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Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

Was Jean-Baptiste A Spy?

by Lisa A. Krahn

The War of 1812-era in the West was paradoxical: traders, like Jean-Baptiste Faribault, could not comply with U.S. law without betraying their kinship obligation to provide trade. How this son of French aristocracy found himself caught between the Eagle and the Lion, and the solution he created are not clearly understood.

In 1798, at age twenty-three, Jean-Baptiste Faribault left an apprentice position in the Québec city mercantile business to seek the excitement and fortune of the Indian trade. He was a well-educated middle child of middle class French emigrants, but he was also ready for adventure. He signed a four-year contract with the Montreal-based Mackinac Company, a British trade outfit with an inland headquarters and storehouses at Michilimackinac1. The company was in its sixteenth year, having been founded by Robert Dickson and Murdoch Cameron, with James Aird and Archibald Campbell joining in the later decades of the partnership.2 The Mackinac Co. operated a largely unlicensed, duty-free business in the adjacent Northwest territory that remained devoid of U.S. governmental regulation. The British company supplied numerous semi-independent trading posts along the waterways of western Great Lakes and upper Mississippi river, land officially claimed by the Spanish crown west of the Mississippi.

When Faribault, the rookie trader,3 arrived at Mackinac, farther west than he had ever been before, the Mackinac Co. inland agent Mr. Gillespie teamed him with an experienced interpreter named Deban, who lived among the Yankton Dakota. Faribault and Deban were assigned engagees to transport them to the "Redwood" post on the Riviere des Moines amidst the Yankton (two hundred miles from the mouth, just west of present-day Ames, Iowa). At Redwood Faribault spent at least three winters learning the trade, winters 1799-'00 through 1801-'02. Other young traders wintered in the same region, offering Faribault's outfit competition and social opportunities: in 1801-'02 traders Thomas G. Anderson and Jacob Frank, a British Jew, wintered among the Ioway tribe 150 miles downstream on the Des Moines river.4

Faribault was introduced to the customs and languages of several area tribes during this period including clans of Dakota, Sauk, Fox and Ioway. Upon the close of each fur season in late spring, Faribault himself delivered his returns to company agent Lewis Crawford at Mackinac. Any intention on Faribault's part to return to Québec at the end of his contract was reconsidered in 1802 when at Mackinac he heard news of the deaths of both his parents.5

A new four-year contract to the Michilimackinac Company6 assigned Faribault to the Little Rapids post among the Wahpeton Dakota on the St. Peter river (near Carver, Minnesota). He and his interpreter Pierre LaPointe7 were supplied from Prairie du Chien at the Wisconsin and Mississippi confluence. Faribault's exact location during the contract period 1803-'04 through 1806-'07 may have been somewhat flexible, as he was observed trading opposite the mouth of the St. Peter's on the Mississippi river in 1805.8 Competition was nearby; Archibald Campbell was operating an independent trading post fifteen miles below Little Rapids that particular year.9 Another year, when the Wahpeton at Little Rapids decided to make war on the Ojibwa rather than hunt, Faribault returned to trade on the Des Moines river among his old friends the Yankton.10

At Little Rapids in 1805 Faribault took as his wife a woman of the Dakota nation named Elizabeth but called by her middle name, Pelagie. Accounts of her background are conflicted. The 1820 Leavenworth treaty granting her ownership of Pike Island indicates her as "the said Pelagie Ferribault being the daughter of Francois Kinie by a woman of our [Dakota] nation." Henry Sibley in his eulogy of Jean Baptiste says Elizabeth Pelagie Faribault was instead "a widow, the daughter of a Mr. Hanse."11 At any rate, this union á la façon du pays (in the fashion of the country, or not recognized by the church) caused Faribault to be as Sibley stated "Thenceforth permanently established as a denizen of the remote NW." Their marriage was later legalized and blessed in 1817 by the first Roman Catholic priest to visit Prairie du Chien.

