Menomonee and Montrealer: Milwaukee’s first power couple

I spent weeks leading up to this trip telling people excitedly that I was headed to Wisconsin and their response was nearly unanimous: “ … ?”

That’s probably the reaction Solomon Juneau got when he told his fellow Montrealers he was headed to Wisconsin and you know what he did while he was here? Founded a whole damn city, that’s what.

Old Solomo wasn’t the first Quebec fur trader to come to Wisconsin, but he made the deepest imprint. He took over a small trading post by the lake from Jacques Vieaux in the 1830s and transformed it from a pit stop along the Michigan-Mississippi route into what we now call Milwaukee.

History calls him founder, entrepreneur, postmaster, first mayor, and relates that he was widely respected. But the best thing history remembers is his intense love for his young bride, the Métis daughter of Vieaux, Josette.

Josette was the granddaughter of Menomonee Indian Chief Ah-ke-ne-po-way (Standing Earth). She bore 17 children, 13 of whom survived, and was clearly her husband’s partner in all endeavours. A 1916 biography of Solomon, written by their granddaughter Isabella Fox, at first appears to downplay her strengths: “Although young in years at the time of her marriage, she was adept in the art of housekeeping.”

Then the truth comes out: She was also a midwife, nurse, and alongside Solomon a great philanthropist. Her work with the poor would be noted even by Pope Leo XII. She was fluent in French, of course, but also spoke many aboriginal languages, and so served alongside her husband as translator and collaborator.

Together they gave away land and help build churches and entertained the most influential of Wisconsin’s elite. They straddled a world of luxury and simplicity and eventually, together, nearly emptied their coffers with their goodwill.

Josette had had enough of city life anyway, and so they retired to Theresa, a town north of Milwaukee that Solomon had founded and named for his mother, Thérese. They lived only a few quiet years before Josette grew gravely ill and died in 1855. Solomon succumbed to his broken heart soon after.

The Theresa Historical Society says “700 Indians including Chiefs Oshkosh, Corrow, Larriet, and Keshena marched with his funeral bier to the burial grounds at the Keshena reservation.”

Their bodies were eventually moved to Milwaukee, but the location of their final resting place matters less than that they are together still.

Charles Milwaukee Sivyer, an otherwise upstanding Wisconsin businessman, said of Josette a decade after her death, “Had she the education of a white woman, she would have shone as brightly as any of her white sisters. Why all these orators don’t give that good woman more praise, I don’t know.

“Why, the last words of Solomon Juneau were, ‘Dear wife, I come to you’.”

(Posted with extra love on the occasion of the marriage of another power couple, Erin Stropes and Jordan Knoll. Live happily ever after)


The ill-fated marriage of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw and Kwakiutl

It’s fitting that Thomas Point is so rocky; so was the marriage that was established here in the 1960s.

Arranged by the government, it was shortly thereafter dissolved with hollow-sounding apologies and “we meant well.” I guess they thought the shared history of the betrothed would be enough.

Thomas Point near Port Hardy.
Thomas Point near Port Hardy.

The Gwa’sala and ’Nakwaxda’xw people were forest-dwellers and fishers in the region now called Smith and Seymour inlets, tucked into the B.C.’s mainland. They traded and intermarried with the dozens of other aboriginal bands that line the coast and participated in the trade with white men, especially here, a base of operations for the Hudson Bay Co. And though they lived in relative isolation, they were not shielded from the European introduction of residential schools, disease, and liquor.

The Fort Rupert band — the Kwakiutl — lived here next to what would become Port Hardy, though to them it was Tsaxis, as it had been for the 8,000 to 10,000 years they called it home. The sharp mountains of Tsaxis were veined with coal and the Hudson Bay Co. coveted it. Though the Kwakiutl won the right to mine and trade with HBC, it wasn’t without cost: the residential schools, disease, and liquor taxed them as they had the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw.

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But neither band disappeared, and by the mid-1940s, the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were getting stronger and recovering from a half-century during which their customs, artwork, and forests had been plundered. Canada began to pitch in some social programs, though the First Nations who were not willing to fully assimilate into European culture were still consigned to reserves.

Bands like the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw were far less likely to assimilate because they were isolated in their hidden inlets. Thus the marriage was proposed: Move to Tsaxis, Canada urged, and we will give you land, housing, education, health care — the sort of life you’ll never have in your backwards back country. But if they chose to stay on their ancestral lands, all social programs would be cut off.

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I imagine the boat ride across strait was long, quiet and cold. Behind them, their homes were being burned to the ground. There was no going back. Thomas Rock, here at the edge of Fort Rupert, is cold and black and must have seemed like the end of the world.

