Friday, February 7, 2020

Archange Ouilmette Had a Reservation: How One Woman Came to Own Parts of Wilmette and Evanston

by Patti Sherry-Crews
Portrait of Archange Ouilmette as imagined by George Lusk, 1936

Someone recently tagged me in a post on Facebook, saying “I can see your house on this map!” I looked at the map, an old map of my town, Evanston, Illinois, and sure enough there’s where my house sits. Lots numbers 10 and 11 on what was then called Railroad Ave. There have been some other changes, like Old Town Line Rd is now called Central st., but much is recognizable: the railroad tracks and depot...Jenks Street...Chancellor Street... the Indian Reservation...What? A few blocks down Chancellor, on the map is a large plot of land labeled the Ouilmette Reservation.
Old Map of Evanston with my House in Blue Circle with View Straight Down Chancellor to  Ouilmette Reservation (indicated by blue arrow)

This old map is so full of incongruities, my mind is boggled. When and why was there a reservation smack dab in the middle of a clearly developed area? There’s no date on this map, so I had to wonder what year all these things coexisted together. And why didn’t I know this before? As a writer of historical fiction, I research other people’s history all the time, while apparently missing huge chunks of my own town’s history. I was intrigued.

With a few clicks my confusion was quickly lifted. In fact, that land was not the Ouilmette Reservation, but the Ouilmette Reserve, land not for a tribe of Native Americans but for one Potawatomi woman, Archange Ouilmette, and her children. 

Archange (who may have had a French father) lived in the Illinois Territory in the area that is present day Chicago, Evanston, and Wilmette with her French Canadian husband, Antoine Ouilmette. (the name Wilmette comes from Ouilmette)

In 1829 the United States government gave her land amounting to 1280 acres in what is now downtown Wilmette, stretching into Evanston. Why? And why Archange and not her husband, Antoine? The reason is lost to us today. Even the Wilmette Historical Society in a newsletter on the subject of Archange declares this a mystery.

What did Archange’s world look like? Let’s put her in context. Before the War of 1812, there were few white settlers in this area, but there was a substantial Native American presence. Tribes connected by kinship, lived in large villages, which were linked by trails. Though nearby Wilmette and Skokie were home to Indian settlements, the area that is now Evanston was too swampy for habitation. 

But, what Evanston did have were a series of high ridges left by retreating glaciers. Native Americans and French fur trappers made use of these natural land bridges for hunting, traveling, and communication routes. The trails were often marked by trees, artificially manipulated as saplings to point in the direction of the trail or features like where water could be found. These ridges are remarkable features even today and are still main arteries across town. Namely, Ridge Avenue, Green Bay Road, and Prairie Avenue. 

A possible Indian Trail Marker Tree near Lake Michigan, Evanston,IL

The first white settlement in Evanston was built along what is now Ridge Avenue and called Ridgeville. The historic Green Bay Trail which ran all the way up to Green Bay, Wisconsin is another one of these ridges. My house literally sits on the Green Bay Trail. Today it’s a popular paved biking and pedestrian trail running alongside the railroad tracks through the suburbs north of Chicago. 

Mural of the First White Settlement in Evanston on Community Center Wall of Ridgeville Park District (note: "Frogtown" in lower's swampy off the ridge!)

An interesting thing I noticed about Antoine most times I looked him up, it would often first reference him as "husband of Archange Ouilmette" as if she was the most noteworthy Ouilmette—which is kind of unusual.

The Ouilmettes lived across the Chicago River from Fort Dearborn, where they had a farm with livestock and Antoine worked as a trapper for the American Fur Company. The Ouilmettes supplied food to the fort and acted as guides. As a person who spoke both her native language and French, Archange was invaluable as an interpreter.
So, Archange was a good neighbor. Maybe that’s why the US government gave her land. But wasn’t Antoine also a good neighbor?

But on further digging I found Archange and her sister, Susannah Bisson, played a role in the Fort Dearborn Massacre, risking their lives in order to save Americans fleeing from the slaughter.

