Extraordinary Native American Woman – Marie Rouensa – 1677-1725

We have no image of Marie. This painting is representative of other Native American women who lived in a similar time period. Indian women used cloth they purchased from traders. As a farmer in a French/Indian settlement, it is likely Marie wore a combination of traditional and French clothing. Portraits would have been done in formal dress as opposed to everyday wear. Casual clothing in the period was styled similar to dress fashions but made from less expensive fabric.
Photo credit: oldfashionedholidays.wordpress.com

Do you know Marie Rouensa? No? Maybe she’s more familiar to you by her Native American name, Aramepinchone? You don’t recognize that name either?
Marie is a woman well worth knowing.
Marie Rouensa was born in 1677. Her father was the Kaskaskia Chief Mamenthouensa, also chief of the Illiniwek Confederation, a group of approximately 10,000 Native Americans that included the peaceful Kaskaskia Tribe among the twelve or thirteen tribes belonging to the confederation. An important guy!
They lived in a village across the Illinois River from what at that time was the French Fort St. Louis, but is now Starved Rock. Marquette and Joliet had stayed at the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia when returning from their exploration of the Mississippi River in 1673. Marquette returned in 1675 to found the Mission of the Immaculate Conception there. The village grew to as many as 6000 people, and included French missionaries and fur traders among the Kaskaskia population.
Marie was educated at the mission and became a devoted Catholic. She was a gifted storyteller, and soon realized that Christian stories had similarities to the trials of the Kaskaskia way of life. She became an assistant to Father Gravier, who ran the mission, instructing both children and adults using their native language, and made many conversions within her village.
Her story does not end there. In 1694, Maria, at seventeen years of age, decided to devote her life to Christ and to chastity, but her parents had other ideas. For political reasons, they chose a marriage for her, to a fifty-year-old coureur du bois (illegal fur trader) with a reputation for debauchery. Michel Accault (Aco) came west with La Salle and stayed to trade with the Illini. Such alliances were beneficial for both Native Americans and Frenchmen, providing trade advantages, protection, hospitality, and sustenance in times of famine. Marie did not want to marry, but her father was the Chief.
Catholicism and marriage to Frenchmen appealed to Illini women. Warfare with the Winnebago and Sioux had resulted in a decline in the number of Illini men, such that there were four women to every man. Polygamy was common, marriages were demanding, and involved brutal punishments. The arrival of Jesuit missionaries and French fur traders offered Illini women an opportunity to challenge abusive treatment and seek alternatives.
Marie was very unhappy, but what could she do? Marie refused the marriage. She was stripped, banished from her mother’s cabin, and driven away. She took refuge at the mission. Her father placed guards to keep other Kaskaskia away, leaving the chapel nearly empty. He threatened more harsh methods against Marie and the mission if she did not agree to the marriage.
Marie proposed a compromise. She would marry Accault if he and her parents would become Christians. The advantages of the union outweighed objections, and the marriage took place.
Marie had become in her own right an important person in her village, and with her parent’s conversion it was not long before three quarters of the Kaskaskia had converted. Even Accault became a reformed man.
In 1703, the village came under attack by the Iroquois and was forced to move south of St. Louis and Cahokia to a spot east of the Mississippi River. Also named Kaskaskia, the history was similar to the first Grand Village. Across a major river from a French fort, a fur trade and French settlement grew from a mission and a largely Native American population along a major transportation route. Everyone had access to trade goods, which encouraged the settlement to produce a food supply to feed the traders.
Accault died near the time of the move. He had remained a fur trader until his death, and Marie married another fur trader, Michel Philippe. Neither man ever stepped outside the role of trader. Marie had two children with her first husband and six more with the second, to whom she was married for twenty years.
But here’s what else she did. Agriculture was woman’s work, and in this time and place food surplus was very profitable. Marie produced grain and vegetable harvests and her family prospered. At the time of her death in 1725, two years after that of her second husband, she left an estate valued at 45,000 livres, (equivalent to approximately $5 million today) property including several tracts of agricultural land, two houses within the village of Kaskaskia, two barns filled with hay, oxen, thirteen cows, three horses, thirty-one pigs, and forty-eight chickens. There were oxcarts and horse carts, iron plows, and large quantities of cloth, a sign of wealth. She owned five slaves, four African American and one Indian woman. Although Illinois did not become a slave state when granted statehood in 1818, prior to that time a form of slavery was practiced by both Native Americans and early settlers.
Under French law, Marie was able to own property as a woman and she left a legally-enforceable written will spelling out how each of her children would inherit, linked to specific behaviors. She denied one son, until such time as he would leave his non-Christian wife.
Marie stood out as an extraordinary woman because her accomplishments took place during the early arrival of the missionaries, the fur trade, and the first settlements in Illinois. She was able to use opportunities to establish her status and a sense of personal identity, carving out a new role not only for Native American women but for all women. She is recognized at Duke University, so influenced by her accomplishments that she was included in seminars naming women who shaped our nation, by Ohio University that offers a course on her life, and by the Illinois State Museum (now closed)  that devoted a wing to her and her tribe.
And Kaskaskia? It grew to a population of 7000, and was the county seat of Illinois County until 1787 when it became part of the Northwest Territory. It was named capital of the U.S. Illinois Territory in 1809, and was the state’s first capital from 1818 to 1819, when the capital was moved to Vandalia.
Today Kaskaskia has a population of 13. After floods in 1881, the Mississippi River changed course, diverting around the east side of Kaskaskia. Today it is the only town in Illinois west of the Mississippi River, accessible only by a small bridge from Missouri. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was rebuilt after the floods near its original location. Marie was buried beneath the pew she once used in the original church.

