If you’re like Jennifer and me, the more you travel around North America the more of a history buff you become. One reason, of course, is you keep running in to historical markers. The other is that history is so darn interesting.
Such it was for me the other day in St. Ignace, MI, during a stay at Straits State Park, just across the Mackinac Bridge in the Upper Peninsula. On a morning hike with Bo, our Norwegian Elkhound, we visited the Father Marquette National Historical Monument.
Of all the times I’ve been in St. Ignace and the park, I have somehow overlooked this little gem. That’s probably because the memorial is located in a tract of parkland separated from the main park by I-75. To get there, you need to exit the main park, turn west on US 2 and take the first left.
There, on a rise overlooking the Straits of Mackinac (the photo up top shows the view you get if you follow a short hiking trail), the Father Marquette National Memorial tells the story of Father Jacques Marquette, a 17th-century missionary-explorer who established Michigan’s earliest European settlements at Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace near Mackinac Island.
Long before Lewis and Clark, Father Marquette traveled, mapped and journaled his adventures across large swatches of North America. He came to prostelyize the Indians and found missions, but his explorations began the so-called age of discovery for France, . which was the earliest European nation to explore what is today Canada and the northern United States
He lived among the Great Lakes Indians from 1666 to his death in 1675. During these nine years, Father Marquette mastered several native languages and joined fur trader Louis Jolliet in his expedition to explore and map a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean, which resulted in the French discovery of the Mississippi River.
Marquette was quite the explorer. But all that he saw had really been “discovered” long before by the native Ottawa and Chippewa indians who farmed, hunted and trapped the wilderness for long before the Europeans arrived and called it “New France.”
The 57 ace site features exhibits and a fifteen-station interpretive trail. The main building is an open-concept wood structure with kiosks depicting the meeting of the French and native American cultures. Bo and I walked the trails, located in a thick cedar, birch and pine forest and found ourselves at a great overlook of the Mackinac Bridge. For centuries, the UP shoreline just west of the bridge was a favorite gathering place for the Indians and it is here that Marquette and Joliet arrived by canoe in 1671.
At its height, New France covered a vast area ranging roughly from Newfoundland and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Between his arrival in Quebec and 1669, Father Marquette traveled throughout New France, mostly in what is today the northern United States and southern Canada, spending time with various Indian tribes learning tribal languages. When he died of dysentery on the shore of Lake Michigan at the age of 39, he spoke six tribal languages.
Today, cities and rivers all across the Upper Midwest are named for the explorer.
There is a large parking lot at the memorial, with big spaces marked out for RVs. There is no fee for admittance, but a Michigan parks permit is required for all vehicles.
Plan on two hours to explore the whole site.