After more than 300 years, historians and local experts still debate about the location in Northern Michigan where Father Jacques Marquette spent his final moment.
This Traverse classic was featured in the August 2003 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe for more Northern history and lore.
One calm winter morning, Bob Adams headed out to a deserted Lake Michigan beach that had been windswept of snow. He carried a weapon, but he had no evil in mind. The firearm was a replica of a French musket used in the 1600s, a handsome piece, with a satiny finish on the walnut stock, a long, smooth blue-black barrel. Bob was proud of the gun because he’d made much of it himself. He’d cut down the tree for the stock, shaped the wood, sanded it and fitted it flawlessly to the barrel and firing mechanism. He had even machined some of the metal parts.
There beside the lake, Bob poured gunpowder into the barrel, shoved in some cotton wadding with a ramrod and dropped a lead ball down the tube. He stood on the beach, aimed down the long stretch of sand and fired, taking note of where the ball made a puff when it hit. Reloading the musket, he repeated the shot, but this time he aimed the gun slightly higher to see if the ball would go farther. He repeated this several times, recording the distance of each shot, the longest reaching 3,080 feet.
Bob Adams grew up in the forests near Manistee and developed a natural respect for the voyageurs and Jesuit priests who explored the New World. “The Jesuits starved in the wilderness. They suffered in the wilderness. They froze in the wilderness. Marquette captured the imagination, and he captured the minds of people who came later,” Bob says. These days, Bob attends voyageur re-enactment gatherings and here shows off his garb.
Bob went home satisfied. He had confirmed a key piece of historical evidence—the maximum firing distance of a French musket—and was another step closer to solving a mystery that had needled his curiosity for years: Where exactly did Father Jacques Marquette die?
Bob’s fascination with Marquette began one day in the late-1960s when he discovered an incongruity that he felt needed to be resolved, and it activated a part of Bob’s brain that has to see things through to the end. He learned that Michigan had two official state plaques erected in the late 1960s—one in Ludington and one in Frankfort—that say on May 18, 1675, Father Jacques Marquette probably died here. “You can’t die in two places 50 miles apart on the same day,” Bob says. “The state is living a lie.”
Perhaps “acknowledging uncertainty” is more accurate, but either way—lie or uncertainty—one has to wonder, is it worth getting worked up about? After all, we’re talking about a state plaque. But for Bob, a Catholic himself, the rationale for finding the truth was clear enough. He wanted to give the remarkable Father Marquette the respect he was due. We have an obligation to tell the truth about the good man’s final day, if that truth could be discerned with reasonable certainty, he reasoned.
The conundrum launched Bob on a 15-year search that some might think obsessive. He spent weeks in a 27-foot voyageur canoe traveling Lake Michigan’s shoreline dressed in period clothing. For the sake of historical accuracy, he navigated with early instruments, spotting stars with a small brass telescope and charting with a quadrant. He pored over maps of original explorers and made intricate comparisons between their journals, like those of Father Charlevoix, who paddled Lake Michigan’s shores seeking Marquette’s death site in 1721, and Father Gabriel Richard, who came in 1821. “I got the feeling that you have to live it. Get wet. Sleep under the stars. Wake up with the sunrise,” Bob says.
The more Bob learned about Marquette’s life, the more he became convinced the man deserved an accurate memorial. “There was something about him. He was charismatic, and he inspired great loyalty and love among the Indians and the men he worked with,” Bob says. He was especially impressed that Father Jacques Marquette was raised in a wealthy French family and agreed to swear off all family wealth to become a Jesuit missionary and live in the wilderness.
But Marquette had more than a high likability quotient; he was ambitious in the name of his lord. He founded the mission at St. Ignace and another mission in the Apostle Islands, near the western edge of Lake Superior. He learned six Native American languages. He also was on the first crew of Europeans to travel down the Mississippi River from the north. As testament to his greatness, today we have a prestigious university named Marquette, towns named Marquette, a sprawling tract of Michigan woodland named Marquette State Forest, the Pere Marequette River and many more Marquette commemoratives throughout the Midwest.
