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COLLECTIONSEssays and short articles, Biographies
TITLEWho Was Archangel, the Potowatami Woman on Whose Land the Wilmette Temple Was Built?
AUTHOR 1Ismael Velasco
ABSTRACTBrief investigation into the surname "Ouilmette" (Wilmette), and the identity of a Native American girl named Archangel whose home was at one time on this point of land.
NOTES Originally posted as a research note to the Tarikh email list.
TAGSMashriqul-Adhkar, Wilmette
LOCATIONSWilmette; Illinois; United States (documents)
CONTENT My research below was triggered when a friend shared the following account in Star of the West of the dedication of the Wilmette Mashriqu'l-Adhkar:
"Sidelights on the Convention are as numerous as the sweet-singing birds by the lake that brilliant morning. Mention was made of the weather having a divine wisdom. On the last day of the Convention, at almost the concluding hour, it developed that because of having mislaid Mr. Jaxon's address, and while he was waiting to hear from them, the Sanitary Commission had about decided that the Bahais did not want the modification in plans necessary to suit our purposes, and if the weather had continued fair they would have taken up the work on the canal intake in such manner that we could not then have gotten the desired concessions. Only the unusual storm had delayed them, and meanwhile they had located him. In his talk, it developed that the title to the Temple site was first in the name of an Indian girl named "Archangel" – one of the tribe of Ouilmette (Wilmette), whose Reservation was at one time upon this point of land." (Star of the West Volume 1; see also image scan.)

A learned Native American friend asked me whether the surname Ouilmette could really be that of a Frenchman, given that it was a Native American word and there were other geographical features named that way. He also queried how real the Indian identity of the "girl named Archangel" could really have been, having Catholic sounds to it. (Archange is the French for Archangel, and used as a given name. Star of the West merely anglicised the spelling to "Archangel," but "Archange" is how she is referred in the historical records.)

I decided to look more intensively into this very intriguing question, and this is what I found:

There is lots of evidence that Ouilmette was indeed a family surname, and particularly that of Antoine (1760-1842) and Archange, as well as their children. You can see scans of much of the evidence here:

Interestingly, there is a good pencil portrait of Archange in the link above, and by looking at the images of their children there are striking family resemblances. Below is a coloured in version of the same image. Not as good:

BUT, before rejecting the expert suggestion that Ouilmette was not a French surname but an indigenous one, based on extensive ethnolinguistic expertise into Native American languages, I have sought quite a bit through the online primary and secondary source historical and genealogical archives, and I find quite a few Ouilmettes - but not a single one before 1760 Antoine. There is even one on Facebook. And one living in Cher, France. That's about it. In France, it ranks 448,118 among surnames, which is very rare. I have found no record whatever of Antoine Ouilmette's parents. On the other hand, the name Ouillamette is attested as a Native American name from 1681 and associated with a Potowatami tribe decades before Antoine's birth (Clifton, James A. The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potowatami Indian Culture 1665–1965. Lawrence, Kansas: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977).

Clifton speculates that Antoine was of metis descent, and soldiers building Dearborn Fort considered him a 'half-breed'. The two possibilities, not mutually exclusive, is that he took on the surname as a way of facilitating his contacts and trade with the Indians, while retaining a French sound for white settlers, and/or, more likely perhaps, Ouilmette himself was half-Indian. A number of contemporary reports describe him thus, and some scholars float the possibility, but I also think it is a possibility made much stronger by the ethnolinguistic analysis finding Wilmette as a Native American word, which, against the absence of any attestations of that name in France before him, makes a compelling case for seeing it not just as an Indian patronymic, but potentially an indication of his mother's tribal origins. In either case, that he should have chosen an Indian surname, rather than his father's French surname, whatever that was, suggests a n attitude to native heritage which, challenged perhaps by the narrative of the reservation sale (see below), is strengthened by other historical and biographical facts.

The evidence indicates Ouilmette having authentic and exceptionally close bonds with the Potowatami Indians, because he was the only White to have remained in the area after the battle of Fort Dearborn, where younger Potowatami defied their chief and ambushed and killed 50 fleeing soldiers and families, capturing the remaining 41, because of feeling betrayed over a promise of armaments, whiskey and victuals in return for safe passage, which were instead destroyed by the Americans in their hasty departure following war with Britain in 1812. That Ouilmette was able to remain living in that area as a white man, and him only, even when they helped two whites escape, suggests a very solid relationship, which we know preceded the arrival of the US army and the construction of the fort. When the fort was built there were only four families living there, one of whom was the Ouilmettes. At that time he made his living helping people cross the river. So strong were his ties, that during that massacre, when the Potowatami warriors were looking for whites, two went to hide in the Ouilmette household, which was searched but untouched - the Oubliettes were not regarded as enemies, alone in all the settlement. And this is the first solid clue we get as to not just Ouilmette's character, but more crucially, Archange.

