The history found at the Mathias Ham Historic Site is vast and the tales are plentiful. Here is where we hope some of those stories can live on. Shared from the perspective of our historians, enjoy journeying through the life once lived on Lincoln Avenue.
Hidden deep in our collection is a sword that is believed to have belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. Gifted to the museum by Genevieve Shannon, a descendent of General Perreau De Griselles, the sword's journey to Dubuque begins during the French Revolution.
The Perreau family was one of the oldest families in France--titled and wealthy, a dangerous combination during the French revolution when the aristocracy was despised. In order to keep their lands, wealth, and their heads, the family abandoned the use of their title De Griselles.
In 1789, Philippe Benoit Perreau fled to Spain, the same year the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted, which limited the monarchy and states that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights… These rights are liberty, property, and safety and resistance against oppression.”
Perreau took advantage of the turmoil in France and returned in 1792 where he joined the French army. In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the government and continued on his quest for power until 1804 when he was granted the title Emperor of the French. Under Napoleon’s reign, Perreau quickly rose through the ranks to General.
According to family history, during a battle General Perreau broke his sword. Napoleon, seeing the General's misfortune, rushed to him and said, "You have broken your sword, my brave. Take mine." After Napoleon’s death, General Perreau remained in the French Army and served King Charles X. In order to protect the sword, General Perreau had to have a medallion placed over the eagle on his sword, as King Charles X refused to allow his soldiers to use the Imperial Ensign on their arms. One can still see the wings of the Imperial Eagle beneath the medallion.
By 1850, the Perreau family had survived two revolutions, multiple governments and had served presidents, emperors, and kings; however, the family wealth had dwindled through bad investments.
General Perreau’s daughter Mathilda and her husband Francois Eugene Valin decided that America provided an opportunity for a new start. The family eventually found their way to Centralia, Iowa, in 1864 where they bought a small farm.
Did the sword belong to Napoleon? While we may never know for sure, the story--combined with other artifacts gifted from the family to the museum--does support the theory. Other items include a miniature of Napoleon supposedly given to the General by Josephine Bonaparte, a cup and saucer and spoon owned by Napoleon, and a plate by King Charles X. King Charles X commissioned a set of dishes, and one piece was to be given to each of his generals.
The family's position and wealth, along with the General’s status in the army, made it very likely that the family would have indeed been close to the Emperor. Additionally, Napoleon was known to award trusted members of his court with gifts. Only time and some detective work will be able to close this case. Until then, the case of Napoleon's sword will remain a mystery waiting to be solved.
IN THIS SECTION