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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 8, 2003 - Issue 82


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Jean Brunet
Devoted Life to Chippewa Valley


From Eau Claire Leader February 16, 1919


credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)


Jean Brunet (70) in 1861
Jean Brunet (70) in 1861

Jean Brunet (85) in 1876
Jean Brunet (85) in 1876

William Bartlett of this city has gathered, mostly from personal reminiscences, the life stories of one of the unsung heroes of the Chippewa Valley, Jean Brunet (1791-1877). Little is known about the man except what a few persons remember of him, although is untiring work and his very evident belief in the future of this part of Wisconsin has earned for him great credit in the early development of the country. Brunet was a Frenchman of the educated class, member of the territorial legislature in 1837, built a sawmill in Chippewa Falls and for several years operated a stopping place for woods and river men near the site of the present town of Cornell.

Mr. Bartlett's efforts have resulted in an absorbing story of this settler, who, though he earned much, gave it all away, and died with little but the home he had lived in. Only ten references are to be found concerning him in the publications of the State Historical Society, but the following article, written especially for The Leader, contains interesting incidents and data from the memory of Mrs. Gustave Robert, whose father, Francis Gauthier, was the protégé of Brunet:

(By W. W. Bartlett)

If the question were asked who was the most noteworthy person in the early history of the Chippewa Valley probably the first place would be given to the name of Jean Brunet. This being the case, there is nothing approaching a biography of the man had never been recorded. In the entire list of publications of the Wisconsin State Historical Society there is to be found only some ten references, mostly brief and disconnected, pertaining to this interesting character. Other brief mentions are made of him in some of the more local historical works, but taken altogether they furnish nothing like a complete life history.

In the year of 1881, "A History of Northern Wisconsin" was published by the Western Historical Society, A.T. Andreas of Chicago proprietor. In that book the writer of the chapter on the general history of the Chippewa Country makes brief mention of Brunet. This writer seems to have taken considerable pains to verify his statements, and as Jean Brunet had been dead only a few years when the chapter was written probably his statements are generally correct. He states that Jean Brunet was born in France, date not given, and migrated to St. Louis in 1818, where he was employed by Chouteau Brothers, by whom he was sent to Prairie du Chein in 1820. That place having been fixed as the headquarters of the American Fur Company, also as a military post by the United States Government, occupying the fort used by the British in the years 1813-1815. There is a story to the effect that a French voyageur by the name of Rollette acted as pilot in conducting an English expedition from Green Bay, by way of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, to Prairie du Chien, and for that service he received twenty thousand dollars in gold. It is said the Jean Brunet afterwards married a sister of this man Rollette.

Preeminent in Prairie du Chein
There is evidence to show that Brunet was a personage of some standing in Prairie du Chien. In Volume 7, page 290, of the Wisconsin Historical Society Collection, a Mr. Beochard makes this statement: "Dr. Moses Meeker, in his narrative in the sixth volume of the collection of the State Historical Society has said that Colonel James Johnson came to Galena in 1822. I desire to set this error right. I was in that year in Prairie du Chein, running a keelboat on the Mississippi for Jean Brunet and one Disbrow.

Judge James H. Lockwood of Prairie du Chien, in Volume 2 Page 161, relating troubles with the Indians has the following to say of Brunet" "I went to my house and found it w as vacant, and went to the old village, where I found my family and most of the inhabitants of the Prairie, assembled at the house of Jean Brunet, who kept a tavern. Mr. Brunet, had a quantity of square timber about him and the people proposed building a breast works with it." On page 164, it continues, "Captain McNair put in command Joseph Brisbois, lieutenant, and Jean Brunet, ensign, both duly commissioned by the governor." On page 172 Judge Lockwood says, "Sometime in 1827 or 28 the chief justice of the county and of associate justice having removed from the country, I presume applications were made to Governor Cass. I do not know, I was absent from the last of July 1827 to the summer of 1829 and Joseph Rollette was appointed chief judge and Jean Brunet, associate justice."

On page 259 of the same volume we find a record of Jean Brunet and seven others presenting a double barrel gun to General Dodge, with a letter expressing their appreciation of his services.

