to the Orient.
Following the loss of the material of the truly historical event, Sailing the Mississippi and crossing Illinois country, Jolliet did not sit still. He later explored Hudson Bay and the coast of Labrador to announce the value of the fur and fish trades that could be developed. He was in work at most times. In 1700, at age fifty-five, he and his family on their way to a summer residence, vanished. Completely, never to be seen or heard from again. It was a mysterious occurrence that could happen in some Hollywood scenario but hardly in the history of an old, solid rock in the heart of Illinois Louis Jolliet, 1645-1700.
A third character in relation to the Rock was Robert LaSalle, quite different in nature than the first two of our leads! LaSalle was born in France in 1643 and was of minor nobility. He at first was to have a religious career but grew to dislike his Jesuit mentors and left the order, coming to Canada, following his brother, in 1666. He farmed for two years but dreamed of exploring the west, a notion that grew profound on meeting Jolliet returning from the Illinois country. He became a “secret” friend of Gov. Frontenac, able leader of Canada, and received grants and land through his influence. LaSalle went to France twice to raise money for expeditions to the West and the water route to the Orient!!! The money, borrowed at usurious rates, seemed not a hindrance to LaSalle because he was given much land south of the Lakes and a monopoly in its fur trade, an arguable benefit to some.
Robert LaSalle with his lieutenant, Henri de Tonti came to the “Rock” in the late 1670’s building a fort on its quarter acre top, Ft. St. Louis. Three sides were inaccessible and the fourth though a somewhat gentle slope, had two small cannon aimed down its path. A blockhouse, storehouse and dwelling were also built there.
Space does not allow us to continue the involved career of the LaSalle though reading any history of the three persons prominent in Starved Rocks’ past is worthwhile, unlike the others, LaSalle was an unlikable man whose crews, troops were always at odds with him. They never strictly obeyed orders, argued, even mutinied though he was an able and imaginative leader. Bringing the first sailing ship to North America and constructing it to sail on the Great Lakes, the Griffon which was lost at sea, filled with a cargo of pelts and goods to pay LaSalle’s creditors. Those were dangerous times. He had explored Lake Ontario and those environs. He was for a time credited with discovering the Ohio River but that was later disproved. On a fourth trip from France the three ships in the fleet must stop at the West Indies because he was very ill. Two of the ships disappeared, and when he recovered, his ship in the Gulf of Mexico overshot the mouth of the Mississippi and landed in Texas, hundreds of miles away. When they traced their route and took to the shore his men were very disgruntled and murdered him on the lonely beach and heartlessly did not bury him because of their contempt. A few of the crew for some reason later arrived at the Rock and what their excuse for having no LaSalle is not given in our sources. He died in 1687 at age forty-three, another interesting chapter in the story of the “Rock.” There’s much more.
Ft. St. Louis burned in 1720 and was not rebuilt. By that time the Indian village near it and the French whom LaSalle had enticed to live in Illinois country were leaving the area because the timbers and wildlife on which they depended would not support them. They mainly migrated to Lake Peoria, a wide spot in the Illinois River and where earlier LaSalle had built T. Crevecoeur. Henri de Tonti had replaced LaSalle and had accomplished some progress through his own abilities.
So much more could be told about the past of the “Rock” but space does not allow. Incidents and events of interest go on and on such as the battle at the top of the Rock that named it Starved Rock in the middle 1700’s, its abandonment by the Indians who had lived there for centuries, making their own histories.
Father Marquette’s successor, Fr. Allouez is said to have baptized 10,000 and converted a hundred thousand so all history is not made just by force and rifle.
Starved Rock, as we mentioned last week, became a state park one hundred years ago in 1911, so happy birthday to it. It’s a year long observance. There are nearly twenty canyons with sparkling streams and waterfalls, rock formations of unique sorts, wildflowers and plants galore, and views from the top that are awesome. Do you know the calendars of Willard Clay? One features scenes of Illinois, many in the state parks. Look for them and enjoy. The 2011 issue is almost impressionistic in its composition.
When dedicated in 1911 the acreage was over two thousand and nearby is a nature preserve of nearly six hundred acres. Many kinds of Illinois landscape can be seen there plus the large log lodge, hand-built, which serves as a centerpiece for the visitor. It has a restaurant and rooms for rental which is a must. The terrace has a wonderful river view. Call for hours.
Nearby at Oglesby is Matthiessen State Park, a kind of miniature of Starved Rock. Its paths in winter are especially interesting. Go to both to treat yourself to an anniversary of state parks but remember that it was people, too, who made it a centerpiece for their lives however long ago. Give them tribute, too.