B. 1598 in Cherbourg, France
M. (1) before 1628 in Lake Nipissing, New France
Wife: Nipissing woman
M. (2) 1636 in Quebec City, New France
Wife: Marguerite Couillard
D. 1642 in Sillery, New France
Emigrated: about 1618
Though he was a French Canadian, the name Jean Nicolet might be more famous in Wisconsin. Every school child knows the name of the first European to land in their state. He literally put them on the map.
Jean Nicolet was born in Cherbourg, France in 1598 to Thomas Nicolet and Marguerite de la Mar. Thomas Nicolet was a postal courier between Cherbourg, which is a port in Normandy, and Paris. It is known that Jean had at least four brothers.
Cherbourg was a center of trade and when Jean came of age he signed on with a company of merchants who sent him to New France in 1618. Samuel de Champlain had been looking for young men to send into the wilderness as clerks and interpreters, and Jean was seen to be a strong candidate. It was said that “his disposition and his excellent memory led one to expect worthwhile things of him.” Soon after arriving, he was sent to live among the Huron Indians on Allumette Island. He spent two years there picking up the language and gathering knowledge on tribes even further inland. He learned to hunt for food and guide a canoe. In 1620, he returned to the settlement in Quebec.
Jean next went to Lake Nipissing, deep into what is now Ontario. For the next nine years, he lived amongst the Indians. He kept a journal that was lost, but Jesuit priests took down some of his anecdotes of the times. Here it was said that "he passed for one of the nation, taking part in the very frequent councils of these tribes, having his own separate cabin and household, and fishing and trading for himself." In 1624, Jean served as an interpreter for a peace settlement between the French and Iroquois regarding a conflict near Lake Ontario.
By 1628, Jean took a Nipissing Indian as his wife. Some records name her as Elisabeth Manitoukoue une Sauvagesse de Nipissing. They had a daughter named Madeleine-Euphrosine Nicolet. While it's not known what became of Jean's Indian wife, Madeleine-Euphrosine was later brought back to Quebec and assimilated into the colony.
In 1629, Quebec was taken over by Englishman David Kirke. The French settlers were mostly transported back to Europe, but Jean stayed in the wilderness with the natives. He worked to foil attempts by the English to do trade there and was later viewed as a hero for it. When Champlain returned in 1633 to take charge of the colony again, he recalled Jean to Quebec and gave him the job of clerk and interpreter for the Company of New France. It was an important position because they had "a royal monopoly" on fur trade, and Jean was set up in a newly built post at Three Rivers.
Champlain had Jean in mind for another appointment — to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific. This had been a mission of many fur traders and none had been successful, but Champlain had an idea that the vast waters just beyond Ontario might be the way to China. So in 1634, he sent Jean out to explore the area.
Jean was to check out a tribe called the Winnebegos. They lived in what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin and were said to be uncooperative with other tribes wanting to barter in French goods. Were these people really on the outskirts of Asia? Jean prepared his expedition for that possibility, packing "a robe of damask silk, embroidered with birds and flowers of many colors, of the sort that Chinese Mandarins were known to wear." He was guided by several Huron Indians; they made their way along the north shore of Lake Huron, then it's believed they followed the Mackinac Straits into Lake Michigan. Upon landing at Green Bay, Jean donned his colorful robe, and to make even more of an impression, took a pistol in each hand and fired them into the air.
Several hundred Winnebego Indians were there to greet him and they treated him well. Jean offered gifts and they gave him feasts over the next few days. He was able to get information from them as to what lied to the west; it was clear he was nowhere near the Pacific. Nonetheless, he ventured further up a waterway and it's said that he narrowly missed discovering the Mississippi River by turning back to the east a little too soon.
Jean spent the winter amongst the Huron tribe, then returned to the Quebec colony in 1635. Champlain died that year and with him went any further effort in finding a Northwest Passage. Jean married a French immigrant named Marguerite Couillard in 1636 and they had a son and a daughter. In 1642, Jean was sent on a mission to negotiate the release of an Iroquois prisoner being held by the Hurons. Unfortunately, the boat he was in, a shallop, overturned and Jean drowned along with his brother Etienne.
Jean left a huge legacy as a noted explorer in North America. He has been honored with paintings of his landing amongst the Winnebego Indians, as well as a large statue at a place close to where the event occurred. A town in Quebec is named Nicolet and at least two high schools and a community college. And his story is taught to children in most schools in the Great Lakes area.
Children by Nipissing woman:
1. Madeleine-Euphrosine Nicolet – B. about 1628, near Lake Nipissing, New France; D. 30 Sep 1689, Quebec City, New France; M. (1) Jean LeBlanc (~1623-1662), 21 Nov 1643, Quebec City, New France; (2) Elie Dussault dit Lafleur (~1635-?), 22 Feb 1663, Quebec City, New France
Children by Marguerite Couillard:
1. Ignace Nicolet – B. 4 Dec 1640; D. young
2. Marguerite Nicolet – B. 21 Apr 1642, New France; D. 21 Jan 1722, Montreal, New France; M. Jean-Baptiste Legardeur
Wikipedia article on Jean Nicolet
A point in history… and a few acres of snow [website], Marjorie Lizotte, 2009