The land of the stinking water

Recent euphoria and the search for the Pacific Ocean and China.

Think back to Columbus, and what happened after he discovered the New World in 1492. The Spaniards sought the treasures of America and a new route to the Far East.

The English established their claim on the eastern seaboard, the French further north, founding the St. Lawrence Seaway, which led to the vast interior of the North American continent. In 1620 Etienne Brule, with the help of friendly Indians, paddled his canoe through the Great Lakes to the St. Marys River, Lake Superior and to the land that was to become Michigan. Samuel de Champlain, French governor of Canada, had heard from natives of a "people of the sea" who dwelt in the "land of the stinking water".

Believing that the "stinking water" might refer to salt water, he was eager to explore new routes to the west. A few years later in 1634 Jean Nicolet passed through the Straits of Mackinac on his way to "the land of the stinking water", which he assumed to be the Pacific Ocean. Jean Nicolet, born 1598 in France and drowned in Trois Rivieres 1642, was one of the first French explorers to arrive in Wisconsin. He set out on his notable voyage west in search of the Northwest Passage, exploring Lake Michigan, Green Bay, and the Fox River.

In 1634 he travelled by canoe along the northwest shore of Lake Michigan, and settled near what is now Green Bay. When he arrived there he thought he had found China. Wearing a grand robe of China damask, all strewn with flowers and birds of many colours, he walked ashore, expecting to be met by the Chinese leaders. Instead, he was met by the Woodland Indians. The lake was not the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean that Nicolet anticipated.

However, the Indians thought Nicolet had magical powers because he fired pistols, which they had never seen before. The Indians, the Winnebago tribe, made him a big feast and a friendship treaty was established. Even after Nicolets return, the French persisted in believing that if he "had travelled three days more on a great river which flows from this lake ... he would have found the sea ...." "I strongly suspect", wrote the Jesuit Paul Le Jeune, "that this sea is the Northern counterpart to that in the New Mexico, and that from it one might have access to Japan and China."

History has yet many lessons to teach and I leave it to you to consider the similarities between the search for a west passage through the Great Lakes, which we might find amusing today, and the future historical verdict on our recent euphoria.

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Lasse Larsson

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Publicerad: 13 sep 2003 17:33


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