Review: An Important Story, Lost in the Details, Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition, by Mark Walczynski

The expedition of discovery Louis Jolliet, a merchant-explorer, and Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, undertook with five other men in 1673, was a pivotal moment in the history of North America. And it was an important factor, much later, in the establishment of Chicago.

They traveled by canoe from Green Bay, down river routes in what today is Wisconsin and Illinois, to the Mississippi River and along that waterway to the Arkansas River (between the present-day states of Arkansas and Mississippi). At that point, based on what they could see and what Native Americans told them, they were certain that the Miss issippi continued on to the Gulf of Mexico, about 400 miles to the south.

On their return trip, they were told by members of the Illinois tribe about a short-cut to Lake Michigan. It involved following the Illinois River upstream to the Des Plaines River, then portaging their canoes and supplies—that is, carrying them on their shoulders for several miles—around a marshy area called Mud Lake to the Chicago River, and then up a short distance to the lake.

Marquette, like his fellow French Jesuits, explored this region to identify and serve potential native converts to Catholicism. Jolliet was a trader, looking for markets. The two had been sent by Canadian officials for geopolitical reasons.

The Jolliet-Marquette expedition showed that it was possible to link the French colony in Canada with the one in New Orleans by way of the Mississippi. Even more, it revealed a vast region of natural resources that, to European eyes, was untapped and unclaimed. It also showed that the mouth of the Chicago River could be a key location to take advantage of those resources.

But it wasn’t true that the region was untapped and unclaimed, as historian Mark Walczynski notes in Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition, newly published by the University of Illinois Press. For centuries, Indian tribes lived in close relationship with this natural world, shaping it and being shaped. Indeed, Jolliet and Marquette wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the help of the Illinois and other friendly Indian tribes. That friendliness was in hopes of establishing trade for European goods, with no expectation of greater change.

But huge change is what the Native Americans got. Walczynski writes that, for the Illinois, the Jolliet-Marquette discoveries and all that came later “changed the tribe’s culture, way of life, and identity.” He continues:

Both secular and religious forces/influence, intentional or not, combined to strip the Illinois of their customs, culture, spiritual beliefs, and in time, under the British and American regimes, their land. European-borne disease, alcoholism, monogamy, domestic animal husbandry, war, and other forces worked to reduce the once proud tribe to one-fifth of its population in less than a century…

"Both secular and religious forces/influence, intentional or not, combined to strip the Illinois of their customs, culture, spiritual beliefs, and in time, under the British and American regimes, their land."

The Minutiae of History

That’s a necessary point for Walczynski to make, providing important context to the Jolliet-Marquette story. But it’s a rare moment in his book.

Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition is filled with facts from a great many disciplines and offers some new insights. But it lacks synthesis. It lacks analysis and storytelling.

In his preface, Walczynski takes great pride in the many new ways he has employed to study the 1673 expedition:

This book is unique…It attempts to clear up mistakes and fog about the background of the voyage and the people involved in it, including claims of earlier historians that have been proven unlikely or even false…To do this, this narrative relies on sciences and techniques that were not available to earlier authors, including linguistic analysis of Native American words and terms, reports of archeological investigations at villages that were visited by Jolliet and Marquette, knowledge of Ice Age geology that is now known to have carved and shaped specific regions of the Midwest, and the impact of climate on settlement and exploration.

That’s the sort of new information historians have to search for while telling a story about the past. It provides the essential details for the historian to determine the story that is to be told. But they’re the specifics and nuances that must be woven into a broader story.

Walczynski, a former history and philosophy professor at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois, lets the details run the show. Much of what he writes has to do with the minutiae of the history of the expedition.

A Book for Experts, Not the General Public

This is a book for experts. From the opening pages, Walczynski, the park historian for the Starved Rock Foundation, is writing as if the reader is well-steeped in what earlier historians have written about the voyage. Many pages deal with how earlier assertions—such as the widely accepted idea that Jolliet and Marquette had met once or twice before making the expedition together—are misguided or wrong.

Walczynski, a former history and philosophy professor at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois, lets the details run the show. Much of what he writes has to do with the minutiae of the history of the expedition.

For instance, Walczynski spends more than four pages disputing the idea that the two men had met at a meeting at Sault Sainte-Marie and then asks: “Could Jolliet and Marquette have met earlier, perhaps in Quebec, to discuss exploring the Mississippi? No!” And then he goes on for another two pages about why that couldn’t be true.

It’s important to be able to say, if possible, when the two men met, and, in a book written for experts, it may be important to have that discussion over more than six pages.

But Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition has been published on the 350th anniversary of the voyage, an apt time for a book for the general reader. It was an apt time to take all of these new details and new insights and use them to tell the story of these two men.

In other words, to say what happened, what it meant, and why we should care.

Walczynski, however, makes no attempt to make his book a story. He’s content to layer down paragraphs of facts, and maybe that’s enough for the other experts on the expedition. But I suspect even historians want to know the story.

I have always felt that good history writing requires the historian to analyze and synthesize the research that’s been gathered and use it to reach a greater understanding of the subject.

Throughout Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition, I found myself wishing and hoping that Walczynski would step back and put all his facts into context.

The story he tries to tell is important, not only for Chicago but also for North America and the world. It can help us understand who the people were who made the history, and help us understand how that history has come down to us and shaped us, and help us think about how we face such questions in the future.

But this isn’t a book that does that.

Jolliet and Marquette: A New History of the 1673 Expedition is available at many bookstores and through the University of Illinois Press website.

Picture of the author
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).