Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 Year in Review

Now is the only time we ever have. An odd assertion for a historical project surely, but one I feel more acutely the deeper I dive into its depths. I feel connected to Henri at times with an immediacy and power that I cannot fully comprehend. The project now seems to have a life of its own and is revealing to me only the part of the larger picture that I need at a given moment. This has taught me to appreciate more what is actually happening than living in a world of simple linearity.

This year has been full of surprises, and important developments. I landed a publisher for Henri’s correspondence and journal and met many people both here and in Europe whose support and advice have been invaluable towards the production of my documentary. This project for me has become as much an inward journey as an outward one. While we differ on many social issues, I feel that Henri and I are joined across time and space and that this project is not so much a retracing of a journey but rather a continuation.

For all of you that have supported me in word and deed this past year, my most heartfelt thanks. 2010 looks to be a great year for The Grand Tour, and whatever happens will surely be the next step in a process over 150 years in the making.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Translation of Henri's Letters

Henri's letters home have at long last been translated into English, a critical step that leads me closer to publication. The next step will be the translation of Henri's journal that chronicles his day-to-day voyage across Peru.

His letters were written to his family from Boston, New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Havana, Mexico City, Panama, Lima & Moyobamba. I want to thank my partner in this effort Mr. Hervé Boblet, a very gifted translator, and like me, someone who has enjoyed rediscovering a voyage taken over 150 years ago.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pencil Sketches

In an amazing stoke of luck, I found five additional sketches from Henri's trip today mixed in with the artwork of my great aunt. I hope their discovery bodes well for the retrieval of the lost album of 135 sepia drawings I am still actively looking for.

Four of the drawings are from Mexico and one I believe is from Peru:

Church near Jalapa, Mexico, 1853

Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1853. Cortes' castle can be seen in the distance.

Cuernavaca sketch detail of mother talking to her child.

Miacatlán, Mexico, 1853

Miacatlán sketch detail.

Xochicalco, Mexico, 1853

Peru, 1853

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Lost Album

One of Henri's sepia drawings – Tacubaya, Mexico, 1853

Throughout Henri de Büren's correspondence and journal from his 1852-53 Voyage Across the Americas, he speaks frequently about his artwork. To date I have found only five drawings. Yesterday I found proof that there were many, many more.

Around 1920 or so two of his daughters who were living in St. Blaise near Neuchâtel put up for a sale an album of 135! original drawings that Henri made on his trip. The 135 drawings were named by subject and place. His drawings included:

– Louis Agassiz's home in Cambridge, MA
– Numerous drawings of Cuba and the American South
– Cacahuampila Grotto
– Popocatepetl Crater
– Cholula Pyramid
– Port of Acapulco
– Numerous drawings of Lima
– Indian settlements in Peru

The album's artistic and historical worth was also verified at the time in a letter to the sisters by Maurice Jeanneret, President of the Neuchâtel Historical and Archaeological Society and Adjunct Conservator of the Neuchâtel Fine Art Museum. I was told by a family member that the album was sold in the 1920s to man in New York, but I have no way to verify this.

Carbon Copy of Typed Pages which Describe Each Drawing

I am going to do my best Indiana Jones impression and start my search for the Lost Album. It is not only of great importance to my project, but to me personally. Wish me luck.

Friday, November 13, 2009

1860s Lithographs

In some old family books I came across a children's world book and atlas from 1866. At first it seemed fairly ordinary for the time until I came to the breathtaking lithographs at the back. I have made reproductions for the plates that concern Latin America.

I can see very Henri with the help of these illustrations regaling his young children with fanciful stories of his exploits through the Americas on the 1850s.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bern Botanical Institute

On my recent trip to Switzerland I visited the Bern Botanical Institute. I knew that Henri helped his father Albert de Büren give his entire collection of dried plants to the city of Bern in 1872. After doing some research I was told that they would be located at the BBI.

I was taken down through the vast botanical gardens to a damp storage room near the river. Once the door was opened I found rows and rows of dusty papers and herbaria from floor to ceiling from various ages all wrapped in plastic. I was told that Albert's samples might be in there, but they had no idea of knowing for sure, but I was welcome to take a look.

I proceeded to get up on a desk in the room and look for any clues that could lead me to Albert's samples. I looked for a good hour or so, with no luck. I decided to at least look at some samples to make my trip worthwhile. The photos below are taken from those samples.

I was still keen to find something, so I kept looking deeper along one of the shelves. I found another old folder and upon opening it, I knew my search had ended, not because I found what I was looking for but felt that I should stop looking. I had stumbled upon a folder entire devoted to old mushrooms. I thought that 100 year old fungal dust might not agree with my pulmonary system, so I decided to pack up.

