Manitoba History: Uncertain Margins: Métis and Saulteaux Identities in St-Paul des Saulteaux, Red River 1821-1870

by Nicole St-Onge
University of Ottawa

Number 53, October 2006

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.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 events marking the culmination of an historical process often surprise those contemporary to, but not part of, the process. With the events of June 1816, known alternatively as the “Seven Oaks Massacre” or the more neutral terms, “The Battle of Seven Oaks” or “la bataille de la grenouillère,” fur trading and political authorities took note of a seemingly new group in the Northwest. Thus an emergent population, composed largely of individuals and families of mixed French-Native ancestry, burst onto the British North American colonial scene. While mixed descent families and clans had existed on fur trading frontiers for generations, this group defined itself as “La Nation,” with corporate interests distinct from those of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and perhaps also from those of its old ally, the North West Company (NWC). Boundaries had been drawn not only between these “Métis” and their French-Canadian or Scottish allies and kin, but also between them and other tribes like the Cree, the Saulteaux, the Assiniboine and the Sioux.

The birth of “La Nation” was a case of ethnogenesis occurring on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. This was not what Jonathan Friedman would label a “primordial phenomenon”—one in which consciousness develops within a group for reasons internal to a group. Rather, this ethnogenensis occurred, at least in part, as a reaction to the process of modernisation. [1] Métis nationalism derived from increasingly problematic relations with other interest groups coupled with rapidly changing social and economic situations. These changes forced a community of people to realize common interests beyond the individual, family or clan. Being Métis moved from a statement of ancestry to an assumed corporate identity around which to mobilize and fight. Loyalty was thus transferred to a larger “imagined” community and seemingly clear boundaries (“Us and Them” / “Métis and non-Métis”) were traced. [2] Métis nationalism, like all nationalist or ethnic groupings, was a socially constructed concept created by and in reaction to economic and political circumstances. [3] Métis identity became crucially important the moment it was perceived to be under threat. At that point, the need to establish boundaries to resist outside pressure from aggressive non-Métis (initially HBC personnel and Orkney settlers) became paramount. [4]

After the Battle of the Grenouillère events such as the Sayer trial, the campaign for free trade, confrontations with the Sioux culminating with the Battle of Grand Coteau, and the events of 1870 would all reinforce a sense of group identity. These touch points of corporate identity occurred in a context of group affirming seasonal activities such as the biannual bison hunt, the pemmican commerce, and large-scale freighting and boating activities. The dominance of the Métis in an economic niche as the suppliers of country goods, foodstuff and manpower to the trading concerns would also continue to perpetuate a public sense of ethnic identity to the end of the nineteenth century, if not beyond. There were some clear advantages to being a Métis in the years following 1816, possibly enduring after the founding of the province of Manitoba in 1870.

In the minds of the actors present in Rupert’s Land during the opening decades of the nineteenth century, and in the minds of researchers ever since, there existed a clearly defined Métis community. However, identity can be problematic on a day-to-day basis. Nationalist and other ethnic ideologies hold that social and cultural boundaries are unambiguous and clear-cut (us vs. them). In daily existence, however, identities are negotiable and situational and the actual lived context of the Métis nation contained anomalies, fuzzy boundaries and ambiguous criteria of belonging. [5] For example, the concept of distance, both geographical and social, often helped determine one’s ethnic identity. Thus Red River Métis families involved in the gillnet fisheries may have shared a greater sense of affinity with their parkland Saulteaux fellow fishermen than with the nearby trading and freighting Métis elite of Saint-Boniface.

This author’s efforts to understand and chart the contours of Métis identity in the nineteenth century led to a study of the mission of St-Paul des Saulteaux, an “Indian” settlement located on the western fringes of the Red River colony near the Métis settlement of White Horse Plains. How were ethnic boundaries maintained and perpetuated between the two populations? An initial survey of available ecclesiastical and fur company documents shows the existence of interesting anomalies. This research note is the result of musings relating to three sets of distinct but related questions emerging from preliminary analyses.