When Bob read that a healing miracle might have occurred at the time of Marquette’s burial, his search took on added meaning. The following account was written by a Marquette superior based on the reports of two voyageurs traveling with Father Jacques Marquette when he died. The reported healing takes place soon after the burial, when the two were about to continue on their journey.
“One of the two, who for some days had been so heartsick with sorrow, and so greatly prostrated with an internal malady, that he could no longer eat or breathe except with difficulty, bethought himself, while the other was making all preparations for embarking, to visit the grave of his good father, and ask his intercession with the glorious virgin … [The voyageur] fell, then, upon his knees, made a short prayer, and having reverently taken some earth from the tomb, he pressed it to his breast. Immediately his sickness abated, and his sorrow was changed into a joy which did not forsake him during the remainder of his journey.”
Father Jacques Marquette died following a long, slow spiral down in health caused by diphtheria. Marquette called it “bloody flux” in his journals, a bloody diarrhea that he contracted during his first trip down the Mississippi River beginning in May 1673, a trip that was considered extremely perilous.
Marquette wrote in his journal that friendly Native Americans implored him not to go, warning “… The great river was very dangerous, when one does not know the difficult places; that it was full of horrible monsters, which devoured men and canoes together; that there was even a demon, who was heard from a great distance, who barred the way, and swallowed up all who ventured to approach him; finally that the heat was so excessive in those countries that it would inevitably cause our death.”
Marquette’s party traveled to within a few hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico, spending time with several native tribes along the journey. Fearing they’d soon meet rival Spaniards, they turned around on July 17, 1673, and returned North.
By autumn of 1674, Marquette felt he’d recovered from the bloody flux and was strong enough to launch a second expedition down the river. Early on, though, the disease reappeared, slowing the crew’s progress and forcing them to winter in a cabin southwest of where Chicago now stands. When spring of 1675 arrived, Marquette was so ill that the crew decided to head home, but his condition worsened as they traveled. Soon he lay in the canoe all day and had to be carried ashore at evening.
Finally, Marquette knew his death was near. The journal says, “… Having perceived a river, on the shore of which stood an eminence that he deemed well suited to be the place of his interment, he told [his companions] that that was the place of his last repose. … They accordingly brought him to the land, lighted a little fire for him, and prepared for him a wretched cabin of bark.” He died there near midnight that day, at the age of 38, and his men marked the grave with a wooden cross.
Two years later, a party of Kiskakon Ottawa returning to St. Ignace from a winter hunting trip in Illinois country dug up Marquette’s body, striped it of muscle and organs, as was their custom, and carried the skeleton back to St. Ignace in a birch-bark box. There he was buried beneath the mission chapel. Today nobody knows exactly where Marquette’s bones lie. Some believe they are still in St. Ignace, but that the specific location was forgotten after the chapel burned. Others believe the skeleton was moved to Marquette University, in Milwaukee—but that’s another debate.
On a bright, late-summer day, Bob, a fit 73-year-old, walks across the dune to the place on Lake Michigan’s shore where he says Father Marquette died. To the north, an American flag waves in the noontime breeze next to a looming beachside house, and more houses of similar size and shape run up the shore. To the south, a subdivision of smaller houses spills across the dune. But it’s the public park on the half-mile-square patch where Bob walks—just sand, dune grass and a couple of rows of weather-beaten snow fence.
He stands on the shore and points to the south about 3,000 feet. “See that pier, that’s where the Manistee River comes out,” Bob says. Bob argues that the town of Manistee was the site of Marquette’s death—not Frankfort or Ludington—which doesn’t help the folks in the department of historic markers.
And it doesn’t help Bob’s geographic efforts that the landscape has changed dramatically since 1675. A sand mining operation once scooped sand by the shipload from this site, flattening an entire sand mountain that once rose at the river mouth—perhaps the very eminence that is mentioned in Marquette’s journal. But to Bob the most important missing piece of geography is a 3,000-foot-long sandbar that used to form at the mouth of the river and run north along the shore. Such a landform is called a long-shore bar, and according to Bob, the fact that it once stood here is an important piece of evidence proving this is Marquette’s death site.
