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Mississippi and the lakes in birch canoes and, crossing the portage, went down the Wisconsin until its waters mingled with those of the great stream. Late in June, 1673, they were upon the bosom of that mighty river which De Soto had discovered, nearer the gulf, a century and a quarter before.* The Indian name was Mississippi, which interpreted means Great Water or Father of Waters.
Father Marquette and his bold companions erected light sails over their canoes and voyaged quite rapidly on the broad bosom of the mighty river, with winds and currents carrying them past the inflowing waters of the Missouri and Ohio and other smaller tributaries, occasionally stopping on the way to hold friendly intercourse with the natives. They came at last to a point below the mouth of the Arkansas River, where they found a tribe of sun-worshippers, who appeared hostile. But for a revered symbol of peace held up by Marquette as they floated down the shores lined with hostile savages, the missionaries would certainly have been destroyed. On the borders of Iowa, a chief had presented the priest with a beautifully wrought and richly ornamented calumet, or pipe of peace, which the good father held aloft. Its well-known form and the rich plumage that adorned it commanded the attention of the fiercest savages,
* See “ Estevan,” page 363.
and their leader, a venerable man, with nine others, sprang into an immense log canoe and paddled toward the Frenchmen. The ancient chieftain also bore a calumet in his hand, which he gave to Father Marquette as a token of friendship.
Axes of steel were found among the Indians, which was conclusive evidence that they had had intercourse at some time with European nations. After satisfying themselves that the Mississippi River did not flow into either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, but emptied into some intermediate bay, gulf, or sea, they turned the prow of their bark northward and before the first frosts of autumn had touched the foliage of the forest-lined banks, they reached Green Bay.
For two years more, Marquette labored among Indians near the present site of Chicago and then crossed the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. A fatal disease had seized upon his lungs, and he was soon conscious that death was near; yet he passed along the shore in his canoe, propelled by two men, until it entered a small stream which for a long time afterward bore his name. They carried him tenderly ashore and laid him on the leaves in deep shadows of the grim old forest. With joy, he informed his companions that he would soon die, and requested them to leave him alone while they unloaded the canoe.
“I will call you when the end draws near,” he said in his sweet, cheerful spirit.
They went and were engaged in their work when they heard his feeble voice calling to them:
They hastened to his side and one stood at his head and the other at his feet.
“Bring some holy water which I prepared,” whispered the dying man. This was done, and he dipped his fingers in it and anointed his own brow. Then he took from lis neck a crucifix which he had worn for years, placed it in the hands of one of his companions and whispered:
“Hold it constantly before my eyes, so long as life remains in my body.” .
The companion, kneeling at his feet held aloft the crucifix while he bowed his head in prayer. Surely, since the crucifixion, the eye of man has never beheld a more solemn sight, than this old saint dying in the forest where he had given his life to God. With clasped hands, Father Marquette then pronounced aloud the profession of his faith, and soon afterward he died, as he had desired to do, in the bosom of the wilderness in the service of his Master, without human aid. A grave was dug by his weeping companions, who carried him to it, ringing his little chapel bell, which he had brought with him. Near his grave. they erected a large wooden cross, which for a long time marked the spot where slept all that was mortal of the second discoverer of the Mississippi, and the founder of Michigan.
About this time, Robert De La Salle, a young Frenchman, who had been educated for the priesthood in a Jesuit seminary, but who preferred a secular life, was seated at the foot of Lake Ontario, and enjoying a monopoly of the fur trade with the Five Nations south of the lake. He had built a fort on the site of modern Kingston and named it Frontenac in honor of his patron. The mild Franciscans, now tolerated in Canada, were carrying on their religious work among the Indians under the favor of La Salle.
Stirred by old accounts of Spanish voyagers to America, and especially by the published adventures of De Soto giving the incidents attending the discovery of the Mississippi, he had spent most of his early manhood in building air castles of that wonderful but unexplored country. The stories of Father Marquette's voyage on that stream, so mighty in higher latitudes, influenced his heightened ambition with a desire to become a pioneer in those far off regions and to perfect the explorations of the “Great Water.” He had also heard of the Ohio River and the beauty and wealth of the country through which it flowed, and he resolved to attempt the establishment of a widely extended commerce with the natives there and, if possible, plant colonies in the vast wilderness. With these aspirations he went to France and found favor with Colbert, the famous minister of Louis XIV.
It required a sagacity like Colbert's to comprehend the possibilities of the scheme, and he induced the king to extend La Salle's monopoly of the fur trade among the Indians, and to give him a commission to perfect the explorations of the Mississippi River. With some merchants and others and an Italian named Tonti as his lieutenant, late in 1678, La Salle returned to Frontenac to equip for the expedition. With his forces and a Franciscan priest, in a great canoe, they crossed Lake Ontario and went up the Niagara River to the site of Lewiston. They established a trading-post in that region, and near the present city of Buffalo, above the cataract, they built a sailing vessel in which they crossed the lakes to Mackinnack and, pushing forward, anchored in Green Bay, west of Lake Michigan. From Mackinnack, or Mackinaw, La Salle sent back the brig laden with a rich cargo of furs and awaited her return. He tarried impatiently among the Miamies at Chicago, for some time, when, with Tonti, Father Hennepin and two other Franciscans and about thirty followers, he boldly penetrated the wilderness westward on foot