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Xavier Magazine | May 25, 2017

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Forming the Foundation

By France Griggs Sloat

A fleet of 22 canoes glides past a long bend in the Ohio River. The mammoth hand-hewn pirogues holding at least 10 men each fill the channel as they slip past the hilly banks. Dipping their paddles into the clear water, where sturgeon fish float visibly beneath the surface, the men cautiously scan the hillsides for signs of life—animal and human. As they move downriver, they come to a junction where the Great Miami River yawns into the Ohio. Complaining of its shallow bed, the French explorers name it Riviere de la Roche—River of Rock. Shouts go out to pull to the shore, and into the mud and onto the glimmering stones the men disembark. Among the travelers are 180 Canadian citizens, about 30 Iroquois warriors, a band of Miami men, women and children—and one Jesuit priest.

It was Aug. 31, 1749. The first Cincinnati settlers wouldn’t arrive for another 40 years, and Xavier University wouldn’t open its doors for another 82. But the seeds of their founding were being planted that day as Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps, S.J., stood among the group, recording the event in his journal.

With his traditional ankle-length black gown rustling in the warm August breeze, and his wide-brimmed black hat shielding his face from the sun, the French Jesuit took notes as the men anchored a leaden plate bearing the coat of arms of King Louis XV into the ground.

As perhaps the most educated man on the journey, Bonnecamps’ role was more than just a scribe, however. A mathematician and teacher of hydrography at the Jesuit College in Quebec, he was the expedition’s scientist, its missionary and its interpreter. But he had another, more vital role—cartographer. Using latitudinal and compass readings, he meticulously calculated and recorded the most accurate map of the Ohio River at the time—a map used by later explorers to open up the frontier.

Today, as Xavier prepares for its 175th anniversary in 2006, it can trace the roots of Jesuit influence on the region not just back to when the order took over the University, but to a time when one priest ventured into the unknown and charted the way for others to follow.

A lot can happen in 250 years. The hill on which Hinkle Hall now stands was once part of a rich fertile land, a forest inhabited by bear, deer and a few scattered Indian clans. Claimed first by the French, then by the English, the region was finally taken by the new Americans after many bloody battles. For all of them—early European explorers, fur traders, soldiers—it was the Ohio River that opened it up.

According to the earliest journals, the river was a gem, a ribbon of crystal clear water that was a ticket through the wilderness. The French called her Beautiful River, or La Belle Riviere, after the Iroquois word for Great River, which the French explorers translated as “Oyo.” It became the link between the fledgling French colonies in Canada and a new French community taking shape along the Gulf of Mexico. Everything in between was up for grabs, and the French, wary of the English settlers pushing west from the colonies, were determined to keep the entire territory, which they called New France, for themselves.

Bonnecamps’ journey in 1749, led by Pierre-Joseph Celoron de Bienville, was a mission to reinforce these French claims. From the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania down the Ohio to the Great Miami near what is now the western side of Cincinnati, Capt. Celoron planted six plates laying claim to the land, the river and all its adjoining tributaries. As they paddled and portaged, Bonnecamps mapped the river, improving upon another map drawn from a French expedition 10 years earlier. He fixed exact geographical locations of major tributaries and noted on his map the locations of the plates, only three of which have since been found. After carefully sketching the bend in the river where the Cincinnati settlement would be built, he and the expedition turned north, heading up the Great Miami toward Detroit, across Lake Erie through Niagara and home to the city of Quebec. The journey lasted five months and 18 days.

Bonnecamps and Celoron set off with more than 200 men, and except for the loss of one man, who died when his canoe careened over a waterfall on the third day, returned with the group intact. But not without adventure or danger.

In his journal, Bonnecamps describes the hardships of carrying canoes and gear along dry riverbeds, the severe storms that suddenly raised the river levels, and the constant worry about hostile Indians and English soldiers. At one point, two officers were sent ahead to meet with the Shawnee Indians. They were greeted cautiously, then attacked and bound to a stake. They would have been killed if not for an Iroquois Indian traveling with the mission who convinced them the French meant no harm.

He also writes about the environment, describing unusual trees such as the cottonwood or sycamore and the bean tree or honey locust. He tells how 29 men took their meal inside the hollow base of a giant cottonwood tree. He meticulously describes the seven rattlesnakes they caught, the first he’d ever seen—detailing their varying colors and segmented tails—and points out the fatality of their bite.

Toward the end of his journal, written as a report to the French territorial governor-general, Bonnecamps, ever the scientist, regrets missing the salt springs at Big Bone Lick downriver in Kentucky, where he would liked to have studied the elephant bones preserved in the pits.

“This news greatly chagrined me; and I could hardly forgive myself for having missed this discovery,” he writes.

Finally, he makes note of Detroit, a developing post on the frontier, which he suggests will be valuable in lending assistance to other areas, including the Beautiful River, “supposing that settlements be made theron.”

Settlements were, in fact, made theron. Bonnecamps, who eventually returned to France, couldn’t have known what lay in the future for the region that would become Cincinnati, but he expected his chart of the Ohio River’s course would help later explorers and settlers find their way. And it did.

“There were previous expeditions to the area and the French claimed it, and this expedition was to strengthen their claim,” says Jacques Monet, S.J., of the Canadian Institute of Jesuit Studies in Toronto. “Bonnecamps was to draw this map and report on the territory. The map was important. It contributed what the French knew of the territory.”

History would have it that neither the French nor the English would lay final claim to the territory. Rather, that honor would go to the new American revolutionaries, who renamed the region the Northwest Territory.

Still, the French left their mark in the names they gave to the rivers and towns of New France—now largely the Midwest. For his part, Bonnecamps may be the only Jesuit known to have come through the area until 1831, when a future Chicago bishop visited Bishop Edward Fenwick in Cincinnati and his newly opened school, the Athenaeum. Then in 1840, eight Jesuits arrived to take over operation of the school at the request of Bishop John Purcell, who was struggling financially to keep it open.

The school, located just seven blocks from the long bend in the Beautiful “Oyo” River, was renamed St. Xavier College. Later simplified to Xavier University, it has been charting its own course for nearly 175 years.

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