This may surprise you (if you’ve never opened a history book), but the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw say they got far less than they bargained for. And the Kwakiutl? The marriage was forced on them, too. They lived eight miles apart, like a couple that must remain in the same house so retreat to separate beds.

According to a Gwa’sala website, a government staffer wrote a book about the situation that was called, “How a People Die.” He must not have met these people.

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The unwanted marriage was dissolved in 1969. Their joint council was dismantled and the hard work of splitting land and resources began.

“What was done was honestly believed to be the best thing at the time,” Port Hardy’s director of community affairs told the North Island Gazette. “I think the fact you are dissatisfied now indicates that after it’s over, looking back on it, it was wrong. … It was an honest mistake and we’ll correct the things that are wrong now.”

Let’s not pretend things have been completely corrected in the past 45 years. But let’s celebrate alongside the First Nations who are finding a way to renew their customs and languages by rebuilding their communities with schools and other resources.

“Families hold potlatches and young people are learning to dance and sing, learning their names, so that they can potlatch when their time comes.”

Custer’s Last Stand, as told by a shopkeeper


POWDER RIVER COUNTY, Mont. – I don’t do a ton of research before we hit the road. I do my learning via visitor centres, historical plaques and lonely dudes in the last open store for 300 miles.

Our GPS, Alpha, was set to take the fastest route from Deadwood to Billings, Mont. He did his mystery calculations and carefully planned a route that was four minutes shorter than the interstate. “In 800 metres, take the exit right. Exit right now, then take the motorway.”

The motorway was the 212, which runs roughly parallel but not too close to the I90. A two-lane highway through the plains with a suggested speed limit of 75, it has neither traffic nor services. And it is stunning.

There are so many horses in South Dakota and Montana. I had expected to see this many in Texas, yet here they are up north with thousands of acres to graze and prace and ignore the cattle. There were hundreds of deer, too, or antelope – thankfully they weren’t close enough to the road to tell which. Eventually the land began to roll, great gentle bumps covered in sagebrush and Prairie grasses that became modestly greener as we bolted through Wyoming (about five minutes across a tiny corner of it) and into Montana.

It was near suppertime on a lazy Sunday and though our thoughts turned to food, the highway did not.

Powder River boasted (on the only billboard for 100 miles) the best food for 300 miles at the Judges Chambers in Broadus. “It’s the only food for 300 miles,” I said, and I thought I was joking. It was closed.

Everything in Broadus – a slice of highway and two or three cross streets – was closed, except the bar with half a dozen pickups outside, and the corner store.

The shopowner had a neat white beard and a gentle voice so quiet I had to strain to hear him.

“She your first?” he asked, and I shook my head, pointing to Trevor, who was at hte back of the store looking at trucker caps and rifles.

The shopowner’s children spanned 13 years. The baby was 19, the last one left at home. He told me his whole story, but with his soft voice I missed big chunks of it.

His first wife left him and he met another lady with more kids to add to his brook – the 19-year-old was one of those. The second lady had some kind of midlife crisis last summer, he told me, and went from a Size 12 to a Size 7, sitting in front of the computer with coffee and cigarettes, playing WoW. Plus, she was being indiscreet.

“Indiscreet,” he said again, barely louder, to sure I understood. “That’s hard on the kids. If you’re going to do it, be discreet, you know? For the kids.” She had to go, and she didn’t take her children with her.

He followed us outside, still talking. “You’re in the country where Custer got his ass kicked. This land all belonged to the Cow, who were rather nice people. Then the Sioux came down, and they weren’t so nice. They were mean, and came to take the land. They come up against Custer and who’s he got on his side but the Crow? He came on down here in ’72.”

1872, people. Do you realize how recent that was? My grandfather was born in 1899, and I knew him well.

Two years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and in 1876 Custer led the charge to send the aboriginal tribes packing. As my friend told me, it didn’t end well for him.

“You’ll pass some white crosses up that way. That’s where they found teh bodies. They moved them eventually, but that’s where they fell, back when Custer got his ass kicked.”

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In the short term, a coalition of aboriginal tribes had their victory. But they lost in the end: They were pushed onto reservations in and around the hills. We stopped for gas and ice cream in a tiny town on Cherokee land, experiencing for half an hour what it’s like to be the minority – the only white people to have stopped in that town for heavens know how long.

Our shopkeeper had told us he taught a history class that an aboriginal boy attended. After telling him the story of Custer and the Indians’ loss of land, he asked him what he thought. “Well, it was the first drive-by, wasn’t it?” the kid responded.

An elder talked to us (mostly the baby) for a while, wishing us a peaceful and safe trip. It was exactly how the day was supposed to end.