COUAGNE (Du Coigne), JEAN-BAPTISTE DE, fur-trader and interpreter; baptized 3 March 1720 at Montreal (Que.), son of René de Couagne* and Louise Pothier; father of at least two mixed-blood sons; d. after 1795.
Member of a prominent family of Montreal merchants, Jean-Baptiste de Couagne entered the fur trade at a young age. He went to the Illinois country as an engagé, an indentured employee, in the late 1730s and spent a number of years in the region, where he acquired a good knowledge of Indian customs and languages. At one point he was captured by the Cherokees, who subsequently adopted him. At Montreal in 1747 he contracted to go to Detroit as an engagé; in 1749 he was hired to go to Lake of the Woods.
Like Peter Bisaillon*, Jacques de Noyon*, and others, de Couagne eventually decided to try his fortunes with the English. He spent the winter of 1750–51 at Fort Edward (known to the French as Fort Lydius), New York, with John Hendricks Lÿdius, a relation by marriage. In the spring William Johnson wrote to Governor George Clinton* of New York asking permission for de Couagne “to follow Business” in the colony. Minimizing his connections with Montreal, de Couagne had told Johnson that he had spent the previous 14 years in the Illinois country. For a considerable time during the early 1750s de Couagne lived among the Six Nations. The authorities of New France were far from pleased with his activities, and in 1751 Governor La Jonquière [Taffanel*] ordered his arrest.
Having an independent view of his own interests, de Couagne stayed in communication with New France. When war broke out between Britain and France in the mid 1750s his ties became particularly suspect to the British. He and a partner were imprisoned at Albany in the autumn of 1757 but soon escaped. The consequences of the incident appear to have been light, however. The next May they arrived at Fort Johnson (near Amsterdam) after spending some time among the Six Nations, and Johnson dispatched them to James Abercromby, the commander-in-chief, for questioning. Abercromby sent them back to Six Nations country to spy.
When Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) fell to the British in the summer of 1759, de Couagne was hired by Johnson to serve there as an interpreter and was employed in that capacity for the rest of his career. His work took him on various missions. Late in the summer of 1759 he went to Oswego, where British forces were gathered for an attack down the St Lawrence. The next year Johnson ordered him to go with the Indians accompanying Robert Rogers to Detroit to “prevent any difference which might arise between our people and them for want of understanding each other.” He travelled there again in 1765 with Wabbicommicot*, who was carrying a message for the nations that had been involved in Pontiac*’s war. When in 1769 rumours of an uprising of Ojibwas, Potawatomis, and Ohio valley Indians began to circulate, de Couagne was sent to investigate.
By 1773 he was rapidly losing his sight. He retired to Montreal and in 1780 was described as “old blind DeCouagne who is here in the Gray Sisters Hospital.” He had so recovered his strength and vision the next spring that he thought of returning to work at Niagara, but there is no evidence that he went. His name was on the Indian department pension list for 1796; “Invalid Interpreter,” he was to receive a dollar a day.
AN, Col., C11A, 97, f.165. PAC, MG 18, O6, p.24; MG 19, F1, 2, pp.161–62; 25, pp.208–9. Coll. des manuscrits de Lévis (Casgrain), VII, 168. Johnson papers (Sullivan et al.). Michigan Pioneer Coll., XXV (1894), 108. Handbook of American Indians (Hodge), I, 405. Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” ANQ Rapport, 1929–30, 378; 1930–31, 367, 383.