Accepted wisdom from D. N. Sprague onward is that Métis society had endogamous tendencies by the early and mid nineteenth century with men occasionally bringing native-Indian wives into the community and Métis women also occasionally incorporating Euro-Canadians, white merchants and voyageurs into the fold. [6] This is consistent with the ideology of most ethnic groups. Ethnic communities studied by researchers tend to have a myth of common origin and nearly always have ideologies encouraging endogamy. Among many peoples of the world this ideal may be of highly varying practical importance. [7] The Métis, along with most tribes in the Northwest, recognized early on the utility of incorporating strangers through marital alliances. The dominant pattern of the early nineteenth century was Métis marrying Métis. This, however, was not the only pattern.

Historical documents and published writings portray the mission of St-Paul des Saulteaux as inhabited primarily by Saulteaux Indians in its initial two decades (1830 to 1850). [8] Yet the Red River Settlements censuses of 1840, 1843, 1846, and 1849, those having a separate entry for the Saulteaux Indian mission, list a population with less than 50% of heads of households’ surnames being obviously of native origin. [9] The surnames of most heads of household were apparently Métis. Of course surnames and ethnic identity do not always correlate, but they are an initial indicator of an alternative marriage pattern. Does this data mean that Métis men were marrying into and becoming, despite their surnames, indistinguishable from the surrounding Saulteaux population? Or were the Saulteaux gradually blending into the dominant Métis population through marital alliances over the course of this mission’s existence?

The presence of a Saulteaux mission within the Red River settlement brings with it at least the possibility of Métis women marrying Indian men. This phenomenon has not really been addressed in the literature dealing with historical Métis communities. Is it a case of this not being a significant factor in the development of the Métis nation? Or did such marriages occur, but inherent difficulties make it difficult to trace such alliances in existing historical documents? Alternatively, is it possible that researchers simply did not pose such questions because existing conceptual assumptions—the vestiges of social Darwinism—obscured the phenomenon? One such assumption posits Métis women marrying men from their own community or occasionally men from the encroaching white community, but never contracting marital alliances with men considered to be “Indians”? Is it possible, however, that women of established Métis families married men recognized as Saulteaux? If so, in what numbers and for what reasons beyond simple affective ties?

The overall theme of this article, as it relates to ethnic relations and ethnic boundaries, is that important nuances have evaded traditional studies of geographically defined communities as well as regional studies conducted in the field of Métis history over the past three decades. Questions are now being raised as to how effectively this research captures the essence of the Métis historical experience. Work by younger scholars such as Heather Devine [10], Carolyn Podrochny [11] and James McKillip [12] casts doubt on the interpretive power of geographically fixed studies in discussing the inter- and intra-group dynamics of largely mobile populations such as the Métis and the Saulteaux. This burgeoning scholarship emphasizes the need to reconceptualise the life experiences and sense of identity of the historic Métis.

There is a growing consensus among scholars that the key spatial expression of Métis life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was mobility. [13] The Métis economy included the harvesting of meat, fish and other country produce, but it was also based on trade and transport activities. This kind of economy resulted in spatial organization along networks of travel between specific locations for a variety of purposes. Geographically bound community studies, even regional ones, only partially capture this experience. They cannot address questions about the nature of the social organization and kinship networks or the overall sense of identity of a restless people whose territory was vast and encompassed several other nations’ habitats—a restless people who, nevertheless, because of the very nature of their economy and the possibility of hostile encounters had need for internal cohesion and sustained social and kinship links.

Plan of lots in the Parish of Baie St-Paul along the Assiniboine River, by F. S. Checkley, circa 1875.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, Dominion Lands Office / NMC 11526.

