The Deschamps Family

"The Greatest Rascals in the World"
 
Steamboat Yellowstone arrives at Fort Union, 1835.
"Fort Union Trading Post: The Steamboat Yellowstone Arriving, 1835" by Robert Black. This modern painting shows the reconstructed Fort William just to the east of Fort Union. The Deschamps and Kipling families lived in Fort William.

NPS

The Deschamps were a Metis, or mixed-blood, family from the Red River Valley of southern Manitoba, Canada. Unlike most Metis, however, the Deschamps were a belligerent, violent, and lawless family. During the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816, Francois Deschamps Sr., the family patriarch, shot and killed Robert Semple, the Governor of Rupert’s Land, the Hudson’s Bay Company–controlled British territory. At the time, Semple lay wounded on the battlefield. By 1827, the family had migrated to the Upper Missouri country.

Once on the Missouri River, the Deschamps found employment with the American Fur Company (AFC) and its rivals. Francois’s three adult sons—Charles, Joseph, and Francois Jr.—worked briefly for Robert Campbell at Fort William, an opposition fur trade post three miles east of Fort Union. Campbell quickly discovered the brothers were troublemakers whom he suspected Fort Union’s bourgeois, Kenneth McKenzie, had recruited as spies. The brothers, Campbell wrote in his journal for November 26, 1833, are “the greatest rascals in the world.”
 
Karl Bodmer's Portrait of Francois Deschamps' Cree Wife.
Karl Bodmer's portrait of Francois Deschamps' Cree Wife. "She is a pretty woman," Prince Maximilian wrote on October 8, 1833, "tattooed below [and at the sides of] her mouth toward her chin with three bluish black lines."

Library of Congress

In October 1834, following a drunken celebration, one of the brothers killed Jack Ram Kipling, the 19-year-old son of a Fort Union hunter and interpreter. Bad blood between the Deschamps and Kiplings had existed for nearly two decades, a hatred Kipling’s son’s murder rekindled. Seven months later, Baptiste Gardipie, Kipling’s friend, became embroiled in the feud when Francois Jr. tried to purchase Gardipie’s American Indian wife for the price of a horse. Rebuffed by an angered Gardipie, Francois Jr. later sought to shoot him through an open window. To end the conflict in July 1835, Gardipie, Kipling’s two sons-in-law, and another AFC employee demanded that the Deschamps make peace or die. Francois Sr. swore he would never make peace. Filled with rage, Gardipie hit Francois Sr. with the butt of his musket and, drawing his knife, sliced open his abdomen. With his father dead, Francois Jr. begged for his life, promising peace.

It didn’t last. The next year, Francois Sr.’s Cree wife, Mother Deschamps, urged her boys to avenge their father’s death. Emboldened by alcohol, one of the brothers shot and killed Jack Ram Kipling on the night of June 28, 1836. For the other AFC employees, this was the final blow. Gathering their muskets and one of Fort Union’s cannons, they descended on Fort William, which by then the AFC had purchased from Campbell and rebuilt a football-field’s length to the east of Fort Union. With their muskets and cannon, the Fort Union’s employees attacked the Deschamps, who had occupied Fort William.

When the daylong firefight ceased at dusk on June 29, six of the ten Deschamps were dead. The survivors included two sisters and two young brothers. One of the sisters was married to AFC employee David D. Mitchell. She and her sister and their five-year-old brother were allowed to travel upriver to Mitchell’s post at For McKenzie. The other, older brother, a pre-teen, was sent to an orphanage in St. Louis, Missouri. At Fort Union, with the Deschamps gone, tensions eased, at least for a while.

Last updated: January 17, 2017

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