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Arrival of the First Europeans | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

European Exploration in Wisconsin

How the French Began the Fur Trade

Arrival of the First Europeans | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeThe Wisconsin portion of Champlain's 1632 map, augmented since the previous one.

Voyages of Samuel de Champlain

The Wisconsin portion of Champlain's 1632 map. The western portion is based on verbal reports by Champlain's protege Etienn Brule, the only European thought to have visited the western Great lakes before Jean Nicolet in 1634. Champlain had never personally traveled to the far west, so the cartographer erroneously put Green Bay — the Bay of Puants — north of Sault Ste. Marie, rather than south of it. Ca. 1880 facsimile of the original 1632 map. View the original source document: WHI 27032

French explorers first reached Wisconsin in the 17th century. Most came in hopes of discovering new paths to the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico for trade and transportation. These early explorers inspired many other traders and missionaries to come to Wisconsin in the late 17th and 18th centuries. They also began the fur trade that would dominate Wisconsin's economy for two centuries.

First Europeans in Wisconsin

Interpreters Etienne Brule (ca. 1592-1632) and Jean Nicolet (1598-1642) were both sent west early in the 17th century by Samuel de Champlain, the governor of New France, to see if a water route to the Pacific existed.

Brule may have been the first European to visit Wisconsin. In 1622 or 1623, he traveled around Lake Superior. Because the account of his trip was written from hearsay after his death by Gabriel Sagard-Theodat, Brule's exact route is not known. Further details about Wisconsin appeared on Samuel de Champlain's map of New France in 1632. This information probably came to Champlain from Brule.

Nicolet reached Wisconsin in 1634. He landed at Red Banks, near Green Bay. Brule and Nicolet never found the river leading to the Pacific they were searching for. But they did find that the Midwest was a very rich source of furs. The French realized they could turn a handsome profit if they brought furs to Montreal and shipped them to France. But they had to wait until mid-seventeenth century Iroquois attacks ended.

Traders Arrive

EnlargeEngraving of a fur trader standing in the middle of a circle of seated Indians in their council tepee.

Fur Trader in Council Tepee, 1892

Engraving of a fur trader standing in the middle of a circle of seated Indians in their council tepee. View the original source document: WHI 3775

More than twenty years after Nicolet landed in 1634, the first fur traders finally appeared in Wisconsin. They were the Sieur de Groseilliers (1618-1684) and his teenage brother-in-law, Pierre Radisson (1636-1710). They spent 1654-1656 in Green Bay and 1659 and 1660 in the Chequamegon region on Lake Superior. On their second voyage, Radisson and Groseilliers built Wisconsin's first French fort near Ashland. They also nearly starved to death on the headwaters of the Chippewa River.

Marquette and Joliet Explore the Mississippi

Radisson and Groseilliers brought furs back to Montreal as well as news of a great river that flowed south through North America. Explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle sent 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 including LaSalle, Duluth, Tonti and Hennepin.

Learn More

[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)]