At the request of Count Frontenac, governor of New France and emissary to King Louis XIV, French-Canadian fur trader Louis Joliet and French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette set out from the Straits of Mackinac in 1673 to explore North America and search for the Mississippi River.
Their goal: find a waterway that could connect the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
Marquette and Joliet navigated 2500 miles by canoe in 120 days, and while they didn’t find a direct waterway, what they did find, with help from local Native Americans who knew it well, was a short portage – a route where they could carry their canoes over land (and at certain times of year, when the water was high enough, continue through the water) and ultimately connect Chicago and the Mississippi.
That little portage was very important indeed. It changed the future of Chicago, placing it right in the middle of a waterway that stretched all the way from the St. Lawrence River to the foot of the Mississippi. It would also change everything for the Native Americans.
The “Chicago portage” later was excavated into the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and later the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
During their explorations on the return trip up the Chicago River, Marquette camped for the winter of 1674 at a spot that is now where Damen Avenue intersects with the Sanitary and Ship Canal.
In 1907, a large cross was erected on that spot to honor Marquette and Joliet. The cross is no longer on the site, but a plaque still marks this important early exploration into this area.