This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz tells us how the town of St. Germain got its name.
The town of St. Germain in Vilas County today is a popular tourist destination, and many people go there to see the statue of Chief St. Germaine. St. Germain, however, is French. So where did the name come from?
In the early 17th century, Samuel de Champlain, governor of New France, sent explorers into the Great Lakes looking for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. They reached the regions of northern Wisconsin but never found a water route to the Pacific. What they did find was that northern Wisconsin was a rich source of furs. Fur pelts, particularly beaver pelts, were in high demand in Europe at the time, and roughly around 1660 French fur traders built a small fort at Chequamegon Bay.
The French were pushing west across the Great Lakes in search of furs because most of the beaver had already been trapped out of their base in Quebec. However, this westward push placed the French in direct conflict with both the Iroquois Confederacy and the Dutch. Since the 1620s, Dutch merchants had traveled up the Hudson River from New Amsterdam to trade firearms and other goods to the Iroquois in exchange for furs. Iroquois trappers competed with the French for furs along the St. Lawrence River. As beaver became increasingly difficult to find in the east, both Iroquois and French pushed west across the Great Lakes in an effort to claim prime hunting grounds. By the 1640s this competition broke out into the military conflict known as the Beaver Wars. The Beaver Wars were among the most brutal conflicts of colonial North America, and by the time the fighting ended in 1698 many Algonquin-speaking refugees had been forced out of the eastern Great Lakes and into Wisconsin.
The war established the Iroquois as middlemen between the French and English colonies. Meanwhile, the French had to abandon their outposts in Wisconsin. One French soldier, Jean Francois St. Germaine, had married an indigenous woman, and rather than abandon his family, he deserted to remain in Wisconsin. It was his descendants who passed the name St. Germaine into the Ojibwe nation. Big St. Germain Lake is named for the family, and when civic leaders of the nearby town of Farmington were looking for ways to attract tourist dollars, they changed the name of their town first to Lakewood, and then in 1930 to the more romantic sounding St. Germain.
This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear.
A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.