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Three-year-old Elsie, 1893-1896

Young girl, 1896
Photo credit: oldfashionedholidays.wordpress.com

Three-year-old Elsie, 1893-1896

The first permanent settlers came to Northern Illinois in the 1830s and by the mid-1800s many nearby towns had grown to be of significant size. On 127th Street in Lemont is St. Matthew’s Cemetery. Cemeteries like St. Matthew’s are not unique to Lemont. Many small graveyards like it were built in the early settlements and towns that became the Chicago suburbs.

In St. Matthew’s Cemetery is the grave of Elsie Wenzel. I have no way of knowing anything about Elsie except what is written on her gravestone. She died in 1896 at the age of three.

I can only imagine what Elsie’s life might have been like. My mind conjures up a laughing little girl with bouncing dark curls, anxious to please her family, bright, energetic and chatty. I see her running through the grass. A spotted puppy is chasing after her.

But…her gravestone says she died when she was three.

The research I did about childhood mortality was saddening. In 1908, out of every 1000 children born that year, 154 died before reaching the age of one. How many more by the age of three?

Prior to the 1880s, suburban residents typically allowed farm animals to roam. Without sewer systems, outhouses and ditches carried waste that contaminated shallow wells. Disease and epidemics were frequent: typhoid, cholera, pneumonia, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, smallpox, and more. In 1886 a family of seven moved to Lemont to start a new life. Within two weeks all of them were dead of typhoid fever.

In 1903 Lemont had a smallpox epidemic. Smallpox vaccine was available after the Civil War, but many people were more afraid of the vaccine than they were of the disease. Fifty deputies were sent by the Cook County Board of Health to ensure that people stayed in their homes and no one was allowed to enter or leave the town, for fear that the disease would spread.

Most children were born at home. Hospital care was scarce, far away, transportation was slow, and treatment inadequate. Many of the residents were farmers, and accidents were frequent on farms.

The early years in Lemont were not kind to children.

Was it an accident that killed three-year-old Elsie, or was it disease?

In this cemetery of perhaps 750 graves, 69 stones mark children who died before the age of 10 and prior to 1917. There are likely to be more that are unmarked.

In this cemetery are four children lost to the Pelzner family: Wilhelmina in 1874, 5 months old; Bertha the next year, 4 months old; in 1876 Johann died at 3 months; and in 1878 Augusta was 2 months.

In this cemetery are buried three children from the Boe family (Clara, age 1, in 1890; Raymond, age 8, in 1922: and Howard as an infant in 1909) and three from the Hogrefe family (Walter, age 1 in 1903; Edna, age 7 months the following year; and Werner, age 6 months the year after that).

