Vincennes State Historic Sites: Old French House and Indian Museum

Vincennes State Historic Sites include several buildings on a central campus just south of Vincennes University, as well as a few sites downtown and a few sites in outlying areas. The Old French House and Indian Museum are located downtown, just a few blocks walk from the visitor center on the central campus.

Vincennes State Historic Sites recently took possession of the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes. (Both were previously administered by a non-profit.) During my recent visit, a docent chockfull of historical tidbits about the buildings and Vincennes gave me a private showing of the buildings.

The Old French House was the last of its kind in Vincennes. Over the decades (if not centuries), houses built in the French style had all been demolished, or so it was thought, until people rediscovered that Michel Brouillet’s house was built in the French style.

Brouillet was born in 1774, a few years before George Rogers Clark captured Fort Sackville in Vincennes. In fact, Michel’s father was an officer in the Vincennes militia and served under Clark.

Michel himself was a successful fur trader, trading with the Miami and Kickapoo on the Vermilion River. Typical of the time and custom of coureurs de bois, he married a Native American woman. (Their son became a Miami chief.) However, also typical of the changing times, as Indiana became more settled and the economy changed from fur trading to land speculation, Brouillet changed with it. And he changed wives.

He worked for Territorial Governor Harrison as an interpreter during the negotiations of several treaties with Native Americans. Out with the old (the Native Americans) and in with the new (white settlers)! Along with the old went his Native American wife. In 1806, he married Marie Louise Drouet de Richerville. In 1809 (or 1806…sources vary), they moved into what is now the Old French House. In total they had 10 (yes, 10…others say 8) children.

In 1807, Brouillet became a captain in the Indiana Territory militia. From 1809 to 1811 he worked as a spy for Harrison against the Native Americans. During the War of 1812, he was a scout and messenger between Vincennes and Fort Harrison in Terra Haute.

By 1819, Native Americans had been pushed west of the Mississippi River. Brouillet’s transformation from working with the Native Americans to working against them was at an end. He became a tavern owner. In 1838, he died and is buried in the cemetery by the Old Cathedral. (His headstone still exists in the cemetery.)

So what makes the Old French House an old French house besides the fact that it is old and was built by a Frenchman? The construction. A portion of one wall of the house is cut away to show the post-and-sill construction common in French houses of early Vincennes (and I’d guess early Indiana wherever there was a French settlement). In some ways, the construction reminded me of a modern frame construction: horizontal beam (sill) on which vertical beams are attached. In between the beams is filled with bousillage, a mixture of clay, earth, and straw.

The current furniture in the house is a collection of odds and ends. Some not of the time period. The museum plans to remedy this. Two period items stood out to me: the kitchen table and a hat.

The wooden top of the kitchen table lifts off to reveal an inner storage area. The storage area is a perfect place to store bread as it rises—out of the way but close to the warmth of the hearth. Totally cool!

The hat is made of beaver fur—the staple of the fur trade in the New World—and super soft, the kind of hat you see smartly dressed gentlemen in paintings from the late 1700s and early 1800s wearing. Super soft? No thanks to the beaver but rather the mercury used by hatters. (Think the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. There’s a reason for his madness. It’s called mercury poisoning.)

The second story of the house contains some artifacts and exhibits showing the dress of the time and an actual pirogue, or French-style of canoe.

The Indian Museum is in a separate building behind the Old French House. Exhibit cases house artifacts and displays about the Native Americans through the ages in the area.

Check out the Old French House and Indian Museum to learn more about early Indiana, the French fur traders, and French culture in the New World. The Vincennes State Historic Sites will likely be refreshing both with period appropriate interiors in ways that the non-profit that ran it for decades couldn’t.

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