St-Paul des Saulteaux

A mission for Saulteaux (Ojibwa) Indians, “Saint Paul des Sauteux [sic]”, was organized as part of the parish of Baie St-Paul on the banks of the Assiniboine River west of the settlement of White Horse Plains (St-François Xavier) in the 1830s. It was run by Georges Antoine Belcourt, a secular priest from Québec who had worked previously in the Lower Canada native settlement of Lac des Deux Montagnes. Mgr. Norbert Provencher assigned him to work with the local Saulteaux, as opposed to the Métis, because of concerns over the perceived growing influence of the Anglican Church on the native population. Both Churches were attempting to convince these Indians to opt for the settled, agrarian life-style seen as more conducive to Christian behaviour than their traditional nomadic hunting ways.

By April 1833 Belcourt had moved to his new mission. The missionary’s plans to convert those Saulteaux who had come to the mission into a sedentary people were thwarted that first year. Most Saulteaux soon left for the buffalo hunt. [14] By the spring of 1835, however, Father Belcourt could boast that he had baptized seventy-two children and adults, blessed eight marriages and conducted three funerals. [15] In the same year, Belcourt’s superior had come to the conclusion that it would be impossible to transform the Saulteaux economic pursuits and general lifestyle to any significant extent and expressed his determination to close the mission. This would occur by 1850.

Still, in 1835 - 36, the Saulteaux had built ten log houses in the village. Agricultural work, so inseparable from the proselytising theory espoused by Belcourt, made some progress. François Desjarlais, a French Canadian married to a Métis woman, worked the mission land as a hired hand. [16] In the spring of 1835, about thirty families arrived early enough from their wintering sites to plant potatoes, corn, and barley. [17] Though present at least intermittently in the settlement, the Saulteaux still resisted the life-style changes promoted by the priest. Besides being unwilling to commit fully to an agrarian life, they also opposed certain Christian customs and beliefs such as monogamy.

News of the settlement spread throughout the Saulteaux bands of the Northwest. Saulteaux thought by Father Belcourt to be from the western foothills came to visit in 1836. A few years later, in 1842, Red Lake Chippewa (also Saulteaux-Ojibwas) spent time at the mission. Although the Saulteaux were apparently interested in residing in the settlement for part of the year, they were unwilling to settle more permanently and commit to a largely habitant lifestyle. By the 1846 census it was obvious that Belcourt’s plan to win over the Saulteaux to civilization and Catholicism through agriculture for the men and education in “women’s” work (producing cloth from buffalo wool) for the women and children faltered on both counts. [18] The Saulteaux population may well have been looking for spiritual guidance and answers to existential questions during this time of rapid transitions, economic upheaval, migrations and epidemics, but their economic agenda was clearly different from the one advanced by French-Canadian Catholic priests. “La vocation agricole” resonated no more with this Saulteaux population than it had with the nearby Métis population.

The mission priest was attempting to introduce a basic cultural shift, changing from a semi-nomadic hunting, fishing and gathering way of life to one devoted to agricultural pursuits, in a society and in an area where such a change was uneconomic and unthinkable at the time. [19] These western Saulteaux had already adjusted their society to the provisioning of the fur trade and settlement. Twice a year, the Saulteaux and Métis left for the summer and fall buffalo hunts which constituted for many the base of their economy. Supplementing this, they fished in the Assiniboine River and nearby lakes, and hunted in the forests. The Great Lakes ancestors of these Baie St-Paul Saulteaux had known gardening, but only as one option among many to be taken up or discarded as circumstances dictated. [20]

However, the “Saulteaux” of Baie St-Paul could not simply be equated to the nearby White Horse Plains Métis population. Their “point de mire” was not so completely focused on the bison hunts. Fishing played a much larger role for the Saulteaux. The censuses reflect this by showing the Baie St-Paul population with proportionally fewer carts and draft animals, but with more boats and canoes, than the specialized bison hunters and freighters of neighbouring settlements. These Saulteaux arrived to Red River with a Great Lakes tradition of large-scale fisheries coupled with syrup production and wild rice harvesting. These activities continued after their relocation westward. [21]

