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The Wisconsin History Spot: Rosalie Marie Laborde Dousman, ‘A Lady of Great Merit’

By Melinda Anne Roberts
Hobby historian and “Little Wisconsin” author

Editor’s note: History is all around us. Over the centuries, important people in our backyard visited significant places in pursuit of noble endeavors. Most of these people are now forgotten, and most of these places glanced over with nary a thought. The Wisconsin History Spot is a monthly column that will shine a light on these people and places and the impact they made on the area.

DE PERE – Married at 12 to a man 10 years her senior, Rosalie Marie Laborde Dousman settled at Rapides de De Pere in 1810 with her American husband.

Widowed at 29 with a newborn and six children, she established herself as a teacher to the Menominee, and was gifted the Pope’s own rosary for her tireless, compassionate work.

Laborde Dousman was born Feb. 1, 1796, on Mackinac Island, before Michigan was a territory, the oldest of six children.

Her mother was Marguerite Machar Chevalier, the daughter of an Ojibwa (Chippewa) woman.

Her father was Jean Baptiste LaBorde, a French-Canadian who ran a supplies schooner for the Northwest Fur Company.

When Rosalie was 10 she was sent to a convent school run by Ursuline sisters, the first Catholic nuns in the new world who arrived in Canada the summer of 1639 to “Christianize native peoples and Métis” (usually children of Native women and European men).

On the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the school was over 100 years old at the time. There Rosalie studied Christianity and learned how to read and write.

She returned to Mackinac Island in 1808 to marry John Dousman, a German-American who worked in the fur trade with his brother, Michael, father to Hercules L. Dousman, Wisconsin’s first millionaire; his mansion, Villa Louis, in Prairie du Chein, is a National Historic Landmark and a Wisconsin Historical Society Historic Site.

Rosalie was just 12; John was 22.

In 1810 they moved to Green Bay and settled on the Fox River near the abandoned Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, built the winter of 1671-72 by Father Claude Allouez at Rapides De Pere.

Two hundred fifty people lived in Green Bay at the time, and John was the first and only American.

The Dousmans established a distillery, a grist mill, and a sawmill. John did some fur trading with Michael.

The couple lived a comfortable life. Their first child, Jane, was born June 17, 1812.

When the War of 1812 broke out, a plot was made to kill John because he was American. Some Menominee friends warned him and offered to deliver him safely to Mackinac.

After a quick, affectionate goodbye, John reluctantly left Rosalie and baby Jane behind, confident that because Rosalie had Ojibwe blood the Menominee would not harm her.

When the Menominee arrived, they were furious to find John gone. They ransacked the home, burned the buildings and killed the livestock. They decided to kill baby Jane in John’s stead, but Rosalie had hidden her in a cistern.

The Menominee did not find Jane, and eventually left.

John’s friend, Col. Joseph Ducharme, escorted Rosalie and Jane to Mackinac Island to rejoin John.

John served with the Americans in the War of 1812. When the British captured Mackinac Island they took John prisoner. When the Americans retook the island, John was released.

While John was stationed at Detroit, Rosalie nursed wounded American soldiers.

After the war, the couple stayed on Mackinac Island where John became an associate justice of the peace. He joined the Roman Catholic Church, and their marriage was affirmed.

Over the next 10 years the Dousmans had five more children.

In 1824, the family returned to Green Bay and settled at Shantytown, which stretched from about where Heritage Hill is now to Allouez Avenue. The area had grown.

Predominately French and Catholic, there were now more Americans and nearly 5,000 Native Americans, mostly Menominee.

Rosalie was pregnant and John’s health was failing. He died at age 39, before his daughter was born.

Widowed at 29 with seven children was difficult for Rosalie, but she had some resources and purchased 80 acres of land in what is now Bellevue.

Area Laborde family members also helped out. When Father Samuel Mazzuchelli arrived in Green Bay, it was to create a mission to “Christianize” the Native Americans.

Because of Rosalie’s Urusuline training and because she spoke Ojibwe, Father Mazzuchelli hired her to direct his Indian School.

She was paid $7 per month, a good salary at the time. She taught there for three years.

At 50, Rosalie went with Father Florimond Bonduel (1799/1800-1861) and three of her daughters to educate the Menominee at Lake Poygan.

She taught her students English, reading and writing, Christianity, and cultural tools to deal with the white settlers whose political and military power were overtaking the tribe.

Father Bonduel called Rosalie Dousman a “lady of great merit.”

In Rome, Father Bonduel asked the Pope to send her a Medal of the Immaculate Conception – manifested by the Virgin Mary to St. Catherine Labouré on Nov. 27, 1830, in Paris (known today as the Miraculous Medal).

Instead, the Pope took his own rosary, blessed it, and gave it to Father Bonduel to deliver to Rosalie.

Rosalie Marie Laborde Dousman was a constant and comforting presence among the Menominee for 30 years.
She retired from teaching in 1869, but remained on at Keshena.

She died at 76 on November 18, 1872. Her body was brought to Green Bay where she was buried alongside John at Allouez Cemetery

Jane never married, and carried on her mother’s work with the Menominee. She died in 1882 and was buried with her parents.

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