Catholics in Mid_west Catholics: The First to Explore and Settle the Mid-West

       Long before English Protestants came to the Midwest region of America, Catholic pioneers and missionaries had explored, claimed, toiled, and established both missions and settlements. In this survey we will look primarily at the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin -the bulk of the region known as the Midwest. We will see that these fertile lands were explored, surveyed, mapped out, claimed and settled long before the Protestant English colonists on the east coast were even aware of them, let alone before they made their unjust claims to the Midwest lands -eventually leading to the War of English Aggression (also known as the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years War).
       Most know that in 1674 the Catholic Frenchman Rene Robert de la Salle began his exploratory expedition down the Mississippi River, and returned again in 1682 and made it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. However, this river had already been discovered, traveled upon (down to the mouth of the Arkansas River), and named by the Jesuit missionary, Father Jacques Marquette. In 1673, with Louis Joliet, this pioneer priest traveled down the Wisconsin River and in June came upon the great river and named it the "River of the Immaculate Conception." This is the name all should know it by.
       The following survey provides proof that the lands west of the Allegheny Mountain range were previously, and thus righfully, claimed by French Catholics. In turn, the facts that follow prove the English Protestant claim to be both factually incorrect and unjust.

       In 1673, the above mentioned Fr. Marquette and Louis Joliet sailed up the Illinois River on their way back up from their exploration of the River of the Immaculate Conception (Mississippi). It is most likely that the first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered in Illinois was done so by Fr. Marquette at this time.
       In 1679, La Salle built Fort Crevecoeur (Creve Coeur) along the Illinois River just below present-day Peoria; it included a mission run by three Franciscan Recollect priests, including Fr. Gabriel de la Ribourde, who was killed by Kikappo Indians in 1680. This was the first permanent white settlement in Illinois. The fort was destroyed but soon replaced in 1682 and renamed Fort St. Louis. In 1684, when the remaining Recollects were re-assigned, Father Claude Allouez, S.J. took over the mission. In 1689, he was succeeded by Fr. James Gravier, S.J., who spent ten years of incredible hardship and suffering in evangelizing the Indians. Fr. Gravier composed the first grammar and dictionary of the Illinois language.
       Another fort was built a little farther north on the shores of Peoria Lake in 1692. Though officially named St. Louis, it was more commonly called Fort Pimetoui to distinguish it from the aforementioned fort farther south down along the Illinois River. This fort soon became the seat of French government in the west, as well as the largest population center over the next decade. Father Gravier blessed the new chapel in 1693.
       In 1696, another mission/settlement was established and would eventually become the great city of Chicago - the Mission of the Angel Guardian, founded by Fr. Pierre Pinet, S.J. It was Fr. Pinet whom God used to converted the Peoria chief, and soon after hundreds came for instruction in the Faith and were eventually baptized. They became loyal sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church, practicing their faith with much fervor.
       Another settlement was built at Cahokia (near today's East St. Louis) in 1699 where Fathers Francis de Montigny and John Francis de St.Cosme established the Mission of the Holy Family. Later on in this place around 1730, a missionary named Fr. Gaston was martyred by Tamara Indians while proclaiming Christ to them. The twenty or more places named after saints reveal the Catholic foundation of Illinois.
       The earliest Protestant settlement in Illinois was not established until 1763.

       Indiana was first explored in 1679 by La Salle and Fr. Louis Hennepin,S.J. In 1686, St. Joseph's Mission was built at what is now South Bend near present-day Notre Dame University. Built and attended at first by the much-traveled Fr. Claude Jean Allouez, S.J., who offered the first known Holy Mass in Indiana, the mission was taken over in 1689 by Fr. Aveneau, S.J. He labored among the Miami, Potawami, and Weas tribes for more than ten years. Some conversions occurred and a Catholic Indian village grew up around the mission. Fr. Aveneau had to leave around 1703, and no priest came back until Fr. James Gravier, S.J. in 1706. The river at this location was named after the great foster father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
       By 1718, French posts, with attending chaplains, were established at Kekionga (Fort Wayne) and Ouiatenon (Lafayette). Around 1730, under the direction of Fr. De Beaubois, S.J., a post and mission was established on the site of Vincennes along the Wabash River, which soon grew and became a center of both missionary and trading activity. Eight other French Catholic settlements along the Wabash were established by 1756. The more than one dozen places named after saints reveal the Catholic influence in Indiana's early history.
       The earliest Protestant settlement in Indiana was not established until 1763 (though individual Protestants had settled in previously established places).

