by Carmen Doyle
If gossip magazines had been around in the 18th century, Tacumwah would likely have been one of the “celebrities” whose every move was followed carefully. Tacumwah was the daughter of an Indian chief and the sister of two chiefs---Pacanne and Little Turtle. Tacumwah and Pacanne had the same father while Little Turtle and Tacumwah had the same mother. This meant she was an important Miami woman.
One reason for her importance was the fact that she and Pacanne traditionally owned and controlled the Long Portage, an eight mile strip of land between the St. Mary’s and Wabash Rivers. This joined two water systems “thereby completing a pathway for commerce that extended from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.”(from The History Center’s website) A portage was a place where the pirogues and the goods traders had in them were carried from one river to the next. Tacumwah and Pacanne charged a fee to carry travelers and their goods from one river to the next. This was extremely profitable. Tacumwah had also inherited money from her mother so she was very wealthy.
Many of the traders were French fur traders. Tacumwah married one of them, Joseph Richardville. Together they had four children including Jean-Baptiste Richardville (Peshewa, the future Chief Richardville). Joseph Richardville also had children by other women, but this wasn’t considered a problem. In 1773, after nearly a decade of marriage, all the Richardville children and Tacumwah were baptized as Roman Catholic. Tacumwah became Marie-Louisa.
The marriage did not survive another year.
The British, authorities in the region because they had the largest military presence, did not fully trust Joseph Richardville. However, he allied himself in business with the Masionville brothers, who had been loyal to the British for decades. The British did not fully trust the Maisonvilles either (because they were French), but Alexis Maisonville had saved the lives of British officers during an Indian rebellion. The British did not fully trust the Native Americans either.
The British thought the Maisonvilles would be better in charge of the portage than the Miami, but did not want to give the brothers complete authority over it. What the British wanted was for the Maisonvilles to maintain the area around the portage, but actual control over the portage was still given to the Miami, and it was the Miami who made money from the portage.
The Maisonvilles, with help from Joseph Richardville, eventually grew tired of merely managing the portage, and decided they wanted complete control over it as well as the profits. They created a “protection racket” to physically prevent Pacanne and Tacumwah from carrying goods. Richardville wanted the money from the portage and the money outweighed any loyalty he had to Tacumwah and their children. In the ensuing argument, he hit Tacumwah, and she left him, taking refuge with Charles Beaubien, a business rival of her husband.
A large scandal resulted. Tacumwah refused to return to her husband and asked Beaubien to retrieve her things from the house she had shared with Richardville. He threatened to kill both Tacumwah and Beaubien. Beaubien responded by causing property damage. Armed, he knocked down Richardville’s garden fence and shouted threats of violence towards the man.
The ensuing court case was heard by a British officer from Detroit. A British officer from Detroit hearing a divorce case involving a Native American woman and her French husband gives an idea of how complicated politics were at the time. The real reason a British officer heard the case came down to money. The big issue was which group should maintain control of the profitable and militarily significant portage-the French or the Miami.
The divorce was spiteful. Pacanne accused his sister’s spouse of being lazy and failing to provide for his family. Pacanne claimed that Richardville had provided for his sister and her family, by only giving her skins which she traded for rum. The rum was then sold and the money used to buy needed supplies. It wasn’t unusual for a Miami man to sit around while his wife worked but British standards considered a husband not providing for his family unacceptable. Pacanne, speaking for his sister, invoked British standards in order to win the case and retain control of the portage.
Richardville denied that he and Tacumwah were married and attempted to play the victim. He complained about being threatened by Beaubien and Pacanne. According to Miami customs, once Tacumwah left him, the marriage was over. However, Richardville used British customs to try and claim Tacumwah’s wealth, both from the portage and money she had inherited, and money she had made trading the rum and skins.
The British in 1774 were divided between reliance on the French settlers and traders and the Indians in the region. The dilemma then became which group to keep happy in this divorce case: the Miami or the French. The reliance on the Miami proved stronger and the British Captain Lernoult decided in favor of Tacumwah. The Miami would retain control of the portage. To make the Miami even happier, Lernoult took away management of the portage from the Maisonvilles and gave it to Beaubien, the man with whom Tacumwah had taken refuge.
Tacumwah did not speak during the proceedings. Despite her status and intelligence, she left behind no words of her own. Her biggest legacy was her son, Jean-Baptiste Richardville, who became Chief Richardville. Chief Richardville inherited the portage from Tacumwah and she was the person who helped him become chief.
Although Tacumwah is best remembered as a mother, it is worth remembering that she was an important person in her own right.
Birzer, Bradley J. French Imperial remnants on the middle ground: The strange case of August de la Balme and Charles Beaubien. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2000.
History Center website www.fwhistorycenter.com
Marrero, Karen. "'She is Capable of Doing a Good Deal of Mischief': A Miami Woman's Threat to Empire in the Eighteenth-Century Ohio Valley". Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History Volume 6, Number 3, Winter 2005.