Louis Riel’s Land Claims
by Thomas Flanagan
Is there anything left to be said about Louis Riel? George Stanley’s political biography still stands up well after almost thirty years.  Gilles Martel and Thomas Flanagan have illuminated Riel’s interpretation of himself as a divinely inspired prophet  and the same authors, together, with Glen Campbell, have made Riel’s poetry accessible.  Indeed, all of Riel’s writings have now been published,  and the centennial observance of 1985 brought a spate of books on the North-West Rebellion.  So much research has been done about Riel that historians now find it necessary to indulge in that navel-gazing exercise known as “the review of the literature.” 
One question about Riel’s life that remains unexplored is how he made a living. Even politicians, prophets, and poets have to eat and put bread on the table for their families. Riel read law briefly with Rodolphe Laflamme in Montreal in the spring of 1866; he worked, perhaps in a store, in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the years 1866-1868; he was a petty trader in Montana, following the last buffalo herds, in 1879-1883; and he taught school at the Sun River Jesuit Mission in 1883-1884. Other than in these periods, he did not work for wages or salary, so how did he support himself and his family?
There were times when he was maintained by institutions, as when he was an inmate of insane asylums or was imprisoned. Apart from these episodes, he often stayed for long periods with relatives and friends, such as his uncle John Lee in Montreal; Father Fabien Barnabe in Keeseville, New York; Edmond Mallet in Washington, D.C.; Normand Gingras in St. Joseph, Dakota; and Charles Nolin and Moise Ouellette in Batoche. He also received money from various sources: $1000 from John A. Macdonald in 1872 to leave the country; gifts and loans from relatives, friends, and sympathizers; and collections from public meetings.
All this is well known. What is new is the realization that Riel also made money by buying and selling land in Manitoba. By comparing the sometimes enigmatic references to land in Riel’s personal papers with the official records of the federal Department of the Interior and the Manitoba land titles offices, I have derived an account of Riel’s land transactions. They began in 1869, carried on through 1885, and indeed did not end until 1903, when Riel’s son sold the last piece of his father’s land. Some of these transactions have been mentioned in passing in other works on Riel, but this is the first time that the whole body of information has been assembled and systematically related to Riel’s biography. 
Riel did not deal in real estate on a large scale. He had an interest in seven or eight pieces of land and tried to act as an agent for a few claimants to Métis scrip. This hardly matches the activities of such contemporaries as Donald A. Smith, John C. Schultz, A. G. B. Bannatyne, or N.-J. Ritchot who bought and sold hundreds of pieces of Manitoba land and scrip.  Riel would not even merit a footnote in a history of Manitoba land speculation. But his transactions were important in the course of his own life. He was chronically short of cash, and sale of his lands was his main way of trying to raise money. This article will tell the story of Riel’s land dealings and speculate on how they may have influenced his life. We can get a fuller account of Riel’s career by correlating his financial circumstances with his public actions.
This financial context was as much familial as individual. After the death of his father in 1864, Riel, who was the oldest of nine children, was morally, if not legally, the head of the family. His mother consulted him about transactions concerning the family property at St. Vital 50 and 51, even though it was registered in her name rather than his. St. Boniface 103, which seems to have been considered Riel’s personal property, had once belonged to his father, and the signatures of other family members were required to sell it. Riel’s other land claims were sold by family members acting with his power of attorney. Although the documentary sources are not usually precise about the amounts, it is clear that Riel, his mother, and his brother, sisters, and in-laws gave and loaned substantial amounts of money among themselves. Some of the profits of Riel’s land transactions must have gone to help others in his family, just as they used their property to help him in hard times.
Another preliminary note is in order. The amounts of money discussed here will seem absurdly small to a modern reader, but they must be kept in the setting of the nineteenth century. During Riel’s lifetime, normal workman’s wages were about $1.00 or $1.25 a day. A steady government job like postman or prison guard might bring in $400 to $600 a year.  Federal deputy ministers made between $3000 and $4000 a year during the 1870s and 1880s. In this context, selling a piece of land for, say, $400 brought in a significant amount of money, enough to support oneself for a year or more.
Riel acquired his first land on January 23, 1869, when he purchased the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) lot 794 from Francois Lariviere. This lot, four chains wide and about 80 acres in area, was adjacent to the Riel family lot in St. Vital (HBC 793); both ran from the Red River on the west to the Seine River on the east. They were later consolidated as St. Vital 51 in the Dominion Lands survey. Riel agreed to pay the picturesque price of “un boeuf de 2 ans faits allant sur 3, 100 lbs de boeuf; 22 boulins de tremble et une peau verte.”  A new contract was drawn up June 24 of the same year with a money purchase price of £2 payable in September, £2 on All Saints Day, and £2, 5 shillings on New Year’s Day 1870.  It is possible, however, that the new contract was never honoured. The document was not witnessed, and Lariviere later spoke of the land as having been sold in January rather than June 1869. 
