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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Place of the Spirit Tree

That's the English translation of the Potawatomi phrase that christened a Wisconsin river, city, and county. The mysterious tree they encountered had been planted by white men.

During the winter of 1698-1699, a tiny group of Frenchmen sought shelter on the Lake Michigan shore between the Door penninsula and Milwaukee. Their leader was Fr. Pierre-Gabriel Marest (1662-1714), on his way to the Illinois mission near Peoria. Overtaken by cold weather, Marest's party hunkered down for the winter near the mouth of a stream and erected a large wooden cross. With the spring thaw they headed south again.

Six months later another Jesuit priest, Fr. Jean-Francois Buisson de Saint-Cosme (1667-1706), followed the same route. "On the 4th of October," he wrote, "we came upon another small village of Poux [Potawatomi], on a small river, where Reverend Father Marais [Marest] had spent the winter with some Frenchmen and had planted a cross. We stayed there for the remainder of the day."

This wooden cross is believed to be the source of the modern word Manitowoc. In it, the Algonkian "manitou," or spirit, is combined with a suffix indicating "a standing or hollow tree." The spirit tree was presumed by historian Hjalmar Holand to be the wooden cross set up by the Black Robes in 1699.

In 1796 fur trader Jacques Vieau (1757-1852) landed there and built a trading post a few miles upriver, "very near the rapids." By then the Potawatomi name meaning "Spirit Tree" had apparently been firmly fixed to the vicinity where the Jesuits had camped almost a century before.

To see dozens of historic photos of early Manitowoc, visit Wisconsin Historic Images. For information on thousands of Wisconsin cities and towns, including nearly 1,000 possible etymologies of their names, explore the Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 16, 2006

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