       The first known white men to set foot on Iowa soil were Louis Joliet and Fr. Marquette, S.J., who in 1673 arrived at the juncture of the Wisconsin and Mississippi (Immaculate Conception) rivers near today's McGregor. In 1680, the expedition led by Occaultwith Auguel, with Fr. Louis Hennepin, O.F.M., as the chaplain, traveled along the Iowa shore of the Immaculate Conception (Mississippi) River. Iowa was formally declared French Territory by La Salle in 1682. In 1788, Julien Dubuque established the first permanent settlement, which developed into the city that now bears his name. Iowa was ceded to Spain in 1762; and retro-ceded to France in 1800. In 1803 it was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. More than a dozen place names reveal early Iowa's Catholic foundation.
       The first settlement established by Protestants did not occur until some years after the Purchase.

       In 1634, Jean Nicollet was sent by Champlain to explore the lands west and entered today's Michigan region and is credited with being the first white man to navigate Lake Michigan. He explored as far as the region west of Green Bay.
Around the year 1640, the great saint/martyr, Fr. Isaac Jogues, S.J., traveled as far west as Michigan and planted a cross and proclaimed the true Faith to the Chipawa Indians. But he soon turned back and concentrated on the Hurons and Mohawks.
       The first known Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered in Michigan probably occurred in 1660 by Father Rene Menard, S.J., who established Sault Ste. Marie Mission. This mission/settlement became both the trading and missionary center of the entire Great Lake region.
       In 1670, Fr. Jacques Marquette,S.J., established a mission on the Michigan peninsula just below Lake Superior between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. He named it Saint Ignace, in honor of the great founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). This mission was so successful it developed into a town and then into today's present city of St. Ignace, Michigan. In 1674, Fr. Marquette established Immaculate Conception Mission near present-day Utica. This great pioneer/missionary priest died on May 8, 1674, surrounded by a number of his spiritual sons, converted Indians of the Illinois Tribe.
       In 1690, Father Claude Aveneau, S.J., established a mission near the present town of Niles near the St. Joseph River.        A small French post was established on the sight of present-day Detroit in 1687. It was discovered to be so suitable a place for dwelling that a settlement expedition was organized soon after the turn of the century. On July 21, 1701, Fort St. Joseph (Detroit) was formally founded by French Catholics led by Antoine de la Cadillac, and within a week the building of a Church in honor of St. Anne (Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary) had begun. From this mission/fort the True Faith was proclaimed by Fr. Constantin de l'Halle and Fr.Vallant du Gueslis, S.J., to the Winnebago and Potawatomi tribes. These same missionaries also named the body of water between Lake Erie and Lake Huron which still retains its name today: Lake St. Claire, and St. Claire River which connects the latter two. Fr. Le Halle, a Franciscan Recollect, was killed while proclaiming Christ and helping to make peace between the Ottawa and Miamis Indians in 1706. More than a dozen places named after saints reveal the Catholic influence and foundation of Michigan.
       The first Protestant settlement was not until 1759.

       Minnesota, the "land of ten thousand lakes," was explored by Catholic Frenchmen, Radisson and Groseilliers, sometime before the year 1660. (This is before the English even settled in South Carolina!) However, the Kensington Runestone and other evidence demonstrate that Catholics had come to this region long before then.
       It is symbolic of America's Catholic foundation that one of the oldest written historical records ever found in our country is a prayer to Our Lady. This prayer is inscribed on the famous Kensington Rhunestone, found in Minnesota. The prayer reads: "Hail Virgin Mary, preserve us from evil." The inscription on this stone is dated 1362 -130 years before Columbus came to America, and more than thirty years before the arrival of the Prince Henry St. Clair expedition. (see the Tower of David article Catholics: The First In New England from the US Catholic History page for details.

