By Therese Oldenburg, Executive Director of Nature At The Confluence
Notes: There are many variations of Joseph Thibault’s name including Tebo, for the sake of consistency, we’ll use Thibault in this story. All references about this time refer to “Winnebago” as the name of the Native American tribe living here. They reclaimed “Ho-Chunk” as the name of their people in 1993, therefore, we use the name of “Ho-Chunk” in this story, replacing Winnebago.
Joseph Thibault at The Confluence of Rock River and Turtle Creek
Fur trader Joseph Thibault lived at the confluence of the Rock River and Turtle Creek from about 1835-1837 in a 16′ x 12′ log cabin with his two Native American wives and four children. He was a French-Canadian trader who traded on the banks of the St. Lawrence River and throughout Canada. He had been a Green Bay trader, working in the Fox River Valley and along the Rock River. He spoke English, French and three Indian languages. He was employed by the American Fur Company, along with Stephan Mack (founder of Rockton) and furs they collected during the trading seasons were conveyed to Solomon Juneau (founder of Milwaukee). Stephan Mack was a partner with him in staking a claim of land which encompassed Rockton. Thibault and Mack were both listed among “500 Chicagoans” of 1833 when the municipality was founded by Thomas J. V. Owen.
Land Survey Map showing Thibault’s cabin at the stateline.In spring of 1836, he conveyed his squatter’s claim to a vast amount of land along Turtle Creek and east of the Rock River for about $500 (reports of this amount varies from $250-500) to Caleb Blodgett, who represented the New England Emigrating Company. Blodgett is recognized as the pioneer who established Beloit. Thibault stay in the area for another year, then sold his cabin to Robert Crane and Otis Bicknell who also helped establish the new pioneer town they called “Turtle”.
Thibault then moved his family up to Lake Koshkonong and settled on the southeasterly shore of Lake Koshkonong, in Wisconsin, and opened an Indian trading post in one of two log cabins he built there, about 1.5 miles above the mouth of the lake not far from the mouth of the Rock River, called Thiebault’s Point (this location is still recognized with this name and is near the Buckhorn Supper Club on Charleys Bluff).
Robert Crane, who purchased Thibault’s cabin said that he had a son by a “former squaw, wife now dead”, which would have been Thibault’s oldest son Francois (Frank) born in 1820. This reference in Pioneer Beloit from Beloit Free Press, Jan 10, 1878 is only reference I have found that says he had a wife that died who had bore him a son. Otherwise, perhaps his mother was Joseph’s older living wife, Scho-coi-we-kah, who was half Ho-Chunk and half Potawatomi and was said to be closer to his age. There are documents that she was the mother of Joseph Jr. born in 1822.
His younger wife, Lisette (Wa-xo-pea-nee-win-kaw) Lasallier was half Ho-Chunk and half French, and her grandfather was Pierre Lasallier (La Sallier), the Rock River’s first recorded fur trader down in Dixon and Grand DeTour. Lisette’s children were William Henry and Baptiste. He also had a daughter name Therese that died in infancy in 1831, and it is thought that Lisette was her mother.
Thibault selected to place his trading post strategically at the confluence of two important rivers, the Rock and Turtle, and just as important, at the convergence of two important Indian traces (or trails), that were used for movement and trade (the location is at about where Subway on Shirland Avenue is located today). The land surrounding it was the former site of Ke-Chunk village, the largest Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) village where 690 people lived along the creek and grew crops in the rich bottom lands of Turtle Creek. Ke-Chunk was abandoned by the Ho-Chunk sometime after the 1832 Black Hawk war. Lisette’s brother Baptiste La Sallier, who is recorded to spent his early years at Ke-Chunk village, later became the chief of the Ho-Chunk people.
