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Present-day Bourbonnais is the namesake of the French-Canadian courier de bois, Francois Bourbonnais, Sr., who resided north of Bourbonnais Creek from about 1829 to 1834.
Bourbonnais made a living trading with the Potawatomi, most likely as an independent contractor, buying trade goods from Astor's American Fur Company, trading with the locals for furs, and then selling the furs back to the fur company.
Bourbonnais Grove originally referred to the stand of trees between Beckman Park in Kankakee on the south and Davis Creek on the north. The Kickapoo, Illini, Iroquois, Mascouten and Potawatomi Indians were inhabitants of the area at various times before the arrival of the French Canadians.
Bullbonus, Bullbonus Grove, and Bullboney were early place names used to describe the area. The use of an 'l' sound instead of 'r' is attributed to the Potowatami's difficulty in pronouncing an 'r' sound. Other names were La Pointe, Le Ville, and Old Vasseur's Place.
Short biographies of four early settlers, Francois Bourbonnais, Sr., Noel LeVasseur, Wa-che-kee and George Letourneau, will introduce you to the rich history of Bourbonnais Grove. Learn more by visiting the George R. Letourneau Museum.
Born on Christmas Day 1799 in St. Michel de Yamaska, province of Quebec, Canada, Noel LeVasseur arrived in Iroquois County in 1823. He was employed by the American Fur Company and became Gurdon S. Hubbard's partner as they expanded fur-trading in northeastern and central Illinois.
In 1832, LeVasseur and his Potawotami wife Wa-che-ke established a trading post at a place in Bourbonnais Grove called La Pointe, a "point" of timber that grew along a branch of Bourbonnais Creek and was a landmark for travelers along the Danville-Chicago road (Route 102).
After establishing himself in Bourbonnais Grove, LeVasseur returned to his native Quebec to recruit French Canadians to settle here. His promises of cheap, fertile ground along the beautiful Kankakee River enticed many French Canadian families to make the arduous journey down the St. Lawrence valley and through the Great Lakes region, to make Bourbonnais their home.
He and his wife, Catherine (Catish) Chevalier, a metis member of a prominent Potawatomi family, lived in a cabin a few rods north of Bourbonnais Creek (just northwest of today's Dairy Queen) with their 6 children, Francois Jr., Washington, Peter, Catherine, Mary Josette and Anthony, until 1834. They then moved to a site on the north bank of the Kankakee River, where the senior citizen's high rise in the city of Kankakee now stands.
Eventually, Francois, Catish and most of their children left the area during the removal of the Prairie Potawatomi to the Platte country of western Missouri. It is thought that Francois Bourbonnais Sr. died sometime in the late 1840s.
Born in St. Thomas Parish, Quebec on February 28, 1833, George R. Letourneau left home at the age of fifteen, traveling to Chicago. He worked for a while as a clerk there and came to Bourbonnais in 1849.
Struck by gold fever in 1850, Letourneau headed for California to seek his fortune. It was not to be found in California, and he soon returned to Bourbonnais Grove. Letourneau proposed to Elodie Langlois upon his return and they were married on July 13, 1852. Elodie bore him 5 sons and 6 daughters, which they raised in their Bourbonnais Grove home along with a grandson. She died in 1887.
A successful businessman, Letourneau owned lumber, grain and wholesale grocery businesses. With Francis Seguin and Noel LeVasseur, George Letourneau organized the Republican party in Kankakee County. In 1860 Letourneau ran for county coroner and won, his name appearing on the Republican ticket with Abraham Lincoln. He served the township, county and state in the following capacities:
Boubonnais Township Supervisor, 1858, 1867, 1876
Kankakee County Coroner, 1860-1863
Kankakee County Circuit Court Clerk, 1872-1876
Mayor of Boubonnais, 1875-1876
Kankakee County Sheriff, 1882-1886
Kankakee County Treasurer, 1886-1887
Mayor of Kankakee, 1891-1892
Illinois State Senator, 1892-1896
An historian in his own right, Letourneau wrote the Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Kankakee County, Volume II in 1906 with William Kanaga.
LeVasseur also hoped to find a wife in Quebec befitting a man of his increasing wealth and stature. He divorced his wife Wa-che-ke in the Potawatomi tradition, with a simple declaration that the marriage was over.
On February 19, 1838, a thirty-eight-year-old Noel LeVasseur married Ruth Russell Bull, twenty, in Joliet Illinois. Miss Bull, educated, sophisticated, and pretty, came west from Middletown, Connecticut. She was the niece of Samuel Russell, another early settler of Bourbonnais Grove.
Active in local politics and business the remainder of his life, Noel LeVasseur died in 1879 at the age of 80 years. He is buried in Maternity BVM cemetery on River Street in Bourbonnais.
Born around 1810, Wa-che-ke, for whom the city of Watseka in Iroquois County is named, was the niece of Potawatomi chief Tamin. Described as intelligent and beautiful, Wa-che-ke played an instrumental role in the settlement of Iroquois and Kankakee counties, especially Bourbonnais Grove.
At the time, marriage between the French fur traders and Potawatomi women was seen as advantageous to both groups. Intermarriage was common and one can find many mixed-blood individuals in this area's history: Francois Bourbonnais, Bill Caldwell, Catherine Chevalier, and others.
In 1824 young Wa-che-ke, only fourteen or fifteen years old, married Gurdon Hubbard, strengthening the relationship between the American Fur Company and the Kankakee Potawatomi. By "mutual agreement" they divorced in 1826. Not coincidentally, soon after Noel LeVasseur took over operations at the Bunkum trading post, he married Wa-che-ke. Together they had a daughter.
Wa-che-ke moved with LeVasseur to La Pointe in 1832 and lived there until LeVasseur divorced her in 1837. The divorce coincided with the U.S. government's removal of the Potawatomi from the area. Wa-che-ke left the area for Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1838.