Manitoba History: Review: D. N. Sprague and R. P. Frye, The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation: The Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement, 1820-1900

by Stewart Raby
Federation of Saskatchewan Indians

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation: The Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement, 1820-1900. Compiled by D. N. Sprague and R. P. Frye, introduction by D. N. Sprague. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1983. xxxviii, c.240 pp. ISBN 0-919143-34-2.

The subtitle of this book seems to promise a work on the history of the Red River Settlement in the nineteenth century. Instead, there is a brief introductory account offered “for general background.” This is accompanied by references, maps and illustrations. What interpretations are given, on contentions such as the causes of the Métis diaspora, are simply asserted, not argued. There is no communication of other thought. Six long tables of statistics follow, preceded by a few scant notes on their derivation, deficiencies and utility. Two cases are cited to illustrate what may be achieved through work on the tables. Thus, basic data on Michael Lambert and his family, their locations and economic status are drawn together. An atypical case of continuity and stability is demonstrated in this family’s history throughout almost a century. Lateral kin and affine relations are the topic of a second case, this time illuminating the linkages between Louis Riel’s and other families at Red River. The deductions derived here from the statistical data about Riel’s mediative possibilities within the society’s class structure are chiefly non sequiturs.

What do the tables contain, since essentially the book is a collection of tables? The first gives heads of families of Red River households between 1818-70, and cites race, birthplace, dates (and identification numbers) for each person listed, male and female. Data are taken from the Selkirk and HBC censuses, with some of their deficiencies rectified through surviving church registers, particularly those of Roman Catholic parishes. To all these sources are added materials from affidavits taken by the Dominion in 1875 from married Métis seeking scrip, from the families of Selkirk settlers and later, Canadian immigrants. Finally, with incorporation of data from Archibald’s census, we are promised “a nearly complete tabulation of all marriage units that were found in—or related to—persons in the Red River Colony” for the period cited. Unfortunately, much has to be taken on trust by users of this, as of other of the tables; there is far less critique of the reliability, coverage, import and compatibilities of the data than must surely be known to the compilers.

A second table lists families awarded land by Selkirk and the HBC, as recorded for 1835, and referenced by their locations as of the 1870s resurveys. Some personal property is listed by family. Table 3 cites the HBC employees given formal contracts as servants of the Company between 1821-70, showing tasks and dates of first contracts and of retirements. As is noted, the dominantly casual employment of native people is thus not caught. Table 4 uses the 1870 census to link individual family heads (with their identification numbers) with spatial locations and offspring, also giving the latter’s names and ages. There follows a tabulation which collates the Dominion Land Surveyor’s notes of the 1870s on occupants, locations and areas with data on registered and non-registered patents. The whole thereby indicates formal recognitions of riverlot ownership by the new Canadian government. Finally, statistics are culled from the records of the Half-Breed Commissions. The table lists the claims al-lowed from those individuals born in the Territories after 1870 of parents found in that year’s census in Manitoba: these data “document the scope of the general pattern of dispersal.”

Much disparate material is assembled and some cross-referencing facilitated. Further testing will increase awareness of the data’s strengths and weaknesses. With increased confidence about this, theorizing about the sociological and economic history of the settlement can be grounded in, and measured against, a welcome degree of empirical evidence in a form which can quickly be marshalled by machine. At the same time, statistical and oral data from later periods can be integrated into a ready-made body of trustworthy antecedents. This holds the prospect, finally, for that history of the Nation which is yet unwritten. It will, unfortunately, be a long time before the same can be said of the Indian nations and their lands.

Oddly for a book of statistics, most of the work’s pages lack numbers, and the settlement map is not scaled.

Métis cart train, circa 1870. Photo by F. J. Haynes.
Source: Archives of Manitoba