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"History of Eau Claire County Wisconsin, 1914, Past and Present"


Chapter 2

The Coming of the Whites

by Miss A. E. Kidder

-As transcribed from pages 11 - 17


In 1618, Jean Nicolet, son of a Parisian mail carrier, came from Cherbourg, Normandy, to Place Royale, now Montreal, Canada.  He possessed sterling character, abounding energy and great religious enthusiasm.  Champlain, the restless navigator, had passed fifteen strenuous years in exploring the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, Lake Huron and Hudson Bay.  He now sent the newcomer to stay among, the Algonquins of the Isle Des Allumetles on the Ottawa river to learn their language and customs and share their hardships, and then to dwell with the Nipissings until 1633. Then Champlain, governor of Canada recalled him and made him commissary and Indian interpreter to the the one hundred associates, with Quebec as his residence. He had now served his apprenticeship and later was selected by Champlain to make a journey to the Winnebagoes and to solve the problem of a near route to China. The upper Mississippi had not been discovered, nothing was known of a vast land toward the west, and it was believed that a few days' journey would reach China. This was in July, 1634. Seven Hurons accompanied him, and in a birchbark canoe they passed along the northern shore of Lake Huron and at Sault St. Marie set foot on land which is now part of Michigan, and discovered the lake of that name.  Steering his canoe along the northern shore of Green Bay, he thought he had reached China. This was about fourteen years later than the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Nicolet had met several Indian tribes, and now the Menomonies at the mouth of the Menomonie river. He was now on Wisconsin soil, its discoverer, and the first white man there. One of his Hurons had been sent forward to announce his coming as a mission of peace to the supposed celestials. Arrayed in their gorgeous mandarin robe, he advanced to meet the crowd with a pistol in each hand which he fired into the air one after the other. The chiefs called him "Thunder Beaver."  Four thousand chiefs of different tribes assembled in council, each chief giving a feast at which Nicolet explained the benefits to be gained by their trading with the French colony at Quebec. After a rest, he journeyed through regions of wild rice marshes until he reached the Mascoutins.  Had he but known it, a journey of three days would have taken him to the Wisconsin river and thence he could have drifted down to the "Great Water." But he proceeded southward towards the Illinois country and thus missed discovering the upper Mississippi, which Joliet found thirty-nine years later. After a visit among the Illinois and kindred tribes, Nicolet returned to the Green Bay country, and when spring made canoeing possible, to Montreal. Six months later the great Champlain "Father of New France" died. Troubles among the Indians in Canada kept his successors from following up these researches in the West, but the gallant Nicolet had "blazed the path" which Radisson was to follow in twenty-five years.

The death of Nicolet is a pathetic story. After his return to Canada, he spent much of his time in ministering to the sick and in official duties at Three Rivers and Quebec, where he served as commissary and interpreter, being greatly beloved by Frenchmen and Indians. One evening word was brought that Algonquins were torturing an Indian prisoner. To prevent this, he entered a launch to go to the place with several companions. A tempest upset the frail boat, the men clung to it till one by one they were torn from it by the waves. As Nicolet was about to be swept away, he called to his companion, "I'm going to God. I commend to you my wife and daughter." In 1660 two explorers, Radisson and Grosseilliers, returned to Montreal with the tale of their journey to the Lake Superior region. They had also visited the head waters of the Black river in Wisconsin, and the Huron village on the head waters of what apparently was the Chippewa river. In their second voyage on the shore of Chequamegon Bay, they constructed the first habitation ever built by white men in Wisconsin. A little fort of stakes surrounded by a cord on which were "tyed small bells (wch weare senteryes)." It is believed that the two Frenchmen wintered in the neighborhood of Milwaukee and possibly Chicago in 1658 and '59. After many adventures among the Sioux and at Hudson's bay, they returned to Montreal. Wavering in allegiance between the French and English as best suited their interests, they finally made England their home and died in that country. The account of the perilous journeys of these adventurous men has been gathered from a manuscript written by Radisson when he was in England. This has a curious history.  It was not written for publication, but to interest King Charles in the schemes of these renegade Frenchmen to help the English wrest the Hudson Bay country from French control.  They did interest Clint Rupert, and the founding of the Hudson Bay Company was the result.