Late in the same year 1805, while repairing his pirogue (a dugout canoe) near present-day downtown St. Paul, Faribault was encountered by the expedition of Lt. Zebulon Pike, who, in the company of war chief Red Wing, represents the first American military presence in the valley. Employing Faribault as one of the interpreters, Pike asks Dakota leaders Pinichon and Little Crow to cede land at the confluence of the St. Peter's and Mississippi rivers to the U.S. for military use. Scanlan notes Faribault "was personally acquainted with" newly appointed governor of Louisiana Territory, General James Wilkinson;12 in May 1806 Faribault likely accompanied Pike, Red Wing and other chiefs to a council at Prairie du Chien and on to St. Louis to meet with Gen. Wilkinson.13 Faribault returned to Prairie du Chien later in 1806 to find a first healthy son Alexandre, born there by Pelagie with assistance from her friends on the 22nd of June.

Faribault's final four-year contract with the Michilimackinac Co. expired late summer 1808. His last act for the company was the delivery to Mackinac of his fur returns, whereupon he heard of the August 11, 1808, death of his friend Archibald Campbell at the hands of Redford Crawford, brother of Louis, in a pistol duel at Drummond Island. Faribault returned to Pelagie and son at Prairie du Chien in the fall of 1808 and there embarked upon an independent trade with the Winnebago, Sauk, Fox and Wahpekute Dakota.14 He also negotiated a goods-for-lead trade with Julien Dubuque, which involved transporting lead ingots by keelboat to St. Louis, a 15 day trip down river from the mouth of the Wisconsin. Daughter Lucy-Anne is born to the Faribaults at Prairie du Chien in 1809.

After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase was enacted by President Jefferson, the British companies that to continued to operate their lucrative Indian trade in the Upper Mississippi region faced increasing interference. The American government formally banned British trade west of the Mississippi, imposed duties on British goods entering the U.S. and appointed U.S. Indian Agents at several localities, then began to establish its own government trading posts (or factories) at key locations including Chicago and Mackinac. But the most restrictive move was the placement in late 1807 of an embargo on the importation of goods of British manufacture into the U.S.

The Montreal-based partners of the British trade companies responded to this pressure by buying out their Mackinac partners and moving their fortified inland trade headquarters from Mackinac Island to St. Joseph's Island, forty miles north into British waters. Agents for the British companies lobbied hard in Washington and in 1810 managed to have the embargo lifted. At that point the British agents arranged a partial merger with John Jacob Astor and his new American Fur Company, creating a new British-American international division, the South West Company. The British partners hoped the agreement could neutralize future sanctions against their companies, but to their consternation a U.S. embargo on British goods was re-imposed in 1811, eventually proving to be to the exclusive financial benefit of the American Fur Company.

At Prairie du Chien, Nicholas Boilvin was appointed U.S. Indian Agent for the Winnebago, Fox, Sauk, Ojibwa, and Dakota, along with some Potawatomi and Ottawa, in 1809. Without a military presence to back him up, violations of U.S. trade laws [illegal importation, unlicensed trade and unlicensed duty] by the British traders were frequent, flagrant and unpunished. In 1810 to avoid paying duty, seven South West Co. traders smuggled into the Mississippi valley 10,000 pounds sterling worth of goods from Drummond Island past the American Ft. Mackinac unseen.15 William Clark, the U.S. Indian Agent at St. Louis, was unable to stem the export of liquor from his region into use in the British trade.

Despite acts of smuggling, incoming trade goods piled up at the distribution center at Ft. St. Joseph. The British trade was restricted but no American trade immediately introduced, so Indian welfare suffered. Each side blamed the other for the disruption of trade, creating both alliances and distrust among the Indians. Loyalty to a new, unseen "American father" was not easily established, nor could it offset the kinship bonds between the Indians and the British.

By 1811 some British traders at Prairie du Chien spoke openly of a new war which, with the support of their Indians, could restore the area to England. The most influential British sympathizer was South West Co. trader and partner, Robert Dickson. His partners at this time included James Frazer, Murdoch Cameron, and Jean-Joseph Rolette.16 In 1811 Dickson smuggled goods17 out of Queenston, Ontario, to Buffalo, N.Y., down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and Prairie du Chien, with the intention of profitable trade. Dismayed by the condition of the Dakota during the winter of 1811-'12, many starving to death, he, Rolette and Thomas Anderson, set up a trading post on Pike Island at the mouth of the St. Peter's and at it issued as gifts the entire outfit of supplies. The traders were regarded as heroes among the Dakota for the life-saving British goods.18 In recognition of the strategic value of his actions, Dickson was later reimbursed in full by the British government.19

