Father Augustin Ravoux

Jan. 11, 1815-Jan. 17, 1906
In Prairie des Français (Later Shakopee) in 1844

by David R. Schleper

Father Augustin Ravoux

Fr. Augustin Ravoux was born on January 11, 1815, in Auvergne, France.[1] He was one of seven seminarians recruited to America. Fr. Ravoux faced many difficulties. There were no developed roads, and he nearly drowned in the Mississippi on a trip to Dubuque, and nearly died of thirst crossing the prairies to Ft. Pierre. He was ordained in Dubuque, Iowa in January 1840.[2]

He was assigned to St. Gabriel’s in Prairie du Chien, but in September of 1841, Fr. Ravoux was asked to visit various outposts in the northern part of the diocese in Minnesota and Dakota Territories to see if a mission for the Indians might be established.[3]

Fr. Ravoux, a subdeacon, and others, went up the Mississippi and reached its juncture with the Rivière Saint-Pierre (St. Peter’s River). He found Catholic families living in Mendota, at that time in Iowa Territory, just across the valley from Fort Snelling, which was in Wisconsin Territory.[4]

Fr. Ravoux quickly realized he would have little success in converting the Dakota Indians unless he could converse directly with him. Luckily, Jean-Baptiste Faribault, his wife, Elizabeth Pelagie Airse (who was half Dakota) and their two sons, Oliver and David, encouraged him. They spoke fluent English and Dakota, as well as French. During the winter of 1842 and early 1843, Fr. Ravoux joined Jean-Baptiste, Elizabeth, Oliver, and David at Little Prairie, now Chaska, Minnesota.

According to Ravoux, he spent the winter of 1842-1843 with Faribaults at “La Petite Prairie” where they had a trading post occupied by their families and a few others. A prolific and influential French Canadian trader who had an established trading post in Little Prairie (present-day Chaska), was an ardent proselytizer and invited Ravoux to his post to continue his linguistic studies. They were very cordial to Fr. Ravoux, and David began to teach him the Dakota language. The Minnesota Handbook by Parker (1857) spoke of Oliver Faribault’s “extensive” trading house at Chaska, settled “primarily by Canadians, most of whom left with him” sometime before Holmes’s arrival in 1851.[5]

No maps show the post, and fur trade records consulted refer vaguely to posts “at” Little Rapids, which may or may not have included Little Prairie (Chaska). When the speculators bought up Thomas A. Holmes’s claims in Chaska, they found the site already cleared, with evidence of prior occupation and cultivation. Strawberries and asparagus were abundant; there were “indications of a garden and quite extensive buildings having once existed near the bend of the river.” Later excavations on the sites turned up artifacts, including gun parts and iron tools, suggesting a prior European occupation, possibly of late eighteenth century vintage.[6]

This would probably be the Little Rapids trading post established by Jean-Baptiste Faribault of the Machilimackinac Fur Company and the Northwest Fur Company, which was visited by fur traders, Dakota Indians, and Christian missionaries over the next 45 years. The Wahpeton Village, ca. 1800-1851, was above the rapids, and the Lewis and Clark map of 1806 showed a “Sioux” village on the west bank of the Rivière Saint-Pierre (St. Peter’s River), near Carver.[7] The Minnesota Democrat in 1852 noted in passing that Chaska “is an old but abandoned Sioux town site.”

Thomas A. Holmes’s 1851 license allowed him to establish a trading post near there. The site would be well-suited to native settlement because its access to the river and position on the Can ki-yu-te O-can-Ka and the tinta (or the big woods and the prairie transitional zone). The Faribault Trading Post in Chaska probably would be somewhere inside the existing levee.

Fr. Ravoux said that he was amazed how easily he mastered the Dakota language, and that it was so much harder when he had learned Latin and Greek. With Jean-Baptiste Faribault and the family helping, Fr. Ravoux started learning the language. He translated and published a little devotional work, Katolik Wocekiye Wowapi Kin, or The Path to the House of God.[8] The book was translated from French to Dakota by Alexander Faribault and his brothers Oliver and David.[9]

Jean-Baptiste urged the priest to establish a permanent Roman Catholic mission at the site.[10] Details about the short-lived mission are scanty. Fr. Ravoux built a small log cabin and named the parish St. Francis Xavier.[11] The mission was almost certainly located near the Faribault compound at Little Prairie. It is more likely that he stayed with the Faribaults, rather than in the nearby Wahpeton village. The Wahpeton village was located between Chaska and present-day Carver.[12] The dimensions of the chapel were 15 x 30 feet.[13] Presumably, it was of log construction, similar or identical to the Faribault Trading Post. It was probably built in the style of la maison en pièce sur piècela, or a cabin but of hewn logs, laid horizontally.

