Tuesday, November 1, 2011

3 The Chevalier Sisters: War in the West

An 1812 Battle in the Old Northwest

The French and the Native Tribes were important additional players in the British-American War of 1812. We have a hard time imagining the size of the early-19th-century Native American presence in the area known as the Old Northwest (Ohio to Wisconsin) because most tribes were forced further west in continuing Indian removals. Today's faded memory of that once-dominant culture is in the Indian names on rivers and towns.

Gallatin's map of the tribes near the Great Lakes

The early 19th-century tribes were certainly not a single power. Each had varying goals, economies and allegiances. England and Canada used diplomacy, threats, trade and tributes to ally Indians for their own purposes, policy that rankled Americans after the Revolutionary peace, another cause of hostilities leading to the 1812 War.

Francis Godfroy, a Miami-French trader
in a combination of Native and mainstream dress

The French remaining after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase also attempted to influence tribal allegiances. One remaining French presence was a population of Métis (people of mixed ancestry.) For generations Indian and French people intermarried, creating a unique culture that thrived along the waterways of Canada and the Midwestern states, as far west as Saint Louis and down to the Gulf of Mexico. The economy prospered on trade---furs and pelts exchanged for manufactured goods---with Métis acting as the go-betweens and translators.

The Chevalier sisters of Potawatomie and French descent were born in what we call Michigan in the 1780s. Archange Marie and Suzanne Françoise were daughters of a French trader and a Potawatomi woman who themselves were probably of mixed parentage.

The Ouilmette name lives on in Wilmette, Illinois.
 Postcard from about 1920.

Archange Chevalier married Canadian Antoine Ouilmette in 1796 and settled near the mouth of the Chicago River at the southern edge of Lake Michigan (we call it Chicago) where Antoine worked for an American trader named John Kinzie. Suzanne, called Sheshi, married Louis Pierre Buisson, also a Canadian trader. Louis traveled from Peoria to Mackinac, often selling goods to Kinzie.

A mid-19th century interpetation of Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River

American Fort Dearborn protected Kinzie's trading post and the small lakefront village with a few Americans and Canadians of English descent living among mixed families. The French/Indian people tried to maintain peace and a make a profit by cooperating with the people of English descent and the Indians who resented American and British presence.

War shifted all allegiances. American commanders realized overtly hostile English influence over the local tribes made Fort Dearborn indefensible. Negotiating with Potawatomi elders, they traded a promise of American safe passage for goods stored at the Fort, "blankets, broadcloths, calicos, paints, etc.,"

The 1812 violence at Fort Dearborn
is remembered in a 1928 sculpture by Henry Hering,
built into the southwest tower of Chicago's Michigan Avenue Bridge.

Before leaving, the Army destroyed ammunition and liquor, a breach of promise according to younger Indians. Shortly after the Americans started out on August 15, 1812, violence exploded near Prairie Avenue at 18th in today's geography.

Women and children were fair game. Eighteen-year-old Margaret McKillip Helm survived only because Potawatomi leader Black Partridge pretended to drown her while supporting her head above the water. For reasons never explained he singled her out for protection, hiding her at Archange Ouilmette's house.

American Juliette Kinzie later wrote an account of Margaret's escape. Black Partridge advised her to "assume the ordinary dress of a French woman of the country; namely, a short gown and petticoat, with a blue cotton handkerchief wrapped around her head."

My guess: Native costume in Chicago
 was similar to that of the Dominican woman on the left.
The words short gown refer to her jacket,
a rather old-fashioned working-class garment
by 1812. Her mistress is more fashionably dressed.

Even clad in French/Indian attire Margaret's pale complexion would not fool the young warriors, so sisters Archange and Suzanne hid her under a mattress. Suzanne "then seated herself with her sewing upon the front of the bed."

The Kinzie's House from Juliette Kinzie's book

" The Indians entered, and [Margaret] could occasionally see them from her hiding-place, gliding about, and stealthily inspecting every part of the room...until apparently satisfied that there was no one concealed, they left the house.

" All this time [Suzanne Buisson] had kept her seat upon the side of the bed, calmly assorting and arranging the patchwork of the quilt on which she was engaged, and preserving an appearance of the utmost tranquility, although she knew not but that the next moment she might receive a tomahawk in her brain. Her self-command unquestionably saved the lives of all present."