Antoine was possibly, and Archange definitely was, half-Indian, half French (Archange's surname was Chevalier). But while Antoine looked French and held to his French identity on the whole (except for his surname and, as we will see, his choice of wife), Archange most definitely considered herself Potowatami and was regarded as one by the tribe. Her picture in the link above, may be safely considered not a gimmick, but a faithful representation of her Indian appearance, given that the soldiers who gave us our first notice of the existence of Ouilmette c.1803, described him as living with 'his Indian wife'. In the treaty document she is also recognised as Potowatami. This affiliation, surely, more than anything else explains why they could stay when every white family was killed, imprisoned, or left the surrounding area. Whatever the circumstances of her white father's begetting of her, she appears to have been, in appearance and identity, Potowatami, and recognised as such. She was with a Potowatami band at Grosse Pointe (today's Evanston, Wilmette Village) when she married Antoine in 1796-1797. This is the same place where she and Ouilmette resided at the time of the treaty, which recognised the land as hers. Their wedding is the first recorded North Shore wedding (and now we're onto firsts, their daughter Elizabeth married the first Irishman in Chicago). This very marriage, and the ongoing links thereafter with her tribe, might add support to the idea that Antoine Ouilmette was dual heritage and his surname an indigenous one, making the acceptance by her community more likely.. What is curious and fascinating as an indication of the complexities of ethnic identity, is that Antoine, with the Potowatami surname, considered himself and was considered a French Catholic, whereas Archange, with both French name and surname, held most definitely to a Potowatami identity.

At the same time, before he married her when Antoine first arrived in Chicago in 1790 (possibly the second white to permanently settle in what became the bustling city it is today), he was chased by Indians who broke his door and had to flee. This suggests that he had no previous solid links to a the Potowatami community, unlike his wife, so if he did adopt an Indian patronymic, as opposed to having been born to that surname, it is likely to have been as a bridge rather than an expression of his own native identity, embracing his heritage to facilitate his relationships with the indigenous communities around him, while remaining primarily a Frenchman. It is not even fully certain he was dual heritage, but I think the surname, the soldier's descriptions, and the relationships he built do make it likely. It is a rumour in his earliest biography, which his daughters evidently could neither confirm nor disprove. This also tells us that if he was dual heritage, he was not so openly, or at home, as later accounts all describe him as a Frenchman. He evidently was physically more akin to his French father. He was also a Catholic, and petitioned for the building of the first Catholic church in Chicago.

It seems then that this is not an either or. Certainly in the case of Archange we seem to have a definite native identity, both from others and from herself, although her father was French. Antoine's may have been a dual identity, like many mixed race people, neither fully French nor fully native. Together with their children they seem to have navigated the incredibly complex and charged ethnic politics of identity at the time, with her the main bridge to their Indian identity, and him to their White identity. And they did so successfully enough to feel comfortable staying in Chicago at the very height of ethnic tensions and anti-White feeling, while likewise being able to remain there after the expulsion of the Potowatami (they chose not to). By c1814 Antoine was a close friend and partner of the also dual heritage Potowatami Alexander Robinson, who would become chief at the time of the treaty. In further evidence of the complexities of dual heritage identity at that time, Antoine and Archange's son Louis joined the militia on the side of the whites in the Black Hawk war, as scout and interpreter, described as "a French trader with Indian character", which might also have applied to his father. There is evidence of Louis growing up as a child in close and friendly contact with his mother's tribe. Clearly the politics of identity in this family were anything but simple.

Which brings us to the tricky question of the 1829 treaty of Prairie du Chien with the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatamie Indians which divides the land among 13 individuals of Indian descent, including:

"To Archange Ouilmette, a Potawatamie woman, wife of Antoine Ouilmette, two sections, for herself and her children, on Lake Michigan, south of and adjoining the northern boundary of the cession herein made by the Indians aforesaid to the United States... The tracts of land herein stipulated to be granted, shall never be leased or conveyed by the grantees, or their heirs, to any persons whatever, without the permission of the President of the United States...The United States, at the request of the Indians aforesaid, further agree to pay to the persons named in the schedule annexed to this treaty, the sum of eleven thousand six hundred and one dollars; which sum is in full satisfaction of the claims brought by said persons against said Indians, and by them acknowledged to be justly due."

