Jean Nicolet


Jerrold C. Rodesch

Reprinted with permission from Voyageur, the Historical review of Brown County and Northeast Wisconsin, Spring, 1984, pp. 4-8
Northeast of the city of Green Bay, on the limestone ridge overlooking the waters of the bay, stands a statue of Jean Nicolet. It commemorates the coming of Europeans to Green Bay and to Wisconsin. The historical marker there declares that "In 1634 Jean Nicolet, emissary of Governor Samuel de Champlain of New France, landed at Red Banks on the shore of Green Bay about a mile west of here."

Possibly. Among the possibilities--other sites have been claimed--this is perhaps the most probable. 1 If not proven, it is a plausible version of the Nicolet voyage. If the facts are uncertain, Nicolet and Red Banks nonetheless stand at the beginning of the region's history. They are fixed in tradition and elaborated in picture and story. Nicolet's exploit has been the occasion for periodic celebration as well as for his bronze monument.

We know a fair amount about Jean Nicolet. We know comparatively little about the journey that gave him enough significance to be a public memory, to be a part of history. Even so, in the textbook of Wisconsin history read currently by the schoolchildren of Green Bay, Nicolet is the dominant figure. 2 There is no one, it seems, of greater importance, at least judging by the space devoted to him. He is recalled at greater length than, for example, Robert LaFollette Sr., about whom and about whose historical role we know a great deal more than about Nicolet. But LaFollette is perhaps a rather complicated figure for children and perhaps a little too close to us to be so simple a character and so purely heroic an image as Nicolet. And LaFollette was not present at the beginning.

The beginning of what? Nicolet, like others we see as founders or initiators, has come to stimulate ideas about what we are, or ought to be, or could be. Standing at the beginning, he invites those who consider him to ponder the present that has come down to us out of the past that he began.

On August 9, 1934, at a commemoration of Nicolet's achievement, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at Green Bay and placed Nicolet in history as the first of "the men and women who established civilization in Wisconsin and in the Northwest," at the commencement, Roosevelt made clear, of the United States of America. He attached Nicolet to the theme of his speech on "A Wider Opportunity for the Average Man." He began with Nicolet to recount a conventional version of the heroic making of America, the pioneer's "fight against Nature," and "fight for his rights." The Europeans who came here, the President explained, "sought a life that was less fettered by the exploitation of selfish men. They shared a deep purpose to rid themselves forever of the jealousies, the prejudices, the intrigues and the violence, whether internal or external, that disturbed their lives on the other side of the ocean." The pioneering spirit has carried on to the present, even to the New Deal. Roosevelt was not yet fully a year and a half in office. He was slightly interested in Nicolet's history but very interested in furthering the programs of his administration, and as a good politician he seized the occasion to invoke Nicolet's name in the struggle against "selfish private interest." Roosevelt did not entitle his speech "From Nicolet to the New Deal," but he might as well have done so. It was a very peculiar historical vision. 3

Nicolet was the subject of civic oratory at other times as well. Perhaps the most florid exhibition occurred at the dedication of a tablet in Michigan in July 1915 commemorating Nicolet's passage through the Straights of Mackinac in 1634. The tablet describes him as "the first white man to enter Michigan and the Old Northwest." A United States Congressman repeated these words and called the feat "truly memorable." A United States Senator spoke of Nicolet's "deeds of valor and knightly heroism." A judge said that Nicolet was an "intrepid explorer and Christian hero." Others found him to be "a noble character," a "fearless and heroic pioneer of Christian civilization. " The most remarkable of the speeches, however, was the "Historical Address" provided by Thomas J. Campbell, S.J. The Jesuit contemporaries of Nicolet had regarded him very highly and it is their reports that provide the historical record we have of him. Father Campbell was no less an admirer of Nicolet. His admiration was founded on a rather different historical estimation than that of the political celebrants. "Jean Nicolet," he said, "was not a great explorer, like Champlain...[nor] picturesque Governor, like Frontenac,...daring fighter, like Iberville,...successful discoverer, like Marquette,...martyr, like his friends Brébeuf, Jogues, Daniel, Gamier, and Garreau..., he was simply an employee in a trading post; an Indian interpreter...." 4