       How did this prayer come to be carved on this stone found in Minnesota? Around the year 1354, during the reign of Pope Innocent VI (1352-62), King Magnus of Norway and Sweden heard that subjects of his, a group of his Greenland colonists, had deserted their settlement for a more favorable climate farther west. King Magnus was a fervent Catholic and was worried that these colonists had abandoned the true Faith and had returned to the pagan religion of their ancestors. The king sent an expedition that was headed by a man named Paul Knutson (or Knudsen). Their mission was to find the settlers and to try to convert them back to the True Faith, if needed. A record of the king's instructions to Knutson is still extant in Norway.
       Knutson's expedition sailed across to Newfoundland (known as 'Vinland' back then), went up and around and into Hudson Bay. They then sailed down to the mouth of the Nelson River, anchored, and, leaving some men behind with the ship, paddled their boats down the river to Lake Winnipeg and then into the Red River of the north. They then found themselves in the heavily wooded yet beautiful lake region of today's northern Minnesota. They made camp on the shore of a small lake. Some of the group went hunting and fishing for food. When they returned they found the rest of their companions slain and the camp wrecked. Filled with sorrow, they chiseled an account of what happened and left a record of their visit to this land on a large stone. This is the famous Kensington Rhunestone found by a Minnesota farmer in 1898. At the time the farmer found it, the stone was embedded in the roots of a very old tree that had grown around it.
       On this stone can be found the letters AVM which are different from the Old Gothic letters used for the rest of the survivors' account. These letters are the only Latin ones to appear on the stone. They stand for Ave Virgo Maria, "Hail Virgin Mary." This proves that these Norsemen were practicing Catholics. Our Lady heard their prayer, and the rest of the expedition returned home safely and reported their experiences. Translated, the stone's entire inscription reads:

"Eight Goths and 22 Norwegians on a journey of exploration from Vinland very far west. We had camp by two rocky islands one day's journey north from this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home we found ten men red with blood and dead. AVM preserve us from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our ships fourteen days' journey from this island. Year of Christ 1362."
       Recent scientific examinations of the stone have proven its authenticity. (See "The Barnes Review," volume VIII, Number 2, March/April, 2002 edition for this: Today one can see the stone in its well-lit box in the Discovery Room of the Rhunestone Museum in the town of Alexandria, Minnesota.

       Finally, the "modern" period of exploration began when, in 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur De Luth, led an expedition that penetrated the region as far as Mille Lacs and set up the standard of King Louis XIV. Priests, who were both pioneers and missionaries, started exploring the region and proclaiming Christ in 1680. Most famous of these is Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan recollect, who, in 1680, discovered and named the Falls of St. Anthony, the present site of Minneapolis; later he wrote the first description of the region. Fr. Hennepin most likely offered the first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Minnesota in 1680. In 1686, Fort Frontenac was built on the shore of Lake Pepin near the present city of Wabash, under the direction of Nicholas Perrot. In 1689, Father Joseph Jacques Marest, S.J., who accompanied Perrot, established the Bon Secours Mission adjacent to the fort. The last settlement before 1700, was a post established on Prairie Island by Le Sueur in 1695.
       In 1727, a fort with a chapel was built on the western shore of Lake Pepin, near what is now Frontenac. The fort, St. Charles, was built on the shore of the Lake of the Woods in 1732 by Pierre de la Verendrye, whose chaplain was Fr. Charles Mesaiger, S.J. Some two dozen place names in Minnesota reveal the Catholic foundation and influence in this state's early history.
       The first Protestant settlement was not until 1783.

