Jean Nicolet: First European to Explore Wisconsin


Jean Nicolet was a Frenchman sent to the North American frontier in 1618. His primary assignment was to live among the Algonquin people and learn tribal customs and languages. Nicolet later made important geographical discoveries during an expedition westward.

Nicolet Goes to New France

Jean Nicolet was born in Cherbourg, a French seaport, in 1598. At age 20, he joined Samuel Champlain across the Atlantic Ocean in the frontier territory known as New France. Basically uneducated, he nonetheless was inquisitive about the vast land across the sea.

He became familiar with the Algonquins and other native tribes, living with them and learning their languages and ways. Soon, he was an invaluable interpreter between the French and the American Indians.

The French were interested in exploring westward up the St. Lawrence River for several reasons. The forests and waters of the region were rich in furry wildlife. Like other European countries, the French government was vying for land to settle. Missionaries went into the wilderness to convert American Indians to Christianity. Adventurers were drawn by reports (most of them exaggerated or false) of gold and other riches.

They also wondered if there was a direct route to the Pacific Ocean, which would make it unnecessary for trading ships to round the South American continent en route to the Orient. Nicolet was one of the lieutenants Champlain dispatched into the uncharted territories in quest of the fabled “Northwest Passage.”

Nicolet Probes the Lakes & Rivers

Nicolet started westward from the Quebec settlement in 1634, hopeful that he would be the one to find the short passage to the Orient. He was so hopeful, in fact, that he packed among his clothes a silk robe, thinking it would impress the Chinese when he encountered them.

While he never came close to the Pacific Ocean, he did travel as far as what is now Lake Michigan. Like others before him, he initially believed the Great Lakes were bays of a great western sea. Nicolet was disheartened when natives informed him all of the lakes to the west contained fresh, not saltwater.

The Legacy of Jean Nicolet

Nicolet is credited as the first European to explore modern-day Wisconsin. His canoe party landed near present-day Green Bay, navigated the Fox River and came to the Mississippi.

Although his name is not as well remembered as those of many European explorers of the 16th-17th centuries, he made more practical accomplishments than most. The communication and trade relations he established with area peoples were especially important. During his expedition of 1634, he negotiated a temporary treaty between two warring tribes.

The explorer drowned on the St. Lawrence River in 1642 when the canoe in which he was traveling capsized. A town in Quebec province is named after him.