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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Was Nicolet Really First?

It's September, and around the state thousands of children are about to be taught that Jean Nicolet was the first European to set foot in Wisconsin. But there's fascinating evidence that he was not the first but rather the second white person to visit our state.

Nicolet (1598-1642) was a protege of Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), who sent him west to live with the Indian tribes near Lake Huron, so he could learn their languages and serve as an interpreter. In 1634 Champlain assigned Nicolet to investigate reports of salt water in the far west (reports based on a mis-translation), resulting in Nicolet meeting the Ho-Chunk at Red Banks, just north of modern UW-Green Bay (map).

But Nicolet was only one of Champlain's young assistants. There is good reason to believe that another, Etienne Brule (1592?-1632), actually visited Wisconsin a dozen years before Nicolet -- within a year or two of the Pilgrim's landing at Plymouth Rock.

Brule journeyed to the far West with Huron guides in 1622 or 1623, possibly going completely around Lake Superior, but there was no one to communicate his adventures to the public as Nicolet's would be in 1634. He described his journey only to Champlain and to author Gabriel Sagard-Théodat, and the only evidence of his trip consists of two documents. One is a depiction of Lake Superior on a map that Champlain published in 1632, and the other is Sagard's handful of scattered references in a book published after Brule was killed (when he offended his Huron hosts).

The western portion of Champlain's 1632 map is given here, in our Turning Points in Wisconsin History digital collection. Lakes Superior and Michigan are at the lower left; scroll down, and click anywhere to zoom in. Champlain had never personally traveled to the region, so the map is based on verbal reports and is wildly inaccurate by modern standards. It shows Lake Superior ("Grand Lac") coming together with Lake Michigan ("Mer Douce") and refers to Sault St. Marie between them. Green Bay (where it shows the "Nation des Puans," a French name for the Ho-Chunk) is depicted above Lake Michigan, either from Champlain's mis-understanding or the mapmaker's. But the general shape of both lakes is recognizable and locating and naming the Ho-Chunk at Green Bay is accurate. Many historians have agreed that the correctness of Lake Superior probably came from Brule's reports, but that other Indians may have told Champlain where the Ho-Chunk lived.

The other evidence for Brule's visit is Sagard's book Histoire du Canada, et Voyages que les Frères Mineurs Recollects y Ont Faicts pour la Conversion des Infidèles depuis l'an 1615, which was published in Paris in 1636. It gives second-hand versions of what Brule saw, in Sagard's words, and its references are tantalizingly few and very vague. The distances stated are wildly impossible and even the exact dates of the trip are unrecorded, but many details are plausible. You can read them (in English or French) at Turning Points in Wisconsin History and make up your own mind.

Scholars have been reluctant to say that Brule reached Wisconsin on the strength of Sagard's text alone. But when its details are combined with those on Champlain's map made in 1632 -- before Nicolet even set out for Wisconsin -- many conclude that Brule was probably the first European to reach our state, a dozen years before the person who usually gets the credit.

Of course, neither Brule nor Nicolet "discovered" Wisconsin. The Menominee, Lakota, and Ho-Chunk had been here for many centuries, and the Ojibwe for several generations. Our fourth graders now begin to learn about their heritage by studying ancient Native American history instead of Renaissance adventurers, and so get a much more accurate and well-rounded understanding of the past than was available to their parents and grandparents.

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 17, 2006

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