This article was last modified on October 9, 2018.


Local History Class: The French in NE Wisconsin

(The following are notes I made for teaching a local history class in October 2018.)

Pierre Chauvin created the first permanent settlement in Quebec around 1600, and acquired a fur trade monopoly from King Henry IV. The Spanish had Florida, the British had the eastern coast, but the French were the first to explore all five Great Lakes.

October 1615, Samuel Champlain (founder of Quebec) joined his men down into New York to attack the Oneida. Their villages were burned and many men died, but the Oneida won the battle. Champlain was wounded twice in the leg by arrows, one in his knee.

Rumors of Wisconsin Indians made it to Canada, with stories saying they might be cannibals. This may have been stories of the Wendigo, a creature “that was once human, but has been transformed by starvation, cold and isolation into a twisted monstrosity with a ravenous desire for human flesh.”

Summer 1634, Nicolet (who was allegedly descended from Vikings) was sent by Champlain to negotiate a peace between the Ottawa and Wisconsin tribes so the French could expand fur trading into Wisconsin. He was probably the first white man in Wisconsin (though some think Etienne Brule might have made it before being killed). He had two handheld pistols the Indians called “thunder sticks”. Many histories say he arrived in Wisconsin wearing Chinese robes and was searching for Asia, but this is not true. Nicolet drowned in the St. Lawrence River – even though he was an explorer, he never learned to swim.

Nicolet was in Wisconsin around the same time as Galileo was active in Europe, and only a few years after the Pilgrims landed. Exactly how far he made it, we do not know. Green Bay is most generally accepted, possibly as far as Menasha. Some skeptics think he only made it to Marinette. Very unlikely he went any further inland than Menasha. The traditional story says he met the Ho-Chunk people, but it is more likely he met Menominee.

Nicolet wore “a grand robe of China damask, all strewn with flowers and birds of many colors” (this often-copied quote comes from Louise Kellogg in a 1917 book). Nobody in the United States knew of Nicolet until 1852-1853 when historians began going through old Jesuit records. Nicolet left no records himself, but was mentioned by later travelers. At first, his voyage was thought to have occurred in 1639 (not 1634), and no further research was done until the 1880s when a biography assumed (falsely) he was looking for China because he wore a “Chinese robe”. More recent research (from Professor Patrick Jung) shows it is more likely “Chinese” probably just meant “silk”. Some later historians added he wore a “mandarin cap”, which has zero documentary evidence.

Father Claude Allouez (1622-1689) first came in 1665 around Green Bay and Oconto. The name “Kaukauna” appears for the first time in his journal for April 18, 1670. In 1671 he founded the St. Francis Xavier Mission at Rapides Des Pères (rapids of the fathers) which became modern day DePere. James Marquette and Louis Joliet came through in 1673, visiting Allouez but also following the river as far as modern-day Portage, and then on to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River. Along the way, the French cemented the word Winnebago, which meant “stinky water” or “place of bad smells”.

In the spring of 1685 he was appointed Commandant-in-Chief of Stinkards’ Bay (present-day Green Bay) and the neighboring regions when war broke out between the Fox and the Sioux and Chippewa. He worked hard to bring about peace, and was successful, at least for a time. After this, Nicholas Perrot traveled to the northern waters of the Mississippi River, in the territory of the Sioux, where he built Fort Saint Antoine, now in Minnesota.

The British and natives were often hostile to each other, because the British wanted land. The French had no interest in land, only fur, so they were more friendly with many of the tribes. Close bonds were formed, and often French men would marry Indian women. The French and Menominee commonly intermarried, which is why it is common for tribal members today to have the names Grignon, Frechette, etc. Some French assimilated into Indian culture and left strict French life behind. French and Indian got along better because the French were more mobile and not trying to take away land. In French, they called this “going savage”. Today we would saying “going native”.

For two hundred years, Wisconsin life was dominated by the beaver. From 1650 to 1850 the economy revolved around beavers in the way that today’s revolves around oil. Before the French arrived, Wisconsin’s most valuable animals were the white-tailed deer, catfish, wild turkey, and freshwater mussels, which supported human communities for twelve thousand years. But after 1650 beaver was king.

The reason was simple. In 1650 no European went to work in an office or a factory. A few worked in shops, but most spent all day outdoors farming, in good weather or bad, sun or rain, winter or summer. The most useful thing to have in bad weather is a good hat. And beaver made the best hats. Because the fur is waterproof, beaver skins kept the wearer both warm and dry. From Russia to France and across the American colonies, the preferred hats were made from beaver. The market for beaver was therefore immense and long lasting. A person who could supply beaver skins to cities in Europe and America could grow rich.

Merchants in Montreal therefore imported products that Indian hunters wanted, and demanded beaver skins in return. Imported trade goods included metal knives, awls and kettles, steel flints for starting fires, guns and ammunition, alcohol, wool blankets, and porcelain beads for jewelry. Military garrisons were established throughout the Great Lakes to make sure that trade goods came in and pelts went out with as little interruption as possible.

In 1745, Augustin Langlade and his 16-year-old son Charles established a trading post at present-day Green Bay. Charles resided there until his death some time in the second half of 1801. Part French and part Indian, Charles is today known as the “father of Wisconsin” and has many relatives still living here – even in Kaukauna!

In 1767 a third of Mackinac furs came through Green Bay. The trade thrived for a generation, and new outlets sprang up around Wisconsin. In 1793 Dominique Ducharme was the first white European to settle in the Fox Valley. He paid two barrels of rum to two Indians for land on both sides of the Fox River near the Kaukauna rapids, this gave him control of the portage around and of the lower Fox. The Ducharme deed was Wisconsin’s first recorded deed. He built a house on the land and settled there. He began trading with the Menominee Indians. At the time, 1,500 Indians lived in the village of Kaukauna.

The following year, he and another trader, Jacob Franks, obtained from the Menominee Indians “for value received,” a 999-year lease on a total of 1,200 acres on both sides of the Fox at Green Bay; at the time Ducharme already possessed a concession on one side of the river beside one of the leased lots. He is presumed to have continued to engage in fur trading in the west for the next 15 years; certainly he acquired a working knowledge of several native dialects. Franks was the uncle of George Lawe, for whom Lawe Street in Kaukauna (and Appleton) is named.

Augustin Grignon was born in Green Bay, the grandson of Charles DeLanglade. In 1805 he moved to property his wife inherited near Kaukauna. He continued in general trade, farmed, and built a flourmill and gristmill in 1821. The Grignon Mansion in Kaukauna was built by Charles Grignon (son of Augustin) as a wedding gift for his wife, Mary Elizabeth Meade, in 1837.

Paul Beaulieu moved to Kaukauna (south of the river, on what is now Beaulieu Hill) around 1835, and purchased the saw mill formerly run by Daniel Whitney. Paul died in 1841 and his son Bazil took over the business. Bazil was also active in Brown and Outagamie County politics. Bazil’s son Paul died of malaria in the Civil War. Another son owned a newspaper in town (Kaukauna Progress). And a daughter (Elizabeth) married in to the Hurst family and has many descendants living in town today.

Overhunting caused the fur trade to shift farther west, and by 1840 most furs were being shipped from Oregon to New York by sea, and Wisconsin’s fur trade era was over.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

Leave a Reply