In this cemetery are 9 children who died as infants, 21 before the age of one, 26 between the ages of one and five, and 12 between the ages of five and ten.

Let us be thankful that today our children and grandchildren are no longer subject to the hardships of a hundred years ago.

These children are forgotten. Their names have not been spoken for decades. All who would grieve them are long gone. Let us take a moment of silence to do what no one else will now do: remember Elsie and these many little lives that ended all too soon.

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America’s Love of Air Racing – 1930s –  Rudy Kling, “Speed King”

”…only when the race is over am I nervous until I get down on the ground and roll to a stop.”
— Rudy Kling, the Speed King, the Pride of Lemont
Photo courtesy of the Lemont Area Historical Society

With the Chicago Air and Water Show about to begin, I thought it a good time to tell the story of a giant of Air Racing and local boy made famous!

In the late 1920s and the entire 1930s, America was in love with the sport of air racing. No racer fired the spirit as intensely as did Rudy Kling.

Rudy was born in 1908, the sixth of eleven children of a German immigrant farm owner in DuPage Township. An otherwise quiet, ordinary child and young man, Rudy had a dream of someday owning his own airplane and flying.

In 1928 Rudy and his brother opened a garage on Rt. 66 near Joliet where they repaired cars. He made friends and took flying lessons from Art Chester of Downers Grove, a speed racer and plane designer. Under Art’s tutelage, Rudy learned the skills of speed racing and aviation mechanics.

In 1933 Rudy bought his own plane, a damaged plane that had previously won many races. He brought the plane to Lemont to rebuild and named it “Suzy.” Rudy was not able to qualify to pilot it himself initially, but Suzy went on to win with other pilots. In 1936, in his first race as a pilot, Rudy set a record for light planes of 228.07 mph.

This was just the beginning. He set his goal on the top prize in air racing, the International Air Race in California. Rudy said, “They laughed when I sat down to fly! …with all of 200 hours of solo time to my credit…”

Rudy finished fourth, earning $765, but it cost him more than he won. When another flyer crashed, Rudy crashed into a parked car trying to land Suzy, demolishing the car and his plane beyond repair. Rudy was unhurt except, in his words, he did “feel sick…after my wife got through lecturing me for the way I had scared her.”

So Rudy took his winnings and ordered a new plane from Clayton Folkerts, a self-trained designer who was inspired by a barnstorming flying circus in Iowa and began building planes between farming chores. His Speed King series airplanes were well known in racing circles. Together Rudy and Folkerts designed and built Rudy’s SK-3, Jupiter, the Pride of Lemont.

On September 5, 1937, in Cleveland Rudy won with a speed of 232.2 mph. His prize was $4,500, but the big race, the Thompson, lay ahead, the classic exciting air race of “speed plane” history.

One hundred thousand people watched as Rudy started out dead last in the field of nine. One by one, Rudy passed his competition. After seventeen laps, only one plane remained ahead. With only one lap to go, Earl Ortman eased up ever so slightly with thoughts of the 1937 Thompson dancing before his eyes. But Rudy had purposely remained in Ortman’s blind spot, and in the last few seconds took his Jupiter Pride of Lemont into a high-speed shallow dive. Rudy Kling, “Lemont’s own No. 1 Birdman” had won the 1937 Thompson trophy by a margin of 50’ and .052 mph.

 Rudy came home to honors and fame. Now, he was the one to beat and various air show sponsors were clamoring for him and his SK-3 to draw the crowds.

Then in December 1937, the Argentine Trophy Race, and Rudy was pitted in a grudge match against another pilot, Frank Haines, who had been disqualified in the Cleveland race for inexperience and poor eyesight, and for some reason held Rudy accountable.

At the wave of the flag, they were off. Kling led the field with Haines close behind. Dangerously near the ground, tricky winds caught Haines’ plane, following too closely to Rudy’s. Both planes went into a snap roll and crashed within fifty feet of each other. Both pilots were killed instantly.

Rudy Kling had lived his wildest dreams.

