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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Vol. 24 No. 4 (Jan. 1932), pp671‑682

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p671  When the Gratiots came to Galena

By Florence Gratiot Bale

Situated in the scenic county of Jo Daviess; in the northwestern part of Illinois; four miles east of the Mississippi River — the historic town of Galena remains today with much of the natural beauty it had many years ago when it was the center of the great mining district; the wooded hills surround it as in the days when the lead mines were active; many of the old buildings are as they were a hundred years ago; the Galena river, once a navigable stream (then called La Fevre river) able to bring the big steam boats and packets from the great water highway to the old levee, is now a sluggish narrow branch running through the valley and maintains only the aspect and name of a river.

The first influx to the lead mine district of the Illinois country began in 1820 and hundreds of miners, prospectors, traders, and adventurers flocked to this new El Dorado. Indians and some white men had been crudely mining since 1700, but not until the greatest trek in the history of the Northwest began were the lead mines really discovered with their valuable product imbedded in the rocky hills and underneath the broad level spaces between them.

It was to this throbbing, exciting, and alluring settlement, with its medley of humanity from all over the world and its camps of Indians surrounding it, that the "Gratiot Brothers" of St. Louis, Missouri, forged their way. The stirring news of the great mines in "The Fevre River district" had induced them to seek homes, wealth, and fame in the new country that lay many miles to the north, to reach which either by the Mississippi River or by trail involved a hazardous undertaking.

By right of heredity they were entitled to the spirit of exploration for they were direct descendants of that far seeing  p672 and adventurous French nobleman the Marquis Pierre Ligueste de Laclede​a who had left his ancestral home in Bedous, France, to seek his fortune across the sea in "New France." He made for himself a place in the history in that new land by being the founder of the present city of St. Louis and associating himself with the Northwest fur company.

His daughter Victoire "Chouteau"​b married Charles Gratiot the founder of the Gratiot Family in America. He was the son of David and Marie Bernard Gratiot of La Rochelle, France. They left their homeland, title and estate and upon the revocation of the edict of Nantes fled to Switzerlandº where Charles was born. He came to Montreal, then to New Orleans, then up the river to St. Louis when a very young man; and his name stands for ardent patriotism, great business sagacity and devotion to family.

From both lines of ancestry the Gratiots inherited their brave, constructive and venturesome spirit; that was unafraid of an unexplored country and ready to blaze a trail in the wilderness; well knowing the hardships they must endure to conquer the conditions of an undeveloped territory.

Charles and Victoire "Chouteau" Gratiot had four sons and five daughters; Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Charles the eldest son graduated from West Point and became engineer in chief of the United States Army giving valiant service to his country in the war of 1812; Fort Gratiot on the straits of Lake Huron was named after him and Gratiot county in Michigan, also an important street in Detroit and a light-house at Dunkirk, New York, bear the family name in his honor.

Henry, Jean Pierre Bunyon, and Paul Benjamin, the three younger sons, came to the Illinois country; early in October, 1824, Henry and Jean Pierre started from St. Louis. They carried their food, ammunition and camping outfit in a twohorse wagon; three trusty and valiant French Canadians, voyageurs, accompanied them; the way lay through vast virgin forests, Indians were in ambush; streams had to be forded, wild animals shrieked and scampered in the deep woods, at every turn they faced danger but their perilous  p673 journey ended without mishap in December and they found themselves in the settlement then called "January's Point" before the hard cold northern winter was upon them. Three cabins, some rude wooden shacks, and about five hundred white men comprised the village; this did not include the Indians' camps nearby.

Both brothers were under thirty years of age; they had left their wives and young families in St. Louis hoping to have them come North as soon as they could prepare a suitable shelter for them. Youth and hope kept the men keen and active during the long winter months. They united the frankness and generosity of the new world with the culture and polish of the old. The part they took in forming friendly relations between the settlers and the Indians was very important, they established a trading station and store, built the third real smelter near the establishment, teaching the miners how to procure the mineral from a greater depth than they had previously gone. The Gratiot smelter of furnace was on the edge of the village and for many years the road leading to it was called "Gratiot's Street."

In 1825 the Winnebago Indians petitioned the government to appoint their "friend and wise counsellor," Henry Gratiot, as their agent. He was duly installed by the President's orders with complete authority to govern the Indians in the distract and during the Winnebago and Blackhawk wars he was in command of forts and stockades and bore the rank of Colonel.