By the 1860s Belcourt’s old mission of Baie St-Paul had become Métis rather than Saulteaux, with a population of 502 in 1872. [22] However, it was not only the Saulteaux families who had left the immediate area. Some of the old Métis families had also gone. Reference is made to their departure for Fort Ellice [23] and the Dakotas in the ecclesiastical and company correspondence. Other Saulteaux mission Métis families can be traced relocating to the shores of lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis. By the 1870s they had completed a shift away from a partial dependence on the bison hunts towards a life focused on fishing, gathering, trapping, salt-making and trading with local bands.

“A Souteaux Indian travelling with his family in winter near Lake Winnipeg;” lithograph based on a painting by Peter Rindisbacher, circa 1825.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, CN10.

Ecclesiastical Records and HBC Censuses

A preliminary examination of Church records and census returns revealed that, from the very beginning, Baie St-Paul censuses listed families with both Saulteaux names and traditional Métis families’ surnames as residing at least part of the year in the area. Analysis of census records, birth, marriage and death records revealed interesting patterns and associations between the two groups. Not surprisingly there were numerous examples of men with Métis surnames marrying women with Saulteaux names. This would be an accepted pattern of marital alliances throughout the nineteenth century. Equally interesting, however, is that between 1840 and 1870 cases of men with Saulteaux surnames marrying women with traditional Red River Métis surnames were recorded in the St-Paul des Saulteaux and relevant St. François Xavier registries. These alliances can further be traced when couples came to the mission to have their infants baptized. Several Métis women have Saulteaux men listed as father to their children. In total, forty-five recorded marriages or baptismal ceremonies involve men with Saulteaux surnames allied to Métis women. For example, the first recorded baptism was of Jean Baptiste Sakaban baptized in August 1840 whose parents are listed as Louis Sakaban and Genevieve Brabant. A few months later the priest would record the marriage of Joseph Maskegon to Marguerite Hamelin, daughter of François Hamelin and “une serpente” (a women of the snake tribe). This trend would continue into the next decade with Michel Missawaki being baptized in November 1850 and whose parents are listed as Baptiste Missawaki and Angelique Pelletier. The following year witnessed the baptism of Lucie Machkmikwan in August 1851. Her parents bear the names Machkimikwan and Magdeleine Desjarlais. During the 1860s, examples of second generation intramarriage would occur. In August 1862, for instance, Angelique Mistakawik, daughter of Joseph Mistakawik and Isabelle Richard would marry Louis Desjarlais, son of Benjamin Desjarlais and Genevieve Sauteuse. The children of Angelique and Louis therefore had Métis and Saulteaux grandparents on both sides of their family. This trend would continue right into the modern era with the baptism of Édouard Petrokiwijik in August 1870, whose parents were François Petrowikijik and Rosalie Deschamps or, even later, the baptismal ceremony of Virginie Sakapan in August 1872, who was the daughter of Antoine Sakapan and Sara Duchene. Although the recorded numbers of Métis–Saulteaux alliances diminish proportionally within the registries of St-Paul des Saulteaux and White Horse Plains, these alliances continued to occur right up to the end of the Red River Colony era. It is likely that their numbers remained quite high in areas where the Saulteaux population was more prevalent, such as the Interlake area and farther into the Northwest. [24]

The Red River Censuses

Between 1840 and 1849 the colonial authorities undertook four censuses to enumerate the residents of Red River. All four of these censuses identify residents of the “Saulteaux village.” Several caveats must be kept firmly in mind when examining the data generated by these returns. The censors only listed those families and individuals present at the time of the survey. Both ecclesiastical and company records make numerous references to the high degree of mobility of this population, especially the Saulteaux families. Also, we do not know how either the census takers or the respondents understood questions about the number of canoes, boats, carts, horses, oxen … etc. they owned. Did they list only those present on the property? If an eldest son or a father had taken a train of carts freighting or the canoes out to gillnet fish in Lake Manitoba, were these items recorded? In terms of people, livestock and moveable goods, these censuses must be viewed as very conservative estimates.