Theresa Kling, their son Robert, and Rudy’s brother, Arnold, brought the body back to Lemont. A plain pink granite stone marks his grave. The stone tells nothing of his exploits. It reads “Rudy Kling 1908–1937”; a small airplane is carved above his name. It was seven years since he began flying. He still had less than 300 hours of solo time and it was three months since he had been proclaimed America’s number one speed pilot.

More details of this story is told in History and Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois, available at Amazon, the Lemont Area Historical Society, and Smokey Row Antiques in Lemont. A video of the crash of Suzy is also available on You Tube.

Rudy accepting the Thompson Trophy, 1937
Photo courtesy the Lemont Area Historical Society

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Ghosts of the Quarries

Icebox Quarry, Lemont, Illinois. The Illinois and Michigan Canal was dug through limestone, and after the canal opened in 1848 business owners in Lemont turned to quarrying stone. This stone was so popular at one time that the Sears catalogue sold a paint color called Lemont Stone. In the early 1900s the stone’s popularity started to wane and eventually quarries were abandoned, in some cases leaving the pumps that had kept them dry in place. The quarries eventually filled, and during the forties and fifties became popular swimming holes. Due to a number of drownings, swimming is no longer allowed, but the quarries are open today for fishing and scenic hiking. Photo compliments of the Lemont Area Historical Society.

Many ghost hunters describe something called the “limestone theory,” holding that paranormal activity is more frequent in areas where there are large amounts of limestone. One possible explanation is that the chemical makeup of limestone is similar to that of magnetic recording tape, and therefore is prone to being imprinted, thus capturing and storing activity. Another theory is that the chemical make-up of limestone is prone to drawing, storing and releasing electromagnetic fields (EMF) on which “hauntings” depend, thus enhancing any activity that happens to be in the area.

I’m probably using a lot of incorrect language here, as I am neither a geologist nor a paranormal investigator. The point is that regardless of whether one believes in the ability of such stone to capture impressions or be used as an energy source for paranormal activity, regardless of the science, in other words, areas where large amounts of limestone exist do apparently have more reported paranormal incidents.

The stone that exists in the Lemont-Joliet region is dolomite limestone with a high percentage of crystalline structure. This adds credence to the electromagnetic field theory, should you choose to believe that.

Here are some of the experiences that have happened near Lemont quarries:

Archer Avenue, said to be one of the most haunted roads in America, is the site of many tales of Resurrection Mary, the haunted Willowbrook Ballroom, and ghosts at St. James at Sag Bridge: monks, glowing caskets, the woman in white, the disappearing carriage, etc. I’ve described these in a previous post so I won’t repeat them here, except to mention that these areas are adjacent to quarries.

Aside from the stone itself, it is known that many Irish-American canal workers died from disease, poor living and working conditions, and violence in the 1840s when the I and M Canal was being built; later quarry workers shared the same conditions and fate. Many were buried at St. James at Sag Bridge, but it is said that, due to poverty, some of the deceased were cremated and their ashes scattered over the quarries. Most people who believe in the supernatural will say that people who died violently or untimely are more likely to remain as spirits.

American Indians lived in the area since before Columbus; remnants of their villages have been found in the Des Plaines and Sag valleys. One could surmise that such burials, combined with the underlying beds of local limestone so close to the surface, could account for some of the tales of Indians on horseback being seen in the area long after the tribes had moved to western states.

In 1897, the skeletons of nine Indians were dug up near the quarries, followed by a rash of reported hauntings: phantom Indians on horseback riding through the town at night and other visions of roaming spirits. Fearing the hauntings were due to disturbing the skeletons, residents demanded they be reburied. Some were reinterred, but some ended up at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Bachelors Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois continues to mystify visitors with an astounding variety of paranormal experiences: ghosts, lights, mystery houses, disorientation, electronic and automotive malfunctions, among others. It is one of the most haunted spots in the Chicago area and located beside a quarry.

Not all stone in the area remained here. Chicago’s Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue is constructed of stone quarried in Lemont. Stories are told of the ghost of the “Hanging Man,” seen in one of the tower windows, and thought to be that of the “Lone Pumpman,”—the only worker who stayed behind during the Great Fire of 1871.

Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago is another building made from Lemont stone. In 1924, Chicago Gang boss Dion O’Banion was shot and killed in the flower shop he owned directly across the street from Holy Name, reportedly on the orders of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Bullets from the ambush lodged in the cornerstone of Holy Name and it is reported that despite numerous attempts to patch the holes they continue to reappear.

I’m not going to ask you to believe that Lemont stone caused all of this—that’s up to you. After all, the area has also been the home of many Irish, who have been known to tell a tale or two….

Photo of Consumers Quarry, Lemont, about 1890. Photo courtesy of the Lemont Area Historical Society.

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Have Yourself an Early Illinois Christmas!

Holly sprigs secured with bits of wax to each window pane are authentic reproductions from 18th century depictions. Photo of Stephenson House provided by Diane Andersen.


When I found out my writer friend, Diane Andersen, had written about historic Illinois Christmas traditions, I invited her to write something for my December blog, and she graciously accepted.


By way of introduction, although exploration and fur trading was taking place in Illinois as long ago as the 1600s, the earliest permanent European settlements were downstate since the earliest settlers came from eastern states by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers after the Revolutionary War. The northern part of Illinois was not open for settlement until the 1830s.

The Stephenson House, the home of one of the earliest Illinois settlers, is located in Edwardsville, Illinois, about twenty-five miles northeast of St. Louis. Diane is affiliated with the historical home. She has recently published a book about early Illinois traditions and she has written a novel that is due to be published this spring.

Have Yourself an Early Illinois Christmas!

by D. L. Andersen

An “old fashioned” Christmas brings to mind all sorts of images from stockings hung by the fire to holly and mistletoe and perhaps wandering into the woods to chop down the perfect pine tree for the parlor. Its roast goose and plum pudding and wassail toasted among wandering carolers. Those are the things I imagined and longed to experience after reading stories of Christmas past from Dickens’ chilling tales to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s cozy log cabin Christmases . It’s a wonderful time for me to share all the history and lore of those early American Yuletides and revel in experiencing a truly old fashioned Christmas as if actually time traveling into the past. 

The 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, a historic site in Southern Illinois, holds a Christmas Candlelight tour every Thanksgiving Weekend. We have gone to painstaking detail to interpret just what an early American Christmas in Illinois might have been like. Here are just a few of the traditions visitors will learn about and interact with as they wander through our nearly 200 year old site, enjoying a Merry Christmas together:

Decorations: You won’t find a Christmas tree at the Stephenson House. It’s the first thing most visitors wonder about. However, Christmas trees did not become popular in America until around the time of the Civil War. You might find a few families decorating a small tree, as seen in a few paintings from the early 1800s, but it was not the quintessential part of everyone’s holiday décor. Rather at most they might hang a few pine boughs, holly or ivy and mistletoe, as some old poems and carols describe. At the Stephenson House we have copied exact decorations from period woodcuts and lithographs showing a small sprig of holly in every windowpane. Each sprig is mounted with a small dab of beeswax—a natural adhesive that would have been readily available. Other decorations in the house include an apple cone and red ribbons strewn over tables and linens. Early Americans would have used what they had on hand, collecting greenery from the woods and gardens or hand making ornaments. They likely would not have decorated much unless they were entertaining guests and the decorations would only have lasted for a few days, not an entire month as is common now. Candles would have been a necessary light source used on a daily basis rather than just for a cozy glow for the holidays. Yet when the house is all done up and the candles are lit, it feels very festive and full of that old fashioned flavor worthy of a Thomas Kincaid painting, something Laura Ingalls or Charles Dickens might feel right at home in. 

Apples adorn a wooden cone in the Stephenson House dining room. Photo provided by Diane Andersen.

Carols: In the parlor of the Stephenson House is an antique pianoforte where carols are played during the Candlelight Event and visitors are invited to sing along. We bend the historical rules a bit there and allow standard favorites to be sung like Jingle Bells and White Christmas. However, our early American ancestors and the Stephenson family who once lived in the house would not recognize these carols. Yet most of the carols popular in the early 1800s would hardly be recognized today. Oh Come All Ye Faithful is one carol that has stood the test of time and would be well known by our American ancestors as well. But songs like Down in Yon Forest would more likely be heard in the homes of early Illinois as might also Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella or In Praise of Christmas.