[image ALT: An engraving of a man, rather handsome if somewhat fleshy, in his thirties. He has a shock of Elvis-like hair and wears thin sideburns, and wears a coat. It is Henry Gratiot, an early pioneer of Galena, Illinois, whose career is sketched on this webpage.]

Henry Gratiot

The Portrait from which this copy was made was originally painted by Chester Harding and copied by Stuart — which copy Hon. E. B. Washburne presented to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in the name of his wife, Adele Gratiot Washburne.

In the early part of January, 1826, Henry returned to St. Louis to visit his family and buy materials to build them a comfortable house. He planned to have the lumber shipped as soon as navigation opened in the spring, and later when the house was ready and the safety of the river was assured send for his wife and children, household goods, and servants, but in April she grew very impatient and without his knowledge or consent and in spite of friends' advice she decided to join him and made the journey on a flat boat taking six weeks to complete it. She brought with her their five children, two  p674 negro slaves and a few household goods enough to establish their new home; tired and weary they landed in the village during high water and had to be taken to shore in a boat which carried them to a log cabin occupied by Dr. Van Meter and his squaw wife Josetta. It was on a high point of land called "Bench Street" the Van Meters housed the family for the night and until the surprised Henry could erect a temporary cabin for them as the materials he had purchased in St. Louis to build a home with had not arrived.

This cabin was built of logs with clay chinking, clapboard doors and one window, buffalo hides were used for floor covering and it bore the cheerful name "Sunny Spring Cabin." It was the fourth in the settlement and was located on the road leading to the Gratiot smelter. A cabin was also put up for the two negro slaves Scipio and Jenny who were faithful servants of the family for many years. "Sunny Spring" cabin was used longer than they anticipated and Susan Gratiot declared she spent some of the happiest days of her life in that rude home. She was the daughter of Stephen and Mary Lewis Hempstead of New London, Connecticut, whose ancestors had settled in the New England colony coming from England to escape religious persecution. In her blood as well as her husband's was the love of freedom, of life, freedom of thought, and the pursuit of happiness for all mankind; though Henry Gratiot was a Roman Catholic, he and his Puritan wife walked life's pathway hand in hand, heart to heart with no dissension on religious issues. They both had an abhorrence of the practice of negro slavery and that they owned slaves was one of their greatest regrets. They were glad to leave a State that regarded it as legal and right, hoping that in the new country they might bring up their children to realize its wrong. One of the first acts that the Gratiot brothers did after the slaves arrived was to set them free. In the court house of Galena today can be seen the hundred year old bond given by them to the commonwealth promising that the slaves they liberated would never become a charge to the State.

 p675  In June of the same year the wife of Jean Pierre came up the river with her family and arrived in Galena in time for a real fourth of July celebration. She was a highly educated French woman, Marie Antoinette Adèle de Perdeauvilleº whose mother was lady-in-waiting to the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette who had stood god-mother of her favorite court lady. Mrs. Gratiot at the age of eighty-four left a remarkable narrative on their life in Galena and in Gratiot's Grove. In that she tells of their arrival in Galena on June 17, 1826, "All the settlement flocked to the landing when the boat drew up to the levee, they were eager to see the newcomers from the South. My husband, my brother-in‑law, Henry and his wife Susan, were among the throng and my first insight into border society was the fourth of July celebration; it took place at the old Harris home three miles from town, it was the most curious aggregation that could be imagined. Colonel Strode who was in command of the block house delivered the oration. The miners with their uncut hair, red flannel shirts and high boots worn over their pants were there in great numbers all eager to dance with the ladies who were few in number and very popular and I must say that these frontier men all behaved like gentlemen."

One marvels in these modern days at the courage and faith in the future that was embodied in the lives of these pioneer women of over a hundred years ago. They lived in daily fear of the Indians who with scalping knife and tomahawk periled every woman and child; these heroic mothers faced danger, disease, and death to establish their homes. As one could easily predict the families of the brothers were congenial and happy in their close companion­ship and a very deep and lasting affection between the sisters-in‑law Susan and Adele Gratiot and their growing families, existed; the days and years of shared anxiety cemented this bond which lasted all their lives. The vivacious French woman was a devout Catholic while her sister-in‑law had been reared in a strict Puritan family; she was able to face the difficulties of their pioneer life with a calm courage; this courage and comfort  p676 was the shelter that Adele sought when the days were dangerous and dreary and in her narrative she says "We always felt safe when we were under the shelter of Susan Gratiot's fortitude."