In Grignon's "Recollections," Volume 3 page 295, under the date of 1832, he records the following, "We stopped at Brunet's Ferry on the Wisconsin, etc."

Made a Member of Legislature. Greater honor came to Brunet when, in 1837, he became a member of the territorial legislature, succeeding Judge James H. Lockwood already mentioned. We find Brunet again a member in 1838.

Quoting again from the Chippewa County chapter of the "History of Northern Wisconsin," page 193, we read, "A treaty was held with the Indians at Fort Snelling on July 29, 1837. Governor Dodge representing the United States, while "Hole in the Day" with forty-seven others, represented the Chippewas. A large tract of territory was then added to the United States, which included a part of the Chippewa Valley, and extended a half days march below the falls.

"Immediately after these lands came into the possession of the United States a number of fur company's agents, including H.L. Dousman, General H.A. Sibley, Colonel Aiken and Lyman Warren, fitted out an expedition at Prairie du Chien to erect a sawmill at the falls of the Chippewa. This enterprise was put in charge of Jean Brunet, who engaged as operators, boatmen, ax men, loggers and mechanics, for the most part French Canadian voyageurs and others, formerly in the employ of the fur company, together with a number of the half-breeds who had of course been raised on the frontier. The building of the mill under Brunet proved a more tedious process that supposed, the difficulties of handling the rock to be excavated has been very much underestimated its hardness exceeded their expectation and the contractors were unable to complete the race for the original stipulation." Among the employees who came with Brunet was a Mr. Stacy, Jim Taylor, and a Francis Gonthier, who remained in Brunet's employ for forty-one years, until the latter's death. (Note: the name of Gonthier should be Gauthier. More will be said of him later).

Visits Chippewa Valley in 1832
From the above statement the date of the beginning of sawmill operations at the falls would be 1838. That is generally incorrect. The generally accepted date is 1836, and it is said that Jean Brunet had made a visit to the Chippewa Valley four years, earlier, in 1832.

The brief record above appears to be about all concerning Jean Brunet to be found on the printed page. Thomas Randall, in his "History of the Chippewa Valley," has something to say of Brunet, but nothing that would add materially to what has already been quoted. Fortunately we are not left entirely to what has been recorded in books. There are still people living who knew Jean Brunet personally and whose recollections are of much interest and value in throwing light on the life of this historic character.

The mill-building venture at the falls did not prove a success under the leadership of Jean Brunet and the work soon passed into other hands. Whether or not he returned to Prairie du Chien we do not know, but in any case the attractions of the Chippewa Valley were to great for him to resist and at an early date, just how early we do not know, he built a cabin on the west bank of the Chippewa River about twenty-five miles above Chippewa Falls, at the foot of a smaller falls, which took his name, and where he spent the remainder of his life. For some years he carried on the fur trade and bartered with the Indians. As the lumbering operations increased and the fur trade grew less he built a more commodious dwelling, and kept a stopping place for the accommodations of loggers, river men, and others passing to and from the lumbering regions further up the Chippewa River and its tributaries. Of all the stopping places on the Chippewa River that of Jean Brunet's was best and most favorably known.

Treats Gauthier as Son
Mention has been made of Francis Gauthier, who came on the Chippewa River with Brunet and who remained so many years in his employ. Then Brunet built his cabin at what was later known as Brunet Falls, now known as Cornell, Francis Gauthier went with him. He received no regular wages, but was treated as a son. As years passed he married and brought up his family in the Brunet home and after Brunet's death the courts awarded to Gauthier what property was left by Brunet.

Persons are still living who knew Francis Gauthier recall him as a very interesting man and one who was generally highly esteemed. He was much more a woodsman and explorer than was Brunet and he with a Batiste Denige, who was employed by Brunet, made many long canoe trips on the upper Chippewa and its tributaries.

Some months ago a diary account of a trip up the Chippewa River, in the spring of 1868, by C.H. Cooke of Mondovi and two other companions appeared in The Leader and The Telegram. Mr. Cooke describes a visit to the Brunet home. The whole diary account was very interesting and constitutes a valuable addition to the local history material of the Chippewa Valley, but Mr. Cooke was considerably in error in regard to the family relations of the old fur trader and the stopping place proprietor. The error was a natural one and does not detract from the general accuracy of his narrative.

