Treaty Narratives

7 Narrative of Peter J. Vieau

In an Interview with the Editor, Reuben G. Thwaites (Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. 15, 1900)

Jacques Vieux was a Milwaukee trader at the treaty negotiations; his name appears at payment schedule B of the treaty. His son Peter J. Vieau accompanied his father to the treaty negotiations. The father appears again as a character in the third part of this digital reader (“Milwaukee & the Region”).

I was born in Milwaukee, January 10, 1820, at the old fur-trading post of my father, Jacques Vieau, near the present stock yards; my brother Andrew J. was born January 1, 1815; Nicolas, March 4, 1818 – otherwise our family dates of births are as given in Andrew’s narrative in vol. xi of the Wisconsin Historical Collections.

Our father, who was the first permanent white settler at Milwaukee (1795), was about six feet in height, and very corpulent; his average weight was from 210 to 215 pounds. His face was clean-shaven; his hair was light, and inclined to curl; his face was round and broad. He was naturally a temperate man, as to drink; had a happy, sociable disposition; and was popular among both whites and Indians – over the latter he held full sway.

In Andrew’s narrative he says that father went to Mackinac from Montreal in 1793. The large History of Milwaukee County says it was in 1776; this is more nearly correct, although I do not know exactly when it was. He and his brother Nicolas went out there as young men, and engaged as voyageurs with John Ulrich, who traded in the La Pointe region, on Lake Superior. Father was certainly at La Pointe in 1782, by which time he had become a clerk for Ulrich, and had full charge of the La Pointe post; at the same time, Nicolas was living in Green Bay. When Jacob Franks opened, in 1791, a post at Green Bay for Ogilvie, Gillespie & Co., of Montreal, father became a clerk under him. Having acquired a good reputation as a clerk, he was sent out from Mackinac in July, 1795, by the Northwest Fur Company, to establish posts along the west shore of Lake Michigan, with headquarters at Milwaukee.

Solomon Juneau came west from Canada to Mackinac, when he was a boy of but fifteen or sixteen years; in his company was another youngster, the two of them engaging as voyageurs under Louis Eaume, an old French trader. The lads had been students in a Roman Catholic seminary at L’Assumption, and ran away together. Father had known the Juneau family at Montreal, for many years; and when he met Solomon at Mackinac, found the boy badly in need of a friend. He was a fine-looking lad, with a frank, pleasing French face, and curling hair, and father at once hired him, at first as a voyageur, then as a clerk. He went about the country a great deal with father, and I am under the impression that he visited Milwaukee in a humble capacity long before 1818, when he came to stay. He had married our half-sister, Josette, as early as 1814 or 1815.

Like Jacques Vieux’s, the Milwaukee trader & speculator Solomon Juneau’s name also appears at payment schedule B of the treaty. He also appears again as a character in the third part this digital reader (“Milwaukee & the Region”).

In 1819, father disposed of his interests to Juneau, but soon reopened a post at the old place on the Menomonee River, at Milwaukee, as agent for Michael Dousman of Chicago. Thus he became a rival of Juneau; but it was a friendly rivalry, for both families were always good friends. Later, father traded at Milwaukee for Daniel M. Whitney, of Green Bay. In 1836, when white settlers were rapidly coming into Milwaukee, father, then 74 years old, retired to our old home in Green Bay.

Solomon Juneau's Trading Post at Milwaukee, 1825-33 (From Buck's Pioneer History of Milwaukee.)
Solomon Juneau’s Trading Post at Milwaukee, 1825-33 (From Buck’s Pioneer History of Milwaukee). (1876-1886.)

As agent of the Northwest Fur Company, and later of the American Fur Company, father had control of trading posts at Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and other places, as well as at Milwaukee, where we lived for many years, and where many of us children were born. When father went out to visit his posts, each summer, he would take mother and the young ones with him, leaving the older boys to tend the store in Milwaukee.

A hill with a small wood cabin on top and a river at its base. There is another small wood cottage on the riverbank. One canoe is tied up at the shore and another is on the water. A number of people are busy with various tasks.
Jacques Vieau Cabin (1795) illustration (1925). (From the Milwaukee Public Library.)

In Buck’s History of Milwaukee is a picture of Milwaukee in 1795. I can vouch for its general accuracy, for the place represented is my birth place, my father’s old trading post. The house at the top of the high bank was our dwelling. The warehouse was southeast of this, and hid by it. At the base of the bank was the house of a voyageur. The long boat represented was a Mackinac boat; but it ought to have four oars on each side, instead of two. The Indian in the boat is intended to be Meguin (the feather), a Pottawattomie; he was a great shot, as an archer; all the other Indians hereabout feared him, for he could shoot nine out of ten ducks on the wing. The buildings in the picture were destroyed in 1836 or 1837, at the time of the great land speculation. I have often heard my father say that when he arrived at this place, about the third week of August, 1795, it was in the evening. He beached his batteau a little to the west of the spot where his post was established, and had two tents put up at the foot of the bank, one for his men, the other for the family.

