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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · December 13, 2021

Down the Rabbit Hole with Sigenauk

WMQ 9 min read

By John William Nelson

John William Nelson (Texas Tech University) is the author of “Sigenauk’s War of Independence: Anishinaabe Resurgence and the Making of Indigenous Authority in the Borderlands of Revolution” in the October 2021 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.

I did not set out to write a history of an obscure Anishinaabe leader during the American Revolution. In fact, I was much more interested in Sigenauk’s geography than his person when I first stumbled upon his name in the archives. I was working on research for my dissertation, a project that looked at how different Indigenous and European groups understood and attempted to control the canoe routes through the Chicago area during the era of colonization. Sigenauk emerged enough in my readings that I began to take notice. I pieced together that this man who appeared in sources as various forms of “Blackbird,” “Siggenauk,” “Letourneau,” and “el Heturno,” was the same individual. As he continued to pop up in British sources, American journals, and Spanish letters, I grew increasingly fascinated with his actions in the region and I began to compile a rough timeline to keep track of him in my larger history.

There was also the local intrigue. I was a graduate student at Notre Dame at the time. North of Notre Dame’s campus lies the small town of Niles, Michigan, known as “the city of four flags” because of the little know Spanish raid during the American Revolution. French, British, Spanish, and American flags have all flown over the banks of the St. Joseph—a fun trivia fact for any history buff of the area’s past. The raid piqued my curiosity enough that I dug into some of the secondary articles written about it in the early twentieth century, only to find Sigenauk’s name again. Now I was down the rabbit hole, and the more I read, the more I became convinced that there was more to the story than just a random Spanish raid into the Great Lakes with a few Anishinaabeg tagging along for the loot. As I continued to explore Sigenauk’s role in orchestrating the raid, I began to realize that this little-known Native leader had played a direct role in shaping the history of the region, and in guiding his people—the Anishinaabeg southwest of Lake Michigan—into an upward trajectory amid a changing world.

While I worked out the rough contours of Sigenauk’s motives for the raid and his wider goals within Anishinaabewaki, in my initial draft I remained fixated on Sigenauk’s individual ambitions and concerned myself with what his own followers got out of his political manipulations during the Revolutionary War. Anonymous readers at the Quarterly pushed me to factor in other constituencies, including the Potawatomis of the St. Joseph River whose tacit cooperation allowed for Sigenauk and his Spanish allies to pull off the attack on the British post. I started to dig deeper into Anishinaabe kinship structures and to think through how various “factions” within Anishinaabewaki allowed for shrewd diplomatic maneuvers on various fronts. I came to see such “factionalism” as an advantageous diplomatic strategy for Anishinaabeg like Sigenauk. In other words, I came to distinguish that while Sigenauk may have been most interested in forming alliances with Britain’s enemies such as the Spanish and Americans, he was not willing to break from his Potawatomi kin who remained more loyal to the British cause. The results of the back and forth with reviewers and the thorough work of the Quarterly’s staff all helped to produce a much more careful, nuanced argument about how a Native individual built his power base within his own society and beyond during one of the most tumultuous eras of the Great Lakes borderland.

Sigenauk factors into only one of my chapters for the current book project, yet his activities during the 1770s and 80s highlight an important trend in the history of early Chicago. From the 1740s into the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anishinaabe power was on the rise around Chicago’s portages. Anishinaabe migrants moved into the area to take advantages of the waterborne travel routes of the region and to exploit rebounding game populations in the aftermath of the Fox Wars. Their understanding of Chicago’s freshwater geography as a strategic crossroads allowed them to prosper. That environmental knowledge, coupled with the politicking of cagey leaders like Sigenauk during the upheavals of the Seven Years War, Pontiac’s War, and the American Revolution, allowed Anishinaabeg there to carve out a space of power and opportunity. The latter chapters of my current project look at the strained relations between incoming Americans and the Anishinaabeg that resulted from wildly different understandings of Chicago’s space, ecology, and geography. Ultimately, the project examines the breakdown in cross-cultural interactions that undermined Anishinaabe power and threatened Native peoples with dispossession and removal by the 1830s, with an eye toward how environmental understandings shaped the terms of these relations.

While Sigenauk’s story is only a small part of my overall project on Chicago’s early history, I do think it has opened up my own thinking about Native peoples’ experiences in the American Revolution and its aftermath. My interest in that question—how Native individuals and communities navigated the chaotic latter part of the eighteenth century as American colonists won their independence and threatened Indigenous lands on an unprecedented scale following nationhood—has really captivated my historians’ curiosity. Going forward, I see that question, and likeminded questions about human experiences along the edges of the Revolutionary era, driving my research agenda. It also seems like an apt conversation in the lead up to the Revolution’s 250th anniversary, as we continue to think about the diversity of experiences in America, then and now. What did the upheaval of revolution mean for Native peoples adjacent to the colonial rebellion? Trouble for many; opportunity for a few savvy individuals like Sigenauk. And while I wouldn’t say Sigenauk’s trajectory is wholly representative of what happened to Native people in the aftermath of revolution, I do think it is worth investigating the myriad ways Indigenous peoples attempted to shape the conflict and its aftermath to their own advantages. This allows us to appreciate the dynamic and resilient ways Indigenous peoples continued to grapple with the American state from 1776 forward.

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