Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Last Two Years of Jacques Marquette, Jesuit Missionary and Explorer. (1673-1675)

In September of 1673, after leaving the Illinois Village of La Vantum (by Utica, Illinois, at Starved Rock), Father Pere Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) traveled to Green Bay, where he stayed for only a short time. His health being bad, and the Winnebago Indians, with whom he sojourned (a temporary stay), were unwilling to abandon the religion of their fathers for Christianity. It being impressed on the mind of Marquette that his stay on earth would be short, and before departing hence, he felt it his duty to visit the Illinois Indians and again establish among them a mission in honor of the Holy Virgin.
Father Pére Jacques Marquette
Late in the fall Marquette, accompanied by two of his countrymen, Pierre and Jacques, with two Indians, left Green Bay for the Illinois River. The weather was cold, the wind high, and with great difficulty they coasted along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Frequently the travelers were compelled to land from the turbulent water, draw their canoe on the beach, and wait for the wind and waves to subside.

After a long, perilous voyage the travelers reached the mouth of Chicagou River, and ascended it about one-half leagues to a grove of timber. Here Marquette was taken very sick, and winter set in, the river froze up, and the prairie covered with snow and ice. Near the river bank Pierre and Jacques built a hut, covering and siding it with buffalo skins, and here in this rude tenement they lived about three months.

[Read the story about this Marquette and Jolliet Cross on the Chicago River]
The Marquette and Jolliet Cross, Chicago River, 1907
Monument at 2631 South Damen Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, marks the location where Father Jacques Marquette (named "James Marquette" on this monument) spent the winter of 1674-1675. It also marks the eastern end of the Chicago Portage.
Buffalo and deer were plenty, and the Indians from a neighboring village supplied them with corn, honey and maple sugar, so they did not want for the necessaries of life. For many days Marquette was prostrated by disease so he could not leave his couch, and his friends believed that his time of departure was near. Having a great desire to establish a mission among the Illinois Indians before death overtook him, Marquette begged his two companions, Pierre and Jacques, to join him in nine days' devotion to the Virgin Mary, and through her interposition his disease relented and he gained strength daily. Indians from a village two leagues distant frequently visited their hut, and Marquette, feeble as he was, preached to them, and many became converted to Christianity. Near their hut they built a temporary altar, over which was raised a large wooden cross. The converted Indians were instructed, while praying, to look upon this· cross and thereby all their sins were remitted.

The winter was now passed, snow and ice had disappeared from the prairie, and the warm sun of early spring not only animated nature, but it gave strength and vitality to Father Marquette. His cough had almost ceased, his tall, manly form, which had been bent by rheumatism, was now erect, and he sang songs of praise to the Holy Virgin for his restoration to health. After taking an affectionate farewell of the converted Indians Marquette, with his two companions in a bark canoe, left for La Vantum, the Great Illinois town.

With sail and oars the voyageurs urged their canoe down the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers, while the surrounding woods reechoed their songs of praise. Birds were singing among the trees, squirrels chirping in the groves, while elk and deer bounded away at the sound of the approaching canoe. Swans, pelicans and wild geese would rise from the water and fly squawking downstream, while beaver and otter were sporting in the water and diving under their canoe. Far and near the prairie was covered with herds of buffalo, some basking in the sun, while others were feeding on the early spring grass.

When Marquette arrived at La Vantum the Indians received him as though he was an angel from heaven, some of whom fell on their knees before him, asking forgiveness for past sins. Chassagone, the head chief, whom Marquette had baptized the year before, was so delighted at meeting the Holy Father that he embraced him, and wept for joy. On the following day after Marquette's arrival all the Indians, old and young, assembled on the meadow above the town to hear good tidings from the great French Manitou, the name given to Jesus Christ. Around him were seated on the ground five hundred chiefs and old warriors, behind them stood one thousand five hundred young braves, while around these were  collected all the squaws and papooses of the village. Marquette, standing in the midst of this vast assembly, displayed to them two pictures, painted on canvas, one of the Virgin Mary, and the other of Christ, telling them of God, of heaven, of hell, and of a judgment to come, when all the Indians clapped their hands and shouted for joy. By Marquette's direction the Indians tore down the temple and images erected to the God of war and built a chapel on its site. When the chapel was completed all the chiefs and old warriors assembled therein, when Marquette dedicated it in honor of the Holy Virgin, giving it the same name which he had already given to the Mississippi River, "The Immaculate Conception."

Each day the chapel of the Mission of the Immaculate Conception was filled with converts, and Marquette preached to them, baptizing old and young; a large number of converts were enrolled in the church book, and saved from perdition. On Easter Sunday the chapel was decorated with flowers and evergreens, representing crosses, anchors, crucifixes, etc. Incense was burned on the altar, and lights were kept burning during the day, according to the custom of the Catholic Church. This day was a joyous one, and long remembered by the Indians, but with it ended the ministry of Marquette among the red-men of the west.

