Nicolas Perrot: Early Wisconsinite

Jamie Kneisler
International Studies 495
University of Wisconsin - La Crosse
Advisor - Dr. Barbara Rusterholz

Growing up Caucasian in America can sometimes be very frustrating. As a member of a large mainstream group with a varied ethnic makeup, Caucasians as individuals find it difficult often times to stand out in the group or to identify with a specific ethnic background. If you are Caucasian, you have probably been called, or have even called yourself, "a mutt." Unrefined vocabulary, but true. Our history is as varied as the colors of tan we can achieve during periods of warm weather (commonly known in Wisconsin as "construction season"). We come from Europe, but there are many cultures to be found on the continent. In order to make up for our lack of knowledge regarding our past geographic history, it has become common for some to identify themselves more with where they are from now. I am one of those people.

Having lived in Wisconsin all my life (minus a semester in France), I would say that I'm as Wisconsinite as they come. No, I never lived on a farm. I lived in town and always walked to school. No, I'm not a Packers fan. In fact, I avoid Sunday afternoon and Monday night television like it's going to infect me with some kind of exotic sports disease for which there is no cure. No, my parents weren't born in Wisconsin. They are from Illinois and Indiana. But I was born here, I am a Wisconsinite, and I have a story to tell about "The Wisconsin That I Love" (you know that old song, don't you?). It's a wonderful story - true story, in fact - of a French traveler who once set foot on Wisconsin soils. Trempealeau soil, to be exact. The story is of Nicolas Perrot. So, if you are from Wisconsin, you had better read this. It is, in fact, part of your history.

* * *

Nicolas Perrot was born in France in 1644, the son of François Perrot and Marie Sivot. The Perrot family resided in the province of Burgundy, and Monsieur Perrot made his living as a lieutenant responsible for justice in the barony of Darcey (Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 517, hereafter referred to as DCB). Very little is known of Perrot's early life, although Charlevoix, historian and author of Histoire de la Nouvelle-France believed him to be "a man of good family and some education, whom necessity obliged to enter the service of the Jesuits" (Kellogg, 122). In 1660, the young Nicolas traveled to New France as a donné of the Jesuits (DCB, 517). A Frenchman who promised to devote his life in the service of the missions was given by the Society of Jesus a lifelong stipend of room and board, and referred to as a donné (Auger, 106). During his time with the missions in New France, Perrot had gained sufficient exposure to become adept in several Native American languages, including Algonquian (Kellogg, 122 and DCB, 517). According to Claude-Charles Le Roy de la Potherie, Perrot left the missionaries after five years of service and immediately visited the Potawotomi and the Fox tribes. After this first introduction to the voyageur way of life, Perrot returned to spend a year as a domestic in the residence of a widow and then as a servant of the Sulpicians at Montreal until the later part of 1667 (DCB, 517). But that first trip into the largely unexplored woodland was a harbinger: this was to be the beginning of a long and fruitful career as an interpreter, fur trader, and government agent. 1

Once Perrot was free to follow his own volition, he formed a trading company with Toussaint Baudry, Jean Desroches, and Isaac Nafrechoux in August of 1667. As a group, they traveled to the Ottawa area of Canada. It is unknown whether this was Perrot's first visit to the Northwest; it is probable that he had gone west before (Kellogg, 123)2. During this time Perrot had the opportunity to interact with numerous Native American nations. As the coureurs du bois made their way, Perrot was very well received by all of the tribes that he encountered, and his fur trading benefited from the affectionate relationships that he forged with the natives. It does not appear that Perrot gained much money initially from these expeditions, but these first favorable interactions would pay off later when he returned to the tribes that knew and liked him (DCB, 517).

Perrot and his caravan were the first French traders to the Algonquian tribes when they arrived in Green Bay sometime in 1668, since the tribe had just recently settled in that area. From this first encounter, Perrot received the affectionate name "Father" since he brought them iron tools and weapons (Smith). Evidence that Perrot visited the Green Bay area can presently be viewed in the State Historical Museum in Madison , in the form of a silver ostensorium [editor's note: currently the ostensorium is in the Neville Public Museum, Green Bay]. The oldest religious relic in Wisconsin (Wisconsin, 63), the ostensorium was given to the mission of St. Francis near De Pere in spring 1686. This silver creation depicts a large sun mounted atop a descending, pedestal-like base. The words engraved on the oval base read "Ce soleil a esté donné par Mr Nicolas Perrot à la Mission de St. François Savier en la Baye des Puants 1686" (Kellogg, 233). The engraving upon this decorative treasure is what helped historians trace Perrot's whereabouts for that particular year (Dictionary of American Biography, 481).

