Interview with Mary Elise Antoine
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Frenchtown Chronicles?"
Albert Coryer was of the same generation as my grandmother. As they both lived on the north side of Prairie du Chien and attended services at St. Gabriel’s Church, they knew each other. yes But Albert was only introduced to me after I moved back to Prairie.One of his relatives gave me a copy of Short Stories Handed Down… saying, "I thought you would like this.” And I did. I researched Albert and found the transcripts of interviews he had done with Florence Bittner. I always thought Albert’s stories should be shared, knowing others would find them interesting and filled with great traditions in life that were gone. Because of Albert, they would not be lost. When Lucy suggested that we edit Albert’s writings, I supported her.
WHS Press: What is one of the most pivotal or historically significant stories?
Because of my interests, I like the stories of Julian’s life in the Missouri fur trade. There are financial records and correspondence in existence from the Chocteau family who operated much of the Missouri trade, but so little information from the men who did all the hard work and made the traders wealthy. From Albert’s memories, one learns about the life of a voyageur engaged to work in the elements for three long years for a suit of clothes, meager food, and a pittance.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers learn from Coryer’s writings?
So many things. (1) How families and neighbors worked and lived together, with an overall concern to help to each other. (2) The sense of community. Frenchtown was a neighborhood where all knew and interacted with each other. (3) Though a hard life farming, it was also a simple and enjoyable life, taking time to gather in the evenings for music and storytelling. (4) A consideration of all that we are losing today because we move away from family, fill our life with organized activities away from family, and do not take the time to just sit and listen: listen to and ask questions of our older relatives and older people in the community.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from writing/researching this book and Coryer’s writing?
I have done research on the upper Mississippi fur trade and had assumed that Albert’s grandfather, Julian, had left Quebec to work in the upper Mississippi-western Great Lakes region. It was a surprise, but a pleasant one, to learn that he had worked in the Missouri River trade. Julian’s life made the connections between the two regions more personal and detailed.
What are the ways in which this story is a uniquely Wisconsin story? In what ways does it tell a national story?
It is a Wisconsin story because of the many people of French-Canadian heritage who left Canada and settled in the region. Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, Kaukauna, Portage, LaPointe, Eau Claire became communities because of the French-Canadians who made their new homes in these locations. It is a national story because of the great information about people living on the frontier and how they worked with the indiginous population, the land, and other settlers to provide for themselves.
WHS Press: How was writing this book a personal experience?
Prairie du Chien is my home; I am the only member of the fifth generation of my family to live in Prairie du Chien. So, anything I learn about my community and its residents is personal.
WHS Press: What is your favorite historical detail from the book?
It is just a few sentences as Albert relates the final years of his grandfather’s life: "[In about 1850] Julian went to Canada to visit his Father, who was very old at the time. But Julian wanted to ask his Father’s forgiveness for having left home in anger. Money was scarce, but Julian gave his Father fifty dollars in gold. Thereby Julian told the Valleys and Prew[s] of the new country here and the milder climate, so they all came to Prairie shortly after.” This told me so much about other French-Canadian families in Prairie du Chien and the importance of Julian Carriere to the community. These three sentences pointed me to new information to add to the research I have been doing for about 30 years on the French-Canadian people and the French-Canadian material culture of Wisconsin and the upper Mississippi.