Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Old World Wisconsin: Avant Ouisconsin!

Jean Nicolet lands at Green Bay in 1634
Every Wisconsin school child learned (and I hope still does learn) that the French were the first Europeans to explore and map that territory. The name Wisconsin derives from an Algonquian language, but there's a story of how the French invented the name: link

Author Fred Holmes waxes nostalgic for traces of les Français, already long disappearing back in 1944:
Would you see historic places, authentic relics, hallowed ground? Would you hear the French folk songs of the first settlers sung by present-day descendants? Would you like to walk in paths bordered by old-fashioned flower gardens? Green Bay has all of them. She was the gateway to the Middle West opened wide by Frenchmen whose ineradicable imprint is still discernible after the passing of nearly two centuries.
Wisconsin is cognizant of its debt to the intrepid French explorer, priest and trader. Soon to stand in the shadow of the capitol dome at Madison will be the Bedore statue of Jean Nicolet,* the first white man to come to Wisconsin, who arrived at the Green Bay entrance in 1634; in the streets of De Pere, a tablet marks the site of the first mission founded by Pere Claude Allouez in 1620; the black-robed Father James Marquette, co-discoverer of the Mississippi in 1673, is one of the two representatives of the Statuary Hall in Washington; Charles de Langlade, "the bravest of the brave," who created the first farm out of the wilderness, is memorialized by a bronze cenotaph in the city of Green Bay; "Villa Louis" at Prairie du Chien and the "Grignon House" at Kaukauna have been rehabilitated to perpetuate the high cultural attainments of the French; and two State parks--Perrot and Brunet Island--designate localities where French fur traders conducted extensive operations. 
The early French who came to Wisconsin were pathfinders rather than empire builders. They preferred to trap; to wander in wilderness solitudes, and to puff a pipe at night around the fire, while telling other loiters of the incidents and exploits of the day. Their observations on the cunning of wild animals, the ingenuity of the beaver, the wariness of the muskrat--interspersed tales of their own courage and fearlessness.  The harsh struggle for existence and the rugged outdoor life gave these people an individuality of their own.
But war shattered the silence of their woodland security. The Black Hawk episode that made a trail across southwest Wisconsin in 1832 was to hasten the decline of the fur industry's supremacy. Soldiers scouting through the brush, around silver lakes, across verdant meadow lands and along fertile valley bottoms in search of the fleeing Sacs came to realize the possibilities for developing a home in such a country of contagious beauty and wild productivity. Their letters back home stirred the East. Soon came the the New Englanders and New Yorkers--typical, farseeing Yankee stock, who were to run the governmental affairs of Wisconsin in pretty much their own way until the end of the [19th] century. The greatest advance in American history had begun to take a form that was to roll westward until the vast continent was subjected to settlement. 
Green Bay and Prairie du Chien still radiate French tone and charm. For more than a century the French influence has been fading. Those who came as soldiers and traders in colonial times turned into farmers as economic conditions changed.
Three epochs of history mark the settlement of the French in Wisconsin. Many of the first to arrive were traders and trappers who came directly from France to engage in fur trade; the second influx came mostly from the French province of Quebec just before the Civil War and became active in the lumbering industry; the third were the remnants of both groups who remained to farm, once the timber had been removed and the log drives ended. This explains the the presence of French settlements along the rivers of Northern Wisconsin.
Four generations of life in Wisconsin have not eliminated the sharp inflection given to the pronunciation of many English words; nor removed, from ordinary conversation, expressions that sound odd though literally translated from the mother tongue. Characteristic among the French-Canadian is an emphasis on the last syllable so that "Frenchman" is pronounced as "French man" and "high school" as "high school"; or they pronounce beginning with a vowel with the letter "h" so that "oil" is articulated as if it were spelt "hoil" and "air" as "hair." Among the less educated "she" is commonly used after masculine nouns,---"Mrs. Demarse said of her dull boy--'my son Dolph, she funny boy.'" Expressions that are perfect in French become awkward when translated into English, "Me, I do not know him" (Moi, je ne le connais pas)--or "You, are you crazy, you?" (Vous, etes vous fou?). Among these people I found that the parents speak the native language to their children when they do not want strangers to know what they are saying. Otherwise, English is used in conversation about the home. Less frequent every year are the occasions for songs and recitations in French at school programs and entertainments.
While the romantic, religious days are fast leaving the lives of the French in Wisconsin, their devotion, respect, courtesy and hospitality to Old World ideals continue as inherited traits. 

-Fred L. Holmes, "Romantic Days Are Fading" Old World Wisconsin (1944)
*The statue never made it to Madison but was instead placed near the spot where Nicolet came ashore in 1634. link  The statue has since been moved to a different site northeast of Green Bay. link

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