Monuments, Mysteries, and Myths
Feature photo: Monument at Marquette Park in Gary, Indiana
By Ronald Trigg
Those of us who grew up near the shores of Lake Michigan have always known about Father Jacques Marquette. Tales of the French-born Jesuit priest’s exploits as a missionary and explorer in the 17th-century Great Lakes frontier were a regular part of our elementary school history curriculum, and his name remains a common feature on our modern cultural landscape.
Jacques Marquette joined the Society of Jesus in 1654, when he was a young man of seventeen. After his ordination in 1666, he was assigned as a missionary to New France, arriving in Quebec on September 20th of that year. He spent nearly two years learning local languages and acquiring the wilderness skills he would need to succeed in his quest to locate and convert native tribes to Catholicism. In August 1668, he began his work in earnest, paddling in birch-bark canoes accompanied by Indian converts along the southern shore of Lake Superior, ultimately reaching an already-established mission at Chequamegon Bay in present-day Wisconsin, where he worked among the Ottawa and Huron Peoples.
Later, over the course of a number of years encompassing several journeys, Marquette nearly achieved the feat of circumnavigating Lake Michigan. He would likely have been the first European to do so, save perhaps for one or more unnamed French voyageurs or fur traders lost to history. Marquette’s death in 1675 on the eastern shore of the lake left him some 200 miles short of that goal. But he still might lay claim to the distinction if one were to include the transport of his remains from the place of his death to his burial site two years later.
Throughout his travels, the French priest demonstrated a remarkable ability to master the languages of the peoples he met. It was a skill that served his spiritual calling well. Marquette preached the gospel among many of the tribal nations in the upper Great Lakes region, and he founded missions at Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace in what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Exploration of the Mississippi with Jolliet
Marquette is perhaps best known for his joint exploration of the continent’s interior with Louis Jolliet, a Quebec-born fur trader eight years his junior. Commissioned by the governor of New France, Jolliet’s objectives were political and economic rather than religious. He was sent to claim new lands in the name of King Louis XIV and thus deny their wealth to the rival Spanish and English who had similar ambitions. The traveling party, which also included a handful of French-Canadian crewmen and some Indian guides, was also charged with finding the near-mythical Mississippi River. Little was known about that great waterway at the time, not even its eventual destination. Did it veer eastward to the Atlantic, continue south to the Gulf of Mexico, or perhaps provide a passage westward to the Pacific?
The explorers succeeded in reaching the Mississippi, and they identified two water links (each requiring a portage) connecting it to Lake Michigan: the first, in the north, via the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers; and the second, farther south, via the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers. The party never reached the Mississippi’s mouth, but Indian interlocutors confirmed that the river flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. Fearing a confrontation with the Spanish who were active along the southern reaches of the river, they turned back near the confluence of the Arkansas River and returned to Lake Michigan waters near the site of present-day Chicago, from which they paddled north to Green Bay. The explorers’ travels together lasted from May to September 1673 and covered some 2,500 miles. Jolliet went on to Quebec to report his findings, while Marquette, who had become ill during the long journey, remained behind at Green Bay.
Jolliet survived the trip to Quebec, but only barely. His canoe was caught up in turbulent waters at the Lachine Rapids on the St. Lawrence River. His companions drowned, his boat was destroyed, and he spent hours in the water before being rescued. Also lost was Jolliet’s journal, leaving Marquette’s diary as the only written account of their joint expedition. The two explorers of the Mississippi never laid eyes on each other again.
The Final Journeys
Marquette spent the winter of 1673-4 at the Mission of St. Francois Xavier near Green Bay. The specific nature of his illness is unknown, but symptoms apparently included chronic fever and dysentery. The ailing Jesuit never fully recovered, but in the fall of 1674, he and companions headed south down Lake Michigan’s western shore to the Chicago River. Winter that year was severe by all accounts, and Marquette holed up in a primitive structure near the lakeshore in what is now downtown Chicago. The small group relied on travelers and friendly natives to provide them with food and supplies.
In the spring of 1675, Marquette and his cohorts left their Chicago encampment to fulfill a promise the priest had made to the Illinois Indians when he met them on his return voyage from the Mississippi. He had pledged to return to their village at Kaskaskia for the purpose of establishing a religious mission. The explorer was reportedly greeted with a warm welcome by the Illinois, and he laid the groundwork for a new mission. But Father Marquette’s health continued to worsen. Fearing that death was near, he was determined to make it back to the mission at St. Ignace which he considered his New World home.
The travelers were well acquainted with the great lake’s western shoreline, but they chose instead an unfamiliar route along the southern and eastern shores, because it seemed to be shorter. They probably retraced their steps to the mouth of the Chicago River, where they had spent the previous winter, but they may have investigated other ways to access Lake Michigan’s waters. Some have speculated that they used an alternate route, perhaps the Grand Calumet River in what is now Indiana.
Death in the Dunes
The party paddled along the shoreline, taking shelter at night among the high dunes that line the lake’s southern and eastern shorelines. The explorer-priest was too weak to contribute to the paddling by this time, but he was still captain of his ship and made decisions on when and where to stop. In the afternoon of May 18, 1675, he directed the party to put up for the night near the mouth of a river with a small lake adjacent. The crew built a crude shelter to provide protection from the elements. During the night Father Marquette died.
