Monday, August 30, 2010

Profile: Jean Baptiste Wilkie

I have written about Jean Baptiste Wilkie (1803-1886) before, but only in his role as leader of the great annual Pembina buffalo hunts.

Below is a brief yet comprehensive biography of a fascinating man from our area, telling more regarding the roles he played in our local history and beyond.  One role he played was to facilitate treaties between the Sioux and the Obijway (and Metis) in 1861; it is an amazing piece of history to read, how Wilkie (and others prominent to our area, including Dumont and Grant) played a major role in maintaining peace at a time of tension,  This process included a visit to our nationa's capital with President Lincoln. One can only wonder what influence or bearing this treaty may have had, along with broken promises from the federal government agents, on the 1862 uprising?

I have also been in touch with the Great gr gr gr granddaughter of Alexander Wilkie, Jean Baptiste Wilkie's father, who has Alexander's original Northwest Company contract in hopes it may have been scanned - that would be a fascinating piece of history to see!
This is a biography of Jean Baptiste Wilkie1, a great Metis warrior, buffalo hunter and Chief of the Metis at Pembina, North Dakota. He was one of the Metis hunters who fed the Scots Selkirk Settlers during their first six years in the country.2 In the mid-1820s he was operating a large horse ranch beside the Red River in what is now St. Vital. Because of HBC prohibitions on Metis free-trade Wilkie permanently moved his operations south of the border in the 1840s. His family then appears in the 1850 Pembina Census.

On the Chippewa side of his family he was a descendant of Mezhekamkijkok. Jean Baptiste and his family were on the Pembina Annuity Roll for Little Shell’s Band in 1867 and in 1868 appear on the Annuity Roll for Way-ke-ge-ke-zhick’s Band. Under the Red Lake and Pembina Treaty (1872) he was issued Half Breed scrip #172. His family appears in an early Red River Census.

Known as the chief of the Half Breeds in the Pembina/St. Joseph area, Jean Baptiste married Amable Elise (Isabella) Azure (b. 1808). Wilkie’s father Alexander was from Scotland and his mother’s name was Mezhekamkijkok. Jean-Baptiste’s wife, Amable Azure (b.1808) was the daughter of Pierre Azure (b. 1788) and Marguerite Assiniboine.3 Amable died in 1888 and is buried at Olga North Dakota. Two of their sons-in-law, Gabriel Dumont and Patrice Fleury, were leaders of the 1885 Metis Resistance.

The Wilkie’s had a large family:

• Jean Baptiste Jr. (b.1824) married Marie Laframboise then Isabelle Patenude.
• Judith (Berger). (b. 1825) In 1879, Judith and her husband Pierre Berger, led twenty-five Metis families to central Montana in search of the diminishing buffalo herds.
• Augustine (b. 1829)–married Marie Paquin
• Alexander (b. 1831)–married Louise Gariepy.
• Marie Catherine (b. 1834 at St. Boniface) married Michel Gladu.
• Madeleine (Dumont) (1837-1886) Madeleine married Gabriel Dumont in 1858 at St. Joseph (North Dakota). Soon after, they moved to the St. Laurent area of Saskatchewan. Madeleine gained a reputation for being hospitable and compassionate to those less fortunate than herself. There is evidence that she and her husband had a very close relationship and he greatly respected her. The couple had no children but adopted a daughter, Veronique (born 1863 at Red River) and a boy, Alexandre Fageron (Fayant). As well as coping with everyday duties, Madeleine frequently accompanied Gabriel on long trips by snowshoe, Red River cart and horseback. Indeed on several occasions she traveled alone from Batoche to Winnipeg to sell the furs that Gabriel had acquired. The ability to speak English gave her an advantage Gabriel did not have, although he spoke French and five Native languages. Madeleine also acted as a teacher for the children of Batoche. During the 1885 Resistance she nursed the wounded and distributed the meager rations and supplies. Gabriel saw to Madeleine’s safety before crossing the border into the United States after the Battle of Batoche. She soon joined him because she could not tolerate the resultant situation in the Batoche area. Her health suffered severely in Montana. Madeleine died in October 1885 at Lewistown, Montana, from consumption and complications arising from a fall from a buggy.