This journal of Radisson's came into the possession of Samuel Pepys, author of the well known "Pepys Diary," who was secretary of the admiralty.  After his death in 1703, many of his valuable collections were sadly neglected.  Some went into waste paper baskets, some into London shops, and in one of these in 1750 this journal was picked up by a man who recognized its value and placed it in a British library.  There it slumbered until 1885 when the Prince Society of Boston published it in a limited edition.  Only two copies are owned in Wisconsin.

Next came the reign of the forest ranger, the "Coureur de bois."  New France held a host of soldiers for fortune, younger sons of the nobility and disbanded soldiers, who, with no ties to bind them to domestic hearthstones, turned the prows of their birchbark canoes westward, and with utter disregard of hazards that threatened and hardships that must be endured, penetrated to the most remote regions of the lake country.  For a century and a half the forest ranger and the fur trader were the most potent factors in the discoveries that preceded settlement.  Unlike the sturdy Saxon, whose meeting with the aborigines meant the survival of the fittest, the easy-going Frenchmen did not seek to crowd the Indian from his place.  Instead, he adapted himself with the customs and habits of the red man, and became half Indian himself, danced with the braves, smoked the calumet at the councils of the tribe, or wooed and won the dusky maidens of the woods.

After a time, the French authorities tried to suppress these lawless rangers of the woods, deeming their barter for furs an infringement on the rights of the government.  Severe repressive measures did not deter the unlicensed traffic, and then the authorities tried to regulate it by stipulating how many canoes would be permitted to engage in it.  There were three men to each canoe.  Despite their disregard of law, the rangers proved of great service to the government, for wherever they went, they made friends of the Indian.  This friendship for the French remained steadfast in the case of every Algonquin tribe but one - the Fox Indians of Wisconsin.  The lawless coureur de bois thus became the advance guard who spread for France the great arteries of trade in the western country.  Of this company of coureurs de bois whose favorite abiding place was Wisconsin, none became as famous as Nicholas Perrot. The oldest memorial in Wisconsin today of the white man's occupation here is a soleil wrought in silver and presented by Perrot to the Jesuit mission at Green Bay in 1686. This ancient relic was unearthed by workmen ninety-five years ago while digging a foundation, and is now in the possession of the Wisconsin Historical Society at Madison. Long before the thought of giving to the mission on the Fox this Catholic emblem, Perrot had become familiar with the region around Green Bay. In his earlier years, he attached himself to the wandering missionaries as a hunter to provide for their wants while they were threading the woods in search of converts. He was twenty-four years old when in 1665 he made the acquaintance of the Wisconsin Indians and obtained an extraordinary influence over them. It was of the greatest importance to French interests that the western Indians should remain at peace with each other, and the authorities at Montreal intrusted to Perrot the delicate role of peacemaker. He found in what is now northwestern Wisconsin "a race unsteady as aspens, and fierce as 'wild-cats; full of mutual jealousies, without rulers and without laws." Perrot succeeded well in pacifying the unruly nomads of forest and prairie. He built a number of rude stockades or forts in Wisconsin. One was Fort St. Antoine on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Pepin, traces of which fort were visible four decades ago; another was near the present site of Trempeleau where but a few years since was discovered the hearth and fireplace that he had built two hundred years before.  He also built a fort near the lead mines which he discovered while traveling among the tribes to prevent an alliance with the Iroquois who were friendly to the English. When in 1671 the French commander St. Lusson formally took possession of the entire western country in the name of "Louis XIV," the magnificent, fourteen tribes were represented, gathered hither by Perrot at Sault Ste Marie. The ceremony was elaborate; a huge wooden cross was surrounded by the splendidly dressed officers and their soldiers, and led by the black-gowned Jesuit priests of the company, the uncovered Frenchmen chanted the Seventh Century hymn, beginning thus: "Vexilla Regis Proderunt Fulget crucis mysterium," etc. As the sound of their hoarse voices died away, St. Lusson advanced to a post erected near the cross and as the royal arms of France engraved on a tablet of lead Were nailed thereon, he lifted a sod, bared his sword and dramatically took possession of the soil in the name of the Grand Monarque, Louis XIV, styled "The Magnificent." St. Lusson, in taking possession, claimed for the king of France "Lakes Huron and Superior, the Island of Manitoulin and all countries, rivers, lakes and streams contiguous and adjacent thereto; both those which have been discovered and those which may be discovered hereafter in all their length and breadth, bounded on the one side by the seas of the North and of the West, and on the other by the South sea."  "Long live the king," came from the brazen throats of the soldiers as the ceremony was concluded, and the primitive savages howled in sympathy.  Hardly had St. Lusson's gorgeous pageant come to a conclusion, when the Indians celebrated on their own account by stealing the royal arms.  When Rene Menard, a Jesuit missionary, came to the wilds of Wisconsin in 1660, he was already an old man, and his life was soon sacrificed with hardships and the brutalities of the Indians.  A band of Indians more compassionate than those among whom he had first journeyed took him to their wintering station at Keweenaw bay on the south shore, where he started a mission.  Later he heard of distant pagan tribes to be brought to Christianity, and undertook the journey to find them in July, 1661, with a French companion and a party of Indians.  Before long, the latter brutally abandoned the two Frenchmen.  Father Menard became lost while following his companions, and the cause of his death remains a mystery, though his cassock and kettle were found later in an Indian lodge.  In 1665, Piere Claude Allouez was appointed to the Ottawa mission in Menard's place.  He went to the village of the Chippewas at Chequamigon, selected a site and built a wigwam of bark.  This was the first mission established in Wisconsin and was also a trading post.  Here Allouez remained four years.  In 1670, having been joined by two other priests, they visited Green Bay and established the mission of St. Xavier.  Father Marquette who succeeded Allouez at Chequamigon, also found it a hard field.  The Indians were a hostile tribe; battles were frequent, and when defeated tribes sought refuge on the Island of Michilimackinac" Marquette accompanied them and founded the mission of St. Ignace on the opposite main land.  Two years later he went with Joliet on his expedition to the Mississippi.

