Both copies of Marquette's journal were lost, but detailed descriptions of the trip survive in Joliet's notes, in messages sent home, and in reports by contemporaries with whom they discussed their trip. Joliet clearly understood the significance of the Chicago Portage. The following year, 1674, he sent back a report stating; "It would only be necessary to cut a canal through half a league of prairie (one and one-half miles) to allow easy navigation from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico."8 It would, of course, be found to be enormously more difficult.

The second great French exploration was by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle. His purpose was different from Joliet's. He was charged by Louis XIV in 16799 to take possession of the Mississippi valley in the name of the King of France. After some tentative explorations in southern Michigan and Northern Indiana, La Salle arrived at the Chicago portage in late 1682.10 Three months later, he and his group of twenty-two were at mouth of Mississippi, and claimed the entire area for France.

The first true settlement of Chicago was Fort de Chicago, built by French Jesuits in 1683.11 The Fort served as a French outpost until it was abandoned in about 1705. During this period there was extensive use of the portage by traders, as beaver pelts passed here on their way to Paris. The portage was an easy route, especially for the trappers. Their usual routine was to go west in late summer or fall, spend the winter and early spring in the territories, and return with their skins in spring.12 At this time of the year, the portage was usually in flood, with the Des Plaines flowing both into its valley to the south, and over the continental divide into the Chicago River. Thus it was possible to paddle the whole way between the two river systems. Even in the early 1800's there are descriptions of boats of 15" draft and of six tons being able to navigate across the portage in Spring.13


< Previous Page

Next Page >