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Beyond The Beignets: 'Ouisconsin' French History

Alliance Francaise
Amelie Serafon at the Westervelt Collection at the Allis Art Museum

From Solomon Juneau to Jean Nicolet, there are many French names we recognize in Milwaukee.

Anne Leplae and Mary Emory of the Alliance Française de Milwaukee want Wisconsinites to understand the French history and culture that permeates in Wisconsin beyond July's Bastille Days celebration.

Leplae says that the French influence goes way back to the first map makers who came to Wisconsin in the 1600s. They literally put Wisconsin “on the map." Yet, the current spelling of Wisconsin was not its original spelling.

Credit Alliance Francaise
Amelie Serafon, founder of the Alliance Française de Milwaukee.

When the French map makers heard the Native American name for the area, "[they] spelled it Ouisconsin. The French spelling stayed with Wisconsin for about 100 years until more English speakers came and put a 'W' there," explains Leplae.

The fur trade mainly brought the French to Wisconsin, Emory says. But a large French immigrant base never really developed in step with the Germans, Poles or Irish, adds Leplae.

Regardless, in addition to drafting the maps, the French "were trailblazers. They brought other people in and made little settlements, trading posts, started little businesses in Wisconsin," says Leplae.

Later on, in 1918, a French organization was established, the Alliance Française de Milwaukee, by a French professor at Milwaukee Downer College, Amelie Serafon. "1918 was significant," says Leplae, because, "it's the end of the first world war. A lot of the efforts early on [in the Alliance Française] were supporting France and the French people in the aftermath of a devastating world war."

As the Alliance Française has evolved over the years, it has made some decisions to which it can credit its continued existence. Emory recalls that in the 1980', members "had the idea to start selling beignets...the deep fried donuts, at the [Bastille Days Festival]. So now that's become a huge thing...and it helps support our organization for the whole year."

The annual Bastille Days celebration at Cathedral Square in downtown Milwaukee continues through Sunday. Besides consuming beignets, there is live music with French influence, French lessons and French influence cuisine and art.

Editor's note: Originally published July 14, 2016.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.