The Dakota war chiefs generally allied with the British with exception of Red Wing. He had had a favorable encounter with Pike in 1805, who told him of coming U.S. factories and better trade. His future collaboration with the U.S. side was sealed by a vision he had symbolizing British defeat. When asked by Anderson, Red Wing said:

You tell me that the lion on this medal is the most powerful of all animals… but the eagle… is the most powerful of birds... He will light on a tree over the lion…[fight and make peace]… The lion will then go home… 20

Nicholas Boilvin watched the events unfolding around him with grave concern. He issued a circular to the Prairie du Chien inhabitants to stand by the States and recommended to the Secretary of War that a U.S. fort and a U.S. factory be established at Prairie du Chien to stem the British trade [neither wish materializes until 1814]. After several requests, Boilvin received authorization to bring to Washington a delegation of area chiefs in spring of 1812. Among the delegation that met in St. Louis on June 14 for the trip east to council with President James Madison were Red Wing's son and five other Dakota leaders [Second Born (Wahpekute), One Horn, French Crow, Medicine Fire and Day Shadow (the latter both Yankton)] plus Winnebago leaders Waukon Decorah and White Whale, and others from the Iowa, Omaha, Sac and Fox tribes.21

Shortly after the Boilvin emissary departure, Dickson arrived at Prairie du Chien with a British army colonel's commission and instructions from Lt. Gov. Isaac Brock to procure the help of the western Indians in a war which was expected to break out very soon. In early May Brock had written Dickson to ascertain the allegiance of the western natives. Dickson replied that he had about 250 or 300 "friends of all sorts of languages." In late June he brought 113 Dakota, Menominee and Winnebago to the British fort at St. Joseph's Island, joining a force of two hundred townsmen and voyageurs from Sault St. Marie led by trader Lewis Crawford. They were met by ample reinforcements of men and arms from Fort William, and 280 men Ottawa and Ojibwa under the command of British Indian Department storekeeper John Askin, Jr.22

The Indians were plied and threatened by both sides: the British needed their vast numbers, Americans feared the psychological terror of Indian attack.23

The remaining inhabitants of Prairie du Chien were understandably divided in their national allegiance.24 Joseph La Rocque vowed U.S. loyalty to Boilvin's face, but continued to disregard to U.S. law.25 As an independent trader, Faribault had established a house and a store on the island at Prairie du Chien, a small farm on the prairie above, and owned livestock including cattle and horses. He had both British and American alliances, and he had a lot to lose.

When on June 18, 1812, the U.S. declared war on the British Empire, the existing relationships between traders and Indians polarized further. Throughout the course of the war, the North West Company, based at Montreal and Fort William, lent its wholehearted support to the British war effort. Aided by the British military and Native warriors, the Company secured a crucial victory at Mackinac, and Company personnel lent their expertise to the British at Prairie du Chien. The benefits for British alliance were persuasive. When Lt. Porter Hanks surrendered the U.S. fort at Mackinac and the vessels Erie and Freegoodwill without a fight on July 17, 1812, each British private was awarded 10 pounds worth of goods, half a year's wages for a voyageur.26 When commissions in the British army were tendered to each trader at Prairie du Chien, Sibley claimed they were accepted by all but "Messrs. [Jean-Baptiste] Faribault and [Louis] Provençalle, who declined to take any part against the American government."27

On February 5, 1813, La Feuille ["the Leaf", Wapahasha II, d. 1836], the principal war chief of the Dakota, sent the following letter to the British commandant at Mackinac:

My Father. As a Cloud is appearing over the heads of thy Children whom thou hast put under my care, and that the Americans mean to take possession of this piece of land. I would wish to clear it, but I want help-- The Whites send you news-- come and assist me as soon as possible.-- I have talked with the Saques, Outagamies, Ouinebagoes, and we have all but one heart… 28

Five days later, Rolette sent a similar letter to the commandant at Mackinac via Duncan Graham, petitioning for help and protection at Prairie du Chien. The declared war had created Indian unrest, drunkeness, killing and pillaging such that even intermarriage did not assure security.29 Rolette included a confiscated Boilvin letter with his petition. Among the petitioners for British aid is the name Jn. Faribuilt. Known American officeholders were not on the petition. The misspelling of Faribault leads Scanlan and this author to believe that Jean Baptiste did not sign the petition himself.30