• Elizabeth (b. 1839)–married Antoine ‘Henry’ Fleury.
• Cecilia (b. 1843) –married Joseph Gariepy.
• Agathe (b. 1844)–married Patrice Joseph Fleury. Her husband was born in 1848 at Pembina, the son of Louison Fleury and Josephte, a Gros Ventre woman. Patrice was involved in the 1885 Resistance at Duck Lake and Batoche with Dumont. At Batoche, he was one of Dumont’s captains on the west side of the Saskatchewan River.
• Marie Marguerite (b. 1845)–married Henry Bousquet.
• Antoine (b. 1848)–married Esther Gladue.
• Mary (b. 1849)
• David (1853-1854)

Wilkie and the Chippewa reportedly had a palisaded fort on the Souris River near Towner, N.D. called “Buffalo Lodge” which was attacked and burnt down by the Dakota in 1825.

Wilkie Leads Buffalo Hunt of 1840

Alexander Ross describes a buffalo hunt out of Red River led by 37 year-old Jean
Baptiste Wilkie:

On the 15th of June, 1840, carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the settlement bound for the plains ... From Fort Garry the cavalcade and camp- followers went crowding on to the public road, and thence, stretching from point to point, till the third day in the evening, when they reached Pembina, the great rendezvous on such occasions ... Here the roll was called, and general muster taken, when they numbered, on this occasion, 1,630 souls; and here the rules and regulations for the journey were finally settled. The officials for the trip were named and installed into office; and all without the aid of writing materials.


The camp occupied as much ground as a modern city, and was formed in a circle; all the carts were placed side by side, the trains out-ward. These are trifles, yet they are important to our subject. Within this line of circumvallation, the tents were placed in double, treble rows, at one end; the animals at the other in front of the tents. This is in order in all dangerous places; but where no danger is apprehended, the animals are kept on the outside. Thus the carts formed a strong barrier, not only for securing the people and their animals within, but as a place


The first step was to hold a council for the nomination of chiefs or officers, for conducting the expedition. Ten captains were named, the senior on this occasion being Jean Baptiste Wilkie, an English half-breed, brought up among the French; a man of good sound sense and long experience, and withal a fine bold-looking and discreet fellow; a second Nimrod in his way. Besides being captain, in common with the others, he was styled the great war chief or head of the camp; and on all public occasions he occupied the place of president. All articles of property found, without an owner, were carried to him, and he disposed of them by crier, who went around the camp every evening, were it only an awl. Each captain had ten soldiers under his orders; in much the same way that policemen are subject to the magistrate.4
Battle of O’Brien’s Coulée, 1848

In the mid-summer of 1848 a large Chippewa-Metis and Dakota battle took place at O’Brien’s Coulée5 near present day Olga, North Dakota. The Chippewa-Metis hunting camp was made up of 800 Metis men and 200 Chippewa Indian men. They had their families, horses and over 1,000 Red River carts. The Chippewa were led by Old Red Bear and Little Shell II. The Metis were led by Jean Baptiste Wilkie whose mother was a full-blood Chippewa. François Corvin Gosselin who along with William Gaddy who would later be a sub-leader of the 49th Rangers attached to the British Boundary Commission were also at this battle.6

Wilkie established himself at St. Joseph, North Dakota about 1847. His house was the stopping place for Indians passing through the town. A fatal encounter occurred at his home in 1861 between several Sioux and Chippewas. Several Indians were killed, among them the brother of Chippewa chief, Red Bear.

