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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 24, 2004 - Issue 105


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Jean Baptiste Corbine (1767-1866)
His Life and Times

credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

I have always been interested in a well-rounded telling of historical people, however often the story is clouded by the bigotry of the past and the ignorance of the presence.

The supposed[i] first 'permanent' white settler in much of northwestern Wisconsin was Jean Baptiste Corbine. He was born in Tres Rivières, Quebec in the year 1767 and later educated at the College of Quebec. He arrived in the Lake Superior basin in 1796 where he came to work for Michel Cadotte at La Pointe. In 1800 he was set up with a trading post on Little Lac Courte Oreilles Lake. We know little of his life between birth and arriving at Lac Courte Oreilles, but we know he was a very pious Catholic man. In reviewing documents I find that the year of his birth is listed from 1767 to 1776 and the year of his death from 1858 to March of 1866. The dates I have used come from information provided by the Mission where he is buried, in Reserve, WI.

We now have J.B. in a time and a place now lets make his life a little more real. When he came to this place one of the chief/headman was Wabiziwisid and it was with this family he aligned himself with. A reality of trading among the Ojibwa of the region was that family connections were mandatory.

The nature of how a traders had to worked within the tribes is best described by Benjamin G. Armstrong in Early Life Among the Indians (1892): "The universal custom here before 1842 was that all white men who came among the Indians to trade were compelled to take an Indian wives. The Indians for two reasons encouraged this custom. Wars had depleted the male portion of the tribes, and as the female portion greatly predominated, the Indians were desirous of providing as many of this surplus with homes as they could. In the second place the American Fur Company had almost complete control of the Indian trade and were not giving them fair bargains in the estimation of the Indians, and they were anxious to have individual traders come among them, and by getting them into a relationship by marriage they thought they thought they would secure fair dealing in future."

"…The plan that the Indians used to get these white son-in-laws was this: when a man came among them to establish himself in the trading business they would at first have nothing to do with him, except in a very small way, and thus gain time to try his honesty and to make inquires about his general character. If satisfied on these points the chiefs would together take their marriageable girls to his trading house and he was given his choice of the lot. They would sometimes take as many as a dozen girls at one time for the trader to choose from. If the choice was made the balance of the group returned and no hard feelings were ever engendered by the choice. If the trader refused or neglected to make a choice the first visit they would return again in the same manner a few days later, then if no choice were made they would come only once more. In the meantime they would not trade with him a single cents worth, nor would they trade with him unless he took one of their women for his wife. If he had three times failed to choose a wife, and afterwards repented because he had no trade, he became a suitor and often had much difficulty in securing one."

I can only assume that J.B. knew this when he arrived at the village on Little Lac Courte Oreilles. We do know that he did take a wife and we also know it was not the woman he wanted. His eye was captured by a younger daughter of Wabiziwisid, Gitchiwabakosi (Magdalina) but Wabiziwisid would not allow her to marry him and insisted that his eldest daughter, Gakabishikwe become his wife instead.

J.B. agreed and setup house with Gakabishikwe. He then started a very prosperous trade business with the local bands. J.B. and Gakabishikwe had two sons Louis and Alexis.

One of the pivotal years in J.B.'s life was 1808. This was the same period of time that Tecumshe and his brother The Prophet were in the ascendancy of their power. The Prophet's message had a strong call to many people. 'Abandon the Whiteman's Ways' were on many peoples tongues. Runners had come to Lac Courte Oreilles with messages from The Prophet.

The event which marked this year for J.B. is recorded by William W. Warren in his 'History of the Ojibway': "John Baptiste Corbine, a young Canadian of good education, was in charge of the post, and through his indiscretion the flame was lighted which led to the pillage of the post, and caused him to flee for his life, one hundred miles through a pathless wilderness, to the shores of Lake Superior. As was the general custom of the early French traders, he had taken to wife a young woman of the Lac Courte Oreilles village, related to an influential family. During the Shawano excitement, he found occasion to give his wife a severe beating, and to send her away almost naked, from under his roof, to her parents' wigwam. This act exasperated the Indians; and as the tale spread from lodge to lodge, the young men leaped into their canoes and paddling over to the trading house, which stood about one mile opposite their village, they broke open the doors and helped themselves to all which the storehouses contained. Mons. Corbine, during the excitement of the pillage, fled in affright. An Ojibway whom he had befriended, followed his tracks, and catching up with him, gave him his blanket, moccasins, and fire-works, with directions to enable him to reach La Pointe, on Lake Superior, which he did, after several days of hardship and solitary wandering."