On the 12th of November, 1826, the sixth child and third daughter of Susan and Henry Gratiot was born in the "Sunny-Spring" log cabin. She had the distinction of being the first white girl baby born in the settlement and she was named Adele after her aunt. Seventeen years later this little Adele married Elihu B. Washburne,​1 a young lawyer who had come to Galena from the State of Maine and she wrote some reminiscences of her mother's life for the entertainment of her little daughter Marie Washburne. This story has been gathered into a fascinating tale by this same Marie now Mrs. Marie Washburne Fowler. From it we relate the story of Susan Gratiot's pioneer experiences as told by her daughter Adele Gratiot Washburne.

"When I was born two colored women were all the help my mother had. I weighed three pounds and to keep me from freezing to death, they fitted up a cigar box for my cradle and set it on the mantelpiece in the warmest place. My dear mother took cold and they thought she would die. She only prayed that the little baby should die with her, but God sent an angel of mercy to her in one of the most awful storms that ever visited the country. Many perished in it. It was three o'clock when some halfbreed Indians knocked at her door. They let them in, and warmed and fed them, with mother dying as they supposed, in one corner of the room. Showenongua, as soon as she came to the bed, said in her Indian way, 'She is very sick. No die.' She went in search of roots and leaves and returned the next morning, her blanket full of dried leaves and roots. She sent everyone out  p677 out of the cabin, and, in her Indian way, relieved my mother. After several months she was able to be up again, the squaw having remained to nurse her.

"Showenongua made an Indian cradle for the baby, and I was strapped into that, but it kept me from freezing to death. My mother learned from this Indian squaw how to speak the Indian language, and she, in turn, learned some words of the English and French.

"After the Blackhawk war was over the cholera broke out among the Indians and colony, and my mother did much good with the medicine chest and doctors' book. She relieved many, but alas, many died, among them Josetta, the wife of Dr. Van Meter. Van Meter had previously died, and Josetta sent immediately for my mother and begged her to take Josephine, her little girl. Father Lutz and my mother told her that Miss Van Meter, the sister of her late husband, who lived with Josetta, was the right one, but Josetta hated Miss Van Meter, and said the child should die first. She called for the child, a beautiful little girl six years old, and kept her on the bed with her until death claimed her for his own. Before she died, the child commenced crying with toothache; soon face began swelling, and in two days she yielded up her little spirit to the God who gave it. The mother had poisoned her.

"Josetta was very angry at my mother once, and stole two silver spoons to avenge herself. She told the priest he would find them in a certain stump where she had hidden them, and there they were. This is the only thing the Indians stole from us, except the handsome feathers out of the roosters' tails. The young chiefs would pluck them, and then let the poor fowls run.

"After the disappearance of the cholera, the Indians made a great Medicine Queen of my mother, a thing never done before. The Medicine Men took her into a lodge, sang and danced around her, put an eagle feather on her head, and laid at her feet the Medicine Badge, which was a white weasel, beautifully dressed. She had also set the shoulder of one of  p678 the chiefs, who had the misfortune to break his arm. Her life was full of good deeds, not only to the Indians, but among her own people, and she had quite a reputation in the colony for her skill as a nurse and in medicine."

By December, 1826, the settlement was incorporated as a town and named Galena. It was fast assuming a dignity becoming its importance in the Northwest, homes were being built on the hills after the pattern of eastern and southern colonial architecture. Storehouses lined the active river frontage, Grace Episcopal church was established, a Methodist group were doing work in the mining district, and Father Mazuchelli was holding service in the first St. Michael church. Susan Gratiot did not fail in her duty to be a part of the religious life of the community; she became one of the six charter members of the first Presbyterian church organized by the beloved "Father" Aratus Kent.

In 1827 the Gratiots removed their smelters to a magnificent grove of virgin timber fifteen miles northeast of Galena, a mile and a half from the village of Shullsburg and it was called Gratiot's Grove. At this time it was in the state of Illinois but when the territorial division was made it was in the state of Wisconsin and this state justly claims these constructive men as its early settlers.