Here’s why. Observations in historical journals say the river mouth shifted south 3,000 feet shortly after Marquette’s burial. A long-shore bar is a temporary landform, building and eroding with regularity. Bob says the sandbar was here when Marquette died and later washed away, shifting the river mouth.
To sketch what he means, Bob pulls a jackknife from his pocket and kneels at the water’s edge. He looks a little out of place on this fine beach day, with his jeans, denim work shirt and fedora. Opening the blade, he draws a diagram in the wet sand depicting what he says was the shape of the shoreline in 1675. “The main shoreline was here,” he says, and he scribes a line in the sand. “Then the sandbar ran here.” He draws a line parallel to the shore. “Here is where the river entered the lake when Marquette died.” He adds an arrow. But when the bar washed away, the mouth returned to the main opening to the south. “Back here,” he says.
Few people can claim to know the landscape and shoreline from Leelanau County to Ludington as well as Bob. He grew up near Manistee and after high school took a job with a power company charting routes for the region’s first power lines. Essentially he walked the land for a career, seeing it with an outdoorsman’s intuition and a technician’s knowledge. “If you haven’t grown up here, you don’t know about the long-shore bar, and that’s why other researchers haven’t picked up on this,” he says.
A wave comes up the shore to within an inch of Bob’s drawing, wetting his shoes, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He draws a circle around the part that shows the long-shore bar. “This is where the engineering comes in,” he says. He explains that a long-shore bar forms where river currents and lake currents meet, creating a still area that allows sand in the water to drop and collect on the lake bottom. Prior to man’s intervention on the Lake Michigan shore, nearly every river had such a landform at its mouth.
It takes a powerful river current to build a long-shore bar 3,000 feet long. Bob wrote to the chief of the state hydraulic studies unit for the flow rates of the rivers along the shore where Marquette is thought to have died. The Manistee has a flow rate three times greater than the next largest river, which is the Pere Marquette in Ludington, making the Manistee River the only one strong enough to create the right sized bar, according to Bob.
Another wave washes up and obliterates Bob’s diagram. But he’s already made his point and stands up, surveying the dunescape. “I know he was buried somewhere between here and that house,” Bob says, pointing to the place with the flag.
The men who buried Father Jacques Marquette carried the body 200 feet south from where the river entered the lake and then away from shore 240 feet, according to Native Americans who showed Father Gabriel the burial site in 1821. “Let me step it off,” Bob says. He marches across the sand, counting his measured steps, and then stops at a spot—nothing particularly unique about it. He is quiet for a little, letting the profound nature of the moment settle in. The sound of a diesel crane rumbles in from a nearby industrial plant, a bird chirps, kids’ voices drift over from Manmade Lake, which now shimmers where the sand mountain once stood. “I never said this is exactly it, but it’s close enough,” he says.
Illustration by Harry Cimino from “Pere Marquette”
Journal Excerpts from Father Jacques Marquette
The writings of Father Jacques Marquette tell a remarkable tale of encounters with Native American tribes and their customs in 1673. Following are three samples of the curiosities and dangers he encountered along the Mississippi River.
On the Calumet holy pipe: “There is nothing more mysterious or more respected among them [than the Calumet]. Less honor is paid to the crowns and scepters of kings than the savages bestow upon this. It seems to be the God of peace and of war, the arbiter of life and death. It has but to be carried upon one’s person, and displayed to enable one to walk safely through the midst of enemies, who, in the hottest of the fight, lay down their arms when it is shown. For that reason, the Illinois gave me one, to serve as a safeguard among all the nation’s through whom I had to pass during my voyage.”
