Name: Jean-Baptiste ASSIGINACK
Given Name: Jean-Baptiste
Birth: 1768 in L'arbre Croche, Michigan, USA
Death: 3 Nov 1866 in Manitowaning, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada
Change Date: 13 Jul 2014 at 14:30
Assiginack 125 Supplement, June 26, 1996, Produced by the Manitoulin Expositor
Assiginack: the man
By Duff McCutcheon
Assiginack Township-Reviled by some as a quisling, admired by many as a great leader, warrior and orator, Jean-Baptiste Assiginack is certainly one of the more interesting figures in Manitoulin, indeed Canadian history.
Assiginack or "the Blackbird" began his long life in 1768, born to the L'Arbre Croche Odawas near the Mackinac Straits. According to Cecil King's essay: J.B. Assiginack: Arbiter of Two Worlds (published in Ontario History, the journal of the Ontario Historical Historical Society, March 1994), by the time Assiginack reached his mid-twenties, he attracted the attention of David Bacon, a missionary from Connecticut bent on converting the Odawa people. Bacon saw much promise in Assiginack and so chose the young man to help him learn Odawa and to act as a mediator between himself and the Odawa.
It was through Bacon and his family's influence that Assiginack adopted the ways of the white man, choosing their mode of dress and doing his best to conform to the ways of that household.
Eventually Rev. Bacon was ordered to leave the Mackinac area but Assiginack continued in his role as mediator between his people and the white governments, first with the Americans and later with the British. In 1811, there are records of Assiginack and a man called Kinintyagan visiting Washington on behalf of the Odawa. The two men asked William Eustis, the secretary of war, to consider the plight of their people who were now living in terrible conditions at L'Arbre Croche. Assiginack and Kininityagan "affirmed support for the United states but left no doubt that the Odawak expected better treatment from the Americans," according to Dr. King's article.
This support did not last however. A year later, at the beginning of the War of 1812, Assiginack switched allegiances and fought very bravely alongside the British. According to Dr. King, "they say he carried eight feathers, a symbol of his fierceness in battle. He came home: eight of his enemies did not." His battles against the Americans include the taking of Detroit, Michilimackinac, Beaver Dams and Chicagong.
After the war, he was hired by the British to act as an interpreter with the Indian Department at Drummond Island. He was employed as such until 1827 when he decided he wanted to return to L'Arbre Croche to live among his people. Having become a Roman Catholic, Assiginack supplemented his role as an interpreter and intermediary to become something of a missionary in his old home. Since there was no priest at L'Arbre Croche, Assiginack filled the void and did what he could to convert the Odawa. According to Dr. King, "it is said that on one occasion he was on his feet the greater part of three days seeking ot turn his fellows from the pagan religion to Christianity."
By 1830, the Americans had begun annexing Odawa land in Michigan and thus Assiginack and the Odawa were forced to move to British territory near Penetanguishene. Here Assiginack and his wife set up residence while he continued his roles as interpreter and missionary. He had also become a farmer and was cultivating a plot of land at Coldwater, between Penetanguishene and Barrie.
In 1835, Assiginack was on the move again, this time, to Manitoulin Island where Sir Francis Bond Head, the lieutenant-governor, proposed setting up a native homeland where displaced natives from all over Upper Canada and Michigan could come and live. The Manitoulin Treaty of 1836 finalized the plan. During the treaty making, assiginack was instrumental in interpreting the sentiments of the British but would also speak his mind to the various chiefs and councils assembled there. While Assiginack was loyal to the British, the interests and welfare of his people were foremost on his mind. Because of this, as well as his eloquence, assiginack was widely respected among the natives.
It was at this time that Manitowaning was established with the hopes that the antives on the Island might migrate there to become "civilized" and learn the arts of agriculture. An Indian Department branch was placed there until the direction of Captain Thomas Gummersall Anderson, the northern superintendent of Indian Affairs and a longtime friend of Assiginack. Together, the two men did their best to promote Indian-white cooperation and to make the Island a "model Indian community" according to a biography of Assiginack in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
However, the Manitowaning Experiment (as the project was known) ended a few decades later in failure. The government had set up a school, an Anglican churcha s well as some tradespeople to teach the natives the ways of the white man. Attendance at the school was marginal at best, fluctuating with seasons and whims of the natives and the tradespeople had only a few apprentices with whom to work. While many Odawa and Ojibwe came to the Island when it was opened up for native settlement, it was not to be the mecca that the government had hoped for. However, while Manitowaning was slowly waning, Wikwemikong was flourishing with scores more families than the Establishment settlement, as well as many more farms.