Christmas Cuisine: Anyone who’s read Dickens A Christmas Carol remembers the scene of the Cratchet family eating dinner and glorying over the roast goose and plum pudding. These indeed were popular dishes of the 1800s and are still with us today. In learning to interpret an authentic early American Christmas, I was most surprised to find many of our holiday treats have not changed much over the years, in spite of having so many other modern options to take their place. Plum pudding, a steamed concoction of bread crumbs, dried fruits, suet (beef fat), eggs and sugar is not as tasty to some as Dickens makes it sound. Sugar plums are not all that bad though, surprisingly made of sugar coated dates stuffed with a mixture of chocolate and ground nuts. It’s most surprising of all to know that neither sweet treat is made with plums in spite of the name. Other treats of the era that we have on display are gingerbread and shortbread as well as wassail, spiced apple cider usually spiked with rum or whiskey. According to a tradition dating back to Medieval Times, wassail was served in a bowl carried from house to house by carolers. The occupants of the house were given a piece of toast to dip into the bowl, hence the beginnings of our word “toast” in sharing a drink and offering a salute or a good word between friends.

These and more traditions and the older Christmas carols were woven into my latest story, Ben’s Christmas Treasury. It is reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Story and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the life and times of Benjamin Stephenson, a founding father of Illinois.  For more information on the historic site visit their website: www.stephensonhouse.org.

Thank you, Pat, for allowing me to share one of my favorite topics with your readers.

Ben’s Christmas Treasury
is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.


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A Walk along the River


The Des Plaines River near Lemont Road. Note the north bluff of the river in the distance, the inlets and dense grasses on the valley floor.

The Des Plaines River near Lemont Road.
Note the north bluff of the river in the distance, the inlets and dense grasses on the valley floor.

Yesterday afternoon my husband pulled me away from my computer to take a walk on what might turn out to be the last warm day before the onset of winter. I picked the place though. I had done a lot of walking and picture-taking from the bluffs that overlook the Des Plaines River Valley surrounding Lemont, but it had been a while (should I admit a couple of years?) since I checked out what was happening down in the valley, along the river.  

There is an industrial road that runs along the river. It’s private and full of potholes, but we drove down it anyway. Between the road and the river is a bike trail, which is separated from the road by a fence. At I-355 the trail meets Veteran’s Memorial Trail toward Woodridge. We looked for a parking lot so we could walk the trail, but didn’t find one. There was no real place to leave the car, and no break in the fence. So we went back to the access road near Lemont Road and entered the trail there.

Centennial Bike Trail along Des Plaines River. Note fence separating trail from dirt road on the left.

Centennial Bike Trail along Des Plaines River.
Note fence separating trail from dirt road on the left.

A sign greeted us, which explained that the fence we were looking at was not to protect bike-riders from the road, but to keep those crazy jumping Asian carp in the river! If you have read my books or earlier blog posts you will already know that the Des Plaines River is prone to flooding large parts of the valley here, and that the river runs parallel to the Sanitary Canal.

If the river were to raise significantly, which historically it has done, there is danger that the floodwaters, potentially home to voracious Asian carp, could flow into the Sanitary Canal and gain access to the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan. The fence is there to prevent that.

The Centennial Trail runs from Willow Springs to Romeoville along the south side of the Des Plaines River and then connects to the 70-mile I & M Canal Trail. We were the only walkers on the trail.

Although we did encounter a runner and a few bicycle riders, mostly we were alone and it was quite peaceful. If I ignored the dirt road and fence, it was easy to imagine I was transported back to the time when only the Potawatomi lived along the river, making their home on the north bluff I saw in the distance. I found multiple inlets on the north shore, and dense grasses—the islands and swampy areas I had written about in The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, where the victim’s body had been found. I pictured Native American homes tucked beyond the swamp on the bluff beyond. I saw piles of dead trees caught in the waters near bridges. This view couldn’t look a whole lot different than it must have two hundred years ago. (See first photo above.)