The fur traders of that olden time had many curious adventures, and witnessed many singular spectacles. I think it was in 1833 that the last Indian payment was made in Chicago. My father went there with a lot of goods, and to present some claims; for the Indians nearly always bought on credit, and were ever owing a great deal to the traders – claims which could only be collected at the time of the government payments, when money was plenty.

One afternoon the Indians were having a council. While it was in progress there swaggered into father’s shanty, Sangaunauneebee (sour water), a Pottawattomie village chief from St. Joseph’s River. He was rightly named, for he had a sour temper. Father had a big keg of tobacco in carots (plugs). The chief took five or six carots (six or seven pounds), and began to walk off with them.

Father. What are you going to do with that?
Chief. I want to use it.
Father. It doesn’t belong to you.
Chief. What of that? I am a chief, and can do as I please.
Father. You can, can you?

The chief pulled a long bowie knife, but father made a spring, caught the fellow by his neck and his breech-clout, and threw him out, the plugs of tobacco scattering in all directions.

The intruder sneaked off into the circle of the council, which was being held in front of the shanty, and father followed him a little way. Chepoi (the corpse), a headman of the Pottawattomies,- a frightful-looking fellow, with his nose cut off clear to the bridge, – now got up, and shaking his finger at father, cried: “Jacques Vieau, we have always heard you were a popular man, a benefactor of the Indians, feeding them when hungry; but today you have lost all, you have spoiled yourself, by doing that which you have just now done to our noble chief, Sanguanauneebee. Never again will you have the favor of the Indians.”

Father. Who are you, there, that is talking with such authority?
Speaker. I am the head councilman of the St. Joseph band.
Father. If I were such a looking man as you are, Chepoi, I should consider that the name you bear became me well. You, who want to show so much authority. go where you lost your nose, and find it; then you will be a fit subject to come here to Chicago and make such fine speeches.

It required bravery and assurance to talk like this to the leader of a band of four hundred Indians. But father, who spoke Pottawattomie like one of them, of course knew his ground. The whole ring of savages, of whom there were at least a thousand in the hearing of his voice, burst out in vociferous applause. Chepoi, glaring fiercely at the impudent trader, sat down in chagrin.

There were, I think, at this Chicago payment, five or six thousand savages of different tribes. It had much the appearance of a fair. A curious episode now occurred. There were at this gathering two young men who were the best of friends, as well as being two of the finest-looking Indians I ever saw. One was the son of Sanguanauneebee; the other, the son of another chief, Seebwasen (cornstalk). Both were courting the same young sq***, the daughter of Wampum, a Chippewa chief living at Sheboygan. They had proposed to fight a duel to decide who should have the girl. She had agreed to marry one of them at this payment. but did not care who.

This was the question being discussed at the council which was held in front of my father’s shanty. The two fathers had submitted the question to the council, and it had been decided that the young fellows should fight to the death, the survivor to take the girl. The boys were brought before the wise men, and informed of the conclusion reached.

Then their ponies were brought, one a black, the other a gray. The duelists and their saddles were decked with beads, silver brooches, ribbons, and other ornaments such as the traders bartered with the Indians; the ponies’ manes and tails were tricked out with ribbons, and altogether it was like one of those ancient tournaments in France, that I have read of in the old histories. First, the ponies were driven side by side one or two times in a circle around the council place, in front of the store. Then together, the duelists and their friends started out for the place of encounter, swimming their horses across the river, and drew up on an open spot on the north side. Crude flags were hung on poles, which were stuck up in the sand roundabout, an Indian sign that a fight to the death was in progress. Indian guards were placed, to clear a ring of two or three hundred yards; heading these guards, and acting as seconds, were Chepoi and Seebwasen. A little outside the ring, all alone, stood the girl being fought for, apparently indifferent, her arms akimbo. The time was an hour before sundown, and there were present four or five hundred whites and Indians. I was then in Green Bay, at school; but my father and Juneau, who were there and saw everything, often described it to us children.

One of the duelists wheeled to the right, the other to the left. Then they brought their horses sideways close together, head to tail, tail to head. Either Chepoi or Seebwasen cried, in the Pottawattomie tongue, “Time is up! Ready!”

At this each fighter instantly drew his green handled bowie, full twenty inches long. As they rushed together, there was a frightful hubbub among the spectators. Juneau fainted, so did many others. The Indian women rent the air with their cries. Such thrusts as those fellows gave each other in the back! The blood spurted at each blow. Finally Sanguanauneebee’s boy fell over backwards, his arm raised for a blow, but with the knife of the other in his spine. A moment later, Seebwasen’s son cried out in his death agony, and also fell backwards. Both died almost simultaneously. The horses stood stock still. The girl, now with no lover left, wrung her hands in frenzy.

Reuben G. Thwaites. “Narrative of Peter J. Vieau.” Wisconsin Historical Collections, 1855-1915, vol. 15 (Wisconsin Historical Society, 1900): pp. 458-469.