A pretty humble character, it seemed. One can imagine Campbell's audience in some discomfort at these words, but not so much discomfort as some of them might have felt when the priest got to his point. For Campbell, like President Roosevelt later, found in Nicolet's fame an opportunity to attack issues in his own time. Unlike President Roosevelt, Campbell was genuinely drawn to the history of Nicolet because it was from that history that Campbell made his argument. The true memory of Nicolet, in Campbell's assertion, is nothing less than a "doctrine." "It is a protest against a philosophical theory prevalent at the present day, which makes man the creature as well as the victim of his environment--a theory which assails the dignity of human nature, by robbing it of its freedom of will...." Nicolet's achievement was a personal and moral triumph over the wilderness, a wilderness that Father Campbell saw as a kind of equivalent to modernist ethics, a modern world dominated by scientific materialism. As Nicolet kept himself morally intact in the woods, living among the faithless, so modern men might survive spiritually whole in the evil circumstances of our century. "Nicolet," Campbell wrote, "is not only the first white man who appeared in what is now the state of Michigan, but he is a man whose virtues may be proposed to the youth of the country as an example and an inspiration." Nicolet "passed the longest and most ambitious period of his life amid surroundings that were calculated to tear out of his heart not only every noble aspiration, but every recollection of Christianity and civilization." Nicolet "achieved a greater glory than the one which this tablet specifically commemorates...." Being a "first white man" is less to be admired than confronting a challenge, the choice of alternatives in North America, and choosing rightly. 5

A more conventional celebration of Nicolet should be noted. When the Brown County Historical Society enacted a set of vignettes for the 1942 banquet of the Wisconsin State Historical Society convention held in Green Bay, Nicolet appeared to explain his historical role as the agent of a French king "eager for territorial expansion." of "Holy Mother Church," bent on salvation of the "heathen," and of that "most profitable business," the fur trade. The Green Bay gentleman portraying Nicolet in this pageant declared that "men of my time lived dangerously, because the rewards of success were great. 6

Perhaps they were, for some. Nicolet's rewards were modest. His motives were possibly not simple enough to be contained in a twentieth century after dinner entertainment or a politician's speech. And a twentieth century Jesuit railing against modern times had a point that must not be overlooked if we want a glimpse of the real Nicolet.

Nicolet was not, in fact, a figure on the scale of Champlain, Iberville, or Marquette. His travel to the region of the western lakes, whatever precedent he set in reaching Wisconsin, or wherever, had no known consequences. It was not until 1852 that historical investigators even noticed Nicolet's achievement in reaching Wisconsin. And only in the works of Benjamin Sulté (1873, 1876) and in Consul W. Butterfield's History of the Discovery of the North-West by John Nicolet (1881) did the story of Nicolet's landing at Green Bay and excursion up the Fox River in 1634 take the form that is celebrated, if not entirely accepted, today. It took over two centuries for Nicolet to attain his status as the first European in Wisconsin. He emerged late into Wisconsin's history and was accepted finally as a kind of hero by a state and a people that had long left behind the world and aspirations that Nicolet represented. 7

He was born in France, probably at Cherbourg, and arrived in Canada in 1618 when he was about 19 or 20 years old. 8 He was employed by the Company of New France (the chartered "Company of One Hundred Associates" which held the rights to French possessions in North America at the time), first as an Indian agent and later as a clerk. During his long residences among several Indian tribes he became proficient in the Algonkin and Huron languages, an effective interpreter and an able representative of French interests. He also commanded respect among the native peoples, serving as mediator among them as well as between them and French secular and clerical authorities. In this capacity as mediator and agent of the government of New France, he was commissioned to travel to the "people of the sea," to meet with them and arrange a peace between them and the Hurons.

The identification of the Winnebago as the "people of the sea" by John G. Shea in 1852 forms the basis for claiming that Nicolet came to the Green Bay area, for the Winnebago were in 1634 probably resident on the shores of the bay.9The rather vague geographical references in the available accounts of Nicolet's voyage can be imaginatively interpreted as compatible with a visit to Green Bay, and the list of tribes Nicolet met on the way also supports such an interpretation, at least given the location of those tribes later in the seventeenth century. That the French designated the Winnebago as the "people of the sea" is reasonably certain. That Nicolet reached them in 1634 when they may have been at Green Bay is the necessary foundation of the event now acclaimed.

We lack firm and detailed evidence to support more than the plausible inferences that form the present story of Nicolet's journey. His own written report has been lost. Not until 1640 does the Jesuit priest Paul Le Jeune give the earliest account we have. Another version by Father Barthélemy Vimont in 1642 added information. 10 The Jesuits, it seems, possessed Nicolet's written memoir and knew him. Even with this source, however, they are imprecise about the new lands Nicolet visited and they even fail to say when it was that he undertook the journey. The date of 1634 is an inference along with the other particulars that make up the deceptively confident school book version of the story. 11

For example, there is no direct evidence that Nicolet was seeking contact with Asia. The "grand robe of China damask, all strewn with flowers and birds of many colors" he wore would have been, along with his thundering pistols, impressive enough to establish his claims to special authority even if he were merely meeting with the Winnebago on the peace mission for which a record exists. There is no particular logic in an attempt to disguise himself as Chinese. The Asian connection like so much else in the story is speculative and inferential. And also plausible. We know the French sought a route to Asia. We know that Champlain, who commissioned Nicolet's service, was especially hopeful about finding a way to Asia. And there is even a French report of 1612 that specifies a journey of about 300 leagues west of the St. Lawrence settlements "to reach China." 12 That same very general figure of "three hundred leagues Westward" (this time from the Hurons) is the most precise geographical datum offered in the Jesuit report of Nicolet's trip. The distance west of the Hurons is the location of the "people of the sea."