The priest’s two companions—Pierre Porteret and Jacques Largilliers—buried their comrade in the sandy soil, marking the spot with a large wooden cross to make the grave site easier to locate later. The crew continued on to St. Ignace to report what had happened. They carried Marquette’s precious journal with them, placing it in the hands of Father Claude Dablon. After interviewing Porteret and Largilliers, Dablon completed the story of the final journey in his own hand as an addition to Marquette’s journal.
Interment at St. Ignace
After two years, some Ottawa Indians from the St. Ignace Mission went looking for the grave. They found the cross that marked the spot, and they dug up Marquette’s remains. In keeping with Native American custom, they separated the bones from the flesh, which had become desiccated in the dry dunes landscape. Placing the bones in a box made of birch bark, they transported them to St. Ignace. According to Father Dablon’s account, a grand funeral convoy comprising some thirty canoes was organized by Indians who wished to honor the cleric by accompanying his remains to their final resting place.
Father Marquette’s remains were formally buried on June 8, 1677, in the floor of the chapel at the small mission he had established at St. Ignace. The grounds overlook the Straits of Mackinac that connect Lakes Huron and Michigan.
The account of Marquette’s life and travels outlined above is based primarily on contemporary records, including the explorer’s own journal as amended and updated by Father Dablon. The Society of Jesus chronicled the “Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France (1610-1791)” in a long-running periodical called The Jesuit Relations. Not surprisingly for events that occurred more than 300 years ago, many details have been lost and others have been interpreted in different ways, giving rise to various mysteries and myths about the man and his life.
Mystery #1: Death Site
Easily the most contentious issue that has surfaced over the years is the location of Marquette’s death. Father Dablon described the place as being along a stream that ran past a hill just before entering the lake. Also noted was the presence of a small lake near the river’s mouth. The physical conditions at the west Michigan town of Ludington provide a good match, and that town was long regarded as the death site. The river entering the lake at Ludington was named the Pere Marquette River. A shrine to Father Marquette was erected there, and the State of Michigan Historical Commission installed a marker designating it an officially registered historic site. Ludington’s claim to be Marquette’s death site went virtually unchallenged for years.
Then in 1960, Catherine Stebbins, a local historian in the town of Frankfort, some sixty miles north of Ludington, published a pamphlet that posited Frankfort as the location of the explorer’s passing. She argued that the physical conditions at Frankfort—at least as they existed in 1675—also closely matched the description put forward by Father Dablon, and she named the Betsie River as the tributary at whose mouth the great explorer was buried. Stebbins’ argument was sufficiently convincing that the State of Michigan also placed a “Marquette’s Death” official historical marker in Frankfort. Both markers make reference to a controversy, but neither names the site of the competing claim.
Historian David Nixon re-examined the issue in 1985 and presented his findings in a paper delivered to the French Colonial Historical Society. He concluded that Ludington had the better claim to the honor, basing his determination on an analysis of river mouth latitudes on original 17th-century maps, and the accounts of explorers who had searched for the location over a period of nearly two centuries. Nixon blamed the confusion on the report of a French priest named Charlevoix who claimed to have visited the grave site in 1721 but apparently misidentified its location.
The mystery of where Marquette died remains unresolved. The communities of Ludington and Frankfort, fueled by civic pride, are both sticking to their guns. The State of Michigan remains neutral on the issue, giving equal status to the two claimants.
Mystery #2: The Bones
Another lingering mystery concerns the whereabouts of Marquette’s remains. The French abandoned their mission at St. Ignace in 1705, less than 30 years after the priest/explorer was buried with such fanfare in the floor of the chapel there. Before moving operations to Fort Pontchartrain near Detroit, they destroyed all the mission’s buildings and burned the chapel to the ground, apparently making no attempt to safeguard or move the bones. Indeed Father Marquette’s remains were lost for more than 170 years. Father Edward Jacker, a Roman Catholic priest at St. Ignace, while searching for evidence of the original mission buildings, located the site of the chapel in 1877. Excavations revealed some charred bone fragments and parts of a birch-bark box, which Jacker attributed to Marquette since there were no other recorded burials at the site. The legitimacy of the relics was never fully established.
When Father Jacker left St. Ignace a few years later, he took the remains with him for safekeeping, intending to return them once a proper monument had been built. Instead, he gave the bone fragments to Marquette University in 1882. The transaction is recorded in a letter he wrote to Father Stanislaus LaLumiere, who was then rector of the college. The nineteen tiny bone fragments, weighing in total less than an ounce, with no single piece larger than one inch in length, are carefully wrapped in a velvet-lined box that is housed in a vault in the University Archives. Their existence is not well known to the public. According to current University Archivist Amy Cooper Cary, the University does not promote them as a feature of its collection, allows access to them by scholars only at the permission of the Office of the President, and cannot confirm that they are identifiable as bones of Father Marquette or even that they are human remains. Some anecdotal information alleges that the fragments have been identified as human by various authorities, but no written documentation confirms it.
