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Wisconsin's Explorers.

The first white man to set foot on the soil of Wisconsin was Jean Nicolet, a young Frenchman of Norman birth who had come to New France, or Canada, in 1618, when both Quebec and Montreal were infant settlements. He was then a very young man of an intrepid and adventurous spirit, and the Governor, of New France, Samuel Champlain, saw in him the material for an able lieutenant in the work of advancing French interests in the New World. For that purpose Nicolet was sent to live among the Indians, to learn their language, manners, habits and customs, which he did very satisfactorily, residing among them for a number of years, during which time he suffered many hardships, especially from hunger. With such apprenticeship he was well fitted to become an explorer. About 1632 he returned to Quebec, where for two years he was employed as a clerk and interpreter.

Champlain was obsessed with the idea, prevalent at the time, of a short route westward to India and China, and being anxious to discover it, both for the honor and glory of France and his own advancement, sent Nicolet to prepare the way by making peace among the warring Indian tribes, and also instructed him to pene­trate as far as possible westward in the hope of discovering the long sought route. Accordingly, in July, 1634, furnished with a very imperfect map, Nicolet set out in a canoe from Montreal. He followed the Ottawa River westward, then up a branch of that river and by portage to Lake Nipissing, which he crossed and then went down the French River to Georgian Bay. After stopping there for a while with the Hurons, he proceeded westward along the coast of the bay until he reached the Sault Ste. Marie, the river or waterway connecting Lake Huron with Lake Superior. At the rapids he rested, then, without exploring Lake Superior, which was, in part, at least, depicted on his map, he turned southward, passed through the straits of Mackinac and coasted the northern shore of Lake Michigan until he reached the mouth of the Menominee River, which empties into Green Bay. There from an Algonkin tribe he heard about certain “Men of the Sea,” who were not far distant, and jumped to the conclusion that he had almost reached China. In order to properly impress the luxurious Orientals whom he expected to meet, he arrayed himself in a gorgeous robe, with which he had come provided for the express purpose, and pushed his way forward to the head of the bay. He must have been greatly disappointed to meet there only a band of Winnebago Indians, whose language he could not speak or understand. Making the best of the occa­sion, however, through his Indians followers he urged them to be at peace with the Hurons and to bring their furs to Montreal to exchange them for the white man’s commodities. The occasion was celebrated by a great feast, at which much wild game was consumed.

Nicolet then ascended the Fox River southward to Lake Winnebago and went beyond it to a village of the Mascoutin Indians which stood probably about where the city of Berlin, Green Lake County, does now. There he first heard of the Miss­issippi River, but not realizing the importance of the information, and having, besides, fulfilled the main purpose of his mission in making peace between the tribes, he went further southward, visited the Illinois, later returned to the Fox River and Green Bay, and thence to Montreal, which he reached in July, 1635, his journey having taken about a year. The discovery of the Mississippi was thus left to others.

The next white men who visited Wisconsin territory were Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law, Menard Grosseilliers, who, according to reasonable evidence, spent two years in the Green Bay country from 1654 to 1656. An account of their explorations, written by Radisson in very poor English, was found in a London shop about a century later. They visited the Ottawas, Mascoutins and Pottawattomies, and claimed to have made a canoe- voyage to the Mississippi, but the latter is very doubtful and it seems probable that they did not go much farther west than Nicolet. In the spring of 1659, however, they started on another journey, following the route taken by Nicolet as far as Sauli Sic. Marie. Thence they pro­ceeded west and discovered Lake Superior. On Chequamegon Bay they built a small fort and entered into friendly relations with the Hurons, who took them to their village, five days’ journey, and whom they aided in the winter’s hunt; but a deep snow, which, however, was so light that it would not bear the weight of snowshoes, prevented further hunting and a period of famine set in which resulted in 500 or more Indians dying of starvation, a fate which the two French explorers nearly shared, they being obliged to eat the bark of trees and ground bones until 

the snow hardened and they were able to secure a small supply of game. After some wanderings in the Sioux country, between the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, they returned to Chequamegon Bay, and in August, 1660 to Montreal, bringing with them” above 300 robes of castor” (beaver), which the governor of New France, who had not favored their expedition, confiscated. This act so embittered them that they offered their services to the English to open up the fur trade in the Hudson Bay territory, and subsequently they alternately worked for France and England, according to which country would give them the most pay. It was owing to the representations of Radisson that the Hudson Bay Company, was granted a charter by Charles II, whereby the French lost the rich fur trade of that vast, region.

In the meanwhile the first white missionary in Wisconsin had lost his life. Father Rene Menard, a Jesuit, in 1660 came to the Northwest with a returning party of trading Indians. They abandoned him on the shores of Keweenaw Bay, and after passing a wretched winter, he started with one companion to visit the Huron fugitives, formerly members of the Ontario mission, then thought to be in hiding on the headwaters of Black River. While descending the Wisconsin in a tiny craft, the reverend father stepped aside at some one of its upper portages and was lost in the forest. Whether he was slain by beast or Indian, or perished of starvation, is not absolutely known, but as his cassock and kettle were found later in the lodge of a Sioux, it is probable that he was murdered.