The first Red River census with a separate Saulteaux village entry was taken in 1840. It lists ninety-eight people residing in the village grouped into twenty-three households, eleven of which have clearly French Métis surnames. Although twenty-three households are enumerated, only thirteen homes (two of which belong to the Roman Catholic Church) are noted by the census takers. The others are presumably living in tents or are guests in existing houses. Eight acres are cultivated in the mission. All of the cultivated acreage belongs to the six Desjarlais households. This is obviously the dominant kinship group in the village. Collectively, the Desjarlais own the most horses, carts, canoes and livestock of all the families. Interestingly the other six households with Métis surnames are indistinguishable in terms of material wealth from their Saulteaux neighbours. Many are without assets and some have only one horse and perhaps one cart or canoe. On the face of it, they seem quite destitute. The Desjarlais’ relative wealth did not stop them from mingling quite extensively with the Saulteaux. Not only are there several examples of Desjarlais men taking Saulteaux women as first or second wives, [25] but six of the abovementioned forty-five marriage or baptismal ceremonies name Desjarlais women married to men with Saulteaux surnames.

The second Red River colony census listing the Saulteaux settlement was taken in 1843. A hundred and eighty-seven people are listed. These are grouped in thirtyfive households. Again only twenty-two homes, two owned by ecclesiastical authorities, are noted. Twenty-one households have identifiably French Métis surnames with the rest being of Saulteaux or other native origin. The peak year for the agricultural efforts of this community appears to have been 1843, when fifty-two acres are described as being under cultivation. Forty of these acres are worked by lay residents. The six Desjarlais households work sixteen of these acres with an additional ten worked by households with Saulteaux surnames. Agri-culture was not the sole focus of this community. The census takers also list the residents (not counting the assets of the Roman Catholic Church) as possessing sixty-two horses and mares, twenty-eight oxen, forty-seven carts and twentythree canoes or boats. Again the Desjarlais household owns a disproportionate share of the material wealth and again the relative wealth of the household with Saulteaux surnames is comparable to the balance of the Métis households. Some Saulteaux households appear to be relatively affluent, such as the Kwiwisen household which, in 1843, had three horses, two mares, two oxen, four cows and six carts, though apparently no land under cultivation.

The next two censuses, taken in 1846 and 1849, chart an apparent decline in the Saulteaux village’s fortunes. In 1846, the ninety-five people listed are grouped in twentyfive households, of which fifteen bore typically Métis surnames. The residents occupy eleven houses and work eleven and a half acres. However, this apparent decline in immobile wealth is counterbalanced by an absolute rise in draft animals and a proportional rise in carts and canoes (or boats) on account of the decreased number of residents and households at the time the census was taken. Nonclerical residents owned ninety-two horses and fourteen oxen and were described as possessing thirty-six carts and eleven canoes or boats. Only one of the households with Saulteaux surnames had land (two acres) under cultivation. On the other hand, just one Saulteaux household (Nesspwick’s, with five members) is listed as having no mobile assets. All the others have draft animals and seven households also have carts and canoes. Again, as in the previous two censuses, nearly half of the Métis households are listed Desjarlais. Only one of seven Desjarlais households has land (one acre) under cultivation, but collectively they owned forty-three draft animals, fifteen carts and six canoes.

