Friday, October 17, 2014


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

When I've read about our early history, whether as a boy or more recently, my fascination with the earliest European explorers was kindled.  A part of that, I think, is because my family occasionally stopped on our way to Green Bay at the roadside memorial to Jean Nicolet along highway 57, near Dykesville.  I imagined Nicolet stepping ashore, his arms aloft, firing his pistols as I had seen in a painting reproduction.

French explorer Nicolet was in 1634 supposedly the first white man to visit Green Bay waters and come ashore, and that statue and painting were strongly etched in my mind.  Dressed in a splendid red robe with what appears to be gold applique, his show of fire power as depicted by the artist caused natives to cower in fear and uncertainty, and listen in awe to his message of greetings.  Nicolet's pistol attention-getter would have preceded the message that these inhabitants were now subjects of New France.  Then Nicolet, or a priest traveling in his company, would very likely have baptized the heathens into membership in the Roman Catholic Church.

Memorial to Nicolet that was erected
along Highway 57 near Red Banks,
near what is now near the town
of Dykesville.

Over the years, a Wisconsin bank, a high school (perhaps more than one), a Wisconsin National Forest, the Rhinelander Technical College, a restaurant and perhaps many, many roads … were named for this explorer as a way of honoring his visit, Wisconsin's earliest European connection.

Never did information contradict this general view of Nicolet's  appearance along the shores of Green Bay…until now.

Ronald J. Mason, Lawrence University, carefully points out corrections to the record in his article "Where Nicolet and the Winnebagoes First Met," published in The Wisconsin Archeologist (2014, 95(1):65-74.  Mason, a Professor Emeritus in Anthropology and a name familiar to Rock Island and Great Lakes anthropology, uses scholarly language and exacting logic, to be expected.  To paraphrase his article here will seem incomplete and lacking in respect for the supporting statements Mason makes.  Mason is most careful to close loopholes in his challenge to the existing notions of Nicolet's journey.

However, condense we must, and using his information we begin with his opening statement, one that sets the stage for a convincing argument:

 The surviving descriptions of Nicolet's 1634 or 1634-1635 exploration west of Lake Huron were not written by the explorer himself, but by the contemporary Jesuit fathers Paul Le Jeune and Barthelemy Vimont in subsequently edited segments in published collections of extracts from the annual reports of the Jesuit mission in Canada.  These substitutes have thereby become the definitive sources on Nicolet's travels.

A number of years passed, according to scholars, between the actual 1634 exploration and the written compilation of that accomplishment, based, it is presumed, on a journal of Nicolet's that might have "later been lost."  What survived may have been "delivered orally or in writing."  Mason cautions about the sources:  "However that many (years) have been, the record of where the explorer actually had gone has survived only indirectly and partially, thus requiring a measure of diffidence not always exercised by scholars appealing to it in their own reconstructions of history."

The descriptions of location that survived, then, "apart from the few snags in translating seventieth-century French" of which Mason gives examples, are a much closer fit with the rapids of Sault Sainte Marie, which is a major river that opens up to "the little lake," possibly today's Whitefish Bay, and then to a "second fresh water sea," most likely Lake Superior.   Information about a such large inland sea would have come from the earlier explorations of Champlain.  Mason writes, such "knowledge doubtless communicated to Nicolet before his departure, of the existence of such a big, even if not yet formally named, lake beyond Sault Ste. Marie…depicted on both the 1616 and 1632 Champlain maps."   Certainly Nicolet would have taken advantage of all prior knowledge before setting out on his journey.

One "snag" that may have thrown off earlier scholars, Mason acknowledges, was the notion that Nicolet met with members of the Menominee and Winnebago tribes.  Formerly scholars believed this would eliminate Lake Superior, but not the shores of Green Bay which was traditionally where scholars believed those people called home.  Mason takes pains to describe the various tribes inhabiting this area, their various native names, and those names given by Nicolet (who was fluent in Algonquin dialect).  It is also possible, Mason thinks, that one named native group could have been confused with another, and also that Nicolet may have repeated names he overheard that were commonly used by those he met to describe "diverse foreign groups" of natives.

Mason also points out hat natives may not have been closely associated with just one geographic area, as we might assign them today, or that this area may have changed over time.   We think of Lake Winnebago today as being the traditional home of the Winnebago people (why else the name?) but naming on a U. S. map shouldn't exclude the possibility that members of this tribe, or the entire tribe for that matter, might have traveled or lived elsewhere, well beyond a location that we may today consider their geographic or tribal boundaries.  Purposeful relocation (or displacement forced by other tribes), or trading opportunities with other tribes, or seeking a more plentiful food supply might also have been real reasons for moving about.

Mason writes:

This does not mean that Lake Superior was the "homeland" of the Winnebagoes and that they did not inhabit other areas instead or as well.  It simply and importantly means that Nicolet met Winnebagoes in 1634 on the shore of Lake Superior and not on Green Bay or Lake Michigan."

A part of his argument Mason bases on his extensive reading and study of the various ethnic cultures of the Great Lakes. He then cites the description of Father Claude Allouez, who wrote "some thirty years after Nicolet, about the cosmopolitan habits he witnessed on Lake Superior":

The lake is, furthermore, the resort of twelve or fifteen distinct nations coming, some from the north, others from the south, and still others from the west;  and they all betake themselves either to the best parts of the shore for fishing, or to the islands, which are scattered in great numbers all over the lake.  These peoples' motives in repairing hither is partly to obtain food by fishing, and partly to transact their petty trading with one another when they meet.

The geography of his travels as described by Nicolet (and compiled perhaps years later by his transcribers) depicted "a great river."   Mason points out that neither the Fox, Menominee or any other Green Bay river meets the true test of a "great river." But, the St. Mary's River that connects Lake Huron with Lake Superior would so qualify.   Had Nicolet found Green Bay's Fox River, its mouth near the present city of Green Bay, Mason believes Nicolet would surely have been informed by natives of the relatively easy route up the Fox, and the short portage to the Wisconsin which flows to the Mississippi River.

Readers may say, "What difference does it make, after all?"

It's unlikely that an institution in northeastern Wisconsin will change its name in light of new scholarship from Nicolet to something else, especially when that name was based on an historic event that for many years has been unassailable.

But, Nicolet's expedition is a record unknowingly embellished through the years by honest people who repeated mistaken assumptions.

Those assumptions have led, among other things, to the erection of a bronze statue and an accompanying historical plaque (as I remember these were made possible, in part, through funding by penny donations from school children).  A consideration by state highway officials to move or raze this monument was challenged by newspaper readers before the highway underwent reconstruction a few years back.  I believe it can still be seen from the highway, if you look carefully as you drive by at 65 mph.

And then there are the historic oil paintings that became popular and lasting records of Nicolet's exploits, great teaching tools to tell "the Wisconsin story." But, what if they depict the wrong geographic location?  One such painting, by Hugo Ballin, hangs in the Governor's Reception Room of the State Capitol in Madison.  A similar painting, in which Nicolet is again displaying his authority with raised pistols on behalf of France, was commissioned in 1904 by then Wisconsin Historical Society President, Robert McCormick, with artist Edwin Deming.

Such well-intended efforts perpetuate the erroneous assumptions made over generations, dramatizing errors made by earlier scholars.  For his research and his boldness, it may be Mason who deserves a monument!

 -  Dick Purinton

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