To this was added a further $800 for Ouilmette himself, from a related transaction. Recently appointed Potowatami Chief Alexander Robinson was another beneficiary. The full treaty is here: [].

This was bad.

"By its provisions the Indians became completely hemmed in, or surrounded. To use a common saying in playing checkers, the Indians were driven into the 'single corner' before they were aware of it." (Haine's American Indian, p. 554)

Haine, a senator at the time, wrote an exposé based on interviews with protagonists, including Chief Alexander Robinson, which showed he was duped into becoming chief because he would trust and go along with his white friends, and did not realise he was complicit and indeed instrumental in the expulsion of his people. Ouilmette on the contrary receives no exculpation, but is credited as having been bribed into procuring the native assent to the treaty - including his wife's.

The role of Archange is more ambiguous, since the land she received was after all the land she has always lived on with her people, where she married and had children (and where the Bahá'í Temple rises today). She may have been party to the goal of ultimately ousting her people, but it seems to me far, far more credible to think she was coopted by her husband as he coopted his very close Potowatami friend Alexander, not knowing the strategic implications of the land grants for her people. By 1836 Ouilmette had built himself a stately cabin worthy of a congressman, and his wife and children were with him. The Ouilmette children are described by a guest that year as "nearly white". Within a year Archange, according to a witness, was "absent" from Ouilmette. The children likewise lived away, returned for a year to their father - without Archange - and again left. In fact, Archange and her children all moved to Council Bluffs when the Potowatami were pushed out of Chicago and settled there. Ouilmette also left the land in 1838-1839, and died in Council Buffs in 1841 a year after his wife. Only in 1843- 1844 did the children visit again for one year to try and sell the land, and for twenty years by 1870 "the Indian heirs" had not visited the reservation. Thus their children were by this time considered Indians by the locals. They were not wrong.

In an 1844 request to the government for permission to sell their land which was losing value as its timber and resources were raided by the neighbours, six out of seven children had been living in the Potowatami reservation, and together those children state that their Indian blood and their personal feelings dictate they cannot accept to live away from their Indian community to look after the Wilmette land, and hence need to sell it before it loses all its value. The argument was eventually accepted and the sale went through and, predictably and tragically, they were ripped off and received a pittance from the proceeds of an already under-sold property. Most of the children embraced and retained their Indian identity, one or two followed their white heritage more. One followed his father's footsteps as a Frenchman, and one more seems to have a more ambiguous identity.

This all fairly convincingly indicates to me that Archange was a genuine and committed Potowatami, who preferred to leave her grand log cabin, and the land she grew up in and married, rather than be parted from her betrayed, exiled tribe, and that she raised her children in the Potowatami traditions amidst a white European settlement and with a French Catholic father, so deeply that her children made that choice with her, while her husband stayed behind, and then joined her presumably after his children's intercession. This woman was remarkable, and strong and her own mistress, evidently, because Ouilmette, having profited from the treaty, was left, in old age, with the choice of being left alone with his ill gotten gains, or following his wife and children to the reservation and abandon all he had built in a lifetime of struggle. That he did join them, and was presumably allowed to by the tribe, might also suggest a less black and white portrayal of h im as a baddie, given a lifetime of honourable and honoured relations with his wife's people, and the unimaginable complexities of managing the politics of their identity. Whether himself a dupe, who did not anticipate the full repercussions of his wheeling and dealing as he entered his 70s, and dealt, illiterate as he was, with US government lawyers determined to take over the land, or a prey to catastrophic temptation, he seems to me a more complex character than any caricature could portray.

I personally feel a sense of beauty and honour that the land of which the remarkable Potowatami woman, Archange, was the custodian, and which she left without hesitation to honour her people, a woman whose heritage was mixed, who married a white man and then married her daughter to the first Irish settler, should, as the decades follow, have been chosen for a Temple reconciling and honouring the diversity and nobility of the human spirit without prejudices, and a Faith honouring her native American heritage for which she gave so much, and prophesying, out of the betrayal and oppression and suppression of her people, a future so bright as to educate the entire planet under His light.

The main primary source, not the only one I found, is "Antoine Ouilmette: a resident of Chicago A.D. 1790-1826: The first settler of Evanston and Wilmette (1826-1838) with a brief history of his family and the Ouilmette reservation" online at

Hope you find this as interesting a backdrop to the Temple as I did.

VIEWS1213 views since 2021-09-29 (last edit 2021-09-30 08:26 UTC)
CROSSREFWikipedia article about Antoine Ouilmette
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