But Faribault and U.S. interpreter Joseph La Rocque seemed to have been appearing British but were actually risking their lives to gather information at Prairie to aid Boilvin.31 Letters exchanged in 1813 with Boilvin at St. Louis deputized La Rocque, as the acting U.S. Indian agent. A letter dated March 12, 1813, from La Rocque at Prairie to Boilvin at St. Louis mentions "Faribeau" as his trusted reader. But British documents from this era list La Rocque as a British interpreter.32 The letters Faribault translated from Red Wing for La Rocque state that his previous letters have all been confiscated, that the Menominee have pillaged Boilvin's property, and that all the traders are British sympathizers are conspiring raise all Indian nations to war against the U.S. forces.33

In April 1813, Boilvin writes to Dickson, now stationed at a Green Bay British army post, that an American fort would soon be established at Prairie du Chien.34 The Secretary of War had finally permitted Gen. Howard, at Belle Fontaine (St. Louis) to establish a U.S. Army fortification, as Boilvin had requested four years earlier.

Faribault appears to have been exposed as an American sympathizer in July of 1813, when his property is burned and possessions plundered by the Winnebago. Gone was his house and store on the island, the small farm on the prairie, his livestock and lead and lead mineral resources, a loss later claimed at $7,680 but compensation was never issued.35 Sibley36 reported that Faribault received a dangerous knife wound to the side of his torso a decade earlier at Prairie from a drunken Winnebago to whom he refused liquor; only Faribault's vigorous constitution and temperate habits enabled him to endure this and many other scrapes.

October 24, 1813, Dickson was dispatched from Mackinac to Green Bay with a detachment consisting of one subaltern, one sergeant, and 26 rank and file men to establish a British post at Green Bay. He arrived Nov. 23, 1813, stayed through April 14, 1814 intercepting several of Boilvin's Prairie du Chien messages and his messengers, who were captured as British prisoners and sent to Mackinac.37

In early 1814, American forces mount an expedition to take back Mackinac, by detaching the western Indians from the British side using terror tactics. May 1, 1814, Missouri-Territory Governor William Clark leaves St. Louis on this duty with 5 barges of regulars [mostly 7th Infantry, augmented with a 24th Infantry recruiting party and under the command of Lt. Joseph Perkins, 24th Inf.] and Missouri Rangers. With the absence of the military commander, Gen. Benjamin Howard, Clark decided to implement his long desired ambition to both defend St. Louis from a feared sweeping invasion down the Mississippi and secure replacement trade for lost commerce due to the war. The task force brushed aside the Sauks at Rock Island Rapids, arrive at Prairie du Chien and fortify the Mackinac Co.'s houses on June 2. (See Edward L. Reidell, "The Americans at Prairie du Chien" this summer in Mudduck) The Seventh infantry rapidly erected a wood barracks with blockhouses, named Fort Shelby in honor of Isaac Shelby, Governor of Kentucky. Capt. Francis Michel Dease and his small force of British recruits evacuate PdC before Clark's arrival. Dickson leaves Green Bay to survey the Ft. Shelby and is back in Mackinac by June 28, where he drills and instructs officers for a contemplated attack on the PdC fortification.38

The American occupation of the British settlement caused great concern for both the British government and the North West Company. Lt. Col. Robert McDouall, the ranking British officer in charge of the far west, knew that the permanent loss of Prairie du Chien would amount to ceding the western half of the continent to the Americans, and perhaps a total loss of British North America. To forestall this, he decided to answer the pleas of area Sioux and Winnebago tribes.

