The Unsolved Mysteries of Father Marquette’s Many Graves by Jennifer S. McGraw

Review by Tyler R. Tichelaar

The unsolved mysteries of father marguerite's many graves.Jennifer McGraw has compiled a treasure trove of information about Father Marquette’s life, burial, and various unburials and reburials in The Unsolved Mysteries of Father Marquette’s Many Graves. The story of Father Marquette’s graves—yes, multiple graves—ranges from his death in 1675 to the most recent reburial of his—or someone’s—artifacts in 2022. McGraw has painstakingly documented all the details in this slim but well-researched volume that also discusses the French in the Great Lakes, the highlights of Father Marquette’s life, the Native American cultures Father Marquette and other Jesuits would have encountered and served, and the mystery concerning where he was buried and the rediscovery of his bones.

While McGraw notes that many books have been written on Father Marquette, some exaggerating and some dismissing his significance as a missionary and explorer, she presents him as a dedicated missionary, a kind, intelligent man, one who negotiated peace between the Sioux and other Native Americans, and one who ultimately rejoiced in his approaching death because he had served his purpose. Her depiction of him is compelling and well-documented. Furthermore, as McGraw notes, not only did Father Marquette do much good and he was one of the first Europeans to travel down the Mississippi, but he is the first European to be buried in Michigan.

I was impressed with McGraw’s in-depth research and how she incorporated text from her sources, including The Jesuit Relations, to make this scholarly work both informative and entertaining reading. One highlight for me was the many details about Native American customs of the time and how the Jesuits tried not only to convert the Native Americans, but to get them to give up practices they disagreed with from living together before marriage to believing in the power of dreams.

But one Native American custom was particularly important to Father Marquette’s story—related to the Odawa’s way of showing respect for their dead. Father Marquette died on May 18, 1675, as he was journeying across Lake Michigan on his way back to St. Ignace. Realizing he was not going to live to see again the mission where he had served, he asked to be set ashore near present-day Ludington, Michigan, where he died. He was buried there, but two years later, the Odawa he had served decided to return his remains to the mission at St. Ignace. McGraw notes that this was the deepest sign of respect they could have shown him, and how they exhumed and treated his body was one of their customs. They practiced a process called excarnation—McGraw describes it in detail—where they dug him up and removed the flesh from his bones. Then they transported the body to St. Ignace. McGraw notes that they treated Father Marquette with the same respect they showed to loved ones whose bodies or bones they would sometimes carry with them for decades.

As for the mystery of Father Marquette’s many graves, at least since 1900, two other Michigan locations, Manistee and Frankfort, have tried to claim they were the site of Father Marquette’s first grave. McGraw discusses these claims and why they are less likely than Ludington.

Once Father Marquette was reburied in St. Ignace, the location of his grave was eventually forgotten. The mission at St. Ignace ceased to be used, but why remains a mystery. The Jesuits seem to have abandoned it, but whether or not they burnt it themselves is unknown. Arguments have been made that they destroyed it to avoid it being desecrated, but in that case, they would have taken the saintly relics of Father Marquette with them so they also wouldn’t have been desecrated. Here McGraw discusses the various ways other Jesuit bodies were treated—some quite surprising.

However, in 1877, when the foundations of the mission site—or what was believed to have been it—were found and thirty-nine bone fragments found in what was the probable site of his grave—many new questions arose. Were these bone fragments the remains of Father Marquette? If so, why were there not more, and why weren’t they in a birchbark coffin as would be expected? McGraw discusses the likelihood of whether the bones were Father Marquette’s remains. She details how many other human remains have been found at St. Ignace dating from 170 A.D. through the seventeenth century. Regardless, most people believed they were Father Marquette’s bones.

Patrick Murray, who owned the land where the remains were unearthed, and the local priest, Father Edward Jacker, were both interested in the find, but they disagreed on what should be done with what was found. While they debated, then the rest of the community got involved; many people dug at the site, taking away various items, including crosses and jewelry, and several items that were never documented.

Eventually, it was decided to erect a monument to Father Marquette on the spot and rebury the bones beneath it, but only seven bone fragments were buried there. Father Jacker decided to send the majority of the bone fragments found to Marquette University where they resided until 2022.

But Father Marquette was still not allowed to rest. Archeological digs in the 1970s, x-rays of his bones at Marquette University in 1984, and studies of the bone fragments under the monument were all done in the years that followed with various results. Then in 2022, the bones at Marquette University were reburied in St. Ignace. So, yes, Father Marquette has been buried, dug up, reburied, re-exhumed, and reburied.

But are the bone fragments found really those of Father Marquette? McGraw presents those answers in the book, providing all the evidence for why we have reason to believe they are and also why we may simply have to accept them as a symbol. She also suggests more archeological work needs to be done, so the story of Father Marquette’s remains may not be over yet.

The Unsolved Mysteries of Father Marquette’s Many Graves is a valuable contribution to Upper Michigan history and research. It’s a fascinating story that reads like a quest for buried treasure. But the real treasure is not Father Marquette’s remains so much as a better understanding of who he was and why, as we approach the 350th anniversary of his death, he still matters so much to us.

The Unsolved Mysteries of Father Marquette’s Many Graves

By Jennifer S. McGraw
ISBN 979-8-218-05944-6
Pine Stump Publications
Release date 2022, paperback

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