I grinned as I pointed these things out excitedly to my husband, who was at least interested if not as delighted as I was.  This is one of the rewards of being a writer: experiencing in real life what you have imagined in your stories. It is a great feeling, and it was a great walk.

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THE BONAPARTES’ HONEYMOON AT NIAGARA FALLS: Guest Post, Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

This is the view the Bonapartes would have seen, although today surrounded by pavement, fences, and tourists. Photo from Niagara Falls State Park Photo Gallery.

This is the view the Bonapartes would have seen, although today surrounded by pavement, fences, and tourists. Photo from Niagara Falls State Park Photo Gallery.

When I read The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien, I was surprised to find that Niagara Falls was visited by tourists as early as 1804, by people such as Jerome Bonaparte and his wife, as well as Aaron Burr’s daughter and husband. As a follow-up to my post about Niagara Falls, I asked Ruth if she would be kind enough to tell us more, and today she has written this guest post.

Thanks, Pat, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog.

Pat asked me to talk a little bit about the role Niagara Falls plays in my historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. The novel tells the story of the Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy American merchant, and Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon. The two met in Baltimore in September 1803 and impulsively married by the end of the year. In 1804, they went on a wedding trip—first to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

At the time, France and Britain were at war. British warships were stalking the waters outside New York Harbor, hoping to catch Napoleon’s baby brother and make him a hostage, so Jerome and Betsy were unable to sail to France as they wanted. During their trip, the Bonapartes had met Aaron Burr, who told them about his daughter Theodosia’s trip to Niagara Falls. (Theodosia Burr and her husband Joseph Alston were the first couple ever to honeymoon at the falls.) Jerome decided he wanted to see such an impressive sight before he left the United States.

Although it’s hard to believe now, Niagara Falls was still a pristine wilderness at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The following excerpt portrays Jerome and Betsy’s arrival at the falls.

On their ninth day out from Utica, they began to hear a low thrumming sound ahead of them. The further they rode, the louder it grew until it was a dull roar, like the distant sound of violent waves crashing on shore. “That must be the falls,” Jerome said. “Burr said that you can hear their thunder for twenty-five miles or more.”

They did not reach the falls that night or even the next day, although the sound increased continually. Their tenth night out, as Betsy tried to fall asleep, she felt the noise vibrate inside her as a physical presence, and she wondered how anyone ever got used to the roaring.

Early the next day, they reached the Niagara River. Riding on the northeast bank, they passed a place where the river divided to flow around a huge, heavily wooded island. Immediately beyond it, the river was about two miles wide, but the rocky gorge through which it ran quickly narrowed.

The crashing water was deafening. Jerome gestured with his arm and led the way to a high point, where he dismounted. Betsy followed and saw that they were on a promontory overlooking two gigantic waterfalls. The near set of falls featured tons of water plummeting from a wide precipice. The more distant and even wider set of falls was curved like a horseshoe. The waterfalls were much taller than she had imagined; they looked to be more than twice the height of the Presidential Mansion. The cascading water churned and foamed, creating a thick white mist that rose for hundreds of feet.

Jerome led their horses away from the promontory’s edge and tied them to a tree in a grove twenty feet away. Returning to Betsy, he slipped his arms around her waist from behind.

The air was filled with a cool spray, and the thunderous sound enveloped them. Mesmerized by the sight of the tremendous stream racing toward the precipice, Betsy felt that it symbolized the way she and Jerome were caught in the onrush of forces beyond their control. As she gazed upstream, she saw a dark shape moving in the water. A young deer struggled in the river, trying frantically to swim to shore, but the forward crush of the water was too powerful to escape. The animal swept over the edge of the falls and disappeared. Horrified, Betsy hid her face against Jerome’s chest.

Was that to be their fate? By defying Napoleon, were they flinging themselves over a cataract to their own destruction?

Today you can catch a light show at Niagara Falls. Author's Photo.

Today you can catch a light show at Niagara Falls. Author’s Photo.

Thank you, Ruth. Those who would like to know more about this story can purchase The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte at Amazon, in both print and ebook editions.




