The first discovery of the portage by Europeans was near the end of the 17th century. In 1672 a major expedition of exploration of the American Midwest was authorized by Louis XIV. The purpose of the trip was to investigate and verify rumors of a water route from the Great Lakes to a "great river" which would lead to the sea at New Orleans. The immediate consideration for the exploration was the reports of early French scouts that there were important copper deposits4 near Lake Superior. The fur trapping was already well established and could be serviced by canoes back east through existing water routes and portages, but for the heavy copper ore, a water level route was required. Louis Joliet was selected to lead the exploration. Jacques Marquette, a Catholic priest, was sent along as the spiritual leader. Marquette had a zealous ambition to evangelize the native Indians, stating at the end of his voyage; "Had this voyage resulted in the salvation of even one soul, I would consider all my troubles well rewarded."5

The route of the voyage led down Lake Michigan to Green Bay, and then via the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to the Mississippi. The portages were long and the trip was arduous. It was hardly an acceptable trade route. The party of eight adventurers went as far down the Mississippi as the Arkansas River, then turned around, fearing that all of the valuable information they had gained could possibly be lost if they were slain by hostile Indians or if they were captured by the Spanish, enemies of France who had recently taken control of Louisiana.

The route back was easier as they would be meeting friendly Indians with whom they had exchanged gifts on the way down. Some of the Indians had already been converted to Christianity by Father Marquette. Indians from the Kaskaskia6 tribe helped direct them to the much shorter and easier route back to Lake Michigan via the Illinois and the Des Plaines Rivers, and up a short creek to Mud Lake, into the Chicago River and on to Lake Michigan. Mud Lake extended from about Harlem Avenue on the west to Kedzie Avenue on the east. In times of spring flood, the Des Plaines would overflow into Mud Lake and would flow to Lake Michigan. In dryer weather, portages would be required. On about September 1, 1673,7 Louis Joliet and Father Marquette were the first Europeans to use what came to be called "The Chicago Portage."


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