The Dakota, Chippewa, Metis Treaty of 1859

This treaty was negotiated by Jean Baptiste Wilkie on behalf of the Metis and Chippewa. William Davis (born Red River 1845) was present at this meeting as a 14 year-old. He tells the following story: There had been a conference at St. Joseph in 1858 where it was agreed that a meeting should take place the next year at Les Isles aux Mort, near Leeds N.D. (north-west of Devil’s Lake) to set the boundary lines for the hunting grounds of the Sioux, Metis and Chippewa. There was water everywhere in the vicinity of the treaty site. This created islands, leading to the name of the site.

On the first day of the conference the bands rode out and met halfway between the camps. They were on horseback and fully armed, ready for battle, if necessary. They rode in parallel lines until they were about 100 feet apart. They then turned to face each other. After a few moments of silence a Sioux Chief slowly dismounted, accepted a huge peace pipe of catlinite (pipestone) from a warrior, stepped into the lane between the lines and invited the Metis leader to join him.

The pipe was first presented to Chief John Baptiste Wilkie, leader of the mixed-bloods and after him the sub chiefs and headmen of the Sioux and the captains of the Metis puffed the pipe. When the serious matters were finished the two groups mingled freely to indulge in sports and trade, the latter consisting chiefly of barter for guns and buffalo robes and horse trading.

The next day the conference began. It was agreed that the unpleasant relations between the Chippewa (the relatives), the Metis and the Sioux were unnecessary and dangerous. The Sioux were accused of raiding the Chippewa country, stealing horses and sometimes scalping Chippewa people. The Metis were most concerned because the Sioux “made fun” with the “meat” (other portions of the body).

The Sioux charged that the Metis encouraged the coming of whites and the killing of too many buffaloes. But the line was fixed. It was to follow the Goose River from the mouth to the timber of the Goose where the river has three branches. From the source of the branches the boundary followed the stream to its mouth and continued to Dog Den Buttes, from there it ran south to the Missouri River opposite the mouth of the Knife River.

Gray Owl, Wanata or Wanaatan II (The Charger)7, Tete la Brule (Makaideya, or Burnt Earth) and Mato Wakan (Medicine Bear) were the Sioux leaders. Grey Owl was described as a fine appearing man and very eloquent by Mr. Davis. “He had fine limbs, thick and strong and was straight and tall/ He spoke well and was not afraid.”8

The Dakota Metis Treaty of 1861

In subsequent years the hunting parties of the Dakota and the Metis continued to fight over the same hunting grounds. The Dakota (the people of the “Ten Nations”, some 400 lodges) would typically gather at what was called “Sioux Coulee” near present day Langdon, North Dakota. The gathering place for the Chippewa and Metis was between Cando and Devil’s Lake. Tired of this stand-off, Chief Wilkie as leader of the Metis and Chippewa hunting parties decided to bring some resolution to the situation in the early 1860s. Gregoire Monette9 of Langdon, North Dakota tells the following story in 1917:

In order to put an end to the suspense, fear and worry of watching the enemy, the Half-Breed hunters and Chippewa Indians under Chief Wilkie decided to send a commission to Washington to interview the president and find out how to obtain peace between these tribes. Chief Wilkie and Peter Grant were the men chosen. So well did they impress the authorities at Washington that President Lincoln told them they could have all the ammunition they needed for their protection. He asked them at the same time not to induce trouble but to go to them as brothers taking with them the bravest and best to make parley for peace. This was done and Chief Wilkie, Peter Grant, Gabriel Dumont, Joseph LaFramboise, Antoine Fleury, and seven others were chosen. They went direct to the village of the Dakota’s or Nadouissioux and direct to the lodge of the chief. This they found surrounded by soldiers. They reported to the chief, and he asked for them to be brought in. The rabble had gathered about the lodge and threatened to kill them, but the soldiers would not allow them to do so saying that their chief was a brave man who would dare to come alone to a hostile camp. The crowd was so envious and angry that with their knives they slashed the tent cloth in the lodges. Although they were admitted to his presence the chief was very austere. They told him their mission, and being very tired and thirsty, Gabriel asked for a drink of water. This was refused which was known to be an indication of trouble. Chief Wilkie became alarmed and sadly dropped his fine bearing. Gabriel, his son-in-law asked him “What is wrong with you?” When the old gentleman told him his fears, he became very angry. He began at once to load his gun, saying “I won’t die before I kill my full share,” and again demanded water which was brought immediately and due respect was shown their high commission from that time forth.


