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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Badger State Myth

The Robe in Nicolet’s Knapsack

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When I taught Wisconsin history at MATC, Jean Nicolet was always my best attention-grabbing story. Specifically: the tale of how the French Jesuit, the first European to set foot in Wisconsin, waded ashore near Green Bay in a silken Chinese robe, firmly expecting to greet the Emperor of China, whose palace he assumed was nearby.

Nancy Oestreich Lurie and Patrick J. Jung have carefully deconstructed our state's cherished foundational myth. In The Nicolet Corrigenda: New France Revisited (published by Waveland Press), the scholars from the Milwaukee Public Museum and MSOE conduct the sort of painstaking detective work previous historians have eschewed. Turns out Nicolet was wearing only a modest European garment considered proper for special occasions (such as meeting an American Indian chief) and the Catholic priest was under no illusion that Lake Michigan touched the Asian shore.

Lurie and Jung's slender but tightly packed study is of interest to Badger State history buffs but also serves as a lesson in how fallacies slip into much of what is commonly accepted as history. In Nicolet's case suppositions grew like weeds upon the fertile soil of a single intriguing sentence in an early chronicle. A Jesuit colleague writing after Nicolet's death recorded that the priestly explorer "wore a grand robe of China damask, all strewn with flowers and birds of many colors." Since grand meant large rather than regal and China damask was a fabric loomed in Europe, Nicolet's famous robe was not an exotic luxury item carefully folded and tucked into his canoe for the journey to China. But from this stray sartorial reference, 19th century historians made the leap that Nicolet was seeking the court of Cathay amid the forests ringing the Great Lakes. The false assumption made its way into State Historical Society monographs, onto historical markers and from there, into my Wisconsin history class.

While the Nicolet story is unfamiliar beyond Wisconsin, the implications are universal. "Facts" are not always factual and the material used to construct the past is often dubious at best.