When Joseph settled here, the people of Ke-Chunk were for the most part gone, but there were still Ho-Chunk and Sauk and Fox living at the confluence land. Treaties with the US government created after the Black Hawk war were forming them to leave Wisconsin territory and move to other designated lands provided by the government. Thibault still traded with them from his new post in Lake Koshkonong, but it was evident that soon the fur trade would be greatly diminished due to the removals.
It is said that during the time Thibault lived with his family on Lake Koshkonong, some of his family wanted to move north with the other Ho-Chunk that were being forced to leave. In late December 1838 or early January 1839 Joseph Thibault disappeared and this is where the rumors begin…
Thibault Disappears, Presumed Dead
Exactly when Thibault disappeared is unknown, but it is reported by Lucian Caswell and George W. Ogden, acquaintances and neighbors of Thibault on Koshkonong, there were searches for Thibault until Friday, January 11, 1839. Ogden’s diary that day said “They say they have had a hunt for Tebos, but made no discovery but suppose he is dead”. On Sunday, February 10, 1839, he wrote “Went to Tebos, his habitation is deserted, no discovery had been made of him.” On March 18, 1839, he wrote “Francis Tebo and Indian Tantebuck came back last night.” On June 24, he wrote, “Indians have gone up the lake, probably not to return again.” On March 22, 1840 he wrote “Indians have all cleared their diggings”.
Lucian B. Caswell wrote later in his diary that it was thought that Thibault was believed to have been murdered by the youngest of his wives (Lisette) and his son, Francis. It was thought Francis and Lisette were romantically involved with each other as they were quite close in age. Caswell wrote “I knew Thibault (Tebo), the Indian trader, well. He had two log cabins about a mile and a half above the mouth of Lake Koshkonong on the south side. He was a Frenchman with two Indian wives, one quite old, the other about thirty and very attractive. Thibault was, I should judge, about fifty, quite tall and slender. He kept a stock of goods suitable for his trade with the Indians, such as blankets, ammunition, traps and other articles, which he exchanged with the Indians for their furs.
He was said to be a fur buyer for Solomon Juneau, of Milwaukee, and well off, and we always found him honest and exerting a good influence among the Indians. He kept nothing intoxicating for the Indians and sold them only such goods as they needed. Unfortunately, however, he had a reckless grown-up son named Frank, who gave him no small amount of trouble. Frank and the younger wife were greatly attached to each other. In the winter of 1839-40 the old gentleman disappeared, which fact was not made known by Frank for several weeks, till finally he came to our house and told us his father had been missing for some time, giving no intelligent story about the disappearance. Suspicion at once rested upon both the young people and extensive search was made for some trace of foul play. Persons came from a great distance and examined the surrounding thickets and the ice of the lake and tried to discover, if possible, any hole cut in the ice where his body might have been put through into the lake, but without success, and the search was finally abandoned. In the spring of 1840 Frank stored some of their household goods and articles of food with my people and, with the two wives, went away west to the Mississippi river. After some months Frank came back and took away his goods, and this is the last we heard of them. Thibault was succeeded by a Frenchman named Ellick LaMiere, who occupied the Thibault shanties for the next eight or ten years.” Source: “Rock County, Wisconsin, Volume 1” By William Fiske Brown Historian M. A., D.D.; Publ. 1908 also reference The Murder of Thibault, the Trader,The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Jun., 1945), pp. 455-457
A flintlock rifle which belonged to Thibault came into the possession of his former neighbor, George Ogden, and was later donated to the Milton Historical Society in 1965 by Ogden’s grandson.
This is the last account that was written about Joseph Thibault and his family. It will never be known with certainty what happened to Joseph that winter. It could have been a tragic accident while checking his traplines in the marshlands of Lake Koshkonong, as some people thought, or perhaps members of his family took his life, as others thought. It will always be a mystery. But what isn’t a mystery anymore, is what happened to his family after they left Wisconsin.
What Happened To The Ho-Chunk People?