Local tales say that the village never threatened J.B. They walked into his trading post and just started taking everything he owned. They even took the clothes he was wearing and let him flee their village naked (just as he had done to his wife). They wanted to teach J.B. a lesson about how to properly act in their society. The nature of the argument between J.B. and Gakabishikwe is something probably lost to time and the exact detail are probably buried with the honored dead. J.B.'s action did enraged the already volital village, however much cooler heads did prevail, for they realized that killing a 'whiteman' would bring more than mere disfavor with the traders and many of their own brethern. They also knew they needed and wanted what the traders offered. They recognized the political and economic realities.

Even the pillaging of the trading post had a price and William W. Warren also mentions this: "This act, on the part of the Lac Courte Oreilles band, was very much regretted by the rest of the tribe. Keeshkemun, the chief at Lac du Flambeau, was highly enraged against this village, and in open council, he addressed the ringleaders with the most bitter and cutting epithets. It came near being the cause of a bloody family feud, and good-will became eventually restored only through the exertions of the kind-hearted Michel Cadotte"

J.B. stayed about six months with Michel Cadotte and then returned to Lac Courte Oreilles and Gakabishikwe. J.B. learned a lifelong lesson and so did the entire band.

A few years later Gakabishikwe died and sometime after this he married Gitchiwabakosi (Magdalina). They were married in a Catholic ceremony at St. Ignace, MI 7/24/1831 by Rev. Samual Mazachelli. J.B. & Magdalina had one daughter Marie, whos baptism was recorded at La Pointe on January 26, 1836.

Another pivotal year in J.B.'s life was 1824. During that year a trader named Finley and 3 of his men were killed on Lake Pepin. William Bartlett in his History, Tradition and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley (1929) gives the best history of this event and J.B.'s place in it: "Since the execution of the Indian at Fond du Lac (Lake Superior) in 1797, by the northwestern traders for killing a Canadian 'coureur du bois', the life of a white man had been held sacred by the Ojibways, and one could traverse any portion of their country, in perfect safety, and without the least molestation. In the year 1824, however, four whites were killed by the Ojibways, under circumstances so peculiar as to deserve a brief account."

"An Ojibway name Mub-o-beence, or Little Broth, residing on the shores of Lake Superior near the mouth of the Ontonagon River, lost a favorite child through sickness. He was deeply stricken with grief, and nothing would satisfy him but to go and shed the blood of the hereditary enemy of his tribe the Sioux. He raised a small war party, mostly from the Lac du Flambeau district, and they floated down the Chippewa River to its entry, where, for several days they watched without success on the banks of the Mississippi, for the appearance of the enemy. The leader had endured hardships, and came leader had endured hardships, and came the great distance of fie hundred miles to shed blood to the manes of his dead child, and long after his fellows had become weary of waiting and watching, and anxious to return home, did he urge them still to continue in their search. He had determined not to return without shedding human blood."

"Early one morning, as the warriors lay watching on the shores of Lake Pepin, they saw a boat manned by four white men land near them, and proceed to cook their morning meal. Several of the party approached to strangers and were well received. The white men consisted of Mr. Finely, with three Canadian boatmen, who were under the employ of Mons. Jean Brunet, of Prairie du Chien, and Indian trader. They were proceeding up the Mississippi to Ft. Snelling on some urgent business of their employer, and Mr. Finley had with him a number of account books and valuable papers."

"The Brunet mentioned above is the one who later built a trading post on the Chippewa River and after whom Brunet Falls was named."

"The assault and massacre of these men was entirely unpremeditated by the Ojibway war part, and contrary to the wishes of the majority. They had paid them their visit and begged some provisions, receiving which, they retired and sat down in-group on a bank immediately above them. The leader here commenced to harangue his fellows, expressing a desire to shed the blood of the white men. He was immediately opposed, on which he commenced to talk of the hardships he had endured, the loss of his child, till, becoming excited, he wept with a loud voice, and suddenly taking aim at the group of white men, who were eating their breakfast, he fired and killed one. Eight of his fellows immediately followed his example, and rushing down to the waterside, they quickly dispatched the whole party and tore off their scalps. Taking the effects of the victims, they returned toward home."