The tendencies noted between 1843 and 1846 accentuate themselves in 1849. Only eighteen households, totalling seventy-seven people occupying seven houses (not counting the priest’s residence), are listed. Fourteen of these households have Métis surnames. Eight and a half acres are listed under cultivation, five of which are mission lands. Excluding the Church’s assets, the community owned fiftyfour horses, twelve oxen, thirty-four carts and nine canoes. Seven of the Métis households are Desjarlais with thirtysix draft animals, seventeen carts and three canoes, but only one acre under cultivation. Of the four Saulteaux households listed, two have no assets noted. Religious correspondence alludes to some of the reasons for this apparent demographic collapse. During the autumn bison hunt of 1846, measles and dysentery ravaged the colony and hindered the expedition. Father Belcourt, who had accompanied the hunt, noted in his correspondence that twenty residents of St-Paul had died within three weeks. The following year the priest left the mission for Québec and returned to proselytise in St. Joseph (North Dakota) rather than in Red River. Some of the Métis and Saulteaux residents of St-Paul followed him and by 1850 the church buildings had been torn down and moved to the growing St. François Xavier (formerly Grantown).

Certain trends can be noted from the censuses taken in the 1840s. First, after the mid 1840s, the settlement apparently suffered an absolute decline in population coupled with a relative decline in households with Saulteaux surnames. [26] From representing 52% (twelve) of households in 1840, Saulteaux surnames dwindled to 22% (four). There was also a marked reduction in cultivated land and dairy animals in the village. It can be argued here that these are all indicators of a shift towards a more mobile economy based on the harvesting of country food and freighting activities. [27] The 1868 famine relief census lists sixty-four households, only one of which—an unnamed “veuve sauteuse”—can been clearly identified as Saulteaux. Most of the families residing in the village by the end of the 1860s bore old Red River Métis surnames, but were not listed as living in the Saulteaux village in the 1840s. The Desjarlais clan still had a presence, but of the five households listed only one can be considered affluent. Antoine Desjarlais, head of a household of nine, had thirteen horses, six oxen, four cows, five calves and was in a position to attempt planting potatoes and wheat in 1867 and 1868. Three of the four other Desjarlais households were declared “indigent” by the census taker. In fact, Baie St-Paul had the highest rate of households listed as “indigent” or “poor” of all the Catholic parishes in 1868. Obviously those inhabitants, Saulteaux and Métis, who had had the means to reorient their economic activities and spatial movements, had already done so by the late 1860s.

L’abbé Georges-Antoine Belcourt (1803-1874), the Roman Catholic priest for the Baie St-Paul community.
Source: Société historique de Saint-Boniface Archives, SHSB 028.

The Saulteaux

The Saulteaux present in Red River in the early decades of the nineteenth century had experienced decades of hardship. Between 1780 and 1782 a smallpox epidemic erupted and fanned out across the Great Lakes regions, where the core of the Saulteaux population resided. The epidemic spread towards the Northwest where Cree and other tribes were also affected. Camps and infected territories were entirely abandoned. [28] Most experts argue that these hardships, along with other factors, provoked a shift in the Saulteaux population towards the Northwest. [29] As a partial result of these epidemics, Ojibwa communities occupied the Rainy River, Lake of the Woods, Red Lake, and Lower Red River districts south of Lake Winnipeg. Here they found an environment their collective skills could efficiently exploit. A study of the Ojibwa sturgeon fishery on the Rainy River, Ontario, has shown that it was immensely productive from prehistoric times through the fur trade era until the intrusion of the commercial fishing industry in the late 1800s. Brian J. Smith’ study argues that the importance of the fisheries in the Northwest has been consistently underestimated throughout the fur trade period. [30] Fishing was not the only skill that Saulteaux newcomers brought to the Red River area. D. Wayne Moodie has argued that, besides being known for maple syrup production, the Ojibwa were effectively managing and extending the range of their wild rice crops during the fur trade. [31] They could easily have transposed these skills to the present-day Manitoba area.

With skills to offer, the incentive may have been great for Saulteaux populations moving to the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to establish closer ties with the Métis. After all, the Métis were emerging as the dominant native group of the entire Northwest. These ties would link the Saulteaux to bison hunting families, thus complementing and supplementing their own economic endeavours. Their brothers and sons married Métis women while apparently retaining a “Saulteaux” identity.