Gauthier's Daughters Lived at Brunet's
Mr. Cooke had considerable to say concerning the three attractive young women he saw in the Brunet home and whom he understood to be daughters of Jean Brunet by a Chippewa wife. Brunet's wife, who had died some ten years before Mr. Cooke's visit, was pure French and they had no children. The three girls referred to were daughters of the Francis Gauthier already mentioned. Gauthier's wife was of part French and part Chippewa blood. Two of these girls are no longer young and two younger brothers are still living. All are in comfortable circumstances and enjoying the benefits of the advanced civilization, which to a peculiar degree they have witnessed in their own lives. The second oldest of the three girls seen by Mr. Cooke now lives in Holcombe, Wisconsin. Her name is Mrs. Gustave Robert. Her entire life has been spent within five or six miles of her birth place in the old Brunet cabin.

A recent visit to her pleasant home found her and her daughter. Mrs. W. Ralph Wanner deep in Red Cross activities, her daughter being the local head in that work.

Daughter of Brunet's Aide and Her Husband. Mr. & Mrs. Gustave (Josephine) Robert, as they appeared in 1876. They have since lived within a few miles of the site of Brunet's old stopping place.
Daughter of Brunet's Aide and Her Husband
Mr. & Mrs. Gustave (Josephine) Robert, as they appeared in 1876.
They have since lived within a few miles of the site of Brunet's old stopping place.

Mrs. Robert is in excellent health for her years and her mind is a storehouse of recollections of pioneering days on the Chippewa River. Like many others in those early days she had no educational advantages but she speaks French, English and Chippewa fluently and is generally informed as to the events of the day. She is an expert needlewoman, and her handiwork, largely of her own design has carried off prizes at county and community fairs. She also takes justifiable pride in her excellent garden. Besides Mrs. Wanner, she has several other children living near her. With the aid of her daughter, Mrs. Wanner, we have been able to secure from the mother the following interesting reminiscences.

Mrs. Robert's Story
"My father, Francis Gauthier, was of Canadian French descent. I do not know the date of his birth and am not certain whether he was born in Canada or not. If so, he must have left there when very young, as he was only a young boy when he began work for Jean Brunet at Prairie du Chein, coming from San Francisco. Mr. Brunet took a liking to my father and he was one of the party that came up with Mr. Brunet to build the first mill at Chippewa Falls, later going with him to what is now Cornell, or Brunet Falls, where he remained until after Mr. Brunet's death. He received no wages but was treated as a member of the family.

Mrs. Gauthier (nee Sophie Jandron) Wife of Francis Gauthier and mother of Mrs. Gustave Robert. Mrs. Gauthier was of French and Indian ancestry and her home before her marriage was at Odanah on the Bad River Reservation.
Mrs. Gauthier (nee Sophie Jandron)
Wife of Francis Gauthier and mother of Mrs. Gustave Robert.
Mrs. Gauthier was of French and Indian ancestry and her home before her marriage was at Odanah on the Bad River Reservation.

About 1846, my father married my mother, whose name before marriage was Sophie Jandron. She was from the Odanah Reservation and was of part French and part Chippewa blood. Six children were born to them in the Brunet home. One died in infancy. Rose was the oldest of the family. I was second. Julia was third. The next younger was a boy, Benjamin, and the youngest, also a boy, named Charles. All five except my oldest sister, Rose, are still living. Julia, now Mrs. Tomlty, is living in Rhinelander, Wisconsin; Benjamin owns a large summer resort at Lac du Flambeau, and Charles is the government interpreter on that reservation.

Brunet Fine Looking
I do not know when Mr. Brunet was born but as far back as I can remember he seemed to be an old man. He was a fine looking man, always clean-shaven and very neat in his personal appearance. Whenever he made a trip to Chippewa Falls or any place away from home he always wore his fine broadcloth Prince Albert coat, with white shirt and cravat.

In his latter years he was in much reduced circumstances, and his clothes were at times really shabby, but even then he would not wear clothing that was patched.