Back within the Institute itself I did find these examples of jarred plant samples that were too beautiful not to photograph and speak of research from long ago.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mundurucú Feathered Ensemble

While in Neuchâtel last week I met with the Ethnological Museum. I knew that Henri had donated the Mundurucú headdress to the museum (cited in a previous post) that he aquired in Brazil, but I was unaware that it was part of a full ensemble, with anklets, bracelets and long body strands. A representative of the museum was nice enough to take me into the storage unit and show me the entire ensemble. It was amazing. After 150 years, the feathers were still vibrant, and these highly delicate pieces were still in good condition.

Full ensemble on display. © Musée d'ethnographie de Neuchâtel

Body strands in detail.

Headdress in detail.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tufted Capuchin

While at the Neuchâtel Natural History Museum this past week discussing my project, the Director found in their records that Henri had made a donation of an Amazon monkey. After searching through their amazing collection of specimens we found a Cebus Apella or a Tufted Capuchin that Henri brought back in 1853.

Original tag for the specimen with Henri's name clearly visible.

Henri's Tufted Capuchin from 1853.

Photo reference

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

170-year-old Report Cards

In Henri's papers I found a number of his high school report cards. It was interesting that of all the items he could have kept, these were some of the items he set aside. I think it speaks to his appreciation of education and intellectual rigor. He would have been roughly 16 or so at the time.

Collége de Neuchâtel Promotions de 1840, Mention Honorable

Collége de Neuchâtel Témoinage de Satisfaction, 1841

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bandelier in Bern

I have spoken in a previous post about Henri's 1852 visit to the Bandelier family home in Highland, Illinois, when Adolph Bandelier, the renowned Anthropologist was just a boy.

Flash forward 30 years to Adolph Bandelier making the rounds in Europe to arrange for the printing of illustrations for his research publications and act as an emissary for his father to secure additional funding to the local bank back in Highland solvent.

In The Southwestern Journals of Adolph F. Bandelier 1883-1884, Bandelier talks about a Mr. de Büren lending his support, and I thought it was Henri. Upon further inspection he is talking of financial support from Eugene de Büren (1845-1923), one of Henri's cousins of the Private de Büren bank in Bern. Eugene was also the friend of Zoologist Theoplil Studer, who Bandelier mentions visiting a number of days before going to Bern.

"December 5, 1884: Had a long conversation with Moisé. His advice was to go to Berne at once, call on Mr. de Büren and ask of him a letter of introduction to A. Chenevier and Company here. I stayed at Geneva overnight. Left for Berne late in the afternoon.

December 6, 1884: I fail to write impressions of today. Mr de Büren is a perfect gentlemen; the others are cowards and fools. It was a horrible day, but I stood it–thank God! I have at least the cooperation of Mr. de Büren, he promised it fully."

Sadly it seems that Eugene de Büren's support was not enough, the bank in Highland would fail the next year.

Eugene de Büren (1845-1923)

SwissInfo Interview, now in Arabic

As the SwissInfo information portal services many communities and many languages (English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian), it seemed logical that at some point my interview would be translated into another language. That next language, much to my surprise and delight, is Arabic. Thanks to SwissInfo for telling my story to a new demographic.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Additional Confirmation of Henri's Voyage

I recently found a couple of mentions of Henri in regard to botanical samples and additional artifacts he brought back from the voyage, namely:

In the April 1865 Monthly newsletter of the Royal Prussian Academy the Sciences, Henri is mentioned to have collected samples of Spruce while in Peru.

"S. asperula (Mart.) Spring ist vor allen anderen gegliederten Arten durch kurze, dichtgedrängte, ziegelartig sich deckende Blätter der Zweige ausgezeichnet. Den in Spring angefübrten Fundorten dieser Art will ich noch beifügen: Panuré am Rio Uaupés und Barra in der Provinz Rio Negro, an beiden Orten von Spruce gesammelt und als S. erythropus vertheilt. In Peru wurde sie auch von Henri de Buren gesammelt (Herb. Neocom.)."

In the 1908 Studies of Tropical American Ferns by William R. Maxon, Henri is mentioned to have collected samples in Mexico near Jalapa.

"As already noted P. pycnocarpttm has been very generally misidentified and Its concept widely extended. Thus, Christensen, in his Index Filicum, gives the range “Mexico-Chile-Argentina” for this species. The citation of Mexico is presumably taken from Fournier who mentions two collections by de Buren and Hahn from the mountains near Jalapa. These plants which have not been examined, are probably referable to P. fallacissimum a very distinct species which is related rather to P. subvestitum."

