Jean Baptiste Assiginack: The Starling aka Blackbird

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By Alan Corbiere

This post marks the third in a series of essays – posted the second Wednesday of each month – by Alan Corbiere focusing on Anishinaabeg participation in the War of 1812. 

Assiginack, Artist Unknown, c. 1845

Assiginack, Artist Unknown, c. 1845

On the morning of October 5, 1861, 96 year old Odaawaa Chief Jean Baptiste Assiginack of the Biipiigwenh (Sparrowhawk) clan rose from his slumber and got dressed. J.B. Assiginack, frame bent with age, did not fully fill out the blue admiral attire he had been given for services during the War of 1812. Regardless, Assiginack shined up his black top boots, pressed his blue cloth tail coat, shined the coat’s gilt buttons, and straightened the gold epaulettes. Putting on his undergarments, socks, pants, shirt, he then put on his boots followed by his blue coat. He buttoned the coat and then took the crimson sash and fastened it around his waist. Next he grabbed the silver medal he received the previous year from the Prince of Wales and affixed it to his breast. Holding the King George III medal he received for services during the War of 1812, and taking it by the blue ribbon, he pulled it too over his head and wore it around his neck. Lastly he took the black cocked hat, adjusted the plume of blue and white feathers, and then placed it upon his head. He then proceeded to the dock at Manitowaning Bay and awaited the arrival of the treaty commissioners.

The delegation of Crown representatives arrived and, after introductions, all proceeded to the upper floor of the Indian Affairs storehouse that also served as council chambers. The treaty commissioners made their offensive opening remarks, the chief speaker offered a quick rebuttal but then the aged chief, J.B. Assiginack, aided by his sons, stood up amongst his fellow chiefs and addressed them as he had on so many previous occasions. Assiginack in his regal admiral attire interjected:

My Chiefs – I am not a Chief, but am a War Chief. The Chief’s bugle sounds well. The soldier’s bugle does not always sound well. You will hear today how it sounds. I want to tell you what took place in past times. The Frenchman first put his foot on this land. When he looked around him he saw Indians with their Chiefs and Warriors. He gave medals to the Chiefs and War Chiefs, and they were then recognized as such […] When the Englishman set his foot upon the land, he saw the Chiefs and War Chiefs, and observed they wore medals. He took off his own medals, and put them around the necks of the Chiefs and War Chiefs. These braves then cast away their former medals and became English Chiefs. When they had thus become English Chiefs, they faithfully executed the wishes of their Great Father the King, and they have always continued to do so till this time. You are the Chiefs of today and it becomes you to act as those did who came before you. I, a War Chief, have never opposed the wishes of the Government but have always executed them[…] The Queen sits upon the same throne that her forefathers sat upon, and she rules with the same power that they wielded over all their subjects. I speak for myself. I want you to do the same. I shall always be guided by the wishes of the Queen’s government. If she again required my services as a War Chief, I, at the age of 96 years, am ready to serve her again.[1]

Assiginack’s words reflected his experiences. The aged war chief had been in His Majesty’s service since the end of the War of 1812, where he served as interpreter for the government. In that capacity he had listened to many chiefs and orators recount their history and air their grievances to colonial officials. As an orator for his people he had to learn the history of his people, which he did by listening to his elders and his chiefs. It was his uncle Giiminiijaangan (Keemineechaugan ‘The Bastard’) who had relayed to him the symbolic importance of the medals the chiefs wore around their necks, a symbol of alliance. Assiginack also knew that certain medals actually belonged to the office of the chief and were handed down to each successive chief. Other medals belonged to the individual and were awarded because of their valour on the field of battle.