I think Mr. Brunet was from the upper class or aristocracy of France. He kept his accounts and gave general oversight to his affairs but never did any manual labor himself. He was always kind and polite. The woods and river men who stopped at the Brunet place received the usual accommodations of other such stopping places but when business or professional men came there they were treated as his guests. He always sat at the head of the table. These men would be seated near him and Mr. Brunet would serve.

Mr. Brunet was a deeply religious man, a devout Catholic and very faithful in all the observances of the church. He never sat down to a table without saying grace. During those early days the Brunet home was the gathering place of persons of the Catholic faith in the vicinity for religious instruction when the traveling priest visited that part of the valley.

First President of St. John Society
He was the first president of the St. John the Baptist Society in the Chippewa Valley. At the annual meeting of the Chippewa Lumber and Boom Company in January 1911, on a motion of William Irvine, general manager, voted to furnish the funds for the erection of a suitable monument in the cemetery at Chippewa Falls to the memory of Jean Brunet. The action was taken in recognition of the fact that Brunet, as already stated had charge of the first sawmill operated at the Falls.

The officers of the St. John the Baptist Society were notified of the action of the lumber company, and in June of that year the monument was erected under the auspices of that society. The inscription on the monument is in French. Translated into English it reads as follows:

"To the Pious Memory of The Valiant Pioneer - Jean Brunet - First President of the St. John the Baptiste Society of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Born 1791 in Gacogne, France - Died August 20, 1877. Rest in Peace - Builder of the First Chippewa Falls Sawmill in 1836."

Brunet's Wife Comes to Chippewa Valley
Mr. Brunet did not bring his wife up from Prairie du Chien until after he had spent a number of years in the Chippewa Valley but he used to visit her several times a year. I remember her very well. She took quite a fancy to me and used to seat me on the table with shears and paper and teach me to cut out figures. Like Mr. Brunet, she was very devout and spent much of her time in her room engaged in prayer and religious devotions. She never did any housework, but used to do a great deal of patchwork for quilts. She looked older than Mr. Brunet and always wore a close fitting cap or bonnet. I never saw her without it on. She died shortly after the Civil War.

One of my most cherished keepsakes is a French Catholic prayer book, which she gave me on my second birthday. On the flyleaf she wrote this inscription. "Donne' le 20 d avril par Madamme Brunet a Josephine Gauthier, age de 2 ans. Riviere des sautuer." In English this would be "Given the 20th of April (1852) by Madamme Brunet to Josephine Gauthier, age 2 years. River of the Sauteurs or Chippewa," the word Sauteurs being an early name for the Chippewa tribe.

Mr. Brunet was a true friend to the Indians and they always stopped there when going up or down the river. He never made any charge to them for meals, but they often brought venison in return. On New Year's Day was always a great gathering of Indians at the Brunet home and soon after daylight they would announce their arrival by the firing off of guns. They would quickly put up their tepees and build their campfires, the beating of tom toms would be heard and the vicinity of the Brunet home would soon put on the appearance of an Indian village.

Then they would come in the house, sit down on the floor, and my mother and we girls would pass around pans of doughnuts and other eatables, which we had prepared in advance. All us children could speak Chippewa, as readily as we could French and much better than we could English.

Old Abe Goes Down River
I knew most of the chiefs and headmen of the Chippewa tribe and remember well seeing Ah-Monse, chief of the Flambeau, with his son who captured Old Abe, the War Eagle, going down the river with the eagle, which they sold to George McCann. He later sold it in Eau Claire where it was taken out by a company going into the Civil War. Ah-Monse was short, fat, and jolly, and had curly hair - the only Indian I ever saw with curly hair.

The Indians would often camp near the Brunet place. I remember once an Indian child was very sick and my mother went over to see it, taking me along. The Indian medicine man was there. He put something that looked like dried bones in his mouth, chewed them up and spit them into a basin of water that was on the ground. After going through some motions and examining the water he said the child would die at sunrise the next morning. It was customary for the Indians to announce a death among them by firing a gun several times. The next morning we listened for the guns and just as the sun rose we heard them. The child had died just as the medicine man had said.

