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Jean Nicollet

the first white man to set foot on Wisconsin soil

Jean Nicollet de Belleborne was born about 1598, probably at Cherbourg, Normandy, France. He was the son of Thomas Nicollet, the king's postal courier between Cherbourg and Paris, and Marie de Lamer. It is not known how he spent his childhood years or where he was educated.

In 1618, Nicollet was sent to Canada by the Compagnie des Marchands de Rouen et de Saint-Malo (a trading monopoly owned by French aristocracy). His job was to live among Indian allies of the company to learn their language and customs and to explore the regions they inhabited. His first mission was among the Algonquins on Allumette Island (in the Ottawa River), where he spent two years.

After returning to Quebec and giving his report in 1620, Nicollet was sent to make contact with the Nipissings, who lived on the shores of the lake of the same name. He ultimately spent nine years with the Nipissings, during which time he operated his own lodge and store and negotiated trade alliances between the Nipissings and the French. When Quebec was captured by the British in 1629, Nicollet took refuge in the Huron country and thwarted all attempts at a British-Huron trade alliance.

In 1633, Nicollet returned to Quebec and asked permission to set himself up at Trois-Rivières as clerk of Compagnie des Cent Associés. His request was granted, but only on condition that he first undertake a voyage of exploration and pacification among the Winnebagos (Ho-Chunk) at the far end of Green Bay, with an ultimate mission of determining the validity of claims that the China Sea lay just to the west of that region. Setting out in the summer of 1634, Nicollet followed the Ottawa River to Allumette Island and then set off down the French River toward Lake Huron. He entered Lake Michigan at Michilimackinac, from which he sailed on to Green Bay. Believing that China lay near his landing point, Nicollet disembarked at Green Bay wearing an elaborate Chinese damask robe, a sight which initially startled the Winnebago who greeted him. After successfully concluding a trade treaty with the Winnebago, Nicollet explored the interior of what is now Wisconsin, almost reaching the Mississippi River. Although he never found the China Sea, he did discover the Wisconsin River, which he subsequently reported as being the route to China.

Nicollet landing at Green Bay
Nicollet landing at Green Bay

Nicollet's 1634 route
Nicollet's 1634 route

Nicollet was back in Quebec by the autumn of 1635, after which he settled at Trois-Rivières in the capacity he had asked for. In 1642, Nicollet drowned when the boat he was riding with capsized in a high wind while going from Quebc to Sillery.

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This page was last updated on June 19, 2017.