A second motive for forming alliances with the everstronger Métis emerged in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. Partly as a consequence of the 1837–1838 smallpox epidemics, the southern and western prairies were opened up to Métis hunters and their Cree and Saulteaux allies. [32] When the epidemic abated, as many as two thirds of the western Assiniboine and Blackfoot population had perished. [33] The more southerly Dakota Sioux had faired little better. Meanwhile, many of the Red River Métis had survived—perhaps on account of their easier access to vaccines and their greater immunity inherited from French-Canadian forebears. New possibilities in the Northwest and in the Dakotas may have incited the mission Saulteaux and Métis to move further from the colony and extend joint social and economic links to an ever-greater area.

The Métis

By 1821, the French Métis were rapidly becoming the most powerful tribe in the Northwest. They had larger families, greater affluence and more resistance to epidemics and disease. They were powerful enough to exert influence over a territory encompassing the “traditional” Indian territories of the Sioux, Assiniboine, Dakotas, Cree, etc. with whom they had economic, social and family ties. By the very nature of their society with its emphasis on multitasking, whether bison hunting, natural resource harvesting, freighting or trading, they needed access to a vast territory and reasonably friendly relations with the in situ populations. Marriage ties were one means to this end.

Long-time familiarity with the Ojibwa-Saulteaux population extending back to the eighteenth-century Great Lake experience may have been reinforced by converging economic pursuits. Although the Métis in the historical imagination are linked inextricably to the bison hunt, they also pursed other economic endeavours. Authors such as Frank Tough and Nicole St-Onge have argued that a historiographical overemphasis on the bison hunts has obscured other economic pursuits. [34] The fisheries appear to have been exploited throughout the nineteenth century by the White Horse Plains and St-Paul des Saulteaux elements of the Métis population. Certainly by the 1850s individuals and even families were relocating to the shores of Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis. This historiographical overemphasis on the bison hunt and attendant plains activity may also have obscured other economic and perforce social spheres where Métis and Saulteaux populations were intertwined. Key to the survival of the colony, aside from the pemmican industry, were activities such as fishing, trapping, sap syrup and salt making. In most academic discussions of the Saulteaux mission population these Indians are described as bit players in the biannual bison hunts. It is difficult to understand why women from established Métis families would have been interested in allying themselves with seemingly marginal elements. Developing such an understanding may require a change of perspective on Saulteaux men. Though of negligible importance within the bison hunt, they and their kin may have been key in the commercial lake fisheries and other subsistence and trading pursuits. Obviously simple affective ties cannot be discounted, but the recorded frequency of these alliances (not taking into account unrecorded “mariages à la façon du pays”), and the fact that they involve in the 1840s and 1850s women from relatively better-off clans such as the Desjarlais, points to other factors at play. Apparently community disapproval either from the Ojibwa or Métis population was not an issue.


Initial research indicates that, prior to 1870, ethnic identities were fluid, relational and situational. Unlike hats, a person could and did wear several “ethnic” identities at once. Individuals having family ties linking them into farflung Saulteaux and Métis kinship networks could easily pass from one to another depending on circumstances. A young man such as Louis Desjarlais, described above, with a Saulteaux mother and a Saulteaux father-in-law, could call on his mother’s and father-in-law’s familial networks during fishing or wild rice harvesting season and afterwards turn to his paternal kin or even his mother-inlaw’s family for help during the large bison hunts. His children would have access to Métis and Saulteaux clan networks on both their paternal and maternal sides. This dual ancestry gave them access to pervasive, wide-ranging and interlinked communities throughout the Northwest. Given the practices of incorporation and inclusiveness of both the Métis and Saulteaux, [35] there was no reason or necessity in the course of their lives for residents of the Northwest to limit themselves to one identity. If mechanisms existed in both the Métis and Saulteaux communities to incorporate European outsiders into extensive family networks, it was all the easier for people already closely allied to merge with either or both communities as circumstances dictated.