Father Claude Allouez was sent in 1665 to take up the work of Father Menard. He was a man of equal zeal and devotion and cheerfully suffered many hardships in his efforts to convert the Indians. At the head of Chequamegon Bay, probably between the present sites of Ashland and Washbum, he built a rude bark chapel which was the first house of Christian worship erected in Wisconsin, and for two years he instructed large bands of Indians from all the Wisconsin region, and even from Illinois. In 1669 Father Allouez transferred his ministrations to the neighborhood of Green Bay, where he founded missions among the Menominee, Pottawatomi and Sauk of the Bay shore, the Foxes on the Wolf, and the Miami, Mascouten and Kickapoo of the upper Fox valley. The first permanent mission in Wisconsin was the mission of St. Francis Xavier, established in 1671, at the De Pere Rapids of Fox River, by Allouez and his fellow workers. Notable among the traders of those days was Nicholas Perrot who in 1665 began a career of exploration and discovery in Wisconsin that lasted over 30 years. In 1671 the king of France staged a pageant on the far shore of Sault Ste. Marie, at which his representative, Simon Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, took possession of all the western country for the French sovereignty. Nicholas Perrot was sent in advance to notify the Wisconsin tribesmen and persuade them to send chiefs as representative: on this great occasion. With wondering awe the simple savages watched the im­pressive ceremony, wherein priests and warriors chanted the praise both God and of the great king, Louis XIV, and declared the latter’s benevolence in annexing the Indian’s country to his own domain. All unwillingly they consented to an acknowledgment that made then henceforth subjects of a foreign monarch. Some years afterward Perrot was sent as governor-general of the new French territory west of Lake Michigan. He built therein a number of French posts, most of them upon the Mississippi. At Fort St. Antoine, on Lake Pepin, in 1689, Perrot took possession for France of the Sioux territory lying along the upper waters of North America’s greatest river. He was likewise the first white man to explore the lead mines of southern Wisconsin. So long as he ruled in the West the French trade and influence were supreme and the Indians of Wisconsin were his docile instru­ments.

Wisconsin’s great, waterway to the Mississippi River was first traversed in 1673 by Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette. Seven years later Daniel Greysolon Duluth, who had previously threaded the upper portage from Lake Superior to the Mississippi, came eastward by the Fox-Wisconsin route from the Sioux country. By these two voyages connection was established between Wis­consin’s portage and both the lower and upper Mississippi. 

Rapid changes in the Indian geography of Wisconsin occurred during the last 20 years of the seventeenth century. The population that had massed along the Fox-Wisconsin waterway was pressing upon the food supply. Moreover, in 1680, Robert Cavelier de La Salle took possession of the Illinois river valley and invited the Wisconsin Indians to remove thither for a permanent home. The Miami, Mascouten and Kickapoo acceded to his request; the Potawatomi likewise moved south along the shore of Lake Michigan; the Foxes ventured from Wolf River the river now called by their name. The Menominee surrounded Green Bay, Sauk and Foxes controlled the Fox-Wisconsin waterway, the Winnebago occupied the upper Rock River. The Huron and Ottawa left northern Wisconsin for homes on the straits of Mackinac, and all the southern shore of Lake Superior was abandoned to the Chippewa, who at intervals continued their hereditary wars upon the Sioux of the St. Croix and upper Mississippi valleys.

Very little was known of the Wisconsin territory by the people of the English colonies on the Atlantic coast, or by any save the French, until 1778, when Capt. Jonalhan Carver, of Connecticut, published his book of travels through certain parts of the region, which he had made some ten to twelve years before. His book aroused considerable interest. As a trader, in September, 1766, he had visited the Green Bay settlement, then called Fort Edward Augustus, where there were a few French families, the Langlade family among the number. He also visited a large Winnebago town at the entrance of Lake Winnebago, later passed over the Fox-Wisconsin trail to Prairie du Chien, stopping on the way at a large town of the Sacs, near the site of Prairie du Sac, also village of the Foxes, near the present site of Muscoda, finally reaching the mouth of the Wisconsin Oct. 15. On an exploring expedition from that place he went up the Mississippi to Lake Pepin and examined the mounds of that region. His subsequent explorations in Minnesota need not be given space here, except to say that he spent some months among the Sioux, and after his return to civilization claimed that he had been given a grant by them of a vast territory of some 14,000 square miles in extent, east and west of the Mississippi River, and that subsequently his descendants attempted to establish claims on it, which, however, were not allowed by Congress. 

Jones, George O., Norman S. McVean, and others, comp. History of Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties Wisconsin (15pt) Minneapolis, MN: H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1924. Transcribed by Jack L. Winegar.

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Note; Jack Rutherford of the Township of Presque Isle was one of the best known hunters and trappers of northern Wisconsin.

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