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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Search for Wisconsin's First Priest

"How's fishing?"

That's the question that greeted Rev. A.A.A. Schmirler as he paddled the rivers of northern Wisconsin during the summer of 1959. The historian-priest was not fishing, however, but retracing the route of the first missionary to visit Wisconsin almost exactly 300 years before. Father Schmirler was trying to discover the exact location where Fr. Rene Menard died while trying to reach refugee Indians on the headquarters of the Black River in the summer of 1661.

Tribes Driven Into Wisconsin

When Menard died, Iroquois warriors hundreds of miles to the east had driven rival Indian nations who were sympathetic to the French from New York, Ohio, Quebec, and Michigan. The fleeing tribes, who included the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Ottawa, Miami, Huron, and others, took refuge in Wisconsin during the 1650s. Some who had lived close to the French settlements had become Christian, and Fr. Menard joined a flotilla of fur traders to rejoin his congregation in the far western wilderness.

So in the fall of 1660, the first missionary to Wisconsin traveled the Great Lakes with fur traders. He made it as far as Lake Superior when his birch bark canoe was irretrievably damaged just as winter set in. He survived at modern L'Anse, Michigan, with the help of voyageurs and local Indians. While wintering on Keweenaw Bay, he wrote two letters about conditions among the refugees, and with the spring thaw set out for a village of exiled Hurons near the headwaters of the Black River.

Alone Into the Heart of Wildest Wisconsin

He hiked overland across the Upper Penninsula, entered the Wisconsin River near Lac Vieux Desert, and proceeded down it to the vicinity of Wausau. Guided by a Frenchman named L'Esperance who had already made the trip, he threaded the streams northwest of modern Wausau. When they were within one day of their desination, Fr. Menard left the canoe to make a short portage while L'Esperance shot the rapids. Fr. Menard was never seen again.

Trailing Menard 300 Years Later

Three hundred years later, Fr. Schmirler followed him downriver from Lac Vieux Desert in a 14-foot kayak. He had first examined all the contemporary textual and cartographic evidence, as well as reviewing all the previous theories about where Fr. Menard had died. Allowing for modern changes in the river (such as dams) and considering the practices of 17th-century voyageurs, he ultimately concluded that the rapids where Fr. Menard vanished were on the Rib River where it crosses the Taylor/Lincoln county line, just east of modern Goodrich (topographic map).

Learn More

You can read Fr. Schmirler's account of his unique on-the-ground investigations in the online version of the Wisconsin Magazine of History. And you can see how Fr. Menard's contemporaries reported his death at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Strange Deaths on September 25, 2013
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