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