TESSOUAT (Besouat), Algonkin chief of Allumette Island; fl. 1603–13.
Tessouat was probably the Besouat who, as leader of an Algonkin party, had joined the Montagnais under Anadabijou and the Etchemins to defeat a band of Iroquois at the mouth of the River of the Iroquois (Richelieu) in 1603. A few days after Champlain’s arrival on the St. Lawrence (29 May 1603) he and François Gravé Du Pont attended the victory celebrations of this battle. Tessouat (Besouat) was seated in front of the women and girls and between two poles on which hung the scalps of the enemy. From time to time he arose to address the assembly.
Tessouat was a chief of considerable influence because of the strategic location of his tribe on Allumette Island, now Morrison Island, between Upper and Lower Allumette lakes (near Pembroke, Ontario). Rapids necessitating a portage surrounded this island and blocked the route of the Huron and other northern tribes to the St. Lawrence by way of the Ottawa River. It was Indian custom to recognize the rights of other tribes in matters of travel and trade, and not even the much stronger Hurons would pass the island without the consent of the inhabitants or without paying the required customs. Thus it was in the power of Tessouat virtually to control the flow of trade on the Ottawa River.
In 1613 Champlain journeyed to Tessouat’s island, where a Frenchman Nicolas de Vignau, had spent the previous winter and had reported having travelled from there to the shores of the “Northern Sea” (Hudson Bay). Champlain’s aims were threefold: to establish friendly relations with Tessouat, to promise military support against the Iroquois, and to continue with the aid of Tessouat’s people to the land of the Nebicerini (Nipissings), whom Vignau had told him lived on the Northern Sea.
A feast was held at Tessouat’s home. Then a council of elders met and after having “smoked plentifully” in silence for half an hour they received Champlain’s request to be taken to the Nebicerini. This they refused and, although several reasons were advanced, the “Island” Indians were hereby introducing the policy, from which they never faltered, of hindering French advances toward other tribes that might reduce their own influential role in the practice of the fur trade.
The goodwill of Tessouat’s tribe, therefore, was essential to the French. They were invited by Champlain to come to Sault-Saint-Louis (Lachine rapids) to trade, where there were four ships loaded with merchandise. They were, in fact, urged to move their village to the rapids, where Champlain promised to found a French settlement, a plan that they approved, saying that they lived on poor land because they had been forced there by their enemy, the Iroquois. In making this suggestion, Champlain probably had in mind that a friendly band of proven enemies of the Iroquois would provide a protective barrier for a French settlement at this important trading site.
Champlain described the cemeteries on Allumette Island. Upright boards bore the face of the person buried, rudely carved. For a man, there was also a shield, a sword-handle, a club, or bows and arrows; for a chief, a bunch of feathers; for a child, a bow and arrow; for a woman or girl, a kettle, earthen vessel, wooden spoon, and paddle. They were painted red and yellow “with various decorations as fine as the carving.” In the gardens he noted “pumpkins, beans and peas like ours, which they are beginning to grow.”
Before his departure from the island, Champlain erected a cross of white cedar, bearing the arms of France, as he had done from place to place along his route. He promised to return the following year when Tessouat agreed to provide large numbers of men to join him on the war-path.
Tessouat and Champlain parted with mutual respect, for Champlain writes of him “as the kind old chief,” and Tessouat permitted his own son to accompany Champlain to Quebec.
Sagard mentions a “Le Borgne of the Island,” an Algonkin chief, being present at Trois-Rivières in 1617. This may have been Tessouat, or Besouat, or a successor, as the name Le Borgne seems to have been given to chiefs of this island whose names were variants of Tessouat, i.e., Tesouehat, Tesswehas.