Tessouat, "The Algonquin of the Island," is probably one of the most fascinating characters from the documented history of the Algonquin. He was one of the most brilliant orators of his time.
Samuel de Champlain, which the Euro Canadians consider as the founder of what would become Canada, refers to him as soon as he sets foot in Tadoussac in 1603. Allied forces comprised of Innu (then referred to as the Montagnais), Maliseet (then called Etchemin) and Anishinabeg (as Champlain designate as "Algoumequins”) were then celebrating a great victory over their enemies, the Iroquois.
It was on this occasion that the French explorer met Chief Tessouat for the first time, who he would sometimes refer to by the name of "The Algonquin of the Island," but most often by “Tessouat Le Borgne”. (The One-eyed). The description of the ceremony he attends leaves no doubt about the importance of this man, Chief of the Kichesipirinis from Allumette Island. Champlain recounts in the stories of his travel that all the warriors and women of various groups undressed until completely naked to dance before Tessouat and to present him with offerings of gifts. We understand that the Algonquin chief was an influential figure and has played a major role in that famous victory.
Champlain also understood this, and he knew that in his search for a passage to India he would have to negotiate with him. While undertaking the exploration of the Kichi Sipi (Ottawa River) in 1613, he was received with great pomp by Tessouat on Allumette Island, but he was forced to succumb when Tessouat refused him passageway. The Algonquin chief was afraid of losing his lucrative role as an intermediary between the French and other nations, including the Huron, who came every year to exchange their furs. Tessouat Island, surrounded by dangerous rapids, was a fortress and the chief received a right of way over all other groups that needed to cross his territory.
Tessouat and the Jesuits
Tessouat would not become friends with all of the newcomers. The Jesuits who came to convert the Natives would view him as an adversary. Tessouat was firmly planted in his traditions and spiritual beliefs, and he would not be easily convinced to join the religion of the “Black Robe”. In their writings, the Jesuits always give a negative portrayal of him: "See a naked man who has no shoes on his feet, nor other clothing then that ugly piece of hide that covers only half of his body, disgraced by nature with only half of his eyes, because he is one-eyed, dry like an old tree without leaves, see, I say, a skeleton, or rather a beggar, walking as a president and talking like a king is to see the pride and the superb in rags. "(RJ, vol. 14, p. 156).
Tessouat was not impressed by the threats of the Jesuits and he made them understand this. In 1638, Father Jerome Lalemant ventured upriver to go to Wendat country and refused to pay the right of way toll to Tessouat. He further insulted him by getting back into his canoe and continuing on his journey, but Tessouat sent his men to follow him and brought him back to the island where he tied him up and suspended him from a branch. "If your God is so powerful, he can come and free you," he said. The Father had no choice but to comply with the rules.
The name Tessouat often reoccurs throughout the 17th century in the stories of explorers and priests. In reality, those who became leaders of the Kichisipirinis adopted the name of the man who had held the role of chief before them. There was thus the Tessouat Champlain met in 1603, and visited on his island in 1613. Tessouat Le Borgne died in 1636 as told by the Jesuits who arrived on the island when the community was in mourning. The mourning of the community could last as long as two or three years, during which time the group could go on war parties against their enemies to ease their pain. This was especially true when their leader was killed in action.
The second Tessouat reigned until his death in 1654. What is surprising, however, is that the new Tessouat had not only taken the name of its predecessor, but he also had the same physical attributes: skinny, fairly elegant, a brilliant orator and blind in one eye. Unlike his predecessor, however, Tessouat finally agreed to be baptized in 1643 and it was Governor Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance who served as his godparents. They also gave him the name Paul on this occasion. We can, however, doubt the sincerity of his conversion. The people of Tessouat were decimated by disease and threatened everywhere by the Iroquois. Unlike the Dutch and the English, who had no qualms about selling guns to the Natives, the French, under pressure from the Jesuits, granted this privilege only to the Natives who converted and were baptized.
To know more about Tessouat, consult this online book (in French only):