The mystery of Pere Marquette's final resting place

Painting depicts Father Marquette arriving at St. Ignace in the Straits of Mackinac. The missionary/explorer loved the wilds of northern Michigan and called the area home.

In a small hastily-built hut on the Lake Michigan shore, attended by two Indian converts, Father Jacques Marquette died May 18, 1675  following  a long arduous  boat trip  home. Death came at the age of 38 after a protracted fight against tuberculosis.

Along the way he discovered the Mississippi with fellow explorer Louis Jolliet and became the first European to enjoy the raw beauty of northern Michigan, which he came to call home.

According to conflicting claims, he may have been buried near present day Ludington, or perhaps Frankfort.

This detail from a bronze tablet in the Marquette Building in Chicago depicts the funeral of Father Marquette in 1675.

      Four communities in Michigan claim to be the final resting place of the famous French Jesuit who sought to convert the native Americans to Catholcism. A statue of the priest near Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island leads many to believe that he is buried there. Not so, he spent the winter of 1670 on the island but found it so cold that he never returned.

The most popular claim, that Marquette died at Ludington, near the Pere Marquette River, is supported by a huge cross atop a hill near the supposed site. In 1823 Father Gabriel Richard identified bones found there as Marquette’s, but offered no proof to back up his identification. A gleaming silver cross marks that spot. Each May 18 memorial services there recall his death. Some historians support that site, saying that he was on a trip from Chicago to the Straits of Mackinac, his favorite place.

Amateur historian and author Catherine Stebbins claims that her hometown of Frankfort, 50 miles up the coast from Ludington, was the death site. A marker and a rustic cross mark the site near the Betsie River.

“The Ludington site is based on hearsay,” said Stebbins, who wrote ‘Here I Shall Finish My Voyage’ after searching Jesuit archives in Quebec. There she found a map made from information given to the priests by the Indians, which showed that Fr. Marquette died at the mouth of the third river south of Sleeping Bear Point, then as now a landmark.

Stebbins said that Indians removed Marquette’s bones from Frankfort and took them back to his mission at St. Ignace. A third cross on a hill overlooking the city marked that site.

Father Marquette’s funeral is recreated during a pageant in 1936.

      Most scholars agree that the 1972 dig that uncovered the charred and bleached bones at the St. Ignace mission were probably, but not certainly, Marquette’s. Most of those bones now reside at Marquette University.

Two years after his death, in the spring of 1677, a group of his Huron Indian parishioners dug up the body and took it to his mission in St. Ignace for reburial.

According to Dr. James E. Fitting who led an excavation of the St Ignace site in 1972, “They picked off whatever flesh was left and bleached the bones in the sun–cleaned his remains up Indian-fashion. I suspect that they could have broken his bones into little fragments as part of their ritual. To have done him that honor, they would have had to consider him one of them.”

Dr. Lyle M. Stone, staff archeologist for the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, and Dr.Fitting , found evidence that tended to support the 100-year-old St. Ignace claim. The team used 17th century maps of the fort and of two Indian villages and dug near the place where a German priest, the Rev. Edward Jacker, had dug in 1877. Jacker found what he believed to be the bones of Marquette, sending half to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.,, and sealing the rest in a box in the base of a monument to Pere Marquette at the mission site.

In the 1972 dig, sponsored by the Michilimackinac Historical Society at St. Ignace and the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, Fitting found a rosary and a bottle of French wine from Marquette’s time probably put into the grave by the Indians. Fitting reported that some of the bones were slightly charred, which would fit the mission fire, and that the small bleached fragments displayed evidence of Indian rites. Other bones found appeared to be animal remains.

One possible explanation for the animal bones is that the Indians came back to claim the “great black robe” from the Jesuits after they had reburied him at his St. Ignace mission, took his remains and departed, leaving the animal bones.

Father Marquette’s coffin is brought ashore during the 1936 pageant.

      “We’ll never find a bronze plaque saying, ‘Here lies Fr. Marquette,’ but this is the only active candidate we have at this time,” said Dr. Stone.

Marquette and a group of Hurons he had converted to Christianity built the St. Ignace mission in 1671. Two years later, the priest and Louis Jolliet canoed south down Lake Michigan and explored the northern portion of the Mississippi in 1673.

But he loved his Michigan home the best.

One reason for his success with the Indians was his ability to learn their languages. He spoke six different Indian languages fluently. He adopted the humility of a child in order to learn from his teacher, endearing himself to the Indians who probably were not as impressed with his Jesuit education as Europeans may have been.

The Indians also were impressed by his physical endurance and his practice of pulling his own weight in the canoes, unlike other Europeans who preferred to recline as the natives did all the paddling. Marquette himself wrote: “God has surely had pity on me ever since I have been in this country. I have not felt any dislike for it or had the least desire for France.”

From Sault-Sainte-Marie in 1669 he reported “…the harvest is abundant.” He was referring to the souls of the natives. He loved the Chippewa people and they loved him back.

A monument to Marquette was erected in 1921 by the Ludington chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution about a half mile from the spot where some believe the missionary and explorer died. Abandoned salt wells can be seen in the distance. At one time a fourishing village existed on this site known as Buttersville, after a man named Butters who operated mills here.

      Dr. Fitting reconstructed the reburial of Marquette at St. Ignace:

“They put him in a ‘makok’, a birch bark box, and brought him back to the mission, where the box was placed in the mission cellar.”

Twelve years later, the French military erected Fort de Buade. In 1695, Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac became its commandant.

Cadillac abandoned the fort in 1698, convinced the Christian Indians of the Straits to follow him to Detroit (they did so for defensive reasons), and he founded Fort Pontchartrain there in 1701.

Their parish gone, the Jesuit priests at the Marquette mission burned the building in about 1706 to prevent it from being desecrated by other Indians, and returned to Montreal.

Earlier in his life, Marquette, fearful of being forgotten after his death, had urged two French companions to “mark my grave with a cross.”

With a city and county in Michigan and a major Wisconsin university named after him — not to mention countless streets and the ghost of an old railroad — he’s not likely to be forgotten soon. But we may never know if his true final resting place is marked with a cross.

This 1935 photo purports to show the site near Ludington where Marquette reportedly died in 1675.

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News