Assiginack, by now quite an aged man, continued to work as an interpreter for the Indian Department until 1849. He was still quite active as an intermediary between the natives and the government even after this date.
It was his role as intermediary which eventually got him ostracized by his people. In 1862, when the government finally conceded that the Manitowaning Experiment had failed, they decided to open up Manitoulin Island for white settlement. They set up negotiations with the Manitoulin natives to cede their land and one of the first leaders to agree to the government's proposals was Assiginack. While at least six other chiefs from around the Island also agreed to the 1862 treaty, the Wikwemikong Odawa vehemently opposed the idea and would have nothing to do with it. According to dr. King, with his signing of the treaty, "Assiginack had become a symbol of the irretrievable loss of the old ways. For in the Odawa world view, the past and the present come together: the identy with the past is an integral part of the present and future. Thepast is real and present and there can be no question of its desecration. To do that is to desecrate a part of oneself. So, by signing the second Manitoulin treaty, Assiginack had desecrated the first treaty of Manitoulin and so doing had desecrated his people."
Under pressure, Assiginack left Wikwemikong. The Upper Canadian government provided him and his family with land on Sucker Lake, near Manitowaning.
Assiginack's land held Indian reserve status and on even recent maps, this tiny corner of Manitoulin is indicated as Sucker Lake Indian Reserve.
Assiginack 125 Supplement, June 26, 1996, Produced by the Manitoulin Expositor
A great man cheated by history
By Duff McCutcheon
Assiginack-while 'Blackbird' or Assiginack has been dead for over a century, his genes and memory live on with people who are proud to claim his ancestry.
The backgrounds of Assiginack's proud descendants are varied but they all share a feeling that their ancestor was a great man who was cheated by history. Among these descendants are Alan Overfield, Cecil King and Jim Clark.
Alan Overfield, formerly of Manitoulin, is a bailiff in Toronto who has done much research on his illustrious ancestor's past. "I think he was one of North America's greats native leaders," he said in an interview, "I respect what he tried to do in establishing the Island as a native-only preserve, but he got double-crossed by the government back in 1862 at the signing of the second treaty."
Mr. Overfield is referring ot the treaty which opened up Manitoulin Island to white settlement. Assiginack has long been considered a "sell-out" for his part in the treaty, but, Mr. Overfield and Dr. King, (a former Wikwemikong resident and Queen's University professor), think that Assiginack was made a scapegoat.
History has been unfair insofar in what has been implied that the ceding of the Island was his doing," said Dr. King. "There were other 1862 treaty signatories that were more responsible than him."
"It doesn't seem logical," adds Dr. King, "that a man, who so proudly proclaimed that the Island was for natives, would come along and suddenly cede the land to the whites."
Mr. Overfield adds that Assiginack was very old and well into his eighties at the time of the treaty. "I get the impression he didn't know what he was signing," he said. Both descendants agree that he could have been tricked by the government agents who came to do business.
Besides Assiginack's sad end, Mr. Overfield is proud of his ancestor's accomplishments. "He was an unsung hero of the war of 1812 and he did much to punish natives who sold land to the whites," he said. Mr. Overfield remembers reading one account of Assiginack in which the leader marched a 10,000 strong native army to punish a band of Iroquois who sold off land in Southwestern Ontario. "He was a man of honour but I don't think he had a lot of patience with those that gave him trouble," he said. "Apparently after doing battle he would put the heads of his enemies on stakes for all to see."
Dr. King sees Assiginack as an opportunist and an entrepreneur. "I think he would do what he could to advance himself," he said. He was also a very religious man, and "a pillar in his church," said Dr. King. Unfortunately, the catholic priests in Wikwemikong tried to have him excommunicated in his later years. However, as Dr. King points out, "this was because he was living in British, Anglican Manitowaning and the French priests saw this as being traitorous to the Catholic church."
Jim Clark of Sucker Lake near Manitowaning also considers Assiginack to be a great man. "He was outstanding in his endeavours but he got ripped off," he said. The rip-off Mr. Clark is referring to is the former Sucker Lake reserve. According to Mr. Clark, the reserve, which was given to Assiginack, was supposed to extend to South Baymouth. In the end, however, this wasn't to be. The reserve itself ceased to exist in 1957.