"At Lac Courte Oreilles, they attempted to dance the scalp dance before the door of J.B. Corbine, the trader, who immediately ran out of the house, and forcibly deprived them of the white men's scalps which they were displaying, ordering them at the same time to depart from his door. The trader was supported by the Indian village, and the murderers now for the first time were beginning to see the consequences of their foolish act, skulked silently away, very much crest fallen."

"The remains of the murdered white men were soon discovered, and the news going up and down the river, a boatload of fifty soldiers was sent from Prairie du Chien to pursue the murderers. At Lake Pepin they were met by three boats laden with troops from Ft. Snelling, and the party, including volunteers numbered nearly two hundred men. Mons. Jean Brunet was along, and had been most active in raising this force. They followed the Ojibway war trail for some distance, till, coming to the place where the warriors had hung up their usual thanksgiving sacrifices for a safe return home, a retreat was determined on, as the party had not come prepared to make a long journey, and it was folly to thing of catching the murderers, scattered throughout the vast wilderness, which lay between Lake Superior and the Mississippi."

"The matter was subsequently left in the hands of the traders among the Ojibways. Truman A. Warren, the principle trader of the Lac du Flambeau department, demanded the murderers, at the hands of the chiefs of this section of the tribe. The celebrated Keeshkemum had died a short time previous, and had left his eldest son Monsobodouh to succeed. This man was not a whit behind his father in intelligence and firmness of character. He called a council of his band, and insisted on the chief murderers being given up by their friends. He was opposed in council by a man noted for his ill-temper and savage disposition, who even threatened his life if attempted to carry his wishes into effect. A brother of the man had been one of the ringleaders in the murder and now stud by his side as he delivered his threats against the young chief. As they again resumed their seats, Monsobodouh arose, drawing his knife; he went and laid hold of the murderer by the arm and intimated to him that he was his prisoner. He then ordered his young men to tie his arms. The order was immediately obeyed, and accomplished without the least resistance from the prisoner or his brother, who was thunderstruck at the cool and determined manner of the chief."

"Shortly after, two more of the murderers were taken, and Monsobodouh delivered them into the hands of the trader. The leader of the party, who lived on the shore of Lake Superior, was secured by Mr. William Holliday, trader at L'Anse Bay. The four captives were sent to Mackinac, and fined to jail. While orders were pending from Washington respecting the matter of their trial, they succeeded in making their escape by cutting an aperture through the logs which formed their place of confinement. They were not recaptured."

Schoolcraft notes on August 31, 1824 that he received from J.B. through the hands of Mr. Holliday a small coffin painted black, inclosing an American scalp, with the astounding intelligence that a shocking murder had been committed by a war party of Chippewas at Lake Pepin, on the Mississippi.

I knew very little other about the life of JB, except that he was very well known for travelling great distances to attend Mass and was instrumental in helping bring the Mission into existence. Some of his land is where Mission is today.

When Father Fredric Baraga arrived at La Pointe in July of 1836 he found J.B. a helpful supporter. J.B. and his family often traveled from Lac Courte Oreilles to La Pointe to assist at Mass and to take the Sacraments.

One of my favorite accounts of J.B. comes from some one asking about him at Brunet's Trading post (Cornell, WI). It was 1867 and they wondered if Old Man Corbine up at Lac Courte Oreilles was still alive. They talked about how they saw his son Alex and his pony carts toting up supplies to Reserve over the frozen river.

A number of years ago the State Historical Society and the Sawyer County Historical Society designated the Reserve area to receive a Historical Marker dedicated to J.B. The marker did not name his wives and the Lac Courte Oreilles Bands place in the story that lead to the marker never being put up. It focused on J.B. as the first white man here and forgot that it took two women and a whole village to make it possible for him to thrive here.


[i] This ignores the fact that Michel Cadotte's own grandfather (the one known as Cadeau) died in a Dakota attack on his trading post circa 1775, som where in NW Wisconsin (likely the Rice Lake WI area).

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