Looking Up River from the Site Of the Brunet Home At the Cornel Wood Products Company's Plant
Looking Up River from the Site Of the Brunet Home
At the Cornel Wood Products Company's Plant

Brunet Builds Log House
For a good many years after he came on the Chippewa, Mr. Brunet had only a one-room log cabin, with curtains around beds. When I was a young girl, perhaps about twelve years old, he built a long log house facing the river. The house was torn down many years ago but the foundation can still be seen, showing the size and the shape of the house. The kitchen was on the south or down river end, with bedrooms off it for my mother and father and us children. The next room was a large dining room, which was deeper than the rest of the rooms and had cupboards clear across the back. The next was Mr. Brunet's room. The men's room was the upper north end of the house. A stair led up to the chamber or loft, which extended the full length of the house and was where the men slept. They did not pass through Mr. Brunet's room in going to the dining room but had to go outdoors.

My father looked after the outside work around the Brunet place, while my mother, who was a good cook and housekeeper with the help of us girls, took care of the housework. At time when large crews of woodsmen and log drivers were going and coming we had our hands full. At other time we did not have so much housework to do, and we would make buckskin mittens and gloves, also moccasin, plain and beaded.

Raspberries, blackberries and cranberries were plentiful. Blueberries did not grow near but the Indians used to bring them to us. Wild plums grew in abundance. We did not know anything about canning fruit, but we use to dry quite an amount of berries, also corn. For meat we had mostly salt pork, and some smoked hams, also plenty of smoke venison. Fish could be had in any quantity, and partridges and other small game. Mr. Brunet raised a good many potatoes, also a good supply of vegetables. Our table fare was hearty but simple. Doughnuts and pies were about the only articles in the pastry line. The pies were made of dried apples, dried berries or cranberries.

Canoes Common Means of Travel
We had our simple games and plays. The older folks played cards a great deal, and sometimes there would be a dance, but I never learned to do either. I never used a gun until I was married, when my husband taught me to do some target shooting. We use to fish and all of us were at home on the water. I could pole or paddle a birch bark canoe either standing or sitting and there was never any lack of canoes.

The Indians would start from the headwaters of the Chippewa with their canoes in the fall hunting and trapping their way down by the time they were ready to return the river would be frozen over and they would leave their canoes at the Brunet place making new ones for the next trip. The whole country was almost unbroken pine forest and one could walk for hours without seeing the sun, but we never felt afraid to be out in the woods or on the river alone and were never molested either by Indians or white men.

Of course we saw a great deal of the early lumbermen and most of them were fine men. I remember especially Daniel Shaw. He used to spend more time in the logging camps and on the river than any of the other big lumbermen. Everyone had a high opinion of Mr. Shaw. Sometimes he would take Mrs. Shaw with him to visit the lumber camps and they would stop at the Brunet place. Another fine man that spent a great deal of time at the Brunet place was Ezra Cornell. He made the Brunet place his headquarters when he came out from the east to locate lands for the Cornell University. He was a large, fine looking man and always wore a long full beard. Mr. O.H. Ingram used to stop there often, also Bill Pond, Pete Legault, Alex McDonnell, Thad Pound, Ed Rutledge, Dave Sebe, Mike Miles, Seth Pierce and many others.

Brunet Fond of Reading
Jean Brunet was fond of reading but did not take any interest in hunting or fishing or other outdoor sports. Like nearly every one in those days, he drank intoxicating liquors, but unlike most of the stopping house proprietors, he did not keep it on sale and seldom had it on the place. He kept a small stock of staple supplies needed in lumber camps and by the Indians and the few white residents of that vicinity. He cut a great deal of wild hay on the marshes, which he sold to loggers; he also raised and sold a good many oxen.

Mr. Brunet selected a fine location for his home. His cabin was built on the west bank of the Chippewa River perhaps eighty rods below the present Brunet Falls Dam. The site was level and high enough to always be dry. Below the falls and in front of the Brunet cabin a bend in the river formed a bay, with very little current. In the side of the bank between the cabin and the river there was a fine spring, which supplied the house with water.

During all the early days there were no roads up the river. In the winter supplies were hauled up on the ice. For all summer or fall travels it was necessary to use boats. Two kinds of boats were used for this purpose. The earliest ones used were wooden canoes or dugouts made from a single large pine log. In later years these were largely replaced by the "Bateaux," large boats with both ends pointed. A considerable income was received by Mr. Brunet from the portaging of these boats and their contents around the falls. The bay below the falls afforded a good place for the boats to land. From the landing place a road had been graded along the side of the bank and up to a suitable place in the river above the falls.