It was a traumatic time for the Ho-Chunk, as they were being forced to leave their ancestral lands and move to unknown lands due to treaties. They had to leave behind their cropland which sustained them, many starved and many died during the removals. The tribe was already greatly diminished, as one out of four Ho-Chunk died during a smallpox epidemic in 1836.
On April 25, 1863, the last of the Ho-Chunk still living in Wisconsin and Minnesota were notified that they would be moved to a barren tract of land along the Missouri River in Crow Creek, South Dakota. In early May 1863, under threat of military force, over 2000 Ho-Chunk were moved to Camp Porter in Mankato and from there to Crow Creek. Despite the pleadings of Chief Baptiste La Sallier (Lisette Thibault’s brother) for more time and better weather, the removal was enforced and tragically more than 550 Ho-Chunk died during their removal to South Dakota. Later many returned to Wisconsin and were removed again. Many later settled in Nebraska, but many later returned and settled in Wisconsin. Despite the traumatic years of removals (eleven total removals), the people of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska have persevered and are thriving today.
Descendants Of Thibault Found
Therese Oldenburg, executive director of Nature At The Confluence, felt a quest to learn more about Joseph Thibault’s family. “I’ve thought about how traumatic is was for his wives and children during that time of removal and I wondered what happened to them and if they survived the removals.”
To assist with research to find descendants of Joseph Thibault Oldenburg turned to Ancestry.com to build a Thibault family tree. Through tribal census records in Nebraska she started finding traces of his family. Laura Eagle Boy, of Albuquerque, New Mexico was also doing family research and she found some relatives on Oldenburg’s public tree on Thibault. In July 2020 Laura reached out to Oldenburg, and they connected, sharing information. Laura’s tree shows that she is the 4th great granddaughter of Joseph Thibault (Tebo). Oldenburg is learning there are many more descendant, many in Nebraska, and some in Wisconsin. Oldenburg is excited to make the connection with Laura Eagle Boy, and have the opportunity to learn more about the family who once made their home in a small cabin at the confluence of the Rock River and Turtle Creek.
So, while the mystery of the disappearance of Joseph Thilbault hasn’t been solved, we now know his family survived, and continued to grow in numbers. And, after making the connection with Laura EagleBoy, his descendants will now know of their ancestor’s role in the history at the confluence of Turtle Creek and the Rock River.
- “Pioneer Beloit”, Arthur L Luebke, 1985, available at Amazon ($29) or at Nature At The Confluence for $10.
- “A link to pioneer Joseph Thibault is found”, Debra Jensen De-Hart, Beloit Daily News, Aug 27, 2020
- “Rock County, Wisconsin, Volume 1” , William Fiske Brown Historian M. A., D.D.,1908
- “The Murder of Thibault, the Trader” ,The Wisconsin Magazine of History,Vol. 28, No. 4 (Jun., 1945), pp. 455-457
- “Remembering Ke Chunk Village At The Confluence” – South Beloit, IL, Nature At The Confluence video, 2019
- Ke-Chunk Village History, Compiled by Nature At The Confluence, 2019
- The Search for Ke-Chunk – 2012 Investigations in South Beloit, Winnebago County, Illinois – By William Green, Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College, Beloit, WI (retired)
- The Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 9 No. 1 (October, 1929) – Indian village and camp sites of the Lower Rock River in Wisconsin
- Indian Agent Roll List of Turtle Village, John Kinzie, 1829-1832 – With Translations of Winnebago Names by John Blackhawk & Richard Dieterle [in Brackets]
- Winnebago Villages and Chieftains of the Lower Rock River Region – by Dr. Norton William Jipson
- Ke-Chunk Interpretive Sign at Nature At The Confluence – Turtle Village on Turtle Creek in South Beloit, IL
- Corn Moon Migrations: Ho-Chunk Belonging, Removal, and Return in the Early Nineteenth-Century Western Great Lakes by Libby Rose Tronnes
- How the Ho-Chunk Resisted Removal– Wisconsin Public Radio University of The Air with Stephen Kantrowitz, April 22, 2018