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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Debunking Nicolet

We've been told for decades that Jean Nicolet (1598-1642), the first European known to reach Wisconsin, was searching for a route to Asia when he landed near Green Bay in 1634. Artists showed him wearing a Chinese robe as he strode ashore at Red Banks and local historians staged celebrations and erected historic markers where they assumed it happened.

But in a new book called The Nicolet Corrigenda, eminent anthropologist Nancy Lurie and historian Patrick Jung contend that nearly everything we learned about Nicolet's landing was wrong -- he wasn't looking for a Northwest Passage, there was no Chinese robe, and he didn't land anywhere near Green Bay.

The authors revisit the original historical documents, examine recent archaeological evidence, consider topographical and ecological data, and combine all these with Lurie's lifetime of anthropological research about Wisconsin. They closely investigate all previous attempts to explain the first contact between Native Americans and whites in our state, dissecting how and why their predecessors reached erroneous conclusions. They also show how the Nicolet myth was born and why it persisted: "errors build on errors and become credible through repetition."

Although their book is slender, their arguments are rich, subtle, and persuasive. Casual readers may want to skip the close analyses of long-dead controversies or the technical distinctions that support some of their conclusions. But every reader will be impressed by their thoroughness and fair-mindedness. Lurie and Jung critique not only the amateur popularizers of the Nicolet myth but also their professional colleagues, personal friends, and even their own earlier writings.

What do they conclude?

Nicolet was not sent in search of the Orient but in search of peace; his boss, Samuel de Champlain, wanted a treaty with the fierce Ho-Chunk who were preventing neighboring nations from trading with the French. Nicolet's robe was nothing special, but actually resembled those worn by French officials at any important diplomatic meeting. His landing occurred not at Green Bay, not even in Wisconsin, but rather at Bay de Noc on the Upper Michigan shore; he then travelled two days south on land to the mouth of the Menominee River, where the multi-tribal council of peace was hosted by the Menominee. Using anthropological and archaeological evidence, they also propose that the Ho-Chunk may be direct descendants of the Mississippian culture that constructed Aztalan seven centuries before Nicolet arrived.

In 1806, biographer Mason Weems invented the story of young George Washington unable to tell a lie after he chopped down a cherry tree; it passed as historical truth for more than a century. Although the fabrication of Nicolet's landing is not on that scale, it resembles the myth of the first Thanksgiving, in that a great wave of popular sentiment swelled up from very slender textual evidence.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wisconsin residents wanted a founding father to stand beside the Columbus-hero celebrated in 1892 and the Plymouth Pilgrims hyped in 1920. They elevated Nicolet to the same status through a combination of partisan claims and sloppy scholarship. Lurie and Jung perform a useful service by gently tipping him off his pedestal. In the process they offer startling new ideas about much of the state's earliest history.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 25, 2009

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