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Upcoming Speaking Engagements: October 22, November 5, November 10

patcamalliereposter-elgin-novel-ideas-oct-22-2016-copyWant to know more about what it takes to see your novel in print?

Join me Saturday in Elgin!

Free program but be sure to register:

gailborden.info/register or call 847-429-4597

Saturday in Elgin doesn’t work for you?

The same program will be given at the Lemont Library.

Saturday, November 5, 2016, 1-3 pm

Lemont Public Library, 50 E. Wend, Lemont

A Novel Approach

A fast-paced program designed to give a condensed view of the novel-writing process based on first-hand experience. Includes basic information on setting, characters, organization, helpful tips, tools and resources, editing, publishing, and book promotion.

Free Program, Registration required:
See www.lemontlibrary.org or call  630-257-6541.



Or for a very different program,  join me at Frugal Muse on  Thursday night at 6 pm,  November 10.

During this program I will show  photos of local sites visited in my books, accompanied by readings
featuring those places.

Free program: Register at

Frugal Muse – (630) 427-1140

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Last month I wrote about the Chicago Portage, the route used by American Indians, explorers, and others to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, and the reason Chicago became one of the greatest cities in the world.

I took my family on vacation to Niagara Falls this past summer, and, knowing that originally men traveled the interior of our country on water, I could not help but wonder what it would have taken to get from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Can you imagine paddling a canoe up the Niagara River, encountering rapids along the way, and then seeing this in front of you?

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

The waters of Lake Erie roar along for thirty-five miles through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, descending from 571 feet above sea level to 245 feet, a drop of 326 feet. Niagara Falls plunges 170 feet into a pool estimated to be 100 feet deep. The remaining drop of 156 feet is made over a series of rapids and around many islands in the river on both sides of the falls. Much of the river is impassable, and had to be portaged. And yes, portage routes were known and traveled, first by Seneca Indians, and as early as 1615 by French traders.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The portage began about six miles below the falls, at a Seneca Indian Village, later called Lewiston, on the American side of the river. From there, travelers climbed three elevations that they called “three mountains” to arrive a mile or two (historically debated) above the falls. The Seneca were “in charge” of the route. Travelers had to appeal to them to travel it, and hire them to do the work.

By 1719 French fur trade was prospering, and the Joncaire Trade Post and landing were established at the village, then called Frenchman’s Landing. The French cut a road through the portage to make the work easier.

In 1759 the English took control of the route and “improved” it, constructing in 1764 what was the first “railway” built in North America. It consisted of two parallel-running cars (or trams), each on a separate pair of wooden rails supported on stone pillars. A cable linked the cars, and when loaded with equal weight it required little effort to bring one car up while gravity pulled the other down. This allowed heavy goods to be passed up and down a 75-foot gulley along the route.

In 1796, the Jay Treaty established the international boundary separating the United States from Canada at the river. The earliest portage routes were on the American side, but after the treaty another route was developed within the borders of Canada. 

After the War of 1812 ended in 1815, construction began on the Erie (opened 1825) and Welland (opened 1829) Canals, and with their opening, both American and Canadian portage routes were abandoned, leaving today little if any trace of their existence.

Most of this information came from articles written by Philip Vierling. Phil was largely responsible for the preservation of the Chicago Portage and the creation of the Chicago Portage Ledger. He provided careful research of early Chicago, personally cut footpaths, installed interpretive signs, and built a dam to hold water in Portage Creek, among many other accomplishments, even cutting vegetation with scissors and carrying in 1400 pounds of concrete bag by bag on his back! I was fortunate to be able to talk with Phil this spring, and regret I did not have the chance to know him better, as he passed away in August of this year. He will be well remembered and missed by all who knew this remarkable man.

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Join Me at my Book Release Party October 1

 I’d like to invite you to my  Book Release Party

at Smokey Row Antiques

on Saturday, October 1

from 3 pm to 5 pm.

Come and say hello, share  some refreshments, and  help me celebrate the

publication of

The Mystery At Black Partridge Woods.

I’ll be so happy to welcome my friends, both old and new, and hope you will spare some time to stop by and enjoy some conversation and light refreshments!



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