Spring had now come, the groves were once more green, and the prairies again covered with grass and flowers, but it did not bring health and vigor to the failing Priest. His disease had again returned in its worst form, and he felt that his life was fast passing away. After spending two days and nights in prayer, communing with Christ and the Holy Virgin, he concluded to return to Canada, where he could receive the sacrament from the hands of his brethren before he died.

On the third day after Easter the natives were assembled in the chapel, when Marquette, pale and feeble as he was, preached to them, instructing his converts in the ways of Christianity, telling them that he was about to depart for Canada, but promised to send a priest to teach them in the ways of salvation. The Indians heard the news in sadness, gathering around the Holy Father and begging him to remain with them. But he told his brethren that his work was ended, that a few weeks would close his pilgrimage here on earth, and before departing hence he desired to return to Canada and leave his bones among his countrymen.

Marquette's canoe was once more put on the water, and with his two faithful companions he commenced his journey eastward. About five hundred warriors, some in canoes and others mounted on ponies, accompanied Marquette as far as Lake Michigan, and there received from him the parting blessing. After parting with the Indians, Marquette's canoe, with sails hoisted and oars applied, coasted near the shore around the head of the Lake. Pierre and Jacques with all their power plied the oars to increase the speed, while the sick Priest lay prostrated in the bottom of the canoe communing with the Virgin and with angels.

On May 19, 1675, near Sleeping Bear Point, Marquette felt that his time had come and told his companions to land him on the Lake beach so he might receive the sacrament before he died. On a high point of land, at the mouth of a small stream which still bears his name, they built a bark hut, and carried thither the dying Priest. With his eyes fixed on a crucifix which one of his companions held before him, and while murmuring the name of Mary and Jesus, he breathed his last.
The Last Breaths of Father Marquette, May 19, 1675.
His companions dug a grave on the bank of the stream near the place where he died, and buried him there. In obedience to his request they erected over his grave a cross made of bass-wood timber, on which were engraved his name and date of his death. After burying Marquette Pierre and Jacques again put their canoe on the water and continued their journey toward Canada, conveying thither the sad news of his death.

Three years after Marquette's death a party of Indians from Point St. Ignace, Michigan, who were converted under Marquette's preaching some years before, went to Lake Michigan, opened the grave, and took up the remains. After scraping off the putrid flesh, washing and drying the bones, they were placed in a box made of birch-bark and carried home with them. With the remains of the Holy Father they turned their canoe homeward, singing and chanting praises as they went on their way. Seven miles above Point St. Ignace they were met by a large delegation of Indians in canoes, who formed a procession to escort the remains to the mission.

With their faces blacked, oars muffled, and singing a funeral dirge, the procession slowly approached the mission, and were met at the landing by priests, traders and Indians, all of whom wore badges of mourning. With a solemn ceremony the remains of Father Marquette were received at the mission, and buried beneath the altar of the little chapel of St. Ignace which he had built some years before.

For over two centuries since the burial of Marquette, and long since the little chapel of St. Ignace has disappeared, the spot where it stood was hallowed by the French and converted Indians, and continues to be pointed out to strangers visiting the place.

For many years after the death of Marquette the French sailors on the lakes kept his picture nailed to the mast-head as a guardian angel, and when overtaken by storm and perils at sea they would pray to the holy father beseeching him to calm the winds and still the troubled waters in order that they might reach port in safety.

The old chapel of St. Ignace continued to stand guard over the remains of Marquette until the year 1706, when it was burned down and the mission removed to the island of Mackinaw. For many years after the mission was removed from this old historic place religious enthusiasts were in the habit of visiting Point St. Ignace, and offering up   prayers on this sacred spot. For ages the place where the chapel stood was hallowed by zealous Catholics, but no steps were taken to memorize the grave or recover the bones of the great missionary and explorer. In the spring of 1877 Father Jocker, the village priest, began to agitate the subject of resurrecting the bones of Marquette, and. everywhere it met with public favor. A time having been set for that purpose, people from a distance collected at Point St. Ignace, and amid a large assembly of enthusiastic persons the remains were exhumed.

Excavations having been made on the site of the old chapel the relics of the altar of the Holy Virgin were found and taken out. Beneath the altar, in a vault walled with red cedar, was found a large piece of birch-bark in a good state of preservation, and here too were found the remains of Marquette, where they had lain for over two hundred years. The bones, much decayed, some of them moldered into dust when exposed to the air, were taken out in the presence of a large collection of people, and with proper ceremony buried in a cemetery nearby, over which a monument to his memory has been erected.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. This was a very interesting article. You conveyed a real sense of the hardships of his journeys. I am wondering what exactly was going on though. What disease did Father Marquette die from? Rheumatism? I felt like I was reading old sources rather than something written today which makes me question the validity of some of the statements.

    1. Old sources provide valuable information not found in modern accounts, mainly from being glossed-over. As far as your validity issue, it is the same issue throughout time when writings are at the mercy of the author(s).


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