Paul Kane, Assiginack, 1845 (Stark Museum)

Paul Kane, Assiginack, 1845 (Stark Museum)

Although literate, Jean Baptiste did not compose his autobiography and therefore did not detail his service during the War of 1812. However, one of his sons, Benjamin Assiginack, wrote that “His father had fought with the English against the Americans in seven battles.” [2] These specific seven battles have not all been identified. The first is definitely Michilimackinac. And historian Douglas Leighton reported that Assiginack had then joined Captain Matthew Elliott at Amherstburg and went to the Niagara Peninsula and engaged the enemy at Beaver Dams after which Assiginack “may have received medals and a silk flag bearing the British coat of arms for his part in the war.” [3]

That makes two of seven battles. The rest remain obscure. Unfortunately, during the War of 1812 many of Indian Department and British Army officials would only record that a certain number of “Indians” were present without providing names, other times they used “Western Indians” or even the tribal names, so that we cannot be absolutely positive that Assiginack was at certain battles.

There are a few instances, however, when Assiginack is specifically mentioned. For instance on 3 September 1813, the schooner Nancy was at the mouth of the St. Clair River heading to Michilimackinac, when the captain entered into the log that:

We were this day informed by an Indian Chief called Black Bird that on the 1st Gen’l Procter with all his Troops had gone to Amherstburg, on the Am’n Fleet appearing off that place to the number of 5 sail.[4]

The information transmitted by Blackbird (whether Assiginack or his brother Makadebinesi “Black Hawk” – both were translated as “Blackbird” and both were chiefs) was timely because the Detroit frontier had been thrown into disarray again. The Americans had taken over the Detroit area, the sailors made inquiries on shore “but all informants, native and French Canadian, advised that the situation was desperate on the western frontier: Detroit and Amherstburg had passed to American hands.” [5] The information proved vital to the crew of the schooner and the Nancy was able to convey necessary supplies to various posts for little while longer.

With the Detroit frontier under their control, the Americans decided to make an attempt to re-take Michilimackinac. The Anishinaabeg and British received intelligence and kept a vigilant eye for the enemy. Here the war was brought to Assiginack’s homeland and he played a prominent role in the conflict. Indian Department Storekeeper, Clerk and Interpreter John Askin Jr., reported to his superior from Michilimackinac on 29 July 1814 that,

 On the 27th Inst., some of our Indians attacked a boat crew of the enemy’s on Round Island they killed [two] & brought [of] a prisoner. The prisoner is such an ignorant fellow that he cannot tell the number belonging to the fleet. Our Indian force is 400 warriors all determined to fight the enemy to the last. Assekenack [Assiginack] is at the head of 100 Ottawa [Odaawaa] warriors. From the conduct of our warriors I am confident that [Jonathon] will be defeated that to say if they land on this island very few will get back to their vessels. They are so enraged at the Big Knives that it will be a difficult task for the officers of the Indn Department to prevent their eating some of them. [6]

Assiginack must have distinguished himself. For by the second year of the war he was seemingly well known and had been placed in command of 100 Odaawaa warriors. As a war chief, he owed his influence to his oratorical skills which won him the allegiance of young men willing to join him on the war path. Here, there is no mistaking Assiginack with his brother Makadebinesi. The other 300 warriors and their war chiefs remain nameless.

Upon arriving at Michilimackinac, Assiginack participated in the capture of the Tigress and Scorpion. According to some reports Assiginack “was observed just before the attack, with tobacco pouch and bottle of rum, scattering part of their contents on the waters of the bay. This was with devotional feelings, and by way of invoking the ‘spirit of the waters.’ Then he rushed to the attack and was among the first to leap on board one of the enemy’s vessels.” [7] Assiginack’s youngest son Francis told James Cleland that his father “and a number other Indians boarded the vessel so noiselessly, that the crew, who were in the cabin, only learned of the attack when the war-whoop rang out, and finding themselves in the power of the red warriors, surrendered at discretion.” [8]

The successful defense of Michilimackinac and the capture of these two boats boosted the confidence the British reposed in Assiginack. By the end of the war Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall, the commanding officer at Michilimackinac, charged Assiginack with the duty of proclaiming the peace once he received word in May 1815. McDouall had Assginack “dispatched with wampum & the Pipe of Peace to all the nations on the east side of Lake Michigan.” [9] John Askin also reported that on 7 May 1815 Lieutenant Colonel McDouall proceeded to L’Arbre Croche (Assiginack’s home village) to conduct the ceremony of burying the hatchet. “A belt of wampum was presented by the commanding officer to the nation to be preserved amongst those which had been given them on similar important occasions to commemorate that event.” [10]

