Wisconsin History Spot: De Pere home to historical society markers
By Melinda Anne Roberts
DE PERE – Nearly 580 Wisconsin Historical Society official markers peppered throughout the state mark notable people, places and events in Wisconsin history.
Four of these prestigious markers have been erected in De Pere.
Significant efforts to preserve, restore and label historic sites had been underway in New England and Los Angeles since 1875 and 1895, respectively, and in most European nations before that.
The Wisconsin Historical Society published its September 1913 Bulletin of Information No. 70: A Record of Landmarks in Wisconsin in an endeavor to posit an enthusiasm for identifying, preserving and marking Wisconsin’s historical sites, and for documenting those sites already marked.
In the years that followed, due largely to the efforts of the Wisconsin State Federation of Women’s Clubs and its local auxiliaries, The Old Settlers’ Club of Milwaukee, and the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, strides were made in the placement of similar tablets at Wisconsin’s historical sites and effigy mounds, as well as in the erecting of monuments in commemoration of “events or persons prominently connected with the European discovery and settlement of Wisconsin.”
In 1943, the State Historical Society created a marker system “that would unite the histories” of Wisconsin’s broad and diverse communities “under the same historical marker design.”
Nine “uniform historical markers” were placed across Wisconsin from 1943 to 1951.
A new historical markers commission was formed in 1950, with representatives from the State Historical Society, State Highway Commission, State Conservation Department, State Department of Public Instruction and State Planning Board.
Two brown and cream markers were developed – a marker for rural locations and a smaller marker for urban settings.
Each official marker would include on top a distinct seal consisting of a badger emblem and the words “Wisconsin Official Marker.”
Approval of an official marker was a meticulous process, ensuring that “only sites of bona fide statewide importance and significance” were marked.
Elaborate dedications celebrated the unveiling of official markers.
State and local officials and Wisconsin Historical Society representatives attended, community bands played, school children sang patriotic songs and/or hymns, and persons of prominence gave speeches.
The ceremonies were reported with alacrity in newspapers statewide.
The first official marker in Wisconsin was dedicated Sunday, Oct. 7, 1951, at the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery and coincided with the 80th anniversary of the devastating fire.
The Eleazer Williams marker was erected in 1961 at the site that was once a 4,800-acre tract of land left to Madeline Jourdain.
Madeline’s mother acquired the land from Menominee Chief Oshkosh (for whom the city is named) as retribution for Oshkosh’s murder of her relative, O-ke-wa, thus sparing Oshkosh’s life under a Menominee legal tradition that required one’s own life be forfeited after taking the life of someone else.
Married off to 35-year-old Williams when just a teenager, Madeline’s historic significance in the Brown County community (and even her name) is excluded from the official marker, identifying her only as “the daughter of a pioneer French-Canadian blacksmith, Joseph Jourdain and his Menominee-French wife.”
The marker focuses on the notoriety of Williams who many believed was the “Lost Dauphin” – the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette – a fascinating story that eventually became Williams’ undoing.
Of dubious Mohawk descent and affiliated with the Episcopal Church, Williams arrived in Green Bay in 1882 with a delegation of Oneida, Stockbridge and other New York Indians.
Adjacent to the west bank of the Fox River, the few remaining acres of the Williams property is today Lost Dauphin Park, accessible from Lost Dauphin Road/County Highway D, just south of its intersection with Brett Way.
The marker is on top of a hill, near the flagstone foundation where the Williams home once stood.
The Marquette-Jolliet marker was erected in 1973, 300 years after “an expedition headed by Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette and his companion, Louis Jolliet, departed from St. Francis Xavier Mission to find and explore the upper Mississippi River” in June 1673.
The marker is located along the Fox River State Trail, across from the parking lot where the De Pere Farmer’s Market is held on Thursday afternoons.
The White Pillars marker was erected in 1980 at White Pillars, today home to the De Pere Historical Society.
The marker relates the history of the building, “erected in 1836 to serve as the office of the Fox River Hydraulic Company, which was chartered by Wisconsin’s first Territorial Legislature to construct a dam at Rapides des Peres.”
White Pillars, located at 403 North Broadway, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Rapides des Peres/Voyageur Park marker was erected in 1981 and identifies the early history of the De Pere rapids, “well known to all early travelers along the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, which provided the best access to the Mississippi. …the waterway served explorers, fur traders and voyageurs, missionaries, and soldiers – principally from France and from Canada,” and “was the only channel of communication linking Green Bay with other developing areas in Wisconsin” until the military road connecting Forts Howard, Winnebago and Crawford was completed in 1837.
The marker is located inside Voyageur Park, on the far west end of the parking lot, near the Fox River.
De Pere is also home to Wisconsin’s first unofficial historical marker.
On Sept. 6, 1899, a heavy bronze tablet, affixed to a boulder mounted on a stone platform, was unveiled at the base of the Allouez Bridge in East De Pere.
The tablet commemorated the 1671-72 erection of Father Claude Allouez’s Jesuit mission adjacent to the Fox River in Rapides des Pere.
The monument was removed and the tablet placed in storage when the new bridge was built.