Some unidentified relics may also still lie beneath the monument at St. Ignace, but excavations conducted in the 1970s by James Fitting, an archaeologist employed by the State of Michigan, suggested that the grave had been plundered in the 1880s and the bones removed. The few bones recovered during three years of excavation appear to be from a cow. The residents of the small Upper Peninsula village have differing views about the existence and validity of the St. Ignace remains. Many believe that the grave site was long ago plundered, with Indians taking the larger bones as magical charms. Others insist they are still in St. Ignace but not yet discovered. This issue also continues unresolved.
Exaggeration and Mythology
Many of the accounts of the explorer’s work, both those contemporary to his lifetime and more modern ones, are written in an exaggerated manner as if intended to inflate his achievements and historic importance. Father Dablon’s overblown report of Pere Marquette’s funeral, for instance, seems inconsistent with the apparent indifference the French displayed just a quarter century later when they destroyed all evidence of the gravesite and abandoned it to the wilderness. A common feature of many Marquette biographies—and this perhaps explains the apparent effort to portray him as a man of the highest virtue—is authorship by Jesuit priests.
Father Marquette’s notoriety has led many communities in the Lake Michigan watershed to lay claim to some connection to him and his exploits, many of which are demonstrably untrue. Examples abound in the lakeshore communities in Indiana. The City of Gary erected an impressive statue of Marquette in a lakefront park named in his honor. The carved pedestal claims that he and Jolliet passed nearby on their way to the Mississippi in 1673. In fact, Jolliet never came anywhere near the place and Marquette’s only connection was when he was gravely ill and being paddled by his companions back to St. Ignace in 1675.
Newspaper accounts report that the lid of a silver baptismal fount was discovered near the mouth of the Grand Calumet River in 1912. The artifact was heralded as a possession of the famed French explorer, who was said to have camped there on his final voyage, but the fount’s current whereabouts are unknown and the link to Marquette was never firmly established. Historical pageants in nearby cities often included skits alluding to a trip down the Grand Calumet that has never been verified. Legend also has it that Marquette said mass to local Indians on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Gary and near a spring in Michigan City. He may well have passed through these areas on that final voyage, but the cleric was likely too weak to have conducted any religious services.
Marquette on the Map
Marquette has been recognized and memorialized for his accomplishments in many ways throughout the Great Lake states in which he traveled. Marquette Counties exist in Michigan and Wisconsin. A city and a river in Michigan are named after him. There are municipal parks, streets, and buildings in many places, a renowned university in Milwaukee, a state park in Illinois, an island in Lake Huron. The priest-explorer is also remembered with statues at locations far beyond the American Midwest: at his birthplace in Laon, France; in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington (representing the State of Wisconsin); at the National Assembly (provincial parliament) in Quebec City.
Father Marquette’s Journal, Lansing, MI, Michigan Historical Center, 1990.
Hamilton, Raphael N., Father Marquette, Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1970.
Nelson, Ruth D., Searching for Marquette: A Pilgrimage in Art, Milwaukee, WI, Marquette University Press, 2012.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, Father Marquette, New York, D. Appleton & Company, 1902.
Chicago, Illinois: Various monuments and markers along Chicago River, mosaics and sculptures at Marquette Building, resource room at Chicago History Museum.
Frankfort, Michigan: Father Marquette Death Site Historical Marker.
Gary, Indiana: Monument at Marquette Park, Marquette Elementary School, Marquette Trail Bikepath at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Ludington, Michigan: Pere Marquette Shrine, Father Marquette Death Site Historical Marker.
Michigan City, Indiana: Marquette Catholic High School, Marquette Mall.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University.
St. Ignace, Michigan: Father Marquette National Memorial at Straits State Park, Father Marquette Grave & Historical Site in Pere Marquette Park.
Evening News (Sault Ste. Marie, MI), 1974, (accessed through newspapers.com).
Father Marquette National Memorial (St. Ignace, MI), interpretive signage.
Hammond (IN) Times, various issues 1912-2012 (accessed through newspapers.com).
Janz, William, “Bones are Fragment of MU History,” Milwaukee (WI) Sentinel, September 28, 1987.
“Last Two Journeys of Father Marquette, The,” The Old North-West Leaflets, Chicago History Teachers’ Association, 1906.
Morgan, Hugh, “Marquette Bone Fragment Story Uncovered,” Associated Press, February 16, 1974.
Nixon, David D., “New Findings about the Marquette Deathsite,” Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, Volume 8, East Lansing, MI, Michigan State University Press, 1985.
Pere Marquette Park (St. Ignace, MI), interpretive signage.
Post-Crescent (Appleton, MI), 1970 (accessed through newspapers.com).
Marquette University, Amy Cooper Cary, Raynor Memorial Libraries Archivist, and Joseph DiGiovanni, Media Relations Department, November 2017.
Stebbins, Catherline L, Here I Shall Finish My Voyage!, Omena, MI, Solle’s Press, 1960.
Steck, Francis Borgia, Marquette Legends, New York, Pageant Press, 1960.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, editor, Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791, Cleveland, OH, Barrows Brothers Company, 1897.
Content and photos ©2017 Ronald Trigg