Toasting fork, Joseph Jourdain, Green Bay, ca. 1823. Neville Public Museum of Brown County, Green Bay.
Today’s version of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s web feature “This Day in Wisconsin History” coincides nicely with one of the earliest artifacts in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database: a toasting fork made by Green Bay blacksmith Joseph Jourdain as a wedding gift for his daughter Madeline. On March 3, 1823, Madeline Jourdain married Eleazer Williams of New York, who was working as a missionary to Christian Indians in the Fox Valley area. Born in 1806, Madeline (Mary Margaret) was a member of Green Bay’s flourishing Metis society—a blended culture of Great Lakes Indians and Anglo and European fur traders. Her father, Joseph Jourdain, was born in Quebec and came to Green Bay in 1798. Her mother, Marguerite Gravelle, was the daughter of a Menominee woman and a French Canadian man. Joseph Jourdain was a skilled blacksmith who provided iron tools and household utensils for the frontier settlers of Green Bay and created trade goods for exchange with Menominee fur trappers.
According to tradition, Jourdain made this ornate fork and other cooking utensils for his daughter’s household after her marriage to Williams. The initials ARDP among the decorative inlays in the fork’s handle are thought to stand for A Rapides des Pères, a settlement on the Fox River just south of Green Bay now known as De Pere, not far from Williams’ and Jourdain’s new home in Little Rapids. Other kitchen items Jourdain made for his daughter, now in the collections of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County, included a wrought iron toaster and a pot hook.
The story of Eleazer Williams is fit for a soap opera. Williams was a missionary and teacher at the newly established Protestant Episcopal School in Green Bay when he met Jourdain, a student at the school. Albert Ellis, another teacher at the school, vividly describes their meeting and marriage in his memoir “Fifty-Four Years’ Recollections of Men and Events in Wisconsin.” Although period accounts state that Madeline was only 14 years old at the time of the marriage, a little math reveals that she was actually 17. From her Menominee ancestors, Madeline inherited extensive land holdings on the Fox River. In the 1840s, Williams gained national notoriety when he claimed that he was the “Lost Dauphin” of France—the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Although this claim was eventually reputed, the question “Have we a Bourbon among us?” captured the popular imagination for decades.
The Jourdain homestead, where the marriage of Eleazer Williams and Madeline Jourdain is said to have taken place. The original sketch, signed by Green Bay artist Frederika Crane, is in the collection of the Green Bay-De Pere Antiquarian Society. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-31656.