The Musée d'Ethnographie in Neuchâtel found another piece in their collection from Henri's voyage. A stone arrowhead with the inscription "Mexique/ H. de Buren" on one side.

Stone arrowhead © Musée d'Ethnographie de Neuchâtel

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mundurucú feathered headress

At the end of his journey, Henri found himself at Pará where the Amazon empties into the Atlantic. While in Pará he was shown around Santarém by the French Vice-Consul, M. Gouzenne. He speaks about the geography and goods exchanged at the mouth of the Amazon.

While in Santarém he writes about trying to procure a ceremonial trophy head and feathered headdress from the Mundurucú people, once the mightiest headhunters in the Amazon. I had assumed that he was unable to close the deal, but the Musée d'Ethnographie in Neuchâtel has a feathered headdress that is attributed to Henri in their possession (Actual photo below). The colors of the Amazon bird feathers are still incredibly vibrant after 150 years. What happened to the trophy head is a mystery.

Mundurucú feathered headress. © Musée d'Ethnographie de Neuchâtel

Mundurucú warrior in ceremonial attire, ca. 1828. Illustration by Hercules Florence.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The butler (almost) did it

The largest contingent of those attached to the expedition to establish the Peruvian town of Caballococha were from Germany. Most left Germany of their own accord to start a new life, some it seems had other reasons for leaving.

During his entire time in Peru, Henri who travelled in style, had a young German, August Forgens, assigned to him to carry some of his possessions, help him set up his elaborate tent when they arrived at a new village and to also help him entertain guests. It seems Henri's accommodations were quite upscale given the circumstances, and Henri would invite different members of the expedition to dine or have a cordial with him in the evening.

Just before Henri left the expedition to travel on to Brazil he was informed by a compatriot of Forgens that August had been implicated in an attempted assassination of General Karl Wilhelm von Willisen, Supreme Commander of the forces of the German Confederation. Most of the men who were on the expedition were former military men and if the story is accurate, Forgens may have been motivated by the defeat of the Schleswig-Holstein troops under the command of von Willisen at the hands of Denmark during the Battle of Isted in 1850. The defeat was highly demoralizing and effectively broke the back of the Schleswig-Holstein army.

General Karl Wilhelm von Willisen

Monday, September 14, 2009

Agriculture, Forestry and Hunting

In looking through Henri's papers today I found his entry in the 1883 Swiss National Exposition in Zürich, a proof of his membership in the Swiss Hunting Association and Swiss Forestry Association. I was struck by their graphic composition and beauty. They seem to represent well a man who loved to work with his land and interact with nature. In the 1883 Swiss National Exposition he would enter in the wine and spirits category and would win an honorable mention for his red wine.

Exposition Nationale Suisse, Zurich 1883. Monsieur H. de Büren, Vaumarcus

Société Suisse de Chasseurs, 1886

Schweizerische Forestverein, 1879

Saturday, September 12, 2009

1er Prime d'Honneur

After his voyage, Henri was very active for the remainder of his life in botanical and agricultural societies of French-speaking Switzerland. Below is a new discovery from a family member (Merci Pitchoune) of an agricultural award that Henri won in 1879. On one side it states "1er prime d'honneur, pour agriculture, 1879" and on the other "Henri de Büren, Vaumarcus". It is not clear why he won this award, but it simply reinforces that fact that he was a gifted botanist like his father.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bear and Bull Fight in Lima

As I read Henri's letters home one of the passages that struck me was his description of two Bear and Bull Fights he witnessed in Lima in 1853.

"The Bull and the Bear have one of their legs chained so they cannot freely move within a small enclosed circle. The battle loses some of its interest as a result, but it must be said that it is fairer fight than in the typical corrida."

After the second fight which it seems was far more gruesome than the first, Henri left in disgust.

"I was sickened not only from the display, but also for those who seemed to derive so much pleasure from the spectacle."

I thought this was pretty barbaric and of another age. It made me think of ancient Rome or Bull and Bear baiting in Elizabethan England. When I did a little research however, I found that it was also very prevalent in California at the time.

From an 1868 New York Times article

"Spain or Mexico never pitted a bear against a bull in the public arena, and it has been left for enlightened America to develop the prowess of such animals in combat. Grizzly Joe, the bear who fought yesterday against the calico-colored Texas bull. is almost a pioneer in that line, although several exhibitions of the kind have been given in California."