Also in 1869, Riel began to acquire “staked claims.” As early as the 1850s, the inhabitants of the Red River Colony had started to occupy land beyond the 1542 lots surveyed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Settlers went further south along the Red River, founding a settlement at Pointe a Grouette that became the nucleus of Ste. Agathe, and they also moved out to the banks of the lesser rivers, staking claims and founding small settlements on the Seine, Oak, Rat, and Salle Rivers.  Sometimes a family would move all at once to the new land, but more often the migration was gradual, sometimes almost imperceptible. A man might stake a claim but do little with it for some time. Depending on the type of land, he might cut timber or hay, collect maple syrup, or pasture livestock for years before he would build a year-round habitation.
Customary usage ruled these claims. They were marked with blazes on trees, stakes in the ground, or a furrow plowed around the edge of the lot. Claimants often erected a square of logs that could serve as a crude house if a roof were added. One could achieve greater security by hiring the colony’s surveyor, Roger Goulet, to mark off the claim, and some took this precaution; but many were willing to trust that their neighbours would recognize their physical signs of possession.
This expansion outside the formally surveyed part of the Colony was motivated by population pressure, manifesting itself not so much through shortage of land as through shortage of hay and timber. Years of drought had dried out the marshy haylands near the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and much of the riverbank forest had long ago been cut for building, fencing, and heating. In 1869, this long-term economic push was accelerated by the realization that the Hudson’s Bay Company would sell Rupert’s Land to Canada, that immigration would make land more valuable, and that newcomers would soon be trying to claim lands for themselves.
Sometime in 1869, Riel staked a claim at the east end of what later became the parish of Lorette. It was described as follows by Roger Goulet when he investigated the Lorette claims in 1875:
For reasons that are unclear, Riel’s claim was not incorporated into the river-lot survey of the parish of Lorette. But George McPhillips, the Dominion Lands Surveyor, was aware of it, as shown by the illustration on page 5, a drawing from his field notes. “Logs crossed,” wrote McPhillips in 1877 in his notebook, “to mark claim of heirs of the late Riel.”  (His reference to the “heirs of the late Riel,” i.e., Riel’s father, suggests that other members of the family were involved in the claim in a way not revealed by the available sources.)
In the register of river lots in Lorette, McPhillips described Riel’s claim as “Claim E,” lying just outside the limits of the parish:
Riel was aware that the criteria for possession of land would be different under Canadian law than under the custom of the country that had prevailed in Red River. He wrote to his mother on May 17, 1872, when he was in St. Paul, Minnesota:
The reference to “lac a Norman” is obscure, but the other details show that Riel was writing about his claim near Lorette. Andre Nault had claims of his own nearby, so it would not have been inconvenient for him to plow a couple of acres for Riel. The mention of a canal is also indicative. Riel’s claim, according to Roger Goulet, lay near the “big swamp” that was the source of the Seine River. A canal to drain the land had already been dug near Riel’s claim by 1877 when McPhillips did the river-lot survey of Lorette.  Riel’s reference to a possible canal shows understanding of factors affecting the value of land, just as his request to plant a couple of acres shows awareness of the Interior Department’s emphasis on positive signs of occupation.
In 1869 or 1870, Riel also staked a claim on the upper reaches of the Salle River, not far from the modern village of Starbuck. This area, long frequented by the Métis for wood and water, lay along an old trail to the Missouri River. To judge from the names of the claimants written on the map, Riel went out with a group of friends and relatives from St. Vital to stake these claims (Paul Proulx was a cousin, as were all the members of the Nault family).
The map printed on page 9 was drawn by Roger Goulet as part of an investigation of the Salle River claims. Although the Department of the Interior recognized these claims, it did not survey the area into river lots. It satisfied the claims by granting pieces of land similar to the claims in size and located along the river but described within the square survey system. 
Between 1870 and 1873, Riel also acquired three more river lots by purchase. Unfortunately, we do not know exactly when he bought the lots or how much he paid for them; all information about them must be inferred from statements in documents relating to their resale several years later.
One of these lots had once belonged to Riel’s father. This was HBC 756, relabelled St. Boniface 103 in the Dominion Lands Survey. It was a small lot, only 22.8 acres, but potentially valuable because of its central location. The Company had given it to Louis Riel pere in spring 1852 in connection with his proposal to build a flour mill. The HBC Land Register B contains this note: “Transferred by the Co[mpany] to Louis Rielle dit Irlande to be paid in flour in spring ‘55. Permission given to Louis Rielle to form a canal 9 miles long to his mill through certain lots mentioned below ...”  It appears, however, that Riel pere built his mill on HBC 793 in St. Vital and never resided on HBC 756.  Sometime after the father’s death in 1864, his widow, Julie Riel, sold the lot to her nephew Auguste Harrison. Louis then bought it back.  It may well be that little money was involved in these familial transactions.