That the French called the Winnebago the "people of the sea" supports the claim that Nicolet was charged to explore the way to Asia. The French name for the Winnebago can only be seen as a hopeful interpretation of the Algonkian designation of these people as "Winnebago," or people of the bad-smelling or fetid water. Such waters, the French seem to have eagerly concluded, would be salt waters and hence the sea lying between America and Asia. 13 Nicolet's mission to bring peace between Huron and Winnebago, securing a stability important for the fur trade and missionary work, is a sufficient motive for his voyage. By inference it is highly believable that he also carried the grander dream of Asia with him.

We have altogether then a plausible if not proven story of Nicolet as the first European in Wisconsin, possibly even at Green Bay. We need to be cautious about the details. And the romance that surrounds Nicolet as explorer probably exists out of a need to invest our beginnings with some of the grandeur and dignity that our orators have employed. Nicolet should seem a proper start for the society we have become. The romance in fact conceals how clouded our knowledge is of his actual achievement. And it draws attention away from some things that we do know about him that suggest a more complex and ambiguous historical significance for him.

Nicolet died young in 1642. He drowned in the St. Lawrence when his boat overturned in a storm. Among his last words was the announcement that he did not know how to swim. We have the account of his death again from the Jesuit missionary reports that chronicled much of his life in addition to his voyage of exploration. He appears frequently in these reports, always in the most complimentary terms. They speak of his "kindness and fidelity," his virtue and respectability, his devotion to the missionary work of the Jesuits, his loyalty and self sacrifice. "He was equally and singularly loved" by both "the French and the Savages." His efforts "for the weal and salvation of the Savages...recall Apostolic times, and inspire even the most fervent Religious with a desire to imitate him.'' 14

Father Campbell, at Mackinac in 1915, was correct in claiming Nicolet for a Christian civilization that stood in defiance of the wilderness of seventeenth century America as much as it stands against the secular world of this century. Campbell was no less correct in contrasting Nicolet to the "dastardly character of young Brûlé and Marsolet," Nicolet's fellow recruits in the Indian service of the Company of New France. Brûlé and Marsolet mark the path that Nicolet did not take. They succumbed to the temptations of the wilderness and the willful ambition and individualism that grew out of the freedom from European constraint. Champlain himself denounced them as being "without religion, eating meat on Friday and Saturday," as giving themselves over to "unrestrained debauchery and libertinism," and of finally having "betrayed their King and sold their country." Quebec fell to the English in 1629. Brûlé and Marsolet stayed and collaborated with the enemy. Nicolet fled into Huron country and worked against English interests there until the French were restored to power. Nicolet was loyal to his faith and to his ruler. 15

As Campbell was right about Nicolet's moral character, so President Roosevelt was wrong in placing Nicolet at the head of a great procession of American pioneers whose "deep purpose" was "to rid themselves forever of the jealousies, the prejudices, the intrigues and the violence, whether internal or external, that disturbed their lives on the other side of the ocean." Nicolet was rather a conscientious servant of the Roman Catholic Church and of Royal France and was steadfastly devoted to their purposes in the difficult struggle for North America. The violence that disturbed Europe disturbed America as well. England and France fought more than a century in bloody and truly savage colonial wars. In 1763 the lands Nicolet had opened to France became the possession of England. The cause Nicolet had committed himself to was lost, and it left slight imprint on the Wisconsin he discovered.

Soldiers of the United States arrived at Green Bay in 1816 to at last take possession of Wisconsin and make it a part of the country of its future. The few French traders and their families at Green Bay were soon absorbed, overwhelmed and lost in the massive American migration that gave Wisconsin 300,000 people within a generation. Except for names, the French heritage of Wisconsin two centuries after Nicolet was obliterated. An early "Yankee" settler of Green Bay, Albert G. Ellis, described as charming and not a little quaint the French still resident at Green Bay in 1822:

These simple people inherited their manners from their forefathers, the French of Lower Canada; and politeness and strict 'good-breeding' was the rule, from the highest to the lowest. It gave them ease and gracefulness of deportment, often a surprise and reproach to the brusque, abrupt Yankee, rendering their company acceptable and engaging with the most cultivated and polite, and insuring, in their intercourse with each other, the preservation of friendly feeling and good will. They had been sought out by the Catholic ministers, their children were all baptised Christians, had been taught the creed and commandments, and grew up simple-hearted, trusting people. They were strict observers of the seasons of festivals and feasts; from Christmas to Ash-Wednesday, the whole settlement was rife with feasting, dancing, and merrymaking; but, on the approach of Lent, it was suddenly suspended till Easter. 16
Such people were indeed a curiosity on the Yankee frontier.

