French explorers, voyageurs (fur traders), Jesuit priests, and other settlers began arriving in the Upper Great Lakes region of North America in the mid-1600s. Jean Nicolet supposedly landed near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1634, naming the waterway La Baye des Puants, literally “Bay of Bad Odors.”It was not until the 1680s, however, that the French would gain a firm foothold in the territory, led primarily by commandant Nicholas Perrot, and the Jesuit priest Claude Allouez.

Sculpture showing three figures, the central figure is a french priest with a Native American man to his right and a french colonial man to his left
Sidney Bedore’s “Spirit of the Northwest” depicts, left to right, a member of the Fox Tribe, French Jesuit missionary Claude Allouez, and commandant (and later Governor) Nicolas Perrot. Photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 31772.

In 1721 the fort was under the command of Sieur de Montigny, who stayed for three years during which time the settlement saw relative peace and productive trade. That quickly changed in 1728 when the French burned their fort under the command of Lieutenant de Louvigny, in an effort to ensure it would not fall into the hands of the Fox Indians during the second Fox War. After somewhat peaceful relations were established with the Fox people (aka Renard), the fort was rebuilt in 1731 under the command of Sieur de Villiers. Maintaining control of the fur trade in Green Bay was difficult for the governors of New France, due to illegal trading, as well as frequent skirmishes with native populations. However, by 1717 historical sources confirm the presence of a fort at Green Bay at the mouth of the Fox River. This fort under French occupation was variously called Fort St. François and Fort La Baye. Its location near the confluence of the Fox River and Green Bay was a strategic choice to control trade between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The fort established New France’s legitimacy in the region and offered protection for the soldiers stationed there.

By the 1750s, the fort’s population had reached approximately 200, including both French and Métis (mixed native and European) families. Due to its geographical isolation from Montreal and Quebec, French officials regarded La Baye as one of the most difficult settlements to inhabit, and its fur trade one of the most difficult to control. French cartography and navigational tools like the Le Maire Sundial Compass were crucial in the French effort to maintain their presence in upper New France during the eighteenth century.

Detail showing the Le Maire compass next to a measuring stick on a black background
An eighteenth-century Le Maire Sundial Compass. Photograph courtesy of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County.

The last French soldier in command of Fort La Baye was Captain Beaujeu de Villemond, also commandant of Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island and surrounding straits). In October 1760, Beaujeu learned of the French surrender to the British army in Montreal from Charles de Langlade, Wisconsin’s first permanent European settler. Beaujeau evacuated Michilimackinac stopping at Fort La Baye.

Written by Kevin Cullen, December 2016.


Baillod, Brendon. “The Mystery of The French Sundials.” Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage Vol. 21, No. 4 (2011): 1, 4-7.

Casgrain, H.R. Journal du Marquis de Montcalm Durant Ses Campagnes en Canada de 1756 à 1759. Quebec: Imprimerie de L.J. Demers & Frère, 1895.

Kellogg, Louise Phelps. The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1925.

Lurie, Nancy and Patrick Jung. The Nicolet Corrigenda: New France Revisited. Long Grove, IL: 2009.

Martin, Deborah. History of Brown County Wisconsin Past and PresentVol. I. Chicago: The SJ Clarke Publishing Company, 1913.

Peterson, Jacqueline. “Ethnogenesis: The Settlement of a ‘New People’ in the Great Lakes Region, 1702-1815.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal Vol. 6, No. 2 (1982): 23-64.

Featured image: Detail from Claude Dablon’s 1672 “Jesuit Map of Lake Superior.” Note present-day Green Bay is labeled as “Baye des Puans” (Bay of Bad Odors). Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 39791.

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