Another purchase was St. Vital 16 (HBC 311). This was a small lot (52.95 acres) located on the west side of the Red River, more or less across from the Riel family residence at St. Vital 51. Riel bought it “about the year 1871 or 1872” and, according to an act of sale drawn up in 1881, paid Francois Marion $100 for it. 
Riel bought Ste. Agathe 533 from Cyrille Dumas, a prosperous Métis farmer whose principal residence was in St. Vital. Dumas had plowed four acres and built a small house on the lot in 1868, then had it surveyed by Roger Goulet the following year.  This large lot (261.45 acres) lay near the south end of the little Métis settlement at Pointe a Grouette, outside the limits of the HBC survey. 
Riel also had the right to apply for 240 acres of land in the 1.4 million acres of Métis reserves set aside by section 31 of the Manitoba Act.  He met the legislative criteria of having been born before July 15, 1870; and being the children of a “half-breed head of family” he along with his brothers and sisters went through the process and received their allotments.  He was out of the province in the summer of 1875 when Commissioners John Machar and Matthew Ryan went through the Métis parishes to receive applications, but he could have authorized his mother to apply for him. His mother wrote to him in August:
Riel did not pursue the matter at this time. In the summer and fall of 1875, he was moving incessantly about the northeastern United States, trying to find support for a military invasion of Manitoba.  He was also beginning to think of himself as the “Prophet of the New World,” with a mission of world-salvation to accomplish.  But he did not forget the 240-acre allotment, as shown by later events.
These are Riel’s land purchases and claims about which definite information has surfaced thus far. The way they are scattered around the Red River colony (see map, page 6) shows that Riel could not possibly have intended to farm them all and must have viewed them as investments for resale. Many of Riel’s personal papers have not been found, and the immense land records of the Department of the Interior are poorly indexed, so additional claims may be discovered in the future. 
Riel made his first sale in August 1873. For a price of £30, he sold four of the 16 chains frontage of Ste. Agathe 533 to A. G. B. Bannatyne, a prominent local businessman who had participated in Riel’s Provisional Government.  But there is no evidence in the land records that Bannatyne made an attempt to obtain a patent for his purchase, and Riel sold the whole of Ste. Agathe 533 several years later. Bannatyne, a prosperous man who had long known the Riel family, may have treated the “sale” as a gift to Riel, who was then maneuvering to obtain the parliamentary seat opened up by the death of Sir George E. Cartier. Riel went into hiding in mid-September to avoid attempted arrest and left Manitoba on October 21, 1873, to take his seat in Parliament and press his case before public opinion in the east.  Bannatyne’s money would have been useful in these circumstances.
Riel next thought of selling land in May 1875, after Parliament had voted to exile him for five years. He wrote to his mother, asking her to sell the remainder of Ste. Agathe 533.  He could use the money to establish himself in Pembina or St. Joseph, if, as he intimated to his mother, he chose to spend his exile there.  But word came back that land prices were low and that the prospect of a sale was poor.  Riel would have received this discouraging news in early December 1875, just as the impracticality of his plans for a military invasion of Manitoba was becoming apparent.  I speculate that the financial difficulties caused by inability to sell his land may have combined with his political setbacks in encouraging Riel to reveal himself at this time as the “Prophet of the New World.” There is no documentary proof of such linkage in Riel’s mind, but the timing is suggestive.
Sometime in the spring of 1877, after he had been hospitalized for a year and did not know when he would be released, Riel wrote to his mother that she could sell all his lands to support herself and other members of the family.  Julie, however, did not make any sales,  and Louis thought better of the offer once he was released from Beauport asylum in January 1878. He then asked his mother to sell, for his own needs, Ste. Agathe 533 and half of St. Boniface 103. He also enquired whether Archbishop Taché or Father Ritchot might be interested in buying these lots (both priests speculated in land on a large scale in the interests of the Church). He said he would use the money to establish himself on a farm in Nebraska. 
But sales at long range were complicated. A formal power of attorney was needed; a simple letter would not suffice for authorization. Also, there was not much money in circulation and the land market was poor. For example, Métis children’s claims to share in the lottery for 240-acre grants were only selling for $75 at this time. 
