Nicolet, Explorations of

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NICOLET, EXPLORATIONS OF. Jean Nicolet de Belleborne became an interpreter, clerk, and trader in New France, as well as an explorer. The son of a royal postal messenger, he was born about 1598 near Cherbourg, Normandy. His colonial career seems to have begun in earnest in 1619/20, when he was sent to Canada by the Rouen and Saint-Malo Company, possibly after a brief initial visit in 1618. According to the Jesuits, with whom he had close ties—and who would eulogize him in glowing terms in their Relations—his good character and excellent memory impressed those with influence in the colony. Samuel de Champlain, the de facto governor, soon dispatched Nicolet to winter among the Kichesipirini Algonquins, who occupied Allumette Island (near Pembroke, Ontario) and levied tolls on the Ottawa River trade route. Here the future interpreter began to familiarize himself with the Algonquins.

After a stay of two years, Nicolet moved closer to Lake Huron to live among the Nipissings, a neighbouring Algonquian people, engaging in trade and participating in Nipissing councils. This last honor would have reflected his status as Champlain's representative as well as his own growing diplomatic experience. In 1634, Nicolet was sent on a combined peace mission and exploratory voyage to the upper Great Lakes. Like the rest of Nicolet's career, this expedition is poorly documented, and scholars disagree over his precise destination and the parties to the negotiations.

Nicolet visited the Winnebagos, most likely in the Green Bay region of Wisconsin, and negotiated an end to hostilities between them and a neighboring Native American nation. While it lasted, the peace favored an expansion of the fur trade. Officials seem to have pinned high hopes on Nicolet the explorer, providing him with an embroidered Chinese robe to impress his hosts, who had been described to the French as "people of the sea" (the sea being, it was hoped, the Pacific). Nicolet stayed only briefly in the region, but he brought back information that, while scarcely clarifying official French geography of the Upper Lakes, confirmed that the Pacific and China lay farther west than some had thought. His visit must also have increased the Winnebagos' knowledge of the French, once they had gotten over their astonishment at their elaborately-dressed, pistol-packing visitor.

After being recalled from his duties among the Nipissings—possibly because the Jesuits judged the presence of interpreters in the region disruptive of their Huron mission—Nicolet was named clerk and Algonquian interpreter for the Company of New France at Trois-Rivières. Apparently already the father of a Nipissing woman's child, in 1637, Nicolet married Marguerite Couillard, the daughter of a well-connected colonial family.

In October 1642, the interpreter drowned in the St. Lawrence, just upstream from Quebec, when the boat taking him on a diplomatic errand to Trois-Rivières capsized. A skillful negotiator with Native people and with influential members of colonial society, Nicolet is representative of a handful of able intermediaries who helped shape Franco-Native relations in New France's early years. In the process, he explored both Native territory and Native culture.


Hamelin, Jean. "Nicollet de Belleborne, Jean." Dictionary of Canadian Biography: 1000–1700. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Heidenreich, Conrad. "Early French Exploration in the North American Interior." In North American Exploration: A Continent Defined. Edited by John Logan Allen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Trigger, Bruce. The Children of Aataentsic. A History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1976.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: 1642–1643. Vol. 23. Cleveland, Ohio: Burrows Brothers, 1896/1901.

Trudel, Marcel. Histoire de la Nouvelle-France: Le comptoir. Montreal: Fides, 1966.

———. Histoire de la Nouvelle-France: La seigneurie des Cent-Associés: La société. Montreal: Fides, 1983.


See alsoHuron/Wyandot ; New France ; Winnebago/HoChunk .

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