When the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the Northwest Company in 1821, the Metis began to feel increasingly frustrated and resentful. They were being governed by people who weren’t even resident there and therefore did not have the intrinsic right to control the fur market. Many continued to obtain furs directly from the Indians and bartered them to the Americans in St.Paul, Minnesota. A trading post had been set up in Pembina by the American Fur Company, where the price of furs was much more generous.
In 1845, unrest had grown to a point where petitions were sent first to the Governor and then to England with James Sinclair. The documents were presented to the British government by Alexander Isbister, a Scots Metis lawyer but to no avail. HBC Governor, George Simpson attempted to stop “illicit” trading, even going so far as to search homes and impose an import duty on American products. Soon, the colony was placed under martial law.
In 1849 four men were charged with illegally trafficking furs, including Pierre Sayer. Jean-Louis Riel, father to Louis and a community activist, set up a committee to respond to the charges. He was joined by James Sinclair and Andrew McDermot two of the most prominent private traders in the settlement. Several hundred armed Metis gathered on the grounds of St. Boniface Cathedral to listen to Riel’s rallying cry, afterwards crossing the river to congregate in front of the court-house. Some went into the courtroom and some into the jury box, all armed.
The trial proceeded in front of the Governor and Chief Factor of Fort Garry, John Ballenden . The jury found Sayer guilty but recommended mercy since the Metis had been encouraged to trade along the border line but not specifically with whom. Since their was no direct evidence against Sayer and there was a huge armed gathering outside, Ballenden decided prudently, to drop the charges against the other three men as well as Sayer.
The declaration of free trade and liberty led to increased trade with the Americans at Pembina and St. Paul. Hundreds of carts carrying the products of the fur trade, pemmican, buffalo robes and hides, tallow saddles, embroidered coats and moccasins would make the 1000 kilometre trip each year until the buffalo died out. Most of these were created by the labour of Metis women.
Once again we see the solidarity which helped form the identity of a people with their own culture and way of life.
Note: Said Louis Riel Sr. was married to Julie Lagimodiere, my 4th great-aunt and mother of Louis Riel, famed Metis martyr. According to some, the Riel name had its origins in Ireland as Reilly and was transmuted to Riel after the “Flight of the Wild Geese”. The Flight of the Wild Geese was the departure of an Irish Jacobite army under the command of Patrick Sarsfield from Ireland to France in 1691. There the army disbanded and Reilly joined the ranks of Louis XIV possibly calling himself Riel by then.
Riel came to Canada as part of the Carignan Salieres regiment and decided to stay in Quebec. Eventually, the family wound its way to Saskatchewan where Riel Sr. was born and then to Manitoba where Louis Riel the son, was born . Through Julie, Louis was my 1st cousin 4X removed. It is still hard for me to imagine the great sorrow that the family endured at their loss. Of course, the Lagimodiere family has its own story too.
I do remember my mother telling me that one of my grandmother’s ancestors was the first white woman in the west. That would be Marie Anne Gaboury, Jean Baptist Lagimodiere’s wife. There is definitely an enduring pioneering attitude and history on both sides of my family, more on that later.