Louis reacted to the first problem by quickly sending a power of attorney to his mother. On March 5, he executed a document giving her the right “to sell and convey all my Lands of every description in the Province of Manitoba Except my Metis Rights [i.e., his claim to 240acres] ...”  The land market in Manitoba was recovering from the depression of the mid-1870s and moving to-wards the great boom of 1880-1882.  On July 13, 1878, Riel’s mother sold Ste. Agathe 533 to Joseph Delorme for $550.  When he heard the news, Riel wrote exultantly to his aunt and uncle in Montreal:
But it was clear that one sale would not solve all Riel’s financial problems. He owed Father Barnabe, with whom he was residing, $120; and he asked his uncle to send him several gallons of whiskey, which his doctor had prescribed for his mental state, but which he could not afford to buy. In the west, creditors were lining up to collect old debts. 
As usual, Riel had several balls in the air. Even as he thought of becoming a Nebraska farmer, he played with the idea of linking up with the Fenians to launch a raid into Manitoba. He may also have thought of becoming a journalist or lawyer in New York.  But even as these plans came to nothing, a more urgent problem materialized: Riel could not complete the sale to Delorme because he did not have a written deed of purchase from Cyrille Dumas, and Dumas would not provide the necessary document without being paid something.
Riel travelled west in early December 1878, spending several weeks in Minneapolis-St. Paul to visit his uncle Frank and to present Bishop John Ireland with a plan to colonize his diocese with French-Canadian immigrants. It has previously been assumed that the audience with Ireland was the main reason for the trip,  but that would not explain why Riel spend the first eight months of 1879 in St. Joseph rather than returning to New York to be near his fiancee, Evelina Barnabe. The desire to get his finances in order by completing the sale of Ste. Agathe 533 and selling his other lands is a better explanation of Riel’s movements in this period. He could look after his Manitoba real estate more effectively if he was just across the border in St. Joseph.
The sale of Ste. Agathe 533 took another six months to complete. In April, Riel thought it was just a matter of meeting with Dumas before a notary public in Pembina, after which he would get another $150 from Delorme and pay his debt to Father Barnabe.  Delorme was eager to pay and be done with the whole thing.  But it was also necessary to get the legal description of the lot according to the Dominion Lands Survey, which had not been carried out at the time Riel had bought it.  In the end, the paperwork was not completed until late in June of 1879. Cyrille Dumas exacted $40 for giving Delorme the quit claim deed necessary to validate the sale. 
Around this time, Riel also transferred the south four chains of St. Vital 51 to a brother-in-law, Louis Lavallee.  Lavallee had married Riel’s sister Octavie; and, with her mother’s permission, the couple had been living on Louis’s lot. Lavallee had wanted to buy it as early as 1877, but Julie had not felt free to sell.  There is a bulky file on St. Vital 51, but it does not contain a contract of sale from Louis Riel to Louis Lavallee, only a later quit claim deed for $1.00.  Hence we do not know what Riel charged his brother-in-law for the land, or if any money changed hands at all. Riel’s chronic need for money was more than matched, and indeed partly caused, by his generosity. To have given the land to his brother-in-law would have been in keeping with his character. While he waited in St. Joseph, Riel also made other attempts to raise money. He kept trying to sell St. Boniface 103,  and he made enquiries about his 240-acred allotment, but neither of these initiatives led to anything. There was no buyer for St. Boniface 103, and Roger Goulet said that Riel could not apply for his share of the Métis children’s grant until his exile expired in 1880 and he could legally return to Manitoba. The St. Vital reserve would probably be exhausted by then, but he might be able to get $240 scrip instead. 
So in the summer of 1879, Riel’s money consisted only of what remained from the sale of Ste. Agathe 533. It must have been far short of his expectations. He could not pay his debt to Barnabe, in spite of his many promises to do so,  nor could he buy a farm in Nebraska. Probably using his unsold lands as security, he borrowed $300  and went off to Montana to become a trader with the Métis and Indians following the last buffalo herds.
Before he left, he had told his brother Joseph, “Try to sell everything I own.”  But Joseph wrote repeatedly of his inability to sell Riel’s lands and his difficulty in making interest payments, presumably on the $300 that Riel had borrowed, to a local merchant named McArthur.  Joseph was also having trouble obtaining a patent for one of Louis’s lots, probably St. Boniface 103. 
Riel’s politics took a radical turn in the spring of 1880, when he tried to organize an Indian-Métis confederacy to invade the North-West Territories. It was a farfetched venture that failed to command support from the Indians in Montana.  Did the financial embarrassment resulting from failure to sell his lands help push Riel toward such desperate measures? The link is admittedly speculative, but the situation is reminiscent of Riel’s emergence as a prophet in December 1875, when he was also stymied in his desire to raise money by selling land.