The chapel was located for a very short time in Little Rapids. Then, when Oliver Faribault and Wakan Yanke moved to Prairie des Français (French Prairie), also known as Tiŋta-otoŋwe, Fr. Ravoux also moved the chapel there. It was probably located close to the Faribault Trading Post, near the Springs later called Faribault Springs. The Dakota Indians saw the European immigration as a threat, and so the Dakota threatened to burn the chapel down within the year.[14] As a result, the chapel was sold to the German Catholics in Wabashah in 1844.[15] Ravoux departed in the spring of 1844, never to return.

The chapel was placed on a raft and floated down the Rivière Saint-Pierre, and was set up on the point where Main Street was terminated in Wabashaw in 1844.[16] (It was called Wabashaw until 1868, where mapmakers and publishers abandoned the letter “w” in the name.) This was the first building for Catholic religious purposes ever erected in Wabashaw. It was used for this purpose for several years, but then went into disuse as a church edifice, probably because of the result of the irregularity of religious services there. The log building was then used for secular purposes. The first newspaper printed in Wabashaw was printed in this building. Later, a school was taught in this place. Finally, the log chapel succumbed to civilization, and today, traces of the old church are obliterated.

Fr. Ravoux described his life as a frontier priest with rich understatement: “Though ever pleased with the mission entrusted to my care by Divine Providence, the path I had to walk in was not always strewn with flowers.”[17]

Fr. Augustin Ravoux died on January 17, 1906.[18]

[1] Coffin, Cindy K. “Fr. Augustin Ravoux (1815-1906).” Find a Grave, 11 Feb. 2011, www.findagrave.com/memorial/65691836.

[2] Luban, Marianne. Lucien Galtier-Pioneer Priest. Pacific Moon Publications, 2nd ed., 2011.

[3] “Augustin Ravoux.” Wikipedia, 18 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustin_Ravoux.

[4] Scanlan, Dr. P.R.; Arr. Father U. Killacky. Centennial History of St. Gabriel’s Parish: Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Crawford County Press, 1936.

[5] Parker, Nathan Howe. The Minnesota Handbook for 1856-1857, 1857.

[6] Neill, Edward Duffield. History of the Minnesota Valley: Including the Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota. North Star Publishing Company, 1892.

[7] Spector, Janet D. What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993.

[8] Katolik Wocekiye. Brown & Saenger, 1890. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, lccn.loc.gov/06010756.

[9] Ravoux, Augustin. The Labors of Mgr. A. Ravoux Among the Sioux or Dakota Indians: From the Fall of the Year 1841 to the Spring of 1844. Pioneer Press Company, 1897.

[10] Barac, LaVonne E. Chaska: A Minnesota River City. Chaska Bicentennial Committee, 1976.

[11] Luban, Marianne. Lucien Galtier-Pioneer Priest. Pacific Moon Publications, 2nd ed., 2011.

[12] Holcombe, R. I. Compendium of History and Biography of Carver and Hennepin Counties, Minnesota. H. Taylor & Company, 1914.

[13] Coller, Julius A., II. The Shakopee Story. North Star Pictures, Inc., 1960, p. 13.

[14] Coller, Julius A., II. The Shakopee Story. North Star Pictures, Inc., 1960, p. 13.

[15] Holcombe, R. I. Compendium of History and Biography of Carver and Hennepin Counties, Minnesota. H. Taylor & Company, 1914.

[16] St. Felix Church History. uploads.weconnect.com/mce/dc543d2abbb092d676b4e412354e0d2e0d7bf91b/St.%20Felix%20Church%20History.pdf

[17] Luban, Marianne. Lucien Galtier-Pioneer Priest. Pacific Moon Publications, 2nd ed., 2011.

[18] Coffin, Cindy K. “Fr. Augustin Ravoux (1815-1906).” Find a Grave, 11 Feb. 2011, www.findagrave.com/memorial/65691836.

Revised May 10, 2018.

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