Frontier valentines: Living proof that love can and did abide
Reprinted with permission from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday February 7, 1999
BY JOHN GURDA
Their romance began in the wilderness. He was a French Canadian voyageur who had been knocking around the Great Lakes region for almost a decade. She was a fur trader's daughter, French and Menominee by ancestry, who had probably never set foot outside Wisconsin. When they met, Milwaukee was not even a dot on the map, but Solomon Juneau and Josette Vieau became the community's first valentines. Josette's father, Jacques Vieau, had been trading with local Indians since 1795, when he opened a small post overlooking the Menomonee Valley in today's Mitchell Park. Vieau and his wife, Madeline, had at least 12 children, and their brood spent part of each year in Milwaukee. Josette was one of the oldest.
A newcomer entered the household in 1818, when Vieau brought Solomon Juneau to Milwaukee as his clerk. After what must have been a closely watched courtship, given the family's cramped quarters, Solomon and Josette were married in 1820. He was 27-practically middle-aged, at the time-and she was 17.
The newlyweds spent their first years together at other Vieau posts in southern Wisconsin, but they were back in Milwaukee by 1825. Solomon went into business for himself, opening a trading post at the present intersection of Water St. and Wisconsin Ave. Perched on the first dependably dry ground above the mouth of the Milwaukee River, it soon became the busiest in the region.
Although they left no trail of love letters, the Juneaus were by all accounts devoted to each other. The most tangible sign of their bond was Josette's 17 pregnancies. Thirteen of her children survived infancy, materially increasing the population of the frontier outpost.
The Juneau family's lives changed dramatically in the 1830s, when eastern speculators arrived with dreams of building a city on the swamp that covered central Milwaukee. Solomon quickly moved from furs to real estate as his stock in trade. In partnership with Morgan Martin, a well-connected Green Bay lawyer, he became the impresario of Milwaukee's east side, serving as promoter, postmaster and developer.
Mrs.. Juneau kept a lower profile, but she was a full participant in local affairs. In addition to raising her own kids, she acted as hostess, nurse and midwife for the growing number of women in the settlement, virtually none of whom spoke the French she used at home.
Josette was also Milwaukee's guardian angel on one memorable occasion in 1835. While her husband was away on business, she patrolled the primitive streets all night to ward off a threatened Indian uprising.
Although they had little in common with the Yankees who were swarming over Milwaukee, the Juneaus were popular figures in the settlement. Morgan Martin remembered Josette as "a most amiable and excellent woman." Another contemporary praised her "calm and stoical self-possession" and "great, hearty and beautiful goodness.
Solomon himself was described as "one of Nature's noblemen" and an "unselfish, confiding, open-hearted, genial, honest and polite" individual who deserved remembrance as a "primal civic hero."
In 1846, when Milwaukee received city charter, voters paid Juneau the compliment of electing him their first mayor.
(In one of the more interesting passages from his inaugural address, the old trader foreshadowed John Norquist's opposition to gambling, Indian and otherwise. Juneau pledged that he would use every means possible "to secure the youth of the City from the wiles and devices of the gambler.")
The adulation of their new neighbors must have been gratifying, but the Juneaus, after so many years in the wilderness, eventually grew tired of the city springing up around them. In 1848, they moved out to Dodge County and founded a settlement called Theresa, in honor of Solomon's mother.
Solomon opened a grist mill and general store there for aspiring farmers, both Yankee and German, who were settling in the vicinity, but he also continued to do business with bands of Indians who still roamed the territory.
The Juneaus' rural idyll ended in 1855, when Josette died at the age of 52. Although he stayed in business, Solomon was reportedly devastated by the loss. He died less than a year later, during a visit to the Menominee reservation in northern Wisconsin.
A simple stone marks the couple's grave in Calvary Cemetery today. It is seldom visited, except by history buffs and the occasional relative, but February is the appropriate month to remember Milwaukee's first valentines.
In a time notably devoid of hearts and flowers, Solomon and Josette offered living proof that love can abide.
the Crossroads section on the first Sunday of