Success finally came on January 27, 1881, when Riel’s mother sold St. Boniface 103 to Abraham Guay for $410.  Married to a Metisse, Guay was a French-Canadian immigrant who would assist the publication of Poesies religieuses et politiques after Riel’s death. Then came more good news. On April 13, 1881, St. Vital 16 was sold to Jean-Baptiste Lalonde for $450.  Riel was lucky to sell when he did. It was the height of the land boom, and buyers were putting down cash for lots in the hope of turning them over quickly. The files contain no record of delays, so money from these two sales, minus payment of his debts in Manitoba and whatever went to other family members, must have gone to Louis more or less promptly.
The impact on his life was unmistakable. Shortly after the first sale, Riel mentioned marriage in one of his poems: “J’aurai pour mon epouse/La fille qui m’emeut.”  On April 28, 1881, perhaps after news of the second sale had reached him, Riel began to live à la façon du pays with Marguerite Monet dite Bellehumeur. 
In 1882, he involved himself deeply in Montana politics. He tried to stamp out the whiskey trade, going so far as to launch a prosecution of Simon Pepin, an employee of the powerful C.A. Broadwater Company. He also tried to deliver the Métis vote to the Republicans in the elections of November 1882.  The buffalo were quickly vanishing, so it is hard to imagine he was making much money as a trader. The proceeds from St. Boniface 103 and St. Vital 16 may have made possible this expenditure of time and effort.
There may also have been other sales or attempted sales in this period. What happened to Riel’s claim to lot 99 on the Salle River is unclear. One document states that Riel’s rights were transferred to the lawyer J. A. M. Aikins, a future Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba.  Aikins patented a large amount of land along this part of the Salle River in April 1882,  but I have not been able to find any further information about Riel’s claim. The issue of a Manitoba Act patent to Aikins shows that the government recognized staked claims in this area, because Manitoba Act patents had to be based on possession prior to July 15, 1870; but when and if Riel sold, whether he sold to Aikins directly or through an intermediary, and for how much, are unknown.
Even less clear is the fate of Riel’s claim near Lorette. It was noted in the Dominion Lands Survey as late as 1877, but I have found no further information. The land itself ended up as part of the Métis reserve for Ste. Anne des Chenes, so Riel could not have sold it, but this does not preclude his having received compensation in another form. It was not uncommon for the government to settle staked claims by granting the claimant equivalent land elsewhere, or at least the right to purchase Dominion Lands on concessionary terms. Recipients could sell these awards for cash to speculators if they chose. But we do not know whether Riel received any such benefit from this claim. 
Also mysterious is Riel’s donation of a piece of land to the Sisters of the Precious Blood, a religious community in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. Riel regarded Mother Catherine-Aurelie, the founder of the community, as a special patron, and credited her prayers with having healed his sister Eulalie.  He wrote to the nuns in the spring of 1883, around the time he took a job as a teacher at St. Peter’s Mission:
Riel added that William Gladu, the husband of his sister Eulalie, would probably agree to pay the property taxes for the nuns. In return for this donation, the community sent Riel a promise “to [pray] for Monsieur and Madame Louis Riel in perpetuity, during their life and after their death”  (See illustration, page 10).
The reference to the Seine River makes it tempting to identify this gift with Riel’s claim near Lorette, but the other aspects of the description do not jibe. The Lorette claim lay 25 miles from Winnipeg, not “seven or eight”; and there was no railroad near Lorette until the Manitoba and South Eastern was built in 1890.  Riel’s description would more nearly fit a St. Vital location. St. Vital is about seven or eight miles from Winnipeg; it is near the Seine; and the Pembina Branch, which runs just east of St. Vital, was completed in December 1878.  But Riel had no land left in St. Vital in 1883, as far as we know. He had transferred his part of St. Vital 51 to Louis Lavallee, and he had sold St. Vital 16. It is conceivable that, with his mother’s consent, he was giving some other part of St. Vital 51, or of St. Vital 50, which she also owned;  but the files on these lots show no evidence in favour of such an hypothesis.
This was definitely not a phantom gift, however. In 1888, the nuns wrote to Joseph Riel, telling to go ahead and sell the land, since he had found a buyer. They did not see any legal problems, because the title had never been officially transferred to their name. Although they were certain that Louis had meant the land to come to them, they would not press their claim now. They had, in fact, destroyed all of Riel’s letters for fear of being involved in a scandal or somehow compromising his reputation. 
Powers of Attorney
Riel wanted to go back to Manitoba in the summer of 1883 to attend the wedding of his sister Henriette and to settle his affairs. In early June, he drafted powers of attorney for signature by several Métis living at St. Peter’s Mission.  They covered various legal situations: Métis children who had not yet received their 240-acre allotment under section 31 of the Manitoba Act; children who, having already sold their allotment, now wished to repay the original purchaser and sell again at a better price; “half-breed heads of families” who had not yet received their $160 scrip under the legislation of 1874;  and a couple of cases of American scrip.