Perrot's visit to the Green Bay area was preceded by a winter spent at Trempealeau. It was the winter of 1685-86. Cold weather had come sooner than expected and frost had broken all the canoes before Perrot and his group could make it to the Sioux country, so he built a wintering post "at the foot of a mountain, behind which was a great prairie abounding in wild beasts" (Kellogg, 231-32). The site was near the present town of Trempealeau, located about 20 miles north of La Crosse along the Mississippi River. It was a prime place for a winter fort. Set back from the Mississippi, there was a quiet harbor out of the way of floating ice. Brady's and Sullivan's bluffs surrounded the post and provided protection from cold winter winds and plenty of potable water was found right in the river (State Historical Society, Sixty-Third Annual Meeting, 113). Besides Trempealeau's utility, it was likely a source of inspiration to the travelers. In the words of author Louise Phelps Kellogg, "Mount Trempealeau...[faces] the cliffs behind which each night the sun drops in golden glory" (232). It was here that Perrot spent a long winter trading with the Sioux. An article in the Green Bay Press Gazette from 1934 tells us that trading posts such as the one at Trempealeau "did much to cement his friendship with the natives because he dealt fairly with them, paying them adequately in provisions in return for peltries". The remains of the fort at Trempealeau are the only ones of a French post so far found on Wisconsin soil. In honor of Perrot, the area that surrounds Trempealeau Mountain was named Perrot State Park (Kellogg, 232-232).

The fort at Trempealeau would not be the only one built because of Nicolas Perrot. After the ice had melted in the spring of 1686, Perrot and his companions built canoes that would take them up the Mississippi to Lake Pepin. Here, Perrot's group erected Fort St. Antoine and engaged in trade with the Sioux. Denonville, governor of Québec, then ordered Perrot to return to Canada, but Perrot found many activities to slow his progress northward before finally fulfilling his duty in the spring of 1687. One such activity was to build Fort St. Nicolas at the mouth of the Wisconsin. It is believed to have been built either at or near Prairie du Chien, although the exact site is a matter of some controversy (Kellogg, 231-32).

Perrot was one of a very exclusive group to achieve great success with his knowledge of indigenous languages. He is placed on a par only with the likes of Jean Fafard and Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who came to New France a few years previous to Perrot (Kellogg, 104). Interpreters during the later part of the 17th century were highly respected, although few in number. Present at all transactions between travelers and indigenous peoples, the interpreter's job was to make known the needs and desires of both groups from one to the other. Interpreters were linked with the government at that time, informing the authorities about regions they had visited, the customs and intentions of the tribes, and the wealth of furs in unexplored territories. Interpreters were probably motivated not only by the opportunity to interact with the tribes, but also by the fact that there was something to be gained from their knowledge. The information to which interpreters had access was in high demand in the European community, and thus they would be remunerated for information of this nature. Douville goes on to say that "because these linguists are of such a level of intelligence and they already have the sympathies of the tribes, they are to be charged with delicate missions: to divert the commerce of certain nations, to begin negotiations of peace, and to maintain harmony between neighboring tribes". (226) 3

In the beginnings of the colony, the individuals or groups utilizing the skills of the interpreters had to pay them generously. The demand was high for knowledgeable and diplomatic people in this field, as they were few in numbers. It is for this reason that the interpreters could demand good payment. Etienne Brûlé received 100 pistols per year for his services. Douville likens these men to a kind of professional lawyer who could successfully "exploit their science" (226). The interpreters did indeed have the opportunity to profit from the fur trade as they traveled between government posts, although they were not supposed to use their influence for that purpose (Kellogg, 400-01). However, it would seem that they should have been entitled to use their linguistic skills to their fullest benefit. After all, these skills had been acquired at a severe personal cost. Their line of work required them to travel extensively and to spend the greater part of their time away from their families, especially during their most productive years. We must remember also that the tribes were nomadic, and the interpreters' work was wherever the tribes were to be found. This is the life that Perrot chose to live, and he was very esteemed for his abilities by not only the tribes with which he interacted, but with the authorities as well. I'd like to note that although Perrot and a few of his contemporaries became experts in indigenous languages, none of them tried to analyze the languages from a philological perspective. This job, which required diligent study, was to be the work of the missionaries instead (Douville, 227).

When one thinks of Nicolas Perrot, a Frenchman, speaking the languages of the Native Americans, it is inevitable that the question arises of how Perrot learned to speak them. "He early repaired to the Indian country, and made himself familiar with the Algonquian languages." That quotation, taken from the Wisconsin State Historical Collections, vol. V, was written in 1867 and is representative of the lack of detail contained in biographical sketches of Perrot. While most sources that I consulted made ambiguous references, such as the former, to Perrot's language abilities, Douville gives us a bit more in the way of specific information. He says that teaching and learning the languages would have been very difficult, because the languages are of an unteachable nature. It is possible that by "unteachable," Douville meant unteachable in any way that was to be easily understood by Europeans. The Indians just seemed to have a mindset unfamiliar to the Europeans when it came to verbal communication. The vocabulary of the languages is limited and many ideas are communicated monosyllabically. "[The interpreters'] principal talent is an exceptional auditory understanding, and this is the foremost quality that civil authorities have noted: to listen to and to recognize the intentions of these peoples" (226). The civil authorities were so impressed with the work of the interpreters because of the way in which they could listen to and communicate with the local tribes, and not just verbally, either. The greatest interpreters had an amazing gift in their ability to decipher the wishes and thoughts of the tribes not only through their language, but also through a deep understanding of their culture, body language, and thought processes. The civil authorities were dependent upon the interpreters to convey the text of their conversations with the tribes, and perhaps more importantly, the subtext as well. Kellogg states that "a skillful interpreter could often allay misunderstandings with the natives, without appeal to the officers. An evil-minded interpreter, bent upon mischief, could arouse feelings of distrust that might have disastrous consequences." She goes on to describe the very realistic possibility that a volatile situation could arise at any moment between French and Indians. As the French were always in the vast minority, the "whims and prejudices of the natives had seriously to be Indian uprising was as much feared by the French of Wisconsin as a slave insurrection was dreaded by the Southerners before the Civil War" (401).

