Outagamie County, Wisconsin
History and Genealogy
|Jean Nicolet, 1634 | Voyages of Radisson | Fr. Rene Menard, S.J. | Nicholas Perrot | Charles de Langlade | Dominic Du Charme | Augustin Grignon's Recollections | Grignon Mansion | Early French Residents of Outagamie County||
The French Era in Wisconsin
The French arrived in North America not long after Columbus’ famous voyage of 1492. They came not to explore but rather to fish. Fishermen from the western coast of France had discovered that the Grand Banks, a shallow part of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, were some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Markets in Normandy and Brittany were selling cod caught in those far off waters as early as 1506.
In 1534 Jacques Cartier sailed to America on a voyage of discovery. He hoped to locate a northwest passage through America to the Far East. On his first expedition, he sailed to Newfoundland and explored the gulf of the St. Lawrence River. When he returned to France later that year, he brought with him two Native Americans, whom he had either kidnapped or convinced to come aboard his ship. After they had learned to speak French, they told Cartier about a great river where they lived. Cartier thought that this might be the northwest passage that he was looking for. He returned the next year, and with help from his Native American guides found the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. He sailed up the river to the site of the present day city of Quebec. He continued upstream until he reached a spot that the natives called Hochelaga, where there was a large village of the Huron people. This was the place where the city of Montreal would one day be built. Cartier tried to go farther up the river, but found rapids which he could not pass through with his ship. Disappointed in his hopes of finding the northwest passage, Cartier spent the winter in Canada. Shortly before he returned to France in 1536, he planted a cross at Quebec and claimed the entire valley of the St. Lawrence River for France.
The next great French explorer to come to the New World was Samuel de Champlain. Champlain sailed to the St. Lawrence River in the year 1608 and founded the first permanent settlement at Quebec. Ten years later in 1618, a promising young Frenchman named Jean Nicolet came to the colony of New France. Nicolet was a strong young man with a gift for learning languages. Champlain sent him to live with the Native American tribes so that he could learn to communicate with them. Nicolet lived for over ten years with several Algonquin speaking tribes so that he could learn their language, and customs.
The lifeblood of the small colony of New France was the fur trade. Every summer, tribes of Native Americans, that lived near the Great Lakes to the west, came down the river to trade their furs to the Frenchmen at Quebec. These furs were very valuable and could be sold for huge profits in France. From these tribes, Champlain heard of a powerful nation called, “the people of the sea.” Champlain thought that this tribe might be living near an ocean. Like Cartier before him, Champlain hoped to find a northwest passage to the Far East. In 1634, he sent Jean Nicolet to meet this unknown tribe of Native Americans. Nicolet set out in a large birch bark canoe to meet the people of the sea. He and his seven companions paddled through the Great Lakes until they reached a large bay on the western shore of Lake Michigan. His Native American guides told him that this was where the nation he was seeking could be found. The bay that Nicolet had discovered was Green Bay. He sailed southward down the coast until he reached a large village of the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people. They were the people of the sea that Champlain had heard about. Nicolet made peace between the Ho-Chunk and the Huron nation who were allies and trading partners with the French. He paddled up the river that emptied into the bay from the south. This was the Fox River that we know today. Just how far up the Fox River Nicolet traveled is unknown, although historians speculate that he may have gone as far the present day site of the city of Neenah.
For many years after Nicolet returned to Quebec, no Frenchmen came to Wisconsin. Fierce wars raged in the east between the French and the Iroquois nation. The Iroquois were enemies of the French who traded for guns with the Dutch merchants of New Amsterdam. Armed with these powerful weapons, the Iroquois attacked the French and their Native American allies, the Hurons. This closed the water route from Quebec to Green Bay and the Fox River Valley. Many tribes such as the Potawatomie, the Outagamie (Fox), the Hurons, and the Ottawa fled to Wisconsin to escape the Iroquois. It was not until the 1650’s that French traders once again reached Wisconsin.
The next Frenchman to leave a record of his visit to Wisconsin was a fur trader named Pierre Esprit Radisson. He came to trade with the tribes of Wisconsin during the 1650’s. Many years later, Radisson wrote a memoir of his travels through Wisconsin. In his book, Radisson said that he spent the winter of 1658-9 among the Potawatomie Tribe at Green Bay. The next year, Radisson and his brother-in-law, Medart Groseilliers, traveled throughout the rivers of Wisconsin. Just how far these two French traders traveled is unknown, but some historians believe that they may have reached the Mississippi River.