The powers of attorney gave Riel the right to apply for the land or scrip and sell it if he could, a common procedure at the time. Middlemen were scouring the Canadian and American West for Métis who had left Manitoba before receiving the land or scrip to which they were legally entitled. Some middlemen took the risk of paying cash for the rights of the Métis emigrants and then trying to resell them in Manitoba. The wording of Riel’s documents suggests that he did not put up any money and was only acting as an agent who would get a commission if he concluded a successful sale.
After having the documents formally written up by a Jesuit priest, Cornelius Imoda,80 Riel left St. Peter’s for Winnipeg, arriving there June 23, 1883.  He stayed in Manitoba until after Henriette’s wedding on July 1082 but he did not have much luck with sales, for he had arrived in Manitoba after the collapse of the land boom of the early 1880s. He wrote in disappointment to his wife:
It seems that Riel sold little or nothing on this trip, because we find him living in severe poverty in the following winter.
An interesting sidebar in this affair is Riel’s attempt to obtain American scrip for Gabriel and Antoine Azur and their dependents, some of the many Métis from Dakota who had moved west at the same time as the Métis emigrated from Manitoba.  It is not generally realized by Canadian historians that the policy of making special grants of land or scrip to Métis originated in the United States when the Indian title was extinguished in the Old North-west. The Chippewa Treaty signed at La Pointe, Wisconsin, on September 30, 1854, set the precedent by providing grants of 80 acres to each mixed-blood head of family or single person over 21 years of age.  When the American part of the Red River Valley was purchased from the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians in 1863, the treaty required the United States to
The treaty forbade the use of scrip in making the grants, but a supplementary treaty of 1864 lifted that restriction. 
Speculators in Minnesota, particularly the Canadian fur trader Norman Kittson, were quick to involve the large Métis community at Pembina and St. Joseph even though many of these people were descended from Métis who had moved south from Assiniboia and were not related to the Red Lake and Pembina Chippewas. Nonetheless, agents bought their putative rights to scrip and then tried to obtain grants from the United States government. These efforts, as well as those that brought about earlier grants to the Métis of Michigan and Wisconsin, became notorious scandals, resulting in a full-scale inquiry ordered by Congress. 
The Azur family had applied for scrip in October 1869 through an attorney, and their applications had been rejected.  Riel now drafted a letter on their behalf to Father Louis Bonin, the missionary priest at Pembina and St. Joseph.  A lack of further records in Riel’s papers suggests that nothing came of these efforts.
Riel went through a financial crisis in the winter of 1883-84. While Joseph was unable to do anything for him in the depressed Manitoba land market.  Louis’s own affairs deteriorated in Montana. His attempt to prosecute liquor traffickers failed, leaving him with a debt of $137 to a local merchant.  Riel and his family were so poor that they could not afford their own house and had to share quarters with James Swan at St. Peter’s Mission.  Almost in despair, Riel drafted and redrafted letters to Bishop Ignace Bourget, whom he credited with having announced to him his “mission.” 
Things were also going badly in Manitoba. Louis Lavallee’s store went bankrupt, and he had to mortgage the south four chains of St. Vital 51 that he had received from Riel.  But somehow Joseph managed to find $250 and sent it to Louis in March 1884.  That money must have been connected with the prospect of Marguerite’s 240-acre children’s allotment.
Originally a native of St. Francois-Xavier, Marguerite Monet had received her allotment southeast of Portage la Prairie.  When Riel had gone to Manitoba in the summer of 1883, he had carried a power of attorney from Marquerite allowing him to sell this land,  and Joseph had continued to look for a buyer after Louis’s departure. He must have had grounds for optimism in the spring of 1884.
Riel’s mood changed accordingly. Around Easter he received an exciting revelation: “The Lord said to me: I have tested you and you have remained faithful. You must march ahead. You asked Me for it, and it is My will: your prosperity henceforth will be as unshakable as Gibraltar.”  Other encouraging revelations continued to come during May and June.  From deep depression in the winter, Riel rebounded to a mood of optimism, even exaltation, ready to accept the invitation to come to the Saskatchewan District.
Louis had Marguerite execute a power of attorney on April 28, 1884, even before the proper forms had arrived from Manitoba.  But there was no time to complete a sale before the Riels left Montana for the Saskatchewan District in June. In any case, this hastily procured power of attorney proved unsatisfactory. On January 30, 1885, Joseph wrote to Louis: “I have found a buyer for my sister-in-law Marguerite’s claim, and I am sending you the papers because the buyer doesn’t approve of the power of attorney.”  The buyer was a Winnipeg lawyer, W. J. Robinson.  On February 18, 1885, Marguerite finally signed an indenture transferring her claim to Joseph Riel for $240. 