June 21, 1814. the name of J. B. Faribault is number 28 on a list of 67 names of "Canadian Voyageurs who volunteered their services, at Mackinaw, June 21, 1814, to go to Prairie du Chien, on an expedition against the Americans."39 First on the list is Joseph Rolette, then Thos. G. Anderson, whose reminscences this document is attached to, #24 is "Louis Provancall." Faribault's name is not on the lists of men present for the British cause (various places) on August 24, 1814, sent Sept. 18. Lt. Col. McDouall appointed; JBF was apparently pressed into service

June 28 Col. McKay sets out from Mack. with 75 militia, 136 Indians and a 3 lb cannon. Sibley describes how JBF, (en route to Mackinac), is arrested by Col. McKay and held as a prisoner on a gunboat, commanded by a Captain Henderson, on board of which were 200 men, en route to Prairie du Chien to dislodge the Americans. He was ordered to take his turn at the oar, but absolutely refused, saying he was a gentleman, and not accustomed to that kind of labor. Capt. Henderson reported him to Col. McKay for disobedience, but the latter, admiring his pluck, not only did not punish him, but received him on board his own boat, and treated him with courtesy and kindness.40

Nute notes41 the British "in their scarlet uniforms…made a great showing when they arrived at the Prairie after a long journey by way of Green Bay and the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. The single gun, for which Wabasha [Wapahasha II] and La Tete de Chien, chiefs of neighboring bands, had pleaded, was trained on the Americans' gunboat in the Mississippi and succeeded in hitting it."

A letter dated July 16, 1814, to Drummond Island from McDouall at Mackinac detailed

...the horrible cruelties which the enemy in their late operations have been guilty of... This Ruffian [Gov. Wm. Clark] on taking the Prairie des Chiens, captured eight Indians of the Winebagoe Nation--

they cajoled them at first with affected kindness-- set provision before them-- & in the act of eating treacherously fell upon & murdered the seven in cold blood-- the eighth escaped to be the sad historian, of their horrible fate!...-- Col. McKay writes me that Genl Clarke invited, & by much promises of Friendship got hold of four more of the Winebagoes-- he shut them up in a log house, & afterwards shot them thr' between the logs.-- one of them was the Brother of Susell or tete de Chien! Another Victim was the Wife of Le Feuille, the first Chief of the Sioux, who was with me here... 42

July 17, 1814 a "large body of British and Indians [Winnebagos]" arrive at Prairie du Chien asking surrender....July 19 capitulate to the British with "650 men of which 120 were MI Fencibles Canadian Volunteers and Officers of the Indian Dept. the remainder were Indians that proved to be perfectly useless..."43 British made their attack on July 17 and kept up constant fire at the fort until the evening of the 19th. Pelagie, young Alex and Lucy take refuge with Red Wing's band, not realizing that JBF did not make it to Mackinac but was at Prairie du Chien held prisoner. Boilvin and his family evacuated to St. Louis on the Governor Clark during the July 17 attack.

Capt. Anderson reports that on the 19th of July, Col. McKay left with four men in a bark canoe after naming the fortification for himself. He returned to headquarters, leaving Anderson in command of the Indians and the volunteers.44

From this point the record is only British. U.S. forces surrender to 200 British regulars, July 19. Faribault was released on parole sometime after. He was not on the list on command in August 24, 1814 (sent Sept. 18 1814) at Prairie du Chien. His whereabouts are uncertain at this point; in town? at a trading post? resisting? rebuilding? August to November is clearly documented by Anderson's journal and military orders. (See Rich Williams, "Mississippi Volunteers: Garrison Life, 1814" in Mudduck 1 (Sept., 1997): 30-34) Colin Campbell distinguishes himself in repelling the Americans at Sauk Rapids in September.45

By fall Capt. Andrew H. Bulger of the Newfoundland regiment relieved Anderson of command, brought a adjutant and a contractor for provisions.46 Quite largely and several social balls are held. JBF remains decidedly neutral in winter 1814-15 according to Sibley. He is able to work, as the Red Wing band with whom Mrs. Faribault had taken refuge, brought him game, fur and skins. Civilian actions were under military purview, and on December 31, 1814, Capt. Bulger finds reason to declare martial law. Rolette is court-martialed at PdC twice, for the use of seditious words, but acquitted.

Treaty of Paris was signed December 14, 1814, establishing the boundaries between the U.S. and Canada. News of the treaty filtered up to Prairie du Chien from St. Louis, but not until definite orders to evacuate arrived in May 1815 from Col. McDouall at Mackinac did Capt. Bulger finally depart by bateaux, taking his men, and equipment and burning Ft. McKay upon departure. May 15, 1815, Pelagie gives birth at Prairie du Chien to second son Olivier, their third child. From this point on, the Upper Mississippi is firmly in the control of Americans. Faribault became a naturalized American citizen in 1816 to maintain his kinship obligations through trade with the Dakota.