Assiginack is buried, in an unidentified grave, in the historic cemetery beside Holy Cross Mission Church in Wikwemikong,
ASSIGINACK (Assikinock, Assekinack), JEAN-BAPTISTE (also known as Blackbird), Ottawa chief and public servant; b. probably in 1768, perhaps at Arbre Croche (Harbor Springs, Mich.); d. 3 Nov. 1866 at Manitowaning on Manitoulin Island, Canada West. His second wife was Theresa Catherine Kebeshkamokwe and one of their sons was Francis Assikinack.
Jean-Baptiste Assiginack had apparently been a pupil at the Sulpician school at Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes (Oka) in Lower Canada and was converted there to Catholicism. He first comes to notice during the War of 1812. He may have taken part in the British capture of Michilimackinac in 1812 and of Prairie du Chien (Wis.) in 1814. In July 1813 Assiginack, as a chief of an Ottawa band, and Captain Matthew Elliott* led a number of Ottawas to the Niagara peninsula where they bolstered British strength after the battle of Beaver Dams and participated in a number of skirmishes. Assiginack may have received medals and a silk flag bearing the British coat of arms for his part in the war.
Following the war Assiginack was named in 1815 interpreter for the Indian Department at Drummond Island where he began a long friendship with Captain Thomas Gummersall Anderson*. "Sober, inoffensive and active," according to Anderson, Assiginack became an indispensable part of the Indian Department's operations in the northern Great Lakes area. Fluent in several Indian dialects, though apparently never comfortable in either English or French, he was the department's chief interpreter in the Manitoulin Island region and an influential voice in the councils of his people.
In 1827 Assiginack heard that a Catholic mission was to be established at Arbre Croche. He resigned as interpreter at Drummond Island and went to Arbre Croche to assist at the mission. To his disappointment there was no priest there but he himself catechized and preached. In 1830 he led a group of Ottawas to Penetanguishene, where the British garrison had relocated after the transfer of Drummond Island to the United States in 1828, and returned to the employ of the Indian Department as interpreter. In 1832 he moved to Coldwater which he intended making his permanent residence. He had continued to preach at Penetanguishene and over the years had been successful in leading many bands of the northern lakes area to Catholicism. At Coldwater he was instrumental in the conversion of the prominent Ojibwa chief, John Aisance*, from Methodism to Catholicism. Assiginack impressed Methodist missionary Kahkewaquonaby* (Peter Jones) as "a very intelligent man, open & pleasant in his manner." In January 1833 several chiefs at Coldwater petitioned Bishop Alexander Macdonell* that Assiginack "be appointed to perform service and to instruct us because he is a good man."
The Indian settlement at Coldwater was the result of the determination of the British authorities after 1830 to "civilize" the Indians by placing them in agricultural settlements. Coldwater was not successful, however, and in 1836 a bolder policy of encouraging the separation of the Indians from the white population was instigated by Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head*. In that year Manitoulin Island was ceded to the Indians by a treaty, of which Assiginack was a signatory, and it was hoped that the village of Manitowaning (established the previous year) would become the focal point for the Indians on the island who were to adopt white ways and a mode of existence based on agriculture. Anderson was appointed northern superintendent of the Indian Department with headquarters at Manitowaning in 1837, and it was probably in the years that followed, until Anderson's retirement in 1845, that Assiginack's influence reached its height. Even after his own retirement from the Indian Department as interpreter in 1849, Assiginack remained an important link between his people and the government of the Province of Canada. He was active in the negotiations between the Indians of the upper lakes area and William Benjamin Robinson* which resulted in two treaties of 1850, and his help was also much valued by Superintendent George Ironside who succeeded Anderson.
On Manitoulin Island Assiginack bent all his efforts in the direction of Indian-white cooperation and of supporting plans to make the island a model Indian community. But as the decade of the 1850s passed, it became obvious that the original hopes for the island could not be met. It had not attracted as many Indians from central and northern Upper Canada as had been expected and the Ojibwa, who made up the bulk of the population of Manitowaning, continued to follow the traditional life based on hunting and fishing. Various tribes were represented in the island's Indian population and the old tribal distinctions proved strong deterrents to communal efforts. Christianity itself was a divisive factor; the predominantly Ottawa and Roman Catholic village of Wikwemikong, established before Manitowaning and 18 miles to the east of it, continued to flourish in the 1850s while Manitowaning, which had been established by the government and was supported by the Church of England, gradually lost its Indian population.