The North-West Rebellion intervened before any money could reach the Riel family. After he surrendered and was imprisoned in Regina, Louis wrote to Joseph: “My dear brother, did you send the money? I didn’t receive anything. If you have the money from Marguerite’s land, I wish that you would go find your sister-in-law in Saskatchewan.”  The faithful Joseph did as requested, and Marguerite and the children passed into the keeping of Louis’s family in St. Vital.
Riel’s 240-acre Allotment
On June 4, 1884, James Isbister, Gabriel Dumont, Moise Ouellette, and Michel Dumas arrived at St. Peter’s Mission to ask Riel to assume leadership of the political movement in the Saskatchewan District. Riel’s reply to the delegation frankly mentioned his own land claims:
Riel’s reference to five river lots is obscure. How could he have asserted a claim to the four river lots he had already sold or given away? He was perhaps thinking of his claims near Lorette and Salle River 99, but we have no idea what the other three lots might have been.
His reference to a 240-acre allotment is more obvious. As we know, he had failed to apply in absentia in 1875 and had been told in 1879 that the St. Vital reserves were exhausted. This situation arose because of an underestimate of how many Métis children were entitled to share in the 1.4 million acres set aside by s. 31 of the Manitoba Act. Assuming from the returns of the Machar/Ryan Commission that there would be fewer than 6000 claimants, the government set the individual allotment size at 240 acres.  But even though the government eventually distributed 1,448,160 acres,  late applications continued to come in. The fate of late applicants was not settled until an order in council of April 20, 1885, awarded them each $240 scrip redeemable in Dominion Lands. Riel’s visit to Winnipeg in the summer of 1883, when he surely inquired about his allotment, took place in the period of uncertainty when the government was recording the names of applicants but telling them that the reserves were exhausted.
The order in council awarding scrip for late applicants set a deadline of May 1, 1886, to apply. In that month, W. J. Robinson, the lawyer who had handled the sale of Marguerite’s allotment, inquired of the Riel family whether anything had been done on behalf of his heirs.  Nothing seems to have happened until 1898, when Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government was in power and was showing a more lenient attitude toward Métis claims in general. In that year, Joseph applied on behalf of Riel’s son and heir Jean. An order in council of November 26, 1898, approved the claim and provided that it be satisfied not with scrip but with land. Some land was available in the form of allotments that had been cancelled when the recipients had been found ineligible. A cancelled allotment was found for Jean Riel east of Morris, and a patent was issued in 1900.  Jean sold the land to Robinson in 1903 for $1000. 
Although the links are more visible in some cases than in others, the evidence suggests that several major developments in Riel’s life may have been influenced by his dealings in the land market:
At least for the time being, this pattern of coincidence between Riel’s real estate transactions and other events in his life must be considered an interesting correlation, not a verified explanation. To establish Riel’s land dealings beyond doubt as an explanation of his other actions would require more documentary evidence than we possess. In a few casesRiel’s return to the west in 1878, his trip to Winnipeg in 1883, and his removal to Canada in 1884there is textual evidence that land transactions were an important motive in his mind; but in other episodes there is no documentary evidence about such motivation, and the connection is only inferential. Nonetheless, the cumulative weight of the chronological correlation between Riel’s land dealings and his other actions is quite suggestive.
The causes of human action are infinite in complexity. The point of this approach is not to reduce Riel’s political career to a series of business transactions, but to trace the intricate pattern of motives discernible in any human enterprise. Louis Riel will be no less of a hero or villain, statesman or traitor, prophet or madman, if we understand the financial aspects of his life.
2. Gilles Martel, Le Messianisme de Louis Riel (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1984); Thomas Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel: ‘Prophet of the New World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979).
3. Gilles Martel, Glen Campbell, Thomas Flanagan, Louis Rid: Poesies de jeunesse (St. Boniface: Les Editions du Ble, 1977).
5. Thomas Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983); Bob Beal and Rod Macleod, Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1984); Don McLean, 1885: Métis Rebellion or Government Conspiracy (Regina: Gabriel Dumont Institute, 1985).
6. Douglas Owram, “The Myth of Louis Riel,” Canadian Historical Review 63 (1982), pp. 315-337; George F. G. Stanley, “The Last World on Louis Riel The Man of Several Faces,” in F. Laurie Barron & James B. Waldram, 1885 and After: Native Society in Transition (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1986), pp. 3-22.
7. Diane Payment, Riel Family: Home and Lifestyle at St. Vital (Parks Canada, Historical Research Division, 1980) is reliable on land matters, but it is limited to St. Vital 50 and 51 and St. Boniface 103. The notes in CW about land transactions are sometimes useful but not always correct.
