in Wisconsin History
Arrival of the First Europeans
The first European to visit Wisconsin may have been interpreter Etienne Brule (ca. 1592-1632). In 1622 or 1623 he traveled around Lake Superior, but the account of his trip was only written down from hearsay after his death by Gabriel Sagard-Theodat. Unique information about Wisconsin also appears on Samuel de Champlain's map of New France published in 1632 -- two years before Jean Nicolet reached Wisconsin, and is presumed to have come to Champlain from Brule. We give both documents here so you can decide for yourself whether you think Brule was the first European to set eyes on our state.
Most scholars agree that another of Champlain's interpreters, Jean Nicolet (1598-1642), did in fact reach Wisconsin and that he landed at Red Banks, near Green Bay, in 1634 (though some argue that he landed on the Lake Superior shore). You can read the only contemporary French account of his trip in our American Journeys digital collection, linked below. We also give here the Ho-Chunk and Menominee sides of the story as they were preserved in their oral traditions.
Brule and Nicolet had both been sent west by Samuel de Champlain to see if a water route to the Pacific existed. They didn't find one, of course, but they did find a very rich source of furs, on which the French authorities could turn a handsome profit -- if the furs could be brought to Montreal and shipped back to France. Although they were eager to export furs, the French were prevented from doing so until the Iroquois attacks of the mid-seventeenth century had ceased.
Thus, more than twenty years elapsed after Nicolet's landing in 1634 before the first traders finally appeared in Wisconsin. These were the Sieur de Groseilliers (1618-1684) and his teenage brother-in-law, Pierre Radisson (1636-1710), who spent 1654-1656 in Green Bay and 1659-1660 in the Chequamegon region on Lake Superior. On their second voyage, Radisson and Groseilliers built the first French fort in Wisconsin near Ashland though they nearly starved to death on the headwaters of the Chippewa River.
Radisson and Groseilliers brought back to Montreal not only furs but also news of a great river flowing south. This inspired the explorer René Robert Cavelier La Salle to send teenage interpreter Louis Joliet and Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette to investigate. News of Marquette and Joliet's famous 1673 trip to the Mississippi River inspired many other explorers, traders, and missionaries to come to Wisconsin in the seventeenth century, including LaSalle, Duluth, Tonti, and Hennepin.
[Sources: Wyman, Mark. The Wisconsin Frontier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c1998). Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (Madison : State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]