       Ohio and its valley was the geographical center of controversy in the mid 18th century between the Protestant English and the Catholic French. The English claims to the region -already explored, claimed, and settled by Catholic Frenchmen- led to what the Protestant English called the "French and Indian War." The Catholic French recognized it for what it truly was: the "War of English Aggression."
       In 1669, La Salle penetrated the region between Lake Erie and the Ohio River and explored the area for some time and claimed it for France. He reported his findings. In 1671, a formal ceremony claiming the entire region for France -including the Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota territories, took place on June 4, 1671. Years later, another French explorer, John de Bienville, followed with some Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Portier and Bonneville, and took formal possession of the Ohio valley for France in 1749 and began building a series of forts and trading posts. By 1751, the Sandusky mission/settlement had been established along the Sandusky River. The mission was headed by Fr. De La Richardie, S.J. Fort Leboeuf at today's Waterford was built in 1754.
       However, around the year 1730, English traders visited the region, and in 1749 a group of Virginians and London merchants, who coveted the region, organized a company they decided to name the Ohio Company. They claimed the land for the English. An agent of this company, Christopher Gist, explored the Ohio country in 1750. It should also be mentioned that the legal patent of Louisiana, in 1712, included by name the Ohio valley region.
       The first actual Protestant (English) settlement was Marietta in 1788. (Before then, the English simply took over the previously established French forts/settlements after winning the war in 1763.)

       Father Rene Menard, S.J., a courageous Jesuit priest, was the first explorer and missionary to the tribes of the Wisconsin region. (His godfather was a Jesuit lay brother and one of the eight North American Jesuit martyrs, St. Rene Goupil.) In 1660, he visited the Huron village on the Chippewa and Black rivers proclaiming Christ as the True God. It is he who offered the first Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Wisconsin around this time. A year later he was killed by hostile Sioux Indians near Crystal Falls. Father Claude Allouez, S.J., whom we already saw ministering in Illinois, was another one of these courageous Jesuit missionaries of the Midwest. In 1665, he established a mission at Lapointe, Wisconsin, on the western shore of Lake Superior. It was named Holy Ghost Mission. For years he proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to both the Sioux and the Chippewa Tribes. In 1670, in order to minister to the Menominee (Algonqiun) Indians, Fr. Allouez, assisted by Fr. Claude Dablon, founded the Mission of St. Francis Xavier. This mission was on the Fox River near present-day De Pere. Around this same, Father Henry Nouvel established a mission near the shores of Green Bay. These missions were fairly successful in converting the local tribes to the One True Faith.
       By 1672, Jesuit priests were conducting twenty missions among as many tribes. These Catholic missionaries labored tirelessly, made tremendous sacrifices, and in several cases, lost their lives for the sake of Christ. In 1672, Brother Jean Guerin, S.J., was killed by Fox Indians near today's Oshkosh, and Brother Louis Le Boeme, S.J., was killed in 1687 by Winnebago Indians near today's De Pere. As a result of the labors of these courageous missionary/pioneer priests, more than a dozen place-names in Wisconsin reveal the Catholic influence in this state's early history.
       The first Protestant settlement in Wisconsin was not until 1783.

Catholic Martyrs in the Midwest

Fr. Gabriel de la Ribourde, O.F.M., September, 1680
Fr. Gaston, M.E.P., February, 1730

Fr. Constantine Delhalle, O.F.M., 1706

Fr. Jean Pierre Aulneau, S.J., June, 1736

Fr. Leonard Vatier, 1715

(Compiled from the soon-to-be published Journey America: Pathways to the Present, Marian Publications, Inc.)

-The Catholic Pioneers of America, John O'Kane Murray (Philadelphia, PA: H. L. Kilner Co., 1882)
-Documents of American Catholic History, John Tracy Ellis (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1956)
-Our Catholic Heritage, By a Benedictine Monk (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1950)
-Pioneer Priests of North America, 1642-1710, Rev. T.J. Campbell, S.J. (New York, Fordham Univ. Press, 1908)

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