On men who dress in women’s clothes: “I know not through what superstition some Illinois [males], as well as some Nadouessi [males], while still young assume the garb of women, and retain it throughout their lives. There is some mystery in this, for they never marry and glory in demanding themselves to do everything that the women do. They go to war, however, but can only use clubs, and not bows and arrows, which are the weapons proper to men. They are present at all the juggleries, and at the solemn dances in honor of the Calumet [holy pipe]; at these they sing, but must not dance. They are summoned to the councils, and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading an extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous, that is to say, for spirits, or persons of consequence.”
On an attack narrowly avoided: “They were armed with bows, arrows, hatchets, clubs and shields, they prepared to attack us on both land and water; part of them embarked in great wooden canoes—some to ascend, others to descend the river, in order to intercept us and surround us on all sides. Those who were on land came and went, as if to commence the attack. In fact, some young men threw themselves into the water to come and seize my canoe; but the current compelled them to return to land. One of them then hurled his club, which passed over without striking us. In vain I showed the Calumet, and made them signs that we were not coming to war against them. The alarm continued, and they were already preparing to pierce us with arrows from all sides, when God suddenly touched the hearts of the old men, who were standing at the water’s edge. This no doubt happened through the sight of our Calumet, which they had not distinguished from afar.”
But some people say that Bob is miles off. The reason two markers exist in the first place is that people presented information that supported Ludington and Frankfort. Amateur historian Catherine Stebbins promoted the Frankfort site, and she wrote a small book in the early 1960s, “Here I Shall Finish My Voyage!” that summarized her findings. Bob came to know and have a deep respect for Stebbins, who was about 30 years his senior.
When Bob determined that she was wrong about Frankfort, he felt conflicted. “I decided I wouldn’t publish my research until she was gone,” he says. Little did he know she’d live to 100, but Bob kept his promise and sat on his findings from 1985 to 2002.
Amateur Lundington historian and retired geologist David Nixon published an academic paper in 1982 that provides a rational for Ludington. He compared the latitudes of landmarks on early maps with latitudes on modern maps and found they aligned with remarkable precision, 99.5 percent accuracy, according to a statistical analysis by a physicist friend of Nixon’s.
Nixon says his study proves that the Pere Marquette River at Ludington is the same as the Pere Marquette River of early maps, so named because Marquette was thought to have died there. Bob also did a latitude study, but used a different methodology, and he says it shows the Manistee River is the place of burial. For Nixon, the difference over latitude interpretation remains the central point of disagreement between the two men.
As for explaining the shifting of the river mouth, Nixon says the Pere Marquette River did shift about 3,000 feet at some point in the past. In fact, early lumbermen diverted the river back to the old channel in the late 1800s, and it is the river mouth used today. “The burial site is at the Crosswinds Condominiums,” Nixon says with finality.
One point that Bob does agree with Nixon on is that Father Charlevoix, in his search for the burial site, ended up at the old Portage Lake outlet. Charlevoix’s geographic misinterpretations caused extensive revisions to the maps of Lake Michigan and clouded the question of Marquette’s death site. In fact, Bob performed his shoreline musket test to assess a single statement in Charlevoix’s journal. He wrote that to the north of the burial site, about as far as a musket can fire, the land rose in high bluffs.
Bob Adams and David Nixon have known each other a long time, having spent more than 30 years in the same gun club, but the question of the Marquette death site has put a certain tension in their relationship. “We spoke just the other day,” Nixon says. “I’d say it was amicable.”
Bob wants to have a public forum to talk it all out, debate the various locations and decide on one place. “Normally the state decides these things in private, but this Star Chamber way of making a decision, I don’t agree with that,” he says.
Early explorers, like those in Father Marquette’s time, used astrolabes to chart their position based on the position of heavenly bodies.
People ask Bob what he’s getting out of all this research. “Well, I’m not making any money off of it,” he says, although he did publish a 115-page book of his findings on Father Jacques Marquette, called “The Thirteenth River,” which is for sale at the Manistee County Historical Museum.
“You look for the truth,” Bob says. “There’s where you are going.”