They did not take their families from Galena until the business of the Grove grew so important that they were compelled to be there all the time and town then built cabins and homes and removed from Galena to Gratiot's Grove and became a part of this new enterprise.

The youngest brother Paul Benjamin came from St. Louis in 1829 and established a store at Mineral Point, then the legal and important center of the Wisconsin mines. His wife was Virginia Bellin of Philadelphia.

Gratiot's Grove was progressing with great prosperity, they had over a thousand inhabitants, social life was gay, and between Galena, Mineral Point, Shullsburg and Fort Crawford there was a delightful exchange of parties, sleigh rides and quite elaborate balls were given, but the terror of  p679 Indian warfare disrupted this happy life and in 1832 the peaceful Grove became Fort Gratiot, an armed camp, with Colonel Henry Gratiot in command. Galena was under military rule with two block houses and a stockade offering a place of refuge for the settlers. Women and children were brought to it for safety while the male portion of the community prepared to fight Blackhawk and his braves. The Gratiots took their family first to Galena and then to St. Louis for safety.

Colonel Gratiot was still the official Indian agent and it was conceded that he had greater influence with the Indians than any other man in the Northwest. He was one of the members of the Council with Blackhawk held at the old Branton Tavern under a white oak tree on a high point of land seven miles from Galena. For many years this hill was called the "Hill of Council" but was later changed to "Council Hill." This conference with Blackhawk was a most important one and it is supposed to have deterred him from entering Galena.

The name of Henry Gratiot will always be associated with the heroic rescuing of the "Hall girls," two young sisters who were taken prisoners by the Indians and carried off on their ponies from Indian Creek, Illinois, to the Blue Mounds in Wisconsin. General Dodge of that state realized that the only way to save these girls was through the influence of Colonel Gratiot and he was able to obtain their release six days after he began negotiating with the Winnebagoes. He took the girls to Gratiot's Grove where they were cared for and returned to their homes.

Another important but dangerous mission was intrusted to him during the war by General Atkinson of Illinois, who deemed it important that an envoy visit the Indian chief called "the Prophet" who was the right arm of Blackhawk at the village of Prophetstown on the Rock River. Gratiot bore a letter from the General who was in command at Fort Armstrong, which was written in the interest of a peaceful termination of hostility. Several Winnebagos chiefs and a secretary accompanied  p680 Colonel Gratiot and the party descended the Rock River to the Prophet's village in canoes, and no sooner had they landed than the infuriated Indians in their warpaint surrounded the party and made everyone a prisoner. When the Chief saw Colonel Gratiot seized by his men he rushed out of his wigwam and embraced the Colonel saying he "would take this good friend of the Indian to his tent and care for him and protect him" but even the Prophet powerful as he was, could not quell the war spirit of his young braves and after three days they demanded that the prisoners be handed to them. The Prophet knowing what their fate would be, secretly told Colonel Gratiot of their plans and begged him to steal away at a given signal in their canoes in the early dusk. They did so, well knowing that death was just around the corner if they failed in their escape. They started down the river but the Indians were soon in hot pursuit and it was an all night race for life until daylight came when the enemy gave up the chase and Gratiot and his party utterly exhausted reached Fort Armstrong.

At the close of the war in 1833 the wives and children of Henry, Bunyon, and Paul Gratiot returned to their homes. Henry built a spacious stone house at the Grove hoping to have years of peace and enjoyment on his well earned estate; his brother Paul resumed his activities in Mineral Point for a few years and then returned to St. Louis. Jean Pierre (J. P. B.) went to Galena and erected for his family "A mansion house" in a typical French style with sloping roof, wide veranda, and Galleries. It was near the site of the "Sunny-Spring" log cabin and became the center of the town's social life; stately gentlemen danced with equally stately ladies and many important social events took place. Mrs. Alexander Hamilton wife of the famous statesman spent a winter with the Gratiots. One of her sons, William Hamilton, had sent for her to spend the winter at Hamilton's Diggins, in Wisconsin, but it was too crude for a lady who had been accustomed to eastern culture and comfort and the Gratiots came to the rescue and invited her to spend the winter with  p681 them. Pretty Dolly Madison attended ball given in her honor at the "mansion house." She was on her way to Fort Snelling where she was received with military honors and entertained as befitting a President's wife. In 1837 Mr. Gratiot removed to Missouri and became an important member of this legislature of that state.