Jean Nicolet left a library on his death. The catalogue includes, among other titles, Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Jesuit Relations of 1637, Meditations on the Life of Christ, The Holy Duties of a Devout Life, Elements of Logic, The Lives of the Saints, Inventory of the Sciences, Portugese Discoveries in the West Indies, The Art of Fencing, and The Way to Live for God. 17 Nicolet must have been a good companion to the cultured intellectuals who came to New France as Jesuit missionaries. Their vision of the New World was not that of the Yankees who took over the territory they had opened. The Jesuit accomplishments were not the same. In the end, in Wisconsin, they failed. Theirs was an alternative to what Wisconsin has become. In recalling Nicolet we might well consider the alternative we have chosen and made, the history that Nicolet did not begin, the modern history that conquered his hopes.


A Wisconsin native, Jerrold Rodesch teaches American history and the history of Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin-- Green Bay. Return to top of article

1. For two bold and unconvincing alternatives to Nicolet at Green Bay see Clifford P. Wilson, "Where Did Nicolet Go?" Minnesota History 27 (1946), 216-20; and Harry Dever, "The Nicolet Myth," Michigan History 50, no. 4 (1966), 318-22. return to text

2. Louis G. Romano and Nicholas P. Georgiady, Exploring Our State: Wisconsin (Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1977), 41-43. return to text

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "A Wider Opportunity for the Average Man"--Address delivered at Green Bay, Wisconsin, August 9,1934," in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, vol. 3, The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934 (reissue, New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), 370-75.return to text

4. Thomas J. Campbell, et al., "Nicolet Day on Mackinac Island," Michigan Historical Commission Bulletin Number 6 (Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission, 1916).return to text

5. Ibid., 20-21.return to text

6. Harold T.I. Shannon, "Green Bay Homecoming," Wisconsin Magazine of History 26 (December 1942), 144-52.return to text

7. John Gilmary Shea, Discovery and Exploration of the Mississippi Valley (New York: Red field, 1853); Benjamin Sulté, Mélanges d'Histoire et de Littérature (Ottawa: Joseph Bureau, 1876); Consul W. Butterfield, History of the Discovery of the North-West by John Nicolet (Cincinnati: R. Clarke and Co., 1881). return to text

8. For secondary sources on Nicolet and his voyage see: Jean Hamelin, "Jean Nicollet de Belleborne," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), 1:516-18; Louise Phelps Kellogg, The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest (1925; reprint, New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1968), 65-83; "Jean Nicolet, Interpreter and Voyageur in Canada," Wisconsin Historical Collections (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1888), 11:1-25; see also Shea, Sulté, and Butterfield. return to text

9. Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Winnebago," in Hand book of North American Indians, vol. 16, Northeast ed. Bruce Trigger (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978), 690-707; Nancy Oestreich Lurie, "Winnebago Protohistory," in Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. Stanley Diamond (New York, Colorado University Press, 1960), 790-807. In the latter, note her uncertainty about the exact location of the Winnebago in 1634, the possibility "that the Winnebago had withdrawn westward from their traditional home on Green Bay &s early as 1632," and her statement that "while it is doubtlessly true that Nicolet landed along Green Bay and probably near the mouth of the Fox River, the only support for the location being at Red Banks specifically is Winnebago tradition that this was their place of supernatural origin." return to text

10. Reuben G. Thwaites, ea., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (73 vols, Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, 1896-1901), 18:231-37; 23:276-83. return to text

11. Butterfield, History, 42-49. return to text

12. Sulté, Mélanges, 413-16. return to text

13. Frederic G. Cassidy, "The Names of Green Bay, Wisconsin," Names 21, no. 3 (1973), 168-78. return to text

14. Thwaites, Jesuit Relations, 8:247, 267, 267; 9:216-17; 12:133-36; 23:276-81. return to text

15. Campbell, "Nicolet Day," 26; Olga Jurgens, "Etienne Brûlé," and Andre Vachon, "Nicolas Marsolet de Saint Aignon," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1:130-33; 493-96. return to text

16. Albert G. Ellis, "Fifty-Four Years' Recollections of Men and Events in Wisconsin," Wisconsin Historical Collections, 7:219-20. return to text

17. Campbell, "Nicolet Day," 29. return to text


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