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In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

Jean Nicolet, French Diplomat to Wisconsin’s First Nations

Wisconsin Historical Society

Nicolet is a familiar name in the Northwoods. There are many small businesses that carry the name, a college, and perhaps most important, a National Forest.  Most Northwoods residents have heard of Jean Nicolet, but how many know who he really was? 

Jean Nicolet is a celebrated individual in Wisconsin history and is credited as the first European to set foot in what is today the state of Wisconsin.  Schoolchildren are familiar with the famous 1907 Edwin Willard Deming painting depicting Nicolet’s first landing near what is today Green Bay, and many have visited Nicolet’s statue, erected in 1950 near Red Banks where it is said that he landed.

The traditional story goes that Jean Nicolet was an explorer sent west by Samuel de Champlain to find a route to China through the Great Lakes.  Turning south into Lake Michigan, he landed near Red Banks just northeast of Green Bay.  Making shore at a Ho Chunk village, he dressed in an elaborate Chinese robe, held two pistols in the air, and fired them to celebrate his arrival.

Most of that traditional story is based on sketchy evidence or bad translations of a four-page 17th century French Jesuit document.  While the traditional story is largely inaccurate, the true story is no less remarkable.

Jean Nicolet was born in the late 1590s in France.  His father was a friend to Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec and New France.  In 1619, about the time that Nicolet turned twenty, Champlain brought him to North America and gave him a position as diplomat and interpreter to Canada’s First Nations.  Nicolet spent the next ten years living among the Indigenous peoples of Quebec.  He studied hard and became fluent both in Algonquin and Iroquoian languages.

During this time, the French fur trade was expanding westward across the Great Lakes.  This rapid economic expansion led to fighting amongst First Nations over who would control the fur trade.  This was the beginning of the century-long Beaver Wars, and word reached the French colony of a powerful tribe trying to control the commerce in the western edge of the trade territory.  These were the Ho-Chunk.

Both Champlain and Nicolet had been up and down the lakes and had talked to enough Native leaders to know that there was no route to the Pacific through the Great Lakes.  Therefore, when Champlain sent Nicolet west in 1634 it was not as an explorer looking for a mythical route to China or to add territory; rather, it was as a diplomat seeking to open trade relations with the First Nations of Wisconsin.

At this point the story gets controversial.  The best evidence right now indicates that Nicolet landed at a Menominee village near what is today Marinette rather than Red Banks.  The Ho-Chunk shared control over Green Bay, but their population center was further south.  Nicolet did not dress up in a Chinese-style gown either.  What he had was a silken cape that was common among Europeans of Nicolet’s social class.  Furthermore, Nicolet did not fire his pistols into the air as black powder wheellocks did not work that way.

Jean Nicolet was an accomplished diplomat who opened relations with the First Nations of Wisconsin.  Despite his many adventures on the Great Lakes, Nicolet never learned to swim and drowned when his boat capsized in the St. Lawrence in 1642.

In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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