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River Men



Part III


~ Researched and Transcribed by Sue Rekkas


Steamboats and Steamboatmen of the Upper Mississippi

by George B. Merrick,

The Saturday Evening Post, Burlington Iowa, November 15, 1913.




The Buisson family affords an interesting study for those interested in river history.  It is of the highest type of the early French Indian voyageurs and pilots of whom so many are found along the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien to St. Paul.  Joseph Buisson, the father, lived at Wahasha, Minnesota.  There were seven children in girls.  Henry, the oldest boy, served four years and eleven months his family – four boys and three in the Fifth Minnesota Infantry Volunteers, and from the time he was mustered out until his death, 1907, he followed the river as pilot and in other positions.  Antoine was on the river five years, in the rafting trade.  He is now chief carpenter on the Indian Reservation at Devil’s Lake, North Dakota.  Joseph has been on the river all his life, principally in the rafting trade.  He is now captain of the “St. Paul,” the largest and finest passenger packet on the upper river, the best boat in the Streckfus Line.  For many years, during his enforced inactivity in the long winter months, he has been engaged in the preparation of the personal histories of the men with whom he has been associated for the past fifty years, which is to be published as soon as it can be compiled.  His collection of photographs of rivermen is very extensive.


Cypriano has also been on the river since he was a boy, most of the time in the rafting trade—for twenty years as captain of one boat (B. Hershey) as stated above.  He is now captain of the “Helen Blair,” the best of the White Collar Line short-run boats, now running between Davenport and Burlington.  “Cyp,” as he is generally known on the river, knows the Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul, up-stream, down-stream and crossways, by day or night.  He is conceded to be one of the very best raft pilots on the river.  He has plenty of “nerve,” but no nerves.  He never gets nervous.  Under every condition of danger he is as cool, apparently, as under ordinary conditions.  An old engineer told me a few weeks ago that “Cyp” never rang all the bells at once, and never kicked all the sash out of the pilot house, and never swore so that it created a blue fog so thick that he couldn’t see his bowboat, whatever the distress might be.  That was the river way of saying that he kept cool.  I presume that the old engineer did not intend to carry the impression that other pilots and captains, under similar circumstances would do all the things that “Cyp” did not do but that they were not so cool under fire.


The Buissons, (pronounced Bee-so) have a very interesting family history.  They are descended from French, Scotch and Indian ancestry.  Their grandfather on their mother’s side was Captain Duncan Graham, a Scotch officer of artillery in the British army.  In August, 1814, when Major Zachary Taylor, with a fleet of keel-boats loaded with troops and supplies, for Fort Crawford, at Prairie du Chien was attempting to ascend the upper rapids, he was met at Rock Island by a British force composed of a thousand Indians and a battery of artillery with six guns, manned by a detachment of British regulars, under command of Capt. Duncan Graham.  When about two miles above the foot of the rapids, probably in what is now known as Stubb’s Eddy, on the Iowa shore, the guns, posted on the opposite side of the river, on Rock Island, were served with such precision as to disable a part of the flotilla, killing and wounding many of the crew and troops, and compelling major Taylor to retreat down the river.  He retired some five miles, to Credit Island, out of range of the British guns and there refitted, and finally retreated down the river to the site of the present city of Warsaw, and there he built Fort Edwards and established himself with the force under his command.  Later, Capt. Duncan Graham was well known and greatly respected in the Territory of Minnesota.  Col. B. W. Brisbois, who was born in Prairie du Chien in 1808 said in an interview with the late Lyman C. Draper, of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, that he knew Captain Graham very well; that he was a small sized man, quite unassuming, upright in his intercourse with his fellow-men, and highly respected.  In a letter to Dr. Draper, written in 1882, the late Gov. H. H. Sibley of St. Paul, says:  “I knew Capt. Duncan Graham well.  He was the father-in-law of Alexander Faribault, lately deceased, who was the founder of the flourishing town that bears his name.  Capt. Graham was an officer in the British Indian Department, and was present in command of a party of Dakota (Sioux) warriors, composing a portion of the force that was defeated by Col. Croghan at Lower Sandusky in 1813.   He became a citizen of the United States subsequent to the war, and traded with the Sioux Indians for many years.  I am under the impression that he died in 1844 or 1845, at Wabasha, Minn., where he had been living with his son-in-law, Joseph Buisson Sr.  He must have been seventy-five years old or more at the time of his decease; and for several years previously had passed his leisure days in going from one part of this wild region to another, being a man of remarkable physical vigor, although of slight build.”


Dr. Lyman C. Draper, in Wisconsin Historical Collections, Vol. IX, page 299, says that “Captain Duncan Graham was a native of the Highlands of Scotland, descending from a good family.”  As a British officer he was actively engaged in the northwest, at Prairie du Chien and at Rock Island.  He married an half-breed Dacotah woman—a descendant of Penachon, a noted Sioux chief said to have been the son of a white trader of that name, who lived on the eastern shore of Lake Pepin, and as the Indians used to relate, the first white man ever seen by their ancestors.  Captain Graham had one son, Alexander, and four daughters, who married, respectively, Hon. Alexander Faribault, Hon. James Wells, Joseph Buisson (Sr.) and Oliver Cratt—all of whom died prior to 1832 with the exception of Mrs. Joseph Buisson—mother of Henry, and Joseph and Cyp, whom we know so well on the river.   All of these families left many descendants.  Cratt’s Island, on the left side of the channel below Wabasha was named for Mr. Cratt, but the modern lexicographers have left off one of the ”t’s” that belongs in his name.  In the spring of 1820 Captain Graham was employed to conduct three Mackinaw boats, loaded with two hundred bushels of wheat, one hundred bushels of oats, and thirty bushels of peas, from Prairie du Chien to Lord Selkirk’s settlement on the Red River of the North, with a crew of French voyageurs from Prairie du Chien.  This trip cost Lord Selkirk about $6,000, but it saved his colony from famine.  Captain Duncan is said to have been the first white man to penetrate as far into the Northwest as Devil’s Lake, Dakota, an island in that lake being named for him.


Until a few years ago Joseph who is the historian of the family, had a diary that had been kept by his grandfather, Duncan Graham, giving, among other things, a full account of the expedition under his command that defeated Major Zachary Taylor at Rock Island.  Unfortunately this almost priceless record was burned several years ago, and there is not even a copy in existence—a great loss to the historians of our western country, and particularly to the writers of river history.  It had been the intention of Joseph Buisson to publish some parts of this diary in his recollections.  Everybody on the river is acquainted with the Buisson “boys.”  It is well worth while for others, not river men, to make their acquaintance.  They are entirely approachable, and their stories of river life are very interesting and entertaining to any audience.  The best account of the battle at Rock Island in which Major, afterwards President Zachary Taylor, and Capt. afterwards General Duncan, were the principle actors, is to be found in the History of Illinois entitled “My Own Times,” written by John Reynolds, afterwards Governor Of Illinois, Member of Congress, State Senator, etc., who was a border ranger at the time, but was not with the expedition at the time.  Two brothers, however, who were also members of the Border Rangers, were with the expedition, and from them Mr. Reynolds obtained his account of the fight.  The Indians who took part in it, on the British side, were Sac and Fox, under the leadership of Chief Black Hawk, who will figure in these columns later.




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