With the failure of Manitowaning and of the Manitoulin Island experiment the decision was taken by the government in 1861 to open the island to white settlers. However, strong opposition to the surrender of the island was expressed in Wikwemikong. At a council meeting held at Manitowaning in October 1861 Assiginack made a powerful but unsuccessful appeal in favour of the acceptance of a treaty proposed by the government. Negotiations lapsed for a year until William McDougall*, the commissioner of crown lands, came to the island prepared to grant better terms than those previously proposed to the Indian population in return for the island's surrender. Assiginack again supported the government position; at one council meeting he had to be protected by some of his sons from those opposing it. A treaty was signed in 1862 but it reflected the divisions among the Indians of the island: only two chiefs from Wikwemikong were among the signatories. The terms followed those of the Robinson treaties for the upper lakes: Manitoulin and adjacent islands were surrendered to the crown in return for a land grant (100 acres per family) and annuities drawn from the interest upon the capital accumulated from sales of land to white settlers. Indian fishing rights were guaranteed and the Crown Lands Department promised to survey the lands as quickly as possible. However, because of the opposition of the Wikwemikong chiefs the eastern end of Manitoulin Island was excluded from the provisions of the treaty until a majority of the chiefs and principal men of that area agreed to sign. Within a year of the signing of the treaty violence broke out between the Indians from Wikwemikong and government authorities over the rights of whites on Manitoulin Island and over the fishing privileges retained by those Indians who had not signed the 1862 treaty.
Assiginack signed the 1862 treaty, but the opposition of his coreligionists to the stand he took and the divisions between the two Indian communities on Manitoulin Island must have caused him much anguish. A large number of his own people questioned the wisdom of cooperating as he had with a society which seemed determined to force the disappearance of Indian cultural values. One of Assiginack's own sons, Edowishcosh, was a spokesman for those opposing the 1862 treaty. Assiginack died in 1866 at Manitowaning, but was buried among his coreligionists at Wikwemikong.
Archives of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Macdonell papers, AC07/02-04, AC14/05. PAC, RG 10, vols.116-17, 124-28, 130-39, 273-76, 502-9, 612-15, 621, 691, 792. Canada, Indian treaties and surrenders . . . [from 1680 to 1906] (3v., Ottawa, 1891-1912; repr. Toronto, 1971). Can., Prov. of, Sessional papers, 1863, V, nos.41, 63. Canadian Freeman (Toronto), 20 Nov. 1862. Loyalist narratives from Upper Canada, ed. J. J. Talman (Toronto, 1946). J. G. Shea, History of the Catholic missions among the Indian tribes of the United States, 1529-1854 (New York, 1855). D. B. Smith, "The Mississauga, Peter Jones, and the white man: the Algonkians' adjustment to the Europeans on the north shore of Lake Ontario to 1860" (unpublished phd thesis, University of Toronto, 1975). Ruth Bleasdale, "Manitowaning: an experiment in Indian settlement," OH, LXVI (1974), 147-57.
Manitoulin Expositor, October 30, 2013
Assiginack, the historical figure: a new biography
Balancing Two Worlds: Jean-Baptiste Assiginack and the Odawa Nation, 1768-1866' is a new book published by Dr. Cecil King, an Odawa from Wikwemikong First Nation and an internationally recognized educator.
Jean-Baptiste Assiginack is a controversial hero. He was an Odawa war chief, an interpreter, an orator and a spokesperson but he is largely remembered on Manitoulin for endorsing and signing the 1862 treaty. By that one act, performed in his mid 90s, he was transformed in the view of many of his people from a respected chief to a traitor.
'Balancing Two Worlds' is actually two compelling stories. It's a fascinating biography of a forgotten hero of the War of 1812 and a history of the Anishinabek people as they navigated contact with the strangers who came to their territories. This history is told in the unique voice of the Anishinabek people, who though credited with saving the country during wars and saving the lives of explorers, traders and settlers in times of peace are rarely heard.
'Balancing Two Worlds' is organized chronologically, starting with Machtawin, Beginnings and culminating 10 chapters later with Kitchi Yezhimigowin, The Big Betrayal. Machtawin immediately captures the reader. 'To begin the story of Assiginack, I am going to take you on a journey into my world, the world of the Odawak.'
Recognizing that in order to understand Assiginack, it's necessary to understand the Anishinabek people, Dr. King provides generous background information. He explains the origins, worldview, customs and relationships of the Anishinabek. Subsequent chapters describe encounters with the French, English and Americans. This is history told from an entirely new and extremely compelling angleó an Anishinabe speaking for the Anishinabek people.