I  know too little about frontier history to judge the accuracy or even the plausibility of this tale published 30 years later by Juliette Kinzie who heard it from her husband's family. Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago, August 15, 1812, and of Some Preceding Events followed the period formula about white/Indian encounters, justifying Indian removal by their unpredictable violence while lauding a noble exception (Black Partridge.)

Juliette Kinzie 1806-1870
A founder of the Chicago Historical Society

If Suzanne Buisson were indeed sorting her patchwork scraps near Lake Michigan in 1812 she was likely using the printed cottons in stock at Fort Dearborn and the Kinzie store. One of calico's major markets was as trade goods and gifts for the tribes.

Tintype, Native American man
wearing a cotton shirt, late 19th century

We have no surviving early quilts from Native women or women of the French/Indian culture, although they might have made them. I find Mrs. Kinzie's story a bit suspect but we can remember the Chevalier sisters and their culture by finding inspiration in the crafts of Native Americans.


The imagery in these two embroidered pieces is based in tradition from India and Asia, adapted by European cultures and then by Native American artisans. The basic symmetries and simple floral shapes are often found in applique and embroidered quilts.

 Two 19th-century Native American needlework items
 from the collection of the McCord Museum in Montreal.
See a link below.

One could combine the Native American imagery as embroidery or applique in the central medallion format.

This quilt is dated 1822,  made by Margaret Nowlan in Maumee, Ohio, and in the collection of the Smithsonian according to my notes. Although it's dated 10 years after the violence at Fort Dearborn the design seems very much of our period. The simple borders would be an excellent way to frame a piece of embroidery inspired by the Native American designs.

Here's the corner of a medallion with an embroidered center from dealer Jan Whitlock's webpage. Click here to see the full quilt. It's on the bottom row of the thumbnail pictures.

Medallion with an embroidered center signed Mary Jones and dated 1795
The curators at the Art Institute of Chicago, where this quilt top is now, believe the patchwork was added twenty or so years later. Click here to see it at their site:

Virtual quilt

I did a little Photoshopping here, plopping my virtually appliqued and embroidered center
 into a top I started a few years ago. The Native American imagery is a little more modern to our eyes than the embroidered centers in the quilts above---less clutter, more visual shorthand for flowers.

But back to the Chevalier sisters...
During and after the War the women who lived near the Kinzie store remained near Lake Michigan. In 1829 Archange Ouilmette was granted land along the shore in what is now Wilmette. The family farmed there for about five years until the Potawatomi were again moved, sent west of the Mississippi River. Archange died in 1840 in western Iowa near the Missouri River.

Suzanne Buisson's husband continued as a trader with the American Fur Company in the Chicago/Peoria area but Sheshi disappears from the records.  Margaret Helm and her husband remained in Chicago but their marriage was unhappy. She obtained a divorce in the 1820s.

The Potawatomi were moved again
 in the 1840s to Kansas. Photograph about 1865.

-Here's a comprehensive site to people, places and events in Early Chicago

-Read Juliette Kinzie's Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago, August 15, 1812, and of Some Preceding Events

See another epaulette at the McCord Museum in Montreal by clicking here:

The Royal Ontario Museum has many needlework objects by Native Americans. Click here
and browse through Decorative Arts
See another idea here:
And this blog shows an embroidered sampler made by a girl born into the traders' culture in 1810.

One hundred years later a Sioux woman from the Standing Rock area in the Dakotas posed with  needlework for photographer Frank Fiske. The interplay between European and Native American imagery continues.


Suegra de Payaso said...

Barbara, your story of the Chevalier sisters is fascinating. I grew up just west of Chicago and learned more local history from your post than I did in school. Thank you very much.

Sandra Henderson said...

Glad I found your blog, a friend sent me the link... The War of 1812, the last battle , was here in St Marys, GA where i live (Cumberland Island). They didn't know it was over! lol

Sandra Henderson said...


Seems they'e changed their mind about this.. lol

kris smith said...

very interesting story. i am a gggggggrandson of shesi chevalier the quilting continues i rember greatgrandma, grandma, and mom doing the same as sheshi