J.B. Assiginack sketched by Nicolas Point, s.j. (Archives of the Society of Jesus of Upper Canada)

J.B. Assiginack sketched by Nicolas Point, s.j. (Archives of the Society of Jesus of Upper Canada)

Assiginack had distinguished himself on the battlefield and now, with peace declared, he had proven his versatility and soon became an interpreter for the Indian Department at the British garrison on Drummond Island, a post he maintained up to the late 1850’s. During his tenure as interpreter at Drummond Island, Assiginack became increasingly involved in Roman Catholicism. He also quit drinking alcohol. No longer would Assiginack be seen spreading tobacco and pouring rum into the lake to appease the spirits. So fervent was Assiginack’s religious beliefs that he briefly left the employ of the Department of Indian Affairs in order to serve as catechist at L’Arbre Croche.

Not too long after, however, at the behest of department officials, Jean Baptiste Assiginack returned to his position as interpreter to the Department of Indian Affairs. There he faced pressure to accept the title of Grand Chief of the Western Indians. Lord Dalhousie had awarded him silver arm bands, a medal and large flag as marks of that title. He did not accept, realizing that his fellow chiefs were the ones to bestow such a title. As interpreter to the Department, Assiginack played critical roles in Anishinaabe history. He was the lead negotiator at the 1836 Manitoulin Treaty, signed by Lieutenant Governor Francis Bond Head, and also at the signing of the 1850 Robinson Huron Treaty.

It was the 1862 McDougall Treaty, however, that would come to define Jean Baptiste Assiginack – fairly or unfairly. During these negotiations Assiginack stated to his fellow chiefs and fellow Anishinaabeg:

Oh! my little brothers, I am the first born of all of us on the island of the Otawas. I am the eldest of all the chiefs and warriors. Listen to me, you have no reason to say: My ancestor came here, I was born here. The ancestor of the Ottawa alone came to this place. My Ottawa ancestor was over there, where the sun falls, it is there that I lived, then I came to this land. Now, here are my thoughts: I am owner here, and I surrender all that I possess.

This statement ignited the younger chiefs, leading one to proclaim that Assiginack was not a “pure” Odaawaa but a slave, one whose ancestor was captured by the Odaawaa and adopted into the nation. All the chiefs cried out “G-debwe! You speak the truth!” The Odaawaa chiefs protested Assiginack’s authority to sign the treaty because he had been deposed as a chief a few years earlier. Of course, the colonial officials accepted his signature as valid and, with the stroke of a pen, the great War Chief, Orator, and catechist had been labelled a sell out.

Jean Baptiste Assiginack of the Biipiigwenh clan of the Odaawaa died on 3rd of November 1866.

Alan Corbiere is Anishinaabemowin Revival Program Coordinator at Lakeview School, M’Chigeeng First Nation. For more information on the life of J.B. Assiginack consult the book by Cecil King, called “Balancing two worlds: Jean-Baptiste Assiginack and the Odawa Nation 1768 – 1866.”

Replica of the wampum belt McDouall gave to Assiginack to proclaim the peace

Replica of the wampum belt McDouall gave to Assiginack to proclaim the peace

[1] Sessional Papers, Parliament of the Province of Canada, 1863, Appendix 63

[2] RG 10, Vol. 303, pp: 203269 – 203274.

[3] Leighton p.9

[4] Gough p. 61.

[5] Gough p. 61

[6] NAC RG 10, Vol. 29, C-11008, p. 17136

[7] James Cleland Hamilton, 1893. The Georgian Bay: An account of its position, inhabitants, mineral interests, fish, timber and other resources. Toronto: James Bain & Son, p. 77.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Proceedings of a court of inquiry against Lt. Joseph Cadot of His Majesty’s Indian Department. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, Volume XVI, p. 340.

[10] Ibid., p. 340.

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One thought on “Jean Baptiste Assiginack: The Starling aka Blackbird

  1. Roseanne Wabegijig

    Has this series of lectures/papers been assembled into a book for purchase yet, or is there a book in the future?

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