Jean-Baptiste Assiginack was born in a period of great turmoil. The French had just been defeated by the English in North America. As a boy he witnessed canoe brigades of trade goods and fighting men of many cultures and languages at Arbre Croche and Mackinac. He was chosen to learn the language of the English so that he would be able to speak in council on behalf of his people when dealing with the English and the Americans. He not only mastered English but became a persuasive multi-lingual orator.
Cecil King was born and spent his early years in Buzwa on the Wikwemikong Peninsula. He began his formal education at the Buzwa Indian Day School and completed it with a PhD at the University of Calgary. He has spent more than 50 years in education as a teacher, professor, researcher, consultant and teacher of teachers. He has developed Ojibwe Language Programs in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, Chicago and California and has produced an 8,000 word Ojibwe dictionary.
Like Assiginack, Dr. King has lived a life on paths between old and new worlds. Dr. King acknowledges that Assiginack was a controversial name when he was growing up in Wikwemikong. This controversy seems to have inspired him to unravel the truth about the chief. He started researching in 1988 at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The unravelling was a monumental task. I've personally encountered at least three men known as Assiginack or Blackbird in official records and that fact alone has deterred me from investigating the chief too deeply. Nevertheless King has followed Jean-Baptiste's trail from Arbre Croche, to Mackinac, Drummond Island, St. Joseph's Island, Coldwater, Wikwemikong and Manitowaning.
Most people will be astonished to realize that when Assiginack finally settled on Manitoulin he was about 71 years of age and he was still working for the Indian Department at the age of 79. Despite his age, I've found that he appears more regularly than any other chief or Anishinabe in the records of the Jesuits, Anglicans and government officials. He was a force to be reckoned with his entire life.
Dr. King has managed to uncover countless details about the exploits and adventures of Assiginack and other Anishinabek and he's assembled them into an unforgettable narrative. He has dispelled the misconceptions of the past and brought a new understanding of the chief. He provides an excellent explanation of how the Odawak were drawn into the War of 1812 and how the people at the country of the crossroads of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior were affected and acted.
I recognize and applaud what has clearly been decades of research. A biography of an Anishinabe chief is an extremely difficult undertaking. Just sorting out the Assiginack and Blackbird relations and non-relations is problematic. Dr. King has obviously scoured countless sources and found, transcribed and incorporated them into this book. 'Balancing Two Worlds' provides an amazing story of an almost forgotten war chief and brings an important period of history to life.
For those who thought Assiginack was simply a township named for a chief, reading 'Balancing Two Worlds' will give you a new appreciation of the chief and the Anishinabek people.
I hope this book inspires a new generation of researchers to continue to research and to continue to unravel this large, complex and often confusing family, and to write in as an engaging manner as Dr. King has.
I couldn't resist asking Dr. King what he's working on now. He's working on his memoirs. "I was raised by my grandparents and a very traditional woman we called Kokwehns," he says. "I was brought up in a life that really was in two worlds. I want to provide a picture of reserve life in the 1930s-1950s when everyone contributed to community life."
I highly recommend 'Balancing Two Worlds, Jean-Baptiste Assiginack and the Odawa Nation, 1768-1866' not only to learn about the chief but to discover First Nation, North American and Manitoulin history, and the War of 1812.
'Balancing Two Worlds: Jean-Baptiste Assiginack and the Odawa Nation, 1768-1866' was published in 2013 by Dr. Cecil King. It is 329 pages long, and contains illustrations, notes, references, and a glossary. It is available at The Manitoulin Expositor bookstore in Little Current.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Shelley J. Pearen is the author of the popular books 'Four Voices, The Great Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1862' and 'Exploring Manitoulin.'
Shelley J. Pearen
Theresa Catherine KEBESHKAMOKWE b: 1803
- Change Date:
21 Nov 2009
- Francis ASSIGINACK b: 1824 in Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada
- Isaac ASSIGINACK b: 1824 in Drummond Island, Michigan, USA
- Benjamin ASSIGINACK b: 3 Sep 1827
- Joseph ASSIGINACK b: Abt 1830
- Louise ASSIGINACK b: Abt 1830
- Catherine ASSIGINACK b: Abt 1830
GIWEDINOKWE b: Abt 1770
- Change Date:
26 Dec 2010
- Samson ASSIGINACK
- Amable ASSIGINACK b: 1788
- Catherine ASSIGINACK b: 1811
- Makokwe ASSIGINACK
- Saganakwadokwe ASSIGINACK