René Menard (2 March 1605 in Paris - August 1661) was a French Jesuit missionary explorer who traveled to Canada in 1641, learned the language of the Wyandot, and was soon in charge of many of the satellite missions around Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Menard also worked with the Iroquois, and was said to speak six Indian dialects. He survived the continuous attacks from the Iroquois on the Huron.
In 1660, Menard was sent west from Montreal with a trading party of Ottawa and the fur traders Radisson and Groseilliers, heading for what is now northern Wisconsin, aiming to establish a mission among the Ottawa. The 55-year-old Menard didn't expect to return. The night before departure he wrote to a friend, "In three or four months you may include me in the Momento for the dead, in view of the kind of life led by these peoples, of my age, and of my delicate constitution. In spite of that, I have felt such powerful promptings and have seen in this affair so little of the purely natural, that I could not doubt if I failed to respond to this opportunity that I should experience an endless remorse."
Leaving Trois-Rivières, Quebec at the end of August, they paddled for six weeks up the St. Lawrence, up the Ottawa River, and across Georgian Bay. The party didn't go easy on the frail Father. Separated from the French traders and his assistant, he was forced to paddle continuously and carry heavy loads with meager rations. When they passed Sault St. Marie into Lake Superior, Father Menard had penetrated further into the Great Lakes region than any Western official before. After his party's canoe was destroyed by a falling tree in mid-October, Menard wintered with some Ottawas at Keeweenaw Bay near what is now L'Anse, Michigan. He sheltered in a hut he made of tree branches and at times he subsisted on fish begged from the Indians and boiled moss. Despite the hardships and resistance from many Indians, he baptized and taught the Christian faith.
In the spring he heard that a band of Hurons in the interior was starving, and he set off to minister to them, though he himself had only a bag of sturgeon and some dried meat. He and a fur trader nicknamed L'Esperance walked and canoed down into what is believed to be present-day Taylor County in north central Wisconsin. At a rapids a day's journey from the Huron village, Menard, now weak with hunger himself, left his partner to carry some supplies, and disappeared. Bishop Laval of Quebec wrote of Menard and the fur traders, "Seven Frenchmen attached themselves to this Apostle, they to catch beavers, he to gain souls."a
A roadside sign in Iron County, Michigan, along the Michigamme River claims Father Menard died there on July 4, 1661.
- Black Robe, a novel that portrays the world through which Menard moved.
- Kellogg, Louise P., "The First Missionary in Wisconsin", The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Volume 4, number 4, June 1921.
- Schmirler, A. A. A., "Wisconsin's Lost Missionary: The Mystery of Father Rene Menard", The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Volume 45, number 2, winter, 1961-1962.
- "A priest journeys to a Wisconsin village of exiled Hurons in 1661." Wisconsin Historical Society. This page links to translations of Menard's final letters.
- René Menard: A Life Story Which Connects the Finger Lakes Region of New York with France, Québec, Georgian Bay and Wisconsin by Alexander McGinn Stewart
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- Catholic Encyclopedia
- The Wisconsin Journey by Kurt Leichtle
- "The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610-1791" Chapter VIII describes Menard's final mission.