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.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Paysage Américain

As Henri traveled, he sketched constantly. Not many artwork examples from his voyage remain but I was lucky enough to find another one today.

The following undated sketch is titled "Paysage Américain" or American Countryside. It is not safe to assume that it is from his time in the U.S. but it seems likely due to what is on the back.

Henri was learning Spanish as he was heading towards Mexico and other points South and on the back of his sketch he has written a conjugation table for the Spanish verbs amar, temer & partir.

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