Old French House & Indian Museum
The Old Northwest Corporation
Home of French Trader Michel Brouillet built circa 1806 Vincennes, Indiana
Who was Michel Brouillet? The first known owner of the "Old French House" was Michel Brouillet (pronounced brooYET). He was born in Vincennes in 1774, the son of Michel Brouillet Sr., an officer in the Vincennes Militia under George Rogers Clark during the American Revolution. In 1797, Brouillet established a treading post near Terre Haute. In 1801 he received a license to trade with the Miami nation, and in 1804 he received a license to trade with the Kickapoo Indians. Governor William Henry Harrison used Brouillet as an interpreter in treaty talks with the Indians on a number of occasions. From 1809 to 1811, Brouillet served as a spy for Harrison. Under the guise of trading with the Indians at the mouth of the Tippecanoe River, Brouillet gathered information about a possible Indian uprising under the leadership of Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet. Brouillet was married in 1806 to Marie Drouet de Richardville and they had eight children. The family evidently stayed at Vincennes while Brouillet went upriver on his trading expeditions. Brouillet also had a family by an Indian wife; one son Jean Baptist Brouillet, was a Miami chief. With the decline of the fur trade, Michel Brouillet took up tavern keeping in Vincennes. He died in 1838 and is buried in the Old Cathedral cemetery.
An unusual building technique...
Mortise and tenon... All the large timbers of the framework are mortised together. This involved cutting a projecting tongue (tenon) on the end of one timber and a matching slot (mortise) in another timber. Each tenon was custom-cut to fit a particular mortise. Roman numerals carved on the two pieces helped to mate them at the building site. After assembly, a hole was bored and a wooden peg driven in to pin the pieces together. Ceiling beams, with a bead decoration carved on the bottom edges, slid into mortises in the upright posts. The ceiling and floor are boards fitted together with tongues and grooves on the edges. Rafters form an A-frame roof, covered with hand-split shingles.
Walls of Mud... The walls are insulated with a mixture of mud and prairie grass, known as "bousillage," daubed over wooden stakes jammed between the posts at six inch intervals, like the rungs of a ladder. The walls are coated inside and out with a rough plaster made of sand and quicklime, then whitewashed. Lime was made by burning mussel shells from the river. Porches, called "galleries," protect the plaster walls from the elements. On hot days the French sat out on their porches, which served as extensions of the living room.
Living Arrangements... The house is partitioned into two small rooms--probably bedrooms--and a living room, where family life centered around the hearth. The house has a massive "double chimney," with a fireplace in the living room for heat and cooking in the winter, and another fireplace facing into the lean-to summer kitchen for warm-weather cooking. Next to the chimney, a narrow stairway leads to the loft, which probably served as a dormitory for the older boys. The loft now contains an exhibit on the fur trade, featuring a 120-year-old dugout canoe.
A Bed like a Closet... The house is sparsely furnished, in keeping with frontier life. In the front bedroom is a rare enclosed bed or "lit clos." These beds were popular in the eighteenth century as a protection from drafts. The bed, crafted of heavy Flemish oak, has the date "1759" carved on the doors. It is decorated with carved concentric circles, called "galettes," a characteristic decoration from Brittany. Later, when these beds were out of fashion, many were converted into armoires (as was this one) by the addition of shelves.
The Indian Museum Because Brouillet was an Indian trader and interpreter, it is appropriate that a museum commemorating Native Americans is situated in what was once his backyard. The Indian Museum traces the four periods of prehistory -- the time prior to written records -- in North America. Prehistoric peoples found the Wabash Valley appealing, and a number of mounds they used can still be seen on the outskirts of the town. On display at the museum are artifacts from all periods of prehistory, as well as the bones of a mastodon found near Vincennes. Mastodons were common in the area after the last ice age and were hunted by prehistoric peoples. As the climate warmed about 8000 B.C., however, the large game disappeared and the Indians began hunting smaller game and gathering wild plant foods and river mussels. Eventually, groups began to live in more permanent settlements, became dependent on agriculture, and traded over a wide area. When Europeans arrived, they found these settlements abandoned and the area sparsely populated and used mainly for hunting by the Miami and Shawnee. When the Sieur de Vincennes journeyed down the Wabash to construct a fort her in 1732, he persuaded a group of Piankeshaw Indians to accompany him; they lived near the fort in a village called Chippecoke. The French House is located in what was once the heart of that Indian village.
The Old French House Located on First Street, halfway between the Log Cabin at the Vincennes State Historic Site and the George Rogers Clark Memorial. Small admission charge. Hours vary seasonally. For more information or to schedule a group tour, call 1-800-886- 6443. The Old French House is owned by a not-for-profit corporation The Old Northwest Corporation P.O. Box 1979 Vincennes, Indiana 47591