Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet are celebrities of Midwestern history. Cities and schools are named in their honor and their likenesses appear in art and architecture around the United States. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the event for which Marquette and Jolliet are famous: a canoe voyage down the Mississippi River with five voyageurs in 1673. The anniversary is being widely publicized. My hometown of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, near where the French first entered the Mississippi, is celebrating the event with a carnival. From these commemorations, it might seem that Marquette and Jolliet have always been figures of great historical importance — but the cultural significance of their canoe trip has shifted greatly over the last three and half centuries.
The Debated Claim of “Discovery”
Like other children in my predominantly white hometown, I was told while growing up that Marquette and Jolliet were important because they “discovered” the Mississippi River in 1673. Already by high school, I learned that this was not quite accurate — but not because it neglected the Indigenous nations who had already known the Mississippi for thousands of years. Instead, I learned that the Spaniard Hernando De Soto had “discovered” the Lower Mississippi in 1541, and that other French men, such as Radisson and Groseilliers, had perhaps already seen the Upper Mississippi in the 1650s. Regardless, Marquette and Jolliet were to be commended for making the first written account of the river’s course.
Only as a college undergraduate did I read Marquette’s journal and begin to understand that Marquette and Jolliet were guided and supplied by Native American allies on their journey, traveling water routes that were long established by Menominee, Illiniwek, Quapaw, and other Indigenous nations. Marquette’s account of the voyage makes clear that the travelers not only relied on Indigenous knowledge, but also saw meeting with the people who lived along the Mississippi as the main purpose of their journey. They did not set out to map an empty land — in fact, they set out with a map already started based on reports from Illiniwek people. Marquette and Jolliet traveled to lands that they knew were inhabited because they sought to draw new people into the colonial orbit of France and the Catholic Church. Meeting people was so central to the journey that Marquette could write that the expedition “advanced over 60 leagues since we entered the river, without discovering anything” — until they finally reached the Peoria village of the Illiniwek a week after entering the Mississippi.
Today’s media reports on the 350th anniversary of Marquette and Jolliet’s voyage are making an overdue effort to recognize the centrality of Indigenous people in the expedition, as well as the legacy that the journey had in furthering the European colonization of Indigenous homelands. As Indigenous studies professor Margaret Huettl explained in a discussion with Wisconsin Public Radio, the explorers traveled through “a thriving network of Indigenous economies, politics, and social communities.” Children today hopefully don’t have to reach college before understanding that the 1673 expedition was a meeting of cultures where Europeans followed in the footsteps of Indigenous guides rather than treading new, unbroken ground. At the same time, in commemorating the explorers, today’s reports still dance awkwardly around the notion of “discovery,” acknowledging that the word is misplaced, but struggling to articulate an alternative reason for Marquette and Jolliet’s ongoing significance.
The Driftless Slope Map that I created in 2013 is now available for sale from the nonprofit Crawford Stewardship Project. Both posters and postcards are available. Purchases support environmental sustainability in Crawford County, Wisconsin, at the heart of the Driftless Area.
Crawford Stewardship Project works to protect Crawford County and neighboring regions from threats of polluting and extractive industries, to promote sustainable land use, environmental justice, and local control of natural resources.
Crawford Stewardship Project mission statement
The Crawford Stewardship Project is an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit and I receive no royalties or fees from their merchandise sales.
Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, discovered only a few months ago, is now putting on a marvelous show in the northern sky.
I went out last week with a 55mm F1.8 lens to capture some obligatory comet photos and then turned my camera on a few other highlights of the July 2020 evening sky over Wisconsin. Click on a picture to expand it.
Wisconsin is better known for trees, cows, and snow than for cactus. Even so, multiple species of prickly pears have a native range extending to the Upper Midwest. The cacti are not abundant, but they can flourish in the micro-climates created by well drained, sunny slopes in the Driftless Area.
These wild prickly pear cacti grow along a south facing outcrop of St. Peter sandstone in southwest Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to find them just in time for their short lived yellow blossoms in early July.
While shops, schools, and museums shut down for safety from March to May amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, the woods of Driftless Wisconsin came alive in their usual burst of spring color. This photo gallery looks back at the emergence of spring wildflowers week-by-week.
For another perspective on spring in the Driftless Area, don’t miss the nature walk video series from B&E’s Trees on YouTube: . They’re full of interesting information on Wisconsin’s spring ephermals.
Fragile points of color, the first flowers in April rise only slightly from the bed of last year’s decay. Bloodroot, hepatica, and dutchman’s breeches announce the new season throughout much of the woods. The marsh marigolds cluster only around a well-watered natural spring.
As April turns to May, whole stretches of the woods are carpeted with pink-and-white spring beauty. Tree leaves are beginning to bud, but the canopy is still wide open for sunshine to reach the forest floor. Both rue and wood anemones are widespread, and ferns are uncurling from their fiddleheads.
Note: This is a repost of my opinion letter printed in the June 10, 2020, Courier Press. The memorial sits in a federal cemetery managed by the National Cemetery Administration, which opposes any modification to Confederate symbols on its property. More information on the memorial is available from the Historical Marker Database and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Since the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25, Americans across the nation have marched to protest the United States’ long history of institutional racism — from Black slavery and segregation to present disparities in policing and incarceration. In Prairie du Chien, one relic of this white supremacist history endures in the stone and bronze plaque memorializing Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the Fort Crawford Military Cemetery. Lately, cities including Birmingham, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia, have begun to remove Confederate monuments in an effort to overcome histories of racial violence. Madison, Wisconsin, removed its Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial from Forest Hill Cemetery in 2017. Prairie du Chien should follow the example of these cities by replacing its own small Confederate plaque with historic markers that better represent local history.
A common objection to the removal of Confederate monuments is that taking them down erases history. The American Historical Association disagrees, noting that “To remove such monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase’ it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” Jefferson Davis briefly stayed at Fort Crawford during the 1830s as a U.S. Army Lieutenant. His time there should continue to be examined in exhibits at the Fort Crawford Museum and books at the library, for we can learn from history only by recognizing both successes and failures, good and evil. That said, the community does not need to preserve a memorial for Davis at the entrance to the cemetery simply because of his brief time here. Prairie du Chien gives no comparable public honor to any other military officer who served at Fort Crawford.
Spring took its time in coming to Wisconsin this year, and when it arrived the rain clouds seemed to hang overhead for weeks at a time. All that water had to make something grow eventually, though, and the prairies were in blossom by the end of May.