During the War of 1812, and British enlisted Native American tribes to help them guard their rich holdings in Canada from the Americans. At one point during the war, the order came to the Americans to evacuate Fort Dearborn and retreat to the safety of Fort Wayne. Potawatomi chieftain, Black Partridge, warned the commander at the Fort that trouble was brewing, and he wouldn’t be able to control the young warriors under him who were bent on war. 

During the retreat, the Patawatomi attacked and battle was waged on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. Fifty two of the fleeing Americans were killed, including two women and twelve children. Black Partridge saved the wife of an officer and whisked her away to the Ouilmette homestead where she was taken in and hidden under a feather bed.

Here is the account of the incident by Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie, daughter-in-law of early Chicago settler and neighbor to the Ouilmettes, John Kinzie, in her book Wau-Bun:

"The Indians entered and she could occasionally see them from her hiding place, gliding about and stealthily inspecting every part of the room, though without making any ostensible search, until apparently satisfied that there was no one concealed, they left the house... All this time Mrs. Bisson had kept her seat upon the side of the bed, calmly sorting and arranging the patchwork of the quilt on which she was then engaged and preserving the appearance of the utmost tranquility, although she didn't know if in the next moment she might receive a tomahawk in her head. Her self-command unquestionably saved the lives of all present... From Ouilmette's house, the party proceeded to the dwelling of Mr. Kinzie." 

The Indians had just left Ouilmette's house when one Griffin, a non-commissioned officer, who had escaped and had been concealed among the currant bushes of Ouilmette's garden, climbed into Ouilmette's house through a window to hide from the Indians. The family stripped him of his uniform and arrayed him in a suit of deerskin with a belt, moccasins, and pipe like a French engage, in which disguise he also escaped." 

More than just a good neighbor then, Archange and her family were saviors. This act of heroism further adds to why the land may have been given to Archange and her children.

Following the battle, Fort Dearborn was burned to the ground. Antoine remained the sole white settler in the area for a time. But 1812 was a turning point and like the Battle of Little Bighorn, a defeat of the army would bring the wrath of the United States government down on the Indians. The discovery of lead brought in white prospectors and the Indians that did not voluntarily head west across the Mississippi were forcibly removed.

A final piece of the puzzle is that Antoine may have been part of negotiations between Native American tribes and the US government in the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, 1829 which delineated tribal lands. It seems likely that Antoine secured land under his wife’s name at that time. 

The treaty ceded Indian land in north west Illinois to the United States, including land in what is now Wilmette, Evanston, and Chicago. From the Publications of the Illininois State Historical Library: "15,000 acres parceled out to 16 favored individuals, some of them Frenchmen, some of them Indian wives of white men."
Aha! And so that happened.

The Ouilmettes with their eight children moved to their new property in what is now Wilmette and Evanston. Antoine appears to have been a very enterprising man, running a store, raising sheep to sell wool to other settlers, farming, and towing boats along the Chicago river with his ox team. He was also among a group of three that petitioned to have the first Roman Catholic church built in Chicago.

In 1838 Antoine and Archange moved to Iowa to join others of the Potawatomi tribe who had relocated there. Archange died in 1940 and Antoine died the following year. After the death of their parents, the Ouilmette children sold off the parcels of land left to them in Illinois to developers. They sold some of the most valuable pieces of real estate on the north shore for a pittance.

There aren't many clues left telling us of the once thriving Native American culture other than place-names like Chicago, Skokie, or hints at places in the city such as Indian Boundary Park that speaks of another time. Chicago and its surrounding areas developed at an astonishingly fast rate, changing the landscape. Settlers plowed down burial grounds and a dense grid-work of streets superimposed on the land hid the natural features and erased evidence of the Indians who once lived there. There are still the occasional trail marker trees to see, but mainly we only have signs to remind us of the presence of the Native Americans.

The Oak Tree is Gone but the Plaque Remains

There is a plaque at Lighthouse Beach in Evanston noting the boundary of land given to Archange and her children. It says as thanks to her FATHER for helping negotiate the Treaty of Prairie du Chien. Not only does Antoine fail to get his name on the plaque but he gets called Archange's father! And there is some question whether he had a part in this treaty at all by some accounts. But at least there's something to remember the Ouilmette chapter in history by.