From Chris Ralph's Article The Bull and Bear Fight

"In the early days of California, the pioneer population of the state was wont to amuse themselves with the gruesome ritual of bull and bear fights. Certainly something that would never be accepted today, these events made the Mexican tradition of bullfighting look tame by comparison. A large portion of the California population in those days was Spanish, and anything pertaining to the fighting of bulls would draw out the full Mexican population. However the bull and bear fight was not limited to just one ethnic group, and was a sport appreciated by all the population in those days, as the Americans would turn out alongside everyone else. Sunday, by custom, was the day set apart for these exhibitions, for on that day, everybody came to town for shopping and other business."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Great Montreal Fire of 1852

In 1852 as Henri traveled through the U.S. he ventured north by steamboat and train to Montreal. He arrived in late July of that year, not long after the great fire.

"We disembarked at Grosse Pointe around six o'clock at night and we followed the Saint Laurent by rail and then, from the opposite bank, again by steamboat to Montreal. We reached it at ten o'clock at night. Although the great fire of Montreal had only been fifteen days before our arrival, the smell of smoke still hung in the air. It burned between eight and nine hundred houses, a great number of which, naturally the poorest ones, were not insured. From my window up above where I could embrace the biggest part of it, it was a sad but grandiose spectacle. The fire must have been furious since only portions of walls were still standing."

The fire of 1852 ravages Dalhousie Square (at the entrance to Faubourg Québec), by James Duncan.
© McCord Museum of Canadian History

While the city had been greatly damaged, Henri still found it incredibly charming.

"I was pleased to see Montreal. Like our good European cities, its houses,  built in stones, have a cozy look, which is far from being the characteristic of American cities. We also saw a very nice review of an infantry regiment and an English artillery battery, whose appearance, practice and aspect were, in my opinion, praiseworthy. We also climbed the Real Mountain, on top of which one can enjoy a beautiful view, at its feet the city of Montreal, then the Saint Laurent river with its islands, further away an immense plain covered with farms and villages, at the end of which, through the mist, rise isolated from one another, mountains of beautiful shapes and forms."

Photo of Montreal in early 1852

Thursday, August 13, 2009

de Buren Family Blog

In working on my film project regarding my great-great-grandfather, I found that there were certain family stories that were not being told because they did not fit into the framework of his story. I have created a sister site that aims to display the rich history of my family beyond that of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Swiss Review Interview

My project is highlighted in the August 2009 U.S. regional edition of the Swiss Review. A big thanks to Wal Baur & Hilda Birchmeier for their time and effort on my behalf.

From Family History to Documentary
What if you were lucky enough to hold a genuine 150 year old diary of a world explorer in your own hands? What if that explorer was one of your ancestors? You would likely re-experience the same journey over and over by reading it, wondering how the world traveler felt at the time, what were his joys and his fears.

Swiss-American Jean François de Buren’s great-great-grandfather Henri de Buren left Switzerland in the early 1850s and headed for the Americas. Along the way, the world traveler had a steady friend and loyal companion: his diary. Carefully written in his handwriting, the man documented his journey vigilantly, as well as illustrating his experiences artistically. Henri landed in the US, traveled America and Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Brazil.

Henri was a man born into privilege and wealth but part of that privilege vanished when noble titles became purely ceremonial in the canton of Neuchâtel where he lived. He was moved to travel to the Americas by Alexander von Humbolt’s accounts of the flora and fauna of Latin America. And he was certainly intrigued by the customs, lifestyles and politics of the new world. He would travel the Americas not only as a trained botanist, but also as a man of culture, stopping often to paint, engage in intellectual discourses with his contemporaries and document his observations in his journal and letters home to his family.

His journal entries and letters ultimately paint a complex and nuanced portrait of a young man finding his identity. He comes across as a man of high principle and ideals but also as a classist. These passages are tempered by others that show his reverence for nature, and appreciation for human ingenuity. Henri ultimately left on a trip of scientific discovery and in the end found himself.

Four generations later, great-great-grandson Jean François de Buren has a dream. He wants to put together a documentary. He sees himself as the narrator of a movie, a reflection or a documentary about his great-great-grandfather’s life and journey.

However Jean-François is in need of financial support and welcomes assistance to help him realize the dream many of us have. He is convinced that he will contribute his talent and knowledge to make this project a success. He hopes for the interest of a film studio or private venture to knock at his door. No, he has not contacted Mr. Spielberg – but who knows? What do YOU think – Share your houghts; Jean-François de Buren looks forward to hearing from you at “”.

You can also get more information on his great-great-grandfather and the preparation of his journey by visiting his blog at


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Barons of the Holy Roman Empire

In 1659, the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I would confer on David de Büren (1614-1659) and all of his descendants the title of Baron of the Holy Roman Empire and Austrian states. The actual proclamation would not arrive until 1669, FedEx anyone? Along with the proclamation came an illustration, the emperor's seal, an orb and scepter. I have reproduced the seal and illustration below.

The illustration shows the de Büren crest in the center and the Imperial eagle above.

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