Louis Hennepin and his companions appear to have been the first white men to traverse the Chippewa river from its mouth northward. This was in 1680. Jonathan Carver followed him. Jonathan Carver was a Connecticut soldier, energetic and enterprising, who purposed to journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific, making a correct map and tell the truth about the great interior country. He was well fitted for his task by early training along the Indian frontier of New England. Fitting himself out as a trader, he reached Green Bay in September, 1766. A few days later, ascending the Fox river, he reached the great town of the Winnebagoes. An Indian queen named "Glory of the Morning" ruled the village, and Captain Carver enjoyed her hospitality for several days. "She was an ancient woman, small in stature and not much distinguished by her dress from the woman who attended her," says Captain Carver. In departing from her village, he made the queen suitable presents and received her blessing in return. He then proceeded along the Fox to the portage, and thence down the "Ouisconsin," as he spelled it. The great fields of wild rice that almost choked the former stream, and the myriads of wild fowl that fed on the succulent grain, attracted his notice. "This river is the greatest resort of wild fowl of every kind that I ever saw in the whole course of my travels," he wrote. "Frequently the sun would be obscured by them for some minutes together. Deer and bear are very numerous." From the time he left Green Bay until his canoe was beached at Prairie du Chien, Captain Carver had seen no trace of white men. Well-built Indian towns greeted his view as he floated down the Wisconsin, but at Prairie du Chien he found the most notable town. "It is a large town and contains about 300 families," he wrote. "The houses are well built after the Indian manner and situated on a rich soil from which they raise every necessary of life in abundance. This town is a great mart where all the adjacent tribes, and even those from the most remote branches of the Mississippi, annually assemble about the latter end of May, bringing furs to dispose of to the traders, but it is not always that they conclude the sale here; this is determined by a council of the chiefs who consult whether it would be more conducive to their interests to sell their goods at this place or carry them on to Louisiana, or Michilimackinac." It has been claimed for Carver that he was the first traveler who made known to the people of Europe the existence of the ancient mounds found in the Mississippi valley, and long believed to have been the work of an extinct people. Carver spent the winter among the Sioux and explored Minnesota to a considerable extent. They told him much about the country to the west, of the great river that emptied into the Pacific, of the" Shining Mountain" within whose bowels could be found precious metals, and much else that was new and wonderful. In their great council cave, they gave to him and to his descendants forever a great tract of land about fourteen thousand square miles in area, embracing the whole of the northwestern part of Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. At least this gift was afterward made the basis for the famous Carver claim. The United States Congress after long investigation and consideration rejected the claim. Despite this action, many persons were duped into purchasing land on the strength of Carver's Indian deeds. After spending some time in the Lake Superior region, Carver returned to Michilimackinac. In his little birchbark canoe he had made a journey of nearly twelve hundred miles. He returned to Boston in 1768 and thence to England. Ill luck pursued him there, his colonizing schemes collapsed, and in the great city of London this noted traveler died of starvation.

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