When asked to fully explain their mission, as spokesman, Chief Wilkie said, “We are enemies wasting the good gift that has been bestowed upon us through nature. We are preventing each other from trapping and killing the animals. There is plenty of room and much provisions. Let us help each other as brothers, let us have peace together.” When the council was concluded, the pipe of peace was ordered to be brought. This was a very long pipe, ornamented with human hair so long as to reach the floor, bear claws and porcupine quills were also part of its decoration. The tobacco was cut by his first lieutenant; this was mixed with several herbs, and kinnikinnick. This mixing of the tobacco was to indicate the fusion of their interest and harmony of the whole people. The pipe was then handed to the Sioux chief, who took three draws and passed it to chief Wilkie. In this way it went around the lodge. Three times the pipe was filled and solemnly smoked and peace thereby established.


Chief Wilkie then distributed to them gifts of tobacco, tea and sugar. They were then given a great feast at which they told how sad they were and afraid when they thought they were going to regret their friendship, and asked how they should get safely home. The chief said with great dignity, “I will give you safe conduct; I will send my soldiers with you to your lodge and nothing will harm you. You have seen here some of my bad children and you may meet them on the way, but if they attempt to harm you, kill them and I will protect you.” The above took place on Grand Coteau, forty miles west of Devil’s Lake. Before leaving, Chief Wilkie invited the Sioux to send a delegation to visit his people, setting the day and hour for their arrival. When the time came near chief Wilkie bearing in front of him a white flag, went a mile out to meet them. About one hundred came, the chief and his staff were quartered in Chief Wilkie’s lodge, the common people were scattered so as to get better acquainted. When the time came for them to go, they, as a sign of their friendship and brotherly feeling traded all their horses taking back none they had brought with them. Much good was accomplished, although there were still bad children (perhaps on both sides). (Cited in St. Ann’s Centennial, 1985: 231-232.)
Note: The picture of Jean Baptiste Wilkie is from Manton Marble, “Red River and Beyond (Third Paper)”, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1861, Vol. 22, Issue 129: 306.
Compiled by Lawrence Barkwell
Coordinator of Metis Heritage and History Research
Louis Riel Institute
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1 - The Plains Cree called Wilkie and the Metis “Nakawiniuk”.
2 - The Selkirk Settlers wintered at Pembina because of its proximity to the buffalo herds.
3 - Amable’s grandparents were Joseph Azure, born 1767 in Quebec and Lizette Ma-na-e-cha (Ojibwe). He died suddenly on January 29, 1832 at St. Boniface. This family appears in the Red River Census between 1832 and 1840. In 1804 Joseph was working as a guide for the NWC; he accompanied Francois Antoine Larocque on an expedition to the source of the Missouri River.
4 - Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1972: 245-247.
5 - So called because O’Brien lived at this location some 35 years after the event. It is a short distance west of Olga, N.D. Olga is between one branch of the Pembina River to the north and the Tongue River to the south.
6 - Libby Papers, A85, Box 36, Notebook #14. August 4, 1910 interview with Little Duck, Dominion City, MB, interpreter Roger St. Pierre. This paper was given to me by Louis Garcia, historian for the Mni Wakan Oyate.
7 - This was the son of the Yanktonai chief of that name who died in 1840, He was wintering along the Missouri River by 1828 and had frequent conflicts with the Minnesota/Pembina/Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Michifs.
8 - Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. St. Ann’s Centennial: 100 Years of Faith. Belcourt, N.D.: 1985, pp.314-315.
9 - Gregoire was married to Philomene Wilkie (b. 1863) the grand-daughter of Chief Wilkie.