How is it possible that Perrot was able to integrate so easily into the Indians' way of life in the midst of this cultural conflict? It has been speculated that this free life in open nature was very appealing to the French. As for the natives, they were flattered to see the Europeans dress like themselves. They were content to give things to a white man who demonstrated understanding of their lifestyle, and this friendly demeanor naturally led to integration. Of course, there were other ways to become accepted by the tribes. Sometimes the white men were made to perform certain commands, as a sort of test. If their performance was satisfactory, they were almost certain to be accepted by the tribal peoples (Douville, 224-25). A testament to the fact that Perrot was so cunning, and thus revered, in his relations with the natives lies in this tale, recounted by Kellogg:

...[Perrot] reached his post on Lake Pepin and found the little garrison he had left there safe and well. The Sioux had been restless and had childishly appropriated some of the French goods, which they refused to return. Perrot determined to teach them a lesson they would not soon forget. Pouring some brandy into a cup of water, he set it on fire, telling them that he would in like manner set fire to their lakes and marshes if they did not return the stolen goods. The trick was successful, and soon long lines of Indians were seen hurrying back to Fort St. Antoine with bundles and packages containing the articles they had coveted and willfully appropriated.

Kellogg also sums up Perrot's impression on the Indians with this: "By far the most fierce, the Outagami were certainly the most interesting of the Wisconsin aborigines. Their own impressions of the first white men they met were distinctly unfavorable, although in time Perrot gained so much influence over their councils that, had he been retained as French agent in the West, the Fox [tribal] wars would undoubtedly never have occurred."

Perrot's achievements went vastly unappreciated during his lifetime, although he is regarded as France's best representative among the Indian tribes of the Old Northwest. His knowledge of the languages of the country won him acclaim with many tribes during his lifetime, including the Potawotomis, the Monominees, the Foxes, the Miamis, the Mascoutens, the Hurons, the Ottawa and the Sioux, who honored him with the pipe of peace and rights and privileges enjoyed by their own chiefs. Perrot offered his services as government agent to the colony of New France and was simply indispensable as an interpreter between the government and the natives. The history of the Old Northwest, and especially relations between Indians and Europeans, would have been markedly different if not for the contributions of Nicolas Perrot.

* * *

To think much of this happened in Wisconsin may be mind-boggling to youngsters who find their native state to be the most boring place they can fathom. So, the next time you're driving somewhere with the kids, take a few moments to point out Indian and French place names. Tell them a story that intrigues them. One that has all the elements of an Indiana Jones adventure, only with a French and Indian twist. Tell them the story of Nicolas Perrot, and give them reason to be proud of their Wisconsin heritage.


1. Based on my research, I found it difficult to ascertain if there were specific reasons why Perrot decided to become a donné. However, if we look at the turns his life took after his time with the missions, it is tempting to conclude that Perrot was simply born to do the work he did..

2. Wisconsin was indeed known as the west during earlier times. Since the country has expanded westward, we've been designated as part of the Midwest. But don't fret--there is always the option of using the substantially more exotic Great Lakes region.

3. Translations from the French text are my own and occur wherever Douville is cited.


Douville, Raymond and Jacques-Donat Casanova. La Vie Quotidienne des Indiens du Canada à l'époque de la Colonialisation Française. Paris: Hachette, 1964.

Holmes, Fred L. Litt, D., editor. Wisconsin: Stability, Progress, Beauty , vol. I.

Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Régime in Wisconsin and the Northwest. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1968. Originally published 1925.

"Nicolas Perrot Was Most Successful of Emissaries Among Western Indians." Green Bay Press Gazette. 1934.

"Perrot, Nicolas." Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. II., p. 516-520.

"Perrot, Nicolas." Dictionary of American Biography, vol. XIV, p.481

Smith, Alice E. The History of Wisconsin, vol. I, "From Exploration to Statehood." Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973.

Wisconsin State Historical Collections, vol. V.: "Canadian Documents." Madison: Calkins & Webb, 1867.

page added August 2, 1999
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