In 1660 a Jesuit missionary priest named Father Menard came to the Lake Superior shore of Wisconsin Father Menard was 56 years old at the time, and he became sick soon after his arrival. In 1661 Father Menard set out on a trip from his mission on Chequamegon Bay to a winter village of Native Americans in northern Wisconsin. Father Menard never reached the camp. While his guide, a French Voyageur named L’Esperance, paddled their canoe through a rapids on an unknown river, Father Menard decided to walk through the forest and meet him in the calm water below. Father Menard never reached that place. He either became lost in the woods and perished or was killed by hostile Native American tribes.
In 1665 another Jesuit missionary by the name of Father Claude Allouez came to Wisconsin. Like Father Menard before him, Father Allouez hoped to instruct and baptize the Native American people in the Christian faith. For four years, Fr. Allouez lived at the same mission on Chequamegon Bay where Fr. Menard had lived. In the fall of 1669, he and Father Claude Dablon set out for Green Bay. They were accompanied by two canoes of the Potawatomie people. At the present day site of the city of De Pere, they built a Mission where they and their fellow missionaries could live. The following spring Fr. Allouez traveled up the Fox River far into Wisconsin. He certainly made it to Lake Winnebago and continued through Lake Poygan to the upper Fox and the Wolf Rivers.
The mission at De Pere, which Father Allouez founded in 1669, continued to operate for many years afterwards. The explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette stopped there in the year 1673. The intendant of the colony of New France, Jean Talon, had commissioned Joliet to discover the great river of the west that the Native Americans often spoke of. Joliet and Marquette traveled up the Fox River to the place where it approached another great river, The Wisconsin. They made the mile and half portage and paddled down the Wisconsin until they reached the Mississippi, at the present day city of Prairie du Chien. From there they traveled down the river all the way to present day Arkansas before returning to the Great Lakes.
More French traders began to come to Wisconsin. Nicholas Perrot was one of the greatest of the early French fur traders. In 1668, he and another trader named Toussaint Baudry traveled through the Fox River valley in search of furs. Perrot was greatly respected by the Native American tribes. He was shrewd and courageous, two qualities which they understood and valued. Once when some young members of a tribe broke into his fort and stole his trade goods, Perrot called the chiefs of the tribe together and demanded that they be returned. When they refused, he filled a clay pot with water and added alcohol to it. He quickly struck his flint and set the mixture on fire. He told the frightened people that he would set all the rivers and lakes of their land on fire if he did not get back his merchandise. Soon afterwards, all of the stolen goods where returned.
Perrot continued to trade with the tribes of the Fox River Valley for many years after that. At the same time, Jesuit priests lived at the mission at De Pere. In the year 1686, Perrot presented a silver ostensorium to the mission. An ostensorium was used by Catholic priests when they said Mass. Engraved on the base of it were the words, “Ce soleil a este donne par M. Nicolas Perrot a la Mission de St. Francois Xavier en la Baye des Puants 1686." The next year, the mission at De Pere was set on fire by angry Native Americans. Someone buried the ostensorium near the mission to save it from being carried away by the natives. In 1802, a farmer digging in the ground near the site of the old mission, uncovered the ostensorium. The land where it was found was owned by the Grignon family. Mrs. Grignon gave it to the first church built in Green Bay. When that church burned down in 1828, the ostensorium as taken to Detroit. Ten years later in 1838, Fr. Bonduel read the inscription on the base and returned it the diocese at Green Bay. The ostensorium is now in the possession of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Early in the 18th century, the Outagamie (Fox) tribe became hostile to the French traders at Green Bay. Frenchmen who wished to trade with the Sioux tribes near the Mississippi river were attacked and killed by the Fox. The best route to these western tribes was the Fox-Wisconsin River waterway. The Fox tribe had villages along the river and demanded that all French traders stop and pay them tribute before they could pass by. When the governor of the colony of New France heard of their war-like behavior, he sent French troops to fight them. Because of the Fox Wars, the French moved much of their trading operations to the south. This brought them into conflict with English traders that were moving into the lands to the west of Pennsylvania in the Ohio River valley. These conflicts eventually led to more warfare and loss of the Great Lakes region by the French.
The French and Indian War was fought between England and France between the years 1755 and 1763. Charles de Langlade, often referred to as “The Father of Wisconsin,” fought for the French during these wars. Alongside the French troops, De Langlade led the Native American tribes in battle against the British forces. De Langlade is credited as playing a major role in the defeat of the British General Braddock on July 9th of 1755.
Eventually the British gained the upper hand, and in 1760, they forced the French to surrender at Quebec. This ended French rule in Wisconsin. The next year, the victorious British sent troops to occupy the abandoned French forts in the region. However, many French traders and settlers continued to live in Wisconsin for many years after that. Their descendents still live in the Fox River Valley to this day.
Source: Louise P. Kellogg, The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1925
Outagamie County Genealogy and History Project