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Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Search for Wisconsin's First Priest

A Priest Follows Another Priest's 300-Year-Old Path to Death

The Search for Wisconsin's First Priest | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeThe Menard Monument.

Menard Monument

The Menard Monument was erected in honor of Pere Rene Menard who was lost in the area in 1661 while en route to Huron Village to baptize Native Americans. The monument stands on the river road between Merrill and Tomahawk, Wisconsin. ca. 1925. View the original source document: WHI 39366

Father A.A.A. Schmirler 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 Rene Menard

Father Schmirler was trying to discover the exact location where Father Rene Menard died while trying to reach refugee Indians on the headquarters of the Black River in the summer of 1661. 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 Father 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 travelled the Great Lakes with fur traders. He made it as far as Lake Superior when his birchbark 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.

EnlargeOne man sits in the bow and one man stands on shore holding the stern of a birch bark canoe at the edge of a lake. They may be Indians. The man in the canoe is smoking a pipe.

Birch Bark Canoe

One man sits in the bow and one man stands on shore holding the stern of a birch bark canoe at the edge of a lake. View the original source document: WHI 82760

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, Father Menard left the canoe to make a short portage while L'Esperance shot the rapids. Father Menard was never seen again.

The Rib River

300 years later, Father Schmirler followed Menard 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 Father 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 Father Menard vanished were on the Rib River where it crosses the Taylor/Lincoln county line, just east of modern Goodrich.

You can read Father 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 Father Menard's contemporaries reported his death at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

Learn More

See more images, essays, newspapers and records about Father Rene Menard.