This article is a work in progress, begun nearly two years ago. It is important to understand frontier allegiances between fur traders and their clientele, and how this relationship is disturbed, motivated, strained, and strengthened by federal and white cultural policy. Jean-Baptiste Faribault's life on the Upper Mississippi during the War of 1812 is a prime example of outside policies of, in this case competing, governments altered his realities, forcing justifiable compromises to meet those demands. We will be exploring this topic at the first ever "Was Jean-Baptiste A Spy?" special event at the Sibley House Historic Site in Mendota, Minnesota, June 24-25.

  1. The British moved to Mackinac Island in 1781, but continued to call it Michilimackinac.
  2. Dickson's wife was Totowin or Helen Elizabeth Winona, eldest daughter of Sisseton Dakota chief Red Thunder. James Aird's wife was a daughter of Mdewakanton Dakota war chief Wapahasha I. Archibald had children by a former marriage, but married a Wahpeton Dakota woman and had three sons, Duncan, Colin and Scott, plus two daughters. The sons became well-known Dakota interpreters for the U.S. WHC 9:464; Gary Clayton Anderson, Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux (St. Paul: MHS Press, 1988): 189.
  3. Anderson, 151.
  4. His first year trade, 1798-'99, was among the Potawatomi on the Kankakee river (Sibley 170).
  5. Barthelmi d. 20 June, Catherine d. 30 June 1801, both at Berthier. Surviving relatives included JBF's nephew Georges-Barthelemy Faribault, founder of Historical Society of Québec.
  6. This is a new company est. 1803 as a means to operate a Brit. Co. on US soil.
  7. LaPointe's wife was a sister of Wapahasha I (WHC 9:285).
  8. Lockwood. "Reminiscences," WHC 2 (1903) 125n.
  9. Sibley, 172.
  10. Sibley, 174.
  11. Scanlan , 75-76 describes Joseph-Louis Ainsse as a British government interpreter; later he was Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Working out of Mackinac, Ainsse both traded and assembled councils at Prairie du Chien and the St. Peter's in the late 1780s to rekindle British loyalty.
  12. Scanlan, 176.
  13. (Diedrich 40).
  14. The Sauk were also historically called the Sacs or Sacques; the Fox also Outagamies, Renard or Mesquakie; the Winnebago also Ouinebagoes, Puants, or Ho-Chunk.
  15. Lee, 143.
  16. James Frazer's wife was Hazzodawin, a daughter of influential Mdewakanton chief Red Wing. Their son Jack Frazer, known as Iron Face, was immortalized in an eponymous book by his friend Sibley. Rolette (1781-1842) had indirect kinship: the sister of Wapahasha I was married to Antoine Dubois, the brother of Rolette's first wife (WHC 9:297).
  17. The equiv of 45,000 livres, $50,000 U.S., or 1,875 Halifax pounds sterling.
  18. Diedrich, 40.
  19. Hrycyszyn.
  20. Diedrich 40.
  21. Diedrich 41.
  22. Hrycyszyn.
  23. Hrycyszyn.
  24. Scanlan 179.
  25. La Rocque was a British interpreter for Wapahasha I and his warriors as early as 1778, during the Ohio campaigns vs. the Americans. He was assigned to Boilvin as interpreter 1809.
  26. Hrycyszyn.
  27. Sibley, 174.
  28. Hrycyszyn 21.
  29. Scanlan 179.
  30. Scanlan, 176.
  31. Perhaps La Rocque trans. Dakota into French, and Faribault French to English for Boilvin.
  32. Scanlan, 174n.
  33. Scanlan, 176.
  34. Scanlan, 177.
  35. Scanlan 176.
  36. Sibley, 174.
  37. Scanlan 177.
  38. Scanlan 177; Wm E. Foley, The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood (Columbia: Univ. MO Press, 1989): 230.
  39. WHC 9 (1882): 262.
  40. Sibley, 175.
  41. Nute, 169.
  42. Stanley, 254.
  43. Wood, 3:257-263.
  44. Anderson, 196-198.
  45. WHC 9 (1882): 464.
  46. Anderson, 199.

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