Nicolet, Jean 1598-1642 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Nicolet, Jean 1598-1642

French Explorer

Nicolet, Jean 1598-1642 | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeJean Nicolet Monument by Bedore.

Jean Nicolet Statue, 1951

Jean Nicolet Monument by Bedore. Greenbay, 1951. View the original source document: WHI 39915

Dictionary of Wisconsin History.
b. Cherbourg, France, 1598
d. Quebec, Canada, November, 1642

Jean Nicolet was a French explorer, believed to be the first European to see Wisconsin. He migrated to Canada in 1618 to serve as an interpreter under Samuel de Champlain. He spent several years living with the Indian tribes near Lake Huron, learning their languages and serving as an official interpreter for several tribes.

Searching for the Pacific

In 1634, he went west on a trip to explore and to quiet Indian unrest, which was disrupting French trade. Nicolet also hoped to gain information about a route to the Pacific. The French translated Winnebago as "People of the Sea." They believed that the Winnebago Indians were close to the Western Ocean. In August, 1634, Nicolet left Georgian Bay with several Indians in a single canoe, skirted the northern shore of Lake Huron and passed through the Straits of Mackinac. Entering Lake Michigan, he followed its northern and western shores to Green Bay. The exact location where Nicolet landed in Wisconsin is unknown. However, there are commemorative markers at Red Banks, northeast of Green Bay, and at Menasha.

Winnebago and Later Life

His interactions with the Winnebago are described in Thwaites' "Jesuit Relations." He arranged a peace treaty between the Huron and Winnebago, but failed to find access to the Western Sea. It is unclear whether Nicolet spent the winter in Wisconsin or returned to the area east of Lake Huron. He learned the names of the Indian tribes in Illinois and of those West of the Mississippi River, although he did not have time to visit them. After returning to Canada, Nicolet married in 1637 and settled as an Indian agent and trader at Three Rivers, Quebec. He was drowned in an accident on the St. Lawrence River 1642.

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Dict. Amer. Biog.; R. G. Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (73 vols., Cleveland, 1896- 1901); L. P. Kellogg, French Regime in Wis. . . . (Madison, 1925); Wis. Mag. Hist., 27.