8. On Ritchot’s land dealings, see Philippe Mailhot, Ritchot’s Resistance: Abbe Noel Joseph Ritchot and the Creation and Transformation of Manitoba (Ph.D. thesis, University of Manitoba, 1986), pp. 243-62.
13. The correct spelling should be la Riviere sale (i.e., foul river); but it is almost universally spelled Salle in both French and English sources of the period studied here. The name later became La Salle, as it is known today.
27. E. G., grant nos. 3536 (Joseph), 3537 (Eulalie), 3434 (Henriette), 3635 (Alexandre), 3658 (Marie), 3817 (Sara), in Emile Pelletier, The Exploitation of Métis Lands (Winnipeg: Manitoba Métis Federation Press, end ed., 1979). I did not find grants for Charles and Octavie in Pelletier’s list. The more than 6000 names are not in alphabetical order and there is no index. There were often difficulties over names in grants to heirs (Charles died in 1875) or to married women.
28. Julie Riel to Louis Riel, August 14, 1875. PAM, MG 3 D 2, file 10. She mentioned the power of attorney again in a letter of September 6, 1875, ibid. File 47 contains a printed copy of the announcement of the Commission’s visit to St. Vital.
29. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, pp. 47-48; CW, 2-003, 2-004.
30. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, pp. 47-50.
31. Louis’s brother Charles Riel had a staked claim in T6R5E, in an area that became part of the Mennonite Reserve. Louis would have inherited a share of this claim when Charles died intestate on November 4, 1875. But it fell to Joseph Riel to pursue the matter and there is no evidence that Louis was ever involved. As compensation for the loss of the staked claim, Joseph received in 1898 the right to purchase 160 acres of Dominion Lands at $1.00 per acres. NAC, RG 15, vol. 150, MA 2548 (C-14912); Lyndwoode Pereira to Joseph Riel, August 31, 1898, PAM, MG 3 D 2, file 30.
32. Louis Riel to A. G. B. Bannatyne, August 28, 1873, CW 1-175; Louis Riel to A. G. B. Bannatyne, September 9, 1873, CW 1-177; Louis Riel to Julie Riel, May 1875, CW 1-238.
37. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, pp. 47-48.
39. E. G., Julie Riel to Louis Riel, June 27, 1877, PAM, MG 3 D 2, file 11, explaining her unwillingness to sell HBC 794 to her son-in-law Louis Lavallee: “je n’ai pas oselui vendre comme c’est a toi.”
40. Louis Riel to Julie Riel, February 1, 1878, CW 2-049; Louis Riel to A.-A. Tache, February 4, 1878, CW 2-050; Louis Riel to Julie Riel, February 26, 1878, CW 2-052; Louis Riel to N.-J. Ritchot, March 1, 1878, CW 2-053.
47. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, pp. 99-100.
48. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, p. 100.
61. Perhaps one of the brothers Alexander and David McArthur, who speculated in Manitoba lands. See the David McArthur Papers, PAM, MG 14 C 21. Joseph Riel to Louis Riel, February 20, 1880; both in PAM, MG 3 D 2, file 14.
63. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, pp. 106-109.
64. Contract of sale, January 27, 1881, NAC, RG 15, MA 211 (C-14903). Riel’s mother, brothers, and sisters were all joined on the indenture, presumably because the land had once belonged to Riel’s father and the purchaser wanted to ensure that no claims based on inheritance could arise.
67. Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel, p. 111.
70. PAM, Township General Registers, Tp 10, R2W. The patent granted April 25, 1882, was surrendered to the Crown and replaced by other patents in 1886 and 1889, but the reason has not been discovered. Aikins also drew hay scrip corresponding to almost 5 sections on the Salle River on May 9, 1882, NAC RG 15, vol. 521, file 150,229, p. 23.
71. NAC, RG 15, vols. 140-169, MA files contain files on many staked claims similar to the ones Riel had near Lorette and on the Salle River. But the collection is far from complete. Many files, including those which presumably once existed on Riel’s two claims, have disappeared.
84. Thomas Flanagan, “Louis Riel and the Dispersion of the American Métis,” Minnesota History 49 (1985), pp. 179-190.
88. USA, House of Representatives, Chippewa Half-Breeds of Lake Superior, Executive Document No. 193, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, 1872. I am grateful to Jacqueline Peterson for providing me with a copy of this report.
103. W. J. Robinson to E. D. Carey, February 19, 1925, Land Titles Office, Portage la Prairie, file 2673. Robinson had also been involved in the transfer of St. Vital 16. On December 26, 1884, he applied for a patent on behalf of J.-B. Lalonde, PAM, G 392, St. Vital 16.
Page revised: 11 April 2010Back to top of page