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Father Andrew's Corner: St. Luke's Connection to the Past
By Father Andrew Harrison

Is it true that there was a French fort close to where St. Luke Church stands today, and did Fr. Marquette really stay in a cabin there between 1674 and 1675?

This is a question that I have been asked many times which until a month ago I thought was a nice but doubtful legend since no one really could prove it. New information has come to light after speaking with Fr. Bob Lucas and Bob Bush who are family members of the original owners of the land surrounding the church. They provided information from the Illinois Historical Society that confirms this history. Bob invited me to go with him after Easter on a tour of the property to show me where the fort was located. They also asked if the family could see our church when they have their family reunion in May.

From the information they provided, you can read it yourself on the family web site (www. Lucasfamily.info/lucasfort.html), the land around our Church is important to American history. This history has been covered up by the City of Chicago because it would make their history less exciting and history books would require rewriting. According to a number of historians, the history of Fr. Marquette’s Chicago portage and the portage site itself are false. The fallacy stems from a confusion over the meaning of the name Chicago and to which river it applied. The early explorers applied Chicago loosely to the Des Plaines, Illinois, St Joseph and Calumet as well as the Chicago Rivers. Popular history states that Chicago is an Indian word meaning stinking onion. Several historians researching the word have come up with several other meanings, one of which in Pottawattamie, (a local Indian Tribe) meant without wood or treeless. Popular history also locates the origin of the City of Chicago at a French Fort which commanded a portage site. M.M. Quaife, PhD, in a paper delivered to the Illinois Historical Society, said "Despite the fact that public school children of Chicago are today being regaled, in one of the authorized textbooks with a picture of a French fort, the weight of the historical evidence tends to support the contention that such a fort never in fact existed."

Chicago history books describe Fr. Marquette staying in a cabin near the fort on his return from exploring the Mississippi. The City of Chicago erected a monument commemorating the explorations at the so-called portage site. There is a problem with this view of history. The journal of Fr. Marquette’s travels was not lost as some have stated. Louis Joliet, his companion on the exploration, did lose his maps and journals when his canoe sank in Lake Michigan on his return voyage to Canada. Neither Fr. Marquette nor his journals were in the canoe. Fr, Marquette’s journal was discovered and published by John Shea in 1852. In this journal, Fr. Marquette describes in detail his travels down the west side of Lake Michigan past where the Chicago River empties into Lake Michigan, a sparsely populated treeless wasteland, to the "river of portage". Henry Lee in his paper on the subject proved that the "river of portage" which Marquette mentions was the Calumet River not the Chicago River. Fr. Marquette’s journal states that he camped two leagues up the river near the portage. Six leagues up the river he mentions the location of six Illinois Indian villages. This is the exact location of Palos Hills. The support for Palos Hills as the location for a substantial population of Indians is attested to by the number of Indian artifacts found here. Palos farmers would turn up Indian artifacts daily. One early farmer, Alex Ried, found a bushel basket of Indian arrowheads and sixty stone axes. Several Indian burials have been discovered. The amount of artifacts gives support to the long settlement of the area, which was bordered by a swamp teeming with game and a beautiful tree-lined ridge. The name calumet comes from a Norman word meaning reed which the Indians confused with the word for pipe.

Fr. Marquette and Louis Joliet made the portage through the Calumet-Sag Valley which during times of high water requires only a short portage or no portage at all. Fr. Marquette mentions crossing two lakes. These would be Calumet Lake and Wolf Lake. They reached the Des Plaines River and continued south down the Illinois into the Mississippi and went as far south as the Arkansas River. Their explorations proved you could travel from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico, but not to the west coast. The return trip is what is important to St. Luke Church.

Albert Scharf in his monumental work on Indian trails and villages in the greater Chicago area, locates a series of four Indian villages at the bottom of the hill south of our church. The Saugaunash Indian Trail ran through these villages. Another trail coming from Willow Springs to Orland intersected. The Saugaunash trail is the main branch of the Archer trail. At the bottom of the hill was a major crossroads. I mention this because that would be the very place where the French would construct a fort. It would be a garrison for protection and a place for trade. The land below our church was owned by the original settler, Theodore Lucas, who willed it to his son, Peter. Peter Lucas donated the property to the Catholic Church, and we purchased it from them. V. A. Boyer (1833) and A. I. Matheson (1837) made archeological studies of earth works on Theodore Lucas’s farm. They made drawings, took measurements, and wrote that there were the remains of a fort with three Sallyports. Sallyports are the main exits. They concluded that the earth works, "were of considerable importance and well designed in their construction for affording refuge and protection to a large number of people".

When Fr. Marquette and Louis Joliet returned from their Mississippi exploration, they stopped at an Indian village named Kaskaskia being "on the portage." "Here eighteen months ago we began our portage." Fr. Marquette was sick and decided to remain close to the village for the winter while Louis Joliet returned to Canada. It is likely Fr. Marquette stayed either at the fort or close to it in a cabin. When Spring came he founded the mission of the Immaculate Conception in 1675 at the Indian village. Again, history books confuse the location of the Kaskaskia Indian village at either Utica, Illinois or on the Mississippi River, South of St. Louis. According to Fr. Marquette’s journal, Kaskaskia was in Palos. Marquette’s map locates Kaskaskia directly west of the south end of Lake Michigan. Records show that in 1703 the village was twice moved south to avoid the continuing attacks of the Iroquois Indians.

Although still controversial, we can say there was a French Fort located close to our present building, and it is very likely that Fr. Marquette did stay in a cabin here between 1674 and 1675. In addition to this, it was the first site of an established Christian mission with a chapel. Albert Shea mentions in his History of the Catholic Church, that a chapel was built by Fr. Gravier outside the French fort. Henry Lee states there is a church (St Luke) on the Crown of the hill just above the fort, perhaps on the very site of Fr. Marquette’s first mission.

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