Mr. Brunet had a four-wheeled wagon or cart, the wheels of which were thick and were made of sections sawed from a large pine log. The contents of the boat were first hauled around the falls, and then the canoe or bateaux was loaded on the cart. Mr. Brunet had a regular charge for the boats but the charge for portaging the contents was made by hundredweight. I well remember the old cart with the wooden wheels, but he later replaced it with one having iron wheels.

Brunet Dies Poor
If Mr. Brunet had not lost so much in bad accounts he would have been wealthy in his old age. As it was at the time of his death he had nothing left except the place and the value of that at the time was only a few hundred dollars. The courts granted this to my father as an offset to his many years of service without regular pay.

I have in my possession the old ledger in which Mr. Brunet kept his accounts from the year of 1862 until the time of his death. A good share of the accounts were never settled and some of the amounts due Mr. Brunet were quite large. Mr. Brunet died in August 1877 and was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Chippewa Falls. My father, Francis Gauthier, died in January 1880. My mother died only ten years ago (1909).

Our neighbors were few. Across the river from the Brunet place about where the Cornell Wood Products company mill is now located, there lived a Frenchman by the name of Batiste Denige. He cultivated a small piece of ground but most of the time he worked for Mr. Brunet. Another Frenchman by the name of Beauregard lived not far from Denige's. He worked more or less for Brunet. For some years Mr. Brunet had in his employ two young Swiss. One of these, Henry Duvanel married my older sister Rose.

A few months later, in August 1869, I married the other, whose name was Gustave Robert. He was a steady, thrifty man and experienced woodsman. He was a chopper, whose job it was to chop down the pine trees for saw logs and they received the highest pay of any in the crew. Sometimes he would contract to chop by the thousand feet a day. I heard him tell me how many thousand feet he and his partner would chop down but I have forgotten the figures. He was a good timber cruiser and always acted as guide and assistant to Ezra Cornell in the locating of pineland for Cornell University.

We were married in 1869. My husband secured a piece of land about three miles above the Brunet place, on the opposite side of the river, near the mouth of the Fisher River, where the pine was very fine and abundant.

Mrs. Robert's First Home, a well built log house, shingled. The house is still standing and the original hand-shaved shingles are on its walls.
Mrs. Robert's First Home, a well built log house, shingled.
The house is still standing and the original hand-shaved shingles are on its walls.

Mr. Robert began to immediately build a house for us to begin housekeeping, and the house is still standing. We continued to live at Brunet's for a short time until our own house was completed and moved into it in the spring of 1870. Instead of the usual log house of round logs chucked with clay, the house was built of small logs hewed square, neatly fitted together and with the corners dovetailed together. The outside was covered with shaped shingles. It consisted of a main part with two rooms, with a loft above, and a one-story kitchen.

Compared with most present day houses and our own later home, it would seem very humble, but it was considered a very good house in those days, and we were very comfortable and happy. The old house is still standing. The roof has been reshingled once, but the shingles on the outside walls are the same ones that my husband made and put on nearly 50 years ago.

Sells Lumber to Daniel Shaw
It is hard to realize it now, but the unbroken pine forests came right up to the riverbank. Although our house stood only a few rods back, the pine trees, shut out our views of the river. My husband began logging in a small way and for some years the nearness of the timber made it possible for me to cook for the men in our own home. Mr. Robert did not put the logs in by the thousand but would buy a piece of land or the timber on it, cut the timber and sell it to some of the big lumbermen. Daniel Shaw bough most of it and would take it on the landing during his own drive. After awhile the timber was too far away for the crew to stay here at our home, for several winters we shut up our house and I went and cooked in camp.

Other winters Mr. Robert hired someone to cook for the crew. He never did any logging on a large scale, but he did very well and we laid up some money. After we had been married some 25 years, we built a good size brick house on the higher ground, not back far from our first one. This was the first and is still the only brick house in that vicinity and can be plainly seen from the road.

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