Charlotte Kawbawgam, Native American Rights Icon

Charlotte Kawbawgam with her daughter Monee (Mary) around 1860. The child would later die and she and her husband Charlie would adopt two children. Another natural child had also died earlier.

Charlotte Kawbawgam – Marquette County – Michigan

A True Tale of the U.P.

Charlotte Kawbawgam who is pictured above is a U.P. Woman in History. This Marquette area Native American changed the rights of Native Americans in a profound way and has become nearly lost in time. I expect few have heard this story. 

Marji-Gesick, a Chippewa chief, was hired in 1845 by Philo Everett to locate valuable iron ore deposits near Ishpeming, Michigan. The ore was found exposed under an uprooted tree and the Jackson Mining Company was born. He was paid with a certificate of interest entitling him to stock in the company. 

After Marji-Gesick’s death, his daughter, Charlotte Kawbawgam, who was married to Charlie Kawbawgam, the new Chippewa Chief, found the certificate. Charlie and her met in Sault Ste. Marie and were married by the Catholic church. When the Jackson Iron Company refused to recognize her ownership interest, she took the company to court.

The Michigan Supreme Court considered the company’s claim that Charlotte Kawbawgam should not be recognized as Marji-Gesick’s lawful heir because she had been born to one of the three women to whom her father had been married simultaneously. Polygamy was prohibited under Michigan law, but permitted under tribal laws and customs.

The Court decided that since the marriage was valid under Chippewa law, it must be recognized by Michigan’s courts. Charlotte Kawbawgam was declared Marji-Gesick’s lawful heir, inheriting his ownership interest in the Jackson Iron Company. This was a landmark Michigan Supreme Court decision acknowledging that tribal laws and customs govern the legal affairs of Native American families.

Charlotte, who eventually went blind, remained married to Charlie for over 50 years and they lived in a house on Presque Isle in Marquette. The pair are buried in Presque Isle Park and their gravesite is still marked there.

The story of Marji-Gesick, Charlotte Kawbawgam, and the Jackson Iron Company is immortalized in “Laughing Whitefish,” a book authored by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker under his pen name, Robert Traver.

To learn more about Charlie and Charlotte Kawbawgam, the recently released “Kawbawgam,” by Tyler Tichler explores their life much more in depth. It is a U.P. Notable Book.

If you would like to see more pictures from my historical photograph collection, go here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikel_classen/sets/72157630887269582/

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