NOLIN, JEAN-BAPTISTE, fur trader and militia officer; b. c. 1742; d. August 1826 in St Boniface (Man.).
Jean-Baptiste Nolin first came to prominence in 1777 when in partnership with Venance Lemaire, dit Saint-Germain, he purchased the trading post at Michipicoten (Michipicoten River, Ont.) from Alexander Henry the elder for 15,000 livres. The partners employed four or five men there for the next three years. Because the American revolution disrupted shipments of trade goods from Montreal, the business was only moderately successful. By 1781 Nolin had given up the post and gone to Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.). For several years he travelled between Michilimackinac and Sault Ste Marie (Mich.), finally settling at the Sault by the late 1780s.
During the next 30 years Nolin and fur trader John Johnston dominated the economic and social life of the Sault, gateway to the upper country. Nolin was the agent there for the North West Company, acting as middleman for shipments from Montreal, and providing salted fish for voyageurs and for settlers at Michilimackinac and Detroit. In 1806 the Michilimackinac Company [see John Ogilvy*] took over the NWC’s role of furnishing Nolin with trade goods and Nolin probably acted as its agent. In the early 1790s NWC clerk John McDonald* of Garth, visiting the Sault, referred to Nolin and Johnston as “the principal persons here.” Like Johnston, Nolin married an Ojibwa. His wife, Marie-Angélique, was the daughter of voyageur Joseph-Victor Couvret and Marie-Charlotte, a Sault Ojibwa. Some of the Métis offspring of both the Nolin and Johnston families were educated in Montreal. In 1794, through the influence of his wife, Nolin acquired a large strip of land at Sault Ste Marie, adjacent to the rear of the old fort built in 1752 by Louis Legardeur* de Repentigny.
During the War of 1812 the population at the Sault followed the example of most traders and Indians in the pays d’en haut by siding with the British. Johnston, Nolin, and Charles Oakes Ermatinger were appointed militia captains. Because of illness, Nolin did not participate in the assault led by Captain Charles Roberts* on the American post at Michilimackinac in July 1812, but two of his sons went along in command of Ojibwa warriors. In reports of the action, Augustin Nolin was praised for keeping order among the Indians.
Gabriel Franchère* visited the Sault in the summer of 1814 and mentioned that both Johnston and Nolin lived on the south, or American side, of the St Marys River. Nolin had at that time three sons and three daughters; one of the girls was “passably pretty.” Franchère was impressed with Nolin’s home, furniture, and other marks of prosperity. Ermatinger lived on the north side of the river, in a house belonging to Nolin.
Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] met Nolin at the Sault in 1816, and for some years afterwards urged him and his family to move to the Red River settlement (Man.). Nolin’s son Louis served as interpreter at Red River from 1815 to 1817, and by 1818 he and his brother Augustin, now both there, reported to Lord Selkirk that their father was considering the idea. Selkirk wrote to Alexander MacDonell, administrator of the colony, that “such a Settler must be a great acquisition” and he went far beyond his normal practices, showering the Nolin family with inducements. Jean-Baptiste would be given a “free hand” in setting up a trading post, and several Nolins were promised land grants, including a home “as close to the church as possible.” Before leaving for England in November 1818, Selkirk wrote to fur trader Robert Dickson, stating that Nolin’s decision to move to Red River was firm. “I am particularly desirous that he should meet with no impediment in conveying in so fine a lot of daughters, who may help to fix some of our Meurons more firmly to the soil of R. R.”
Nolin sold his Sault interests to Ermatinger and in 1819 moved his family to the Selkirk colony, to the post at Pembina (N.Dak.). Selkirk died in 1820, but his promises to the Nolin family were honoured. Jean-Baptiste and Augustin received their land grants, and Louis again served as interpreter. When a resolution of respect for the late Earl of Selkirk was passed at Fort Daer (Pembina) early in 1821, Jean-Baptiste and Augustin Nolin were among the notables who signed.
By 1823 events had altered life in the Red River settlement. The NWC had become part of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, bringing an end to their ruinous quarrels. John Halkett*, administrator of the Selkirk estate, closed the HBC post at Pembina, now in United States territory, in order to concentrate the settlers on British land to the north and to protect them from the Sioux. Most of the Métis at Pembina, including the Nolin family, moved north to St Boniface.
In August 1826 Francis Heron, an HBC employee at Fort Garry (Winnipeg), reported that “Old Nolin is at length become a lodger with the Bishop.” For the past few years, Roman Catholic bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher* had urged Nolin’s daughter Angélique to become a teacher of the local Métis, but Nolin was opposed. In a letter to Archbishop Joseph-Octave Plessis of Quebec in early 1826 Provencher explained Nolin’s resistance: “He has all sorts of petty excuses, but above all he does not wish that his daughter be a servant. It is certainly not the status that I wish to give her.”
Having resisted to the end, Nolin died at Provencher’s home in August 1826 and was buried on 23 August; his age was given as 84. With Nolin out of the way, Provencher’s hopes became reality. In 1829 the first school for girls in western Canada was opened at St Boniface, with Angélique and Marguerite Nolin as teachers. The students were mostly daughters of French and Cree or Ojibwa parents.
The Nolin family was prominent on the Red River frontier in economic, political, and educational activities. One of Jean-Baptiste’s grandsons, Charles Nolin*, was a power in the Red River troubles of 1869–70, but disagreed with Metis leader Louis Riel* over the use of violence during the North-West rebellion of 1885.
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