In April, 1836, Henry Gratiot went to St. Louis and then to Washington city to report to the President the sad and deplorable conditions of the Indians on Rock River. Four Indian Chiefs had visited Gratiot's Grove during the winter to tell their ever faithful friend of their distress and as the journey as far as Philadelphia had to be made on horseback Gratiot was unable to start until the spring; he arrived safely and was the guest of his brother, General Charles Gratiot, while in Washington, but returning home he was stricken with pneumonia in Baltimore and passed out of his eventful life at the age of forty-five. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery at Baltimore and Galena held a public meeting to pay tribute to his memory and his service to his state and nation.

His devoted wife survived him eighteen years, and during that time she made her home alternately with her sons and daughter; Edward at Gratiot's Grove and Charles in Dubuque; Mrs. E. B. Washburne in Galena. Her sisters, Sara Beebe and "Aunt Manuel" Lisa, as well as her brothers, Charles and William Hempstead, lived in her first pioneer home. So she called Galena "home," not only for its memories but for the friends that lived in it.

Adele Gratiot Washburne (the daughter) lived part of each year in Washington as her husband was Representative from Illinois for many years, and Susan Gratiot was often a part of the family life in that city. As she was returning to Galena from Washington and Baltimore (where she went to visit her husband's grave), she was stricken with the dreaded disease, cholera, on the stage that made its trip from Chicago to Galena three times a week, when within ten miles of her destination. Her condition was so serious that she had to be removed to a wayside Tavern and passed on within ten hours  p682 from the time she was taken ill; her funeral was held in the South Presbyterian Church of Galena and she was laid away in Greenwood Cemetery at that place.

Only one descendant of these Gratiot Pioneers has a home in the old city of the hills; but many of them came from the corners of the earth to visit the pioneer home of their revered ancestors, and in their imagination re-people the scene of those days of long ago when life was full of danger and discovery, adventure and romance; though the hands that builded the old town have laid aside their work, the permanent result remains and from the tasks of the then early pioneers our great State and Nation has developed.

"To The Pioneer."

"Only those are crown'd and sainted

Who with grief have been acquainted

Making Nations nobler, freer."

"In their feverish exultations,

In their triumph and their yearning,

In their passionate pulsations,

In their words among the nations

The Promethean fire is burning."

"But the glories so transcendent

That around their memories cluster,

And on all their steps attendant,

Make their darken'd lives resplendent

With such gleams of inward lustre."​2

The Author's or Editor's Notes:

1 Elihu B. Washburne was representative from Illinois for many terms and in 1869 he was appointed Minister to France by his former Galena townsman, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant, who was then President of the United States. During the Franco-Prussian War the name of Washburne bore great weight with both nations in the combat. For by his diplomacy and kindness he was able to aid and comfort both French and Germans; his wife, Adèle Gratiot, with her understanding of French people and language had endeared herself to the Emperor and Empress and her gracious and sympathetic personality aided her husband in his important post. Even the great Bismarck granted her the privilege of the mails without censor­ship.

Thayer's Note: The house he built in Galena in the 1840's still stands, and is open to visitors. For full details, see Drury's Old Illinois Houses, pp186‑187.

[decorative delimiter]

2 [Editor's] Foot note — (Mrs. William Gratiot Bale, the writer of this sketch, is the daughter of Stephen Hempstead Gratiot and Mary Jane Chamberlin Gratiot, and the granddaughter of Col. Henry and Susan Hempstead Gratiot; she has a home in Galena but resides in Waukegan, Ill.)

Thayer's Notes:

a Properly, Pierre (de) Laclède Liguest. He doesn't seem to have been a marquis, nor even a nobleman.

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b "Chouteau" in quotes, because their last name was a fiction to stay on the right side of propriety and the law. Her mother Marie Thérèse Chouteau (née Bourgeois) was only Laclède's common-law wife: during the birth of their four children she remained legally married to René Auguste Chouteau who had abandoned her and returned to France — divorce being essentially impossible under the laws of the time.

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Page updated: 11 Mar 13