When I sit at my desk, I look straight down Chancellor Street to what was once the southern-most portion of the Ouilmette Reserve. Now my view ends at the Northwestern University football stadium and parking lot which completely cover that lot.

Ryan Field and Parking Lot Where Once was the Ouilmette Reserve

Oh, well, at least when the minute I step out my front door I'm on the Green Bay Trail.

You can find my books, both historical and contemporary at


Andrea Downing said...

Patti, this is a great 'adjunct' if you like to what I wrote about Abe Lincoln's early years in the Army fighting Black Hawk during those wars. ( But it primarily amazes me what we can dig up of local history if we look deep enough. I wonder if you feel a sense of this history when you take a walk? Can you envisage the people and Native Americans living there? Where I live, our local history goes back to the 1600s but because it's rural here, there's still a great sense of what came before, including buildings still standing from the 1700s at least, and place names of course. Thanks for a super post.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi! Abe Lincoln and the Black Hawk war: it never ceases to amaze me how those people managed to cover the territory they did back then, making their way through the wilderness. I did read about Abe too this week while I was trying to get a timeline for major American Indian events here in Illinois.
I'm still learning about my own town. It was only months ago I learned there is a separate, self-governing Ridgeville Park District within Evanston, which is where I saw the mural pictured above. About once a week I cross Ridge Ave at Greenleaf st and I DO get a sense of history every time! While I'm waiting at the top of the ridge for the light to change, the land drops there in a gentle but long slope and you get a clear shot of Lake Michigan shinning away at the end of the street, and I think "this really is a ridge" LOL. And to my left at that intersection is a plaque marking the spot of the first log school house in Evanston, which is also pictured on the Ridgeville mural.
Almost every day when I take my dog for a walk we head into Wilmette. If we go for a longer walk, we actually walk right by where Archange and Antoine had there house! I didn't know that until researching for this post.
I went to the Indian Museum in Evanston this week and neither docents working there heard of Archange. But one of them made the comment that you really have to dig deep to find remains of American Indian culture in this area, unlike the southwest or other areas of the country.

Jane Gramlich said...

What an interesting story. I love it when local history can be traced.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thank you, Jane! It's always gratifying to bring this historical figures up to the light. When I first starting researching the Ouilmette Reservation I thought I'd be writing a different story. But the life and times of Archange are fascinating.

Alicia Haney said...

So, very interesting, Thank you so much for sharing. You know when I was i school my least favorite subject was History, but I have come to really enjoy now, big Thanks to what you authors post here, I have really come to enjoy it and then with your books it makes it even fun! Have a Great Weekend. God Bless you.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Alicia, thank you so much! I can't tell you how much we authors appreciate you readers and followers of the blog and especially when we hear from you. I've always loved history so I like that I have an excuse to spend hours delving into topics like this one. Have a great weekend.

Bonnie James said...

Interesting! You did a lot of research here!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Bonnie! This is all down to you tagging me. I did go down a lot of rabbit holes on this one. So much I didn't know or forgot about Chicago history. Thanks for stopping by!

Renaissance Women said...

Illinois' history is far richer than many people realize. I love the addition of this story and I thank you for digging deeper to find it.

As you know, I think, I grew up in West Central Illinois near where Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri meet. I've delved into that history most of my life until I moved west. I still find myself returning to that rich history, especially when it impacts the research here.

On a side note, the Pikes Peak region has 'prayer' trees similar to the trees you mention. If you wish to know more here is a link to a youtube video: Doris

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

I do remember you're from Illinois! And I agree there is a richer history here than people think. My husband's family has a place on the Kankakee River south of Chicago and the mix of Indian and French place names are really telling of the history of the region. The fur traders used those waterways--as you well know!Thanks for the kind comments. I clearly had more to learn about my own local history.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

And Doris, I couldn't open your link but I did Google Prayer trees. There are some wild images! I never knew about that before.

Julie Lence said...

Fascinating piece of history. Thank you for sharing. it's a shame more cannot be found as to why she was given the land and not Antoine. But, sometimes, a mystery is best left untouched. Hugs!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Julie! I learned a lot while researching this post. I now look around my environs with a different eye. I took a long walk yesterday to the area that once was the homestead of the Ouilmettes. It's still a beautiful spot!