On the basis of this examination of the Métis and Saulteaux families of the St-Paul des Saulteaux mission, there appears to have existed strong enticements to intercommunity marriage for both parties. Both communities had areas of somewhat overlapping economic specializations that were beneficial to all concerned. The Saulteaux men who married women of Red River Métis families were not primarily bison hunters. They were not listed as heads of households in any of the Red River censuses and appeared only sporadically in the local ecclesiastical records. It therefore seems clear that they were living primarily outside of the mission and even beyond the confines of the colony. However, religious records and letters do indicate that they returned to Red River regularly up to at least the 1850s. Those households with Saulteaux surnames who were residing in the colony and appearing in the census also do not seem to have specialised in the hunts if their mobile wealth is any indication. For the most part, they had relatively few carts, horses and oxen. Was it an interest in the Catholic religion and a concern for the salvation of their souls, as Father Belcourt thought, that brought or kept these “Saulteaux” households in St-Paul des Saulteaux? Or, on a more practical basis, were these Saulteaux and Saulteaux-Métis households key links in complex social and economic webs anchored in pervasive kin and clan ties that were both multi-ethnic and transgeographic? Only more research will show if it would be more accurate to look at this large population as being enmeshed in various clusters of linked kin, labelled “Métis” or “Indians” as circumstances and situations dictated. They would have been involved in a variety of subsistence and commercial activities in a complex web of balanced reciprocity. The activity of a productive “Saulteaux” fisherman was as crucial to the survival of the whole community as were the exploits of a famed “Métis” bison hunter.

Each individual carries a core identity. This identity is by no means fixed or immutable. Rather, it adapts to changes in circumstance, geography, time and personal preference. Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, a population residing in the Northwest self identified and was identified by others as “Métis” with specific characteristics, lifestyle, language, culture and favoured economic pursuits. It is argued here that, although the community itself endured to the present day after its inception in the early nineteenth century, individuals within it could and did pass from it and into it through bonds of kinship, marriage and perhaps even friendship. Certainly on the margins of the Red River Settlement, in St-Paul des Saulteaux and later on in St-Laurent, Duck Bay and beyond, individuals with exhaustive links to both the Saulteaux and the Métis could and did move from one group to the other. An initial conclusion advanced here is that converging histories, economic pursuits and kinship ties were blurring ethnic distinctions between the Métis and their close allies, the Ojibwa-Saulteaux, and perhaps others, as the nineteenth century progressed. Only 1870 and subsequent decisions imposed from the outside halted this process. The imposition of treaty, scrip declaration, “one identity only” census returns imposed “hard” unique ethnic identities. However, post-confederation events should not be projected back onto the British North American period. To understand the social structure and its economic basis, it would be better to look at this northwestern population as an organic whole informed, but not limited, by concepts of ethnicity and spatially circumscribed settlement. The Métis, and perhaps even the Saulteaux once they had endured their relocation westward, had a sense of human geography and a mental map of their world encompassing areas and populations so vast that they boggle modern-day thinking. To understand the nineteenth-century Métis, we must attempt to think as they did.

Sketch of “Mr. Belcour’s [sic] Church” at Baie St-Paul, made by British army officer Henry J. Warre on 17 June 1845 during his journey from Montreal to the Oregon Territory.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, To the Oregon Territory 1845-1846 with Lieut. Henry J. Warre, D. E. Schoenherr ed.


1. Friedman, Jonathan, “Being in the world: Globalization” and 1. Jonathan Friedman, “Being in the world: Globalization and localization,” in Mike Featherstone ed., Global Culture. London: Sage, 1990, pp. 311-328.

2. Likely this process occurred elsewhere in the Northwest at different times and places among frontier populations. The events unfolding at Red River happen to be the most visible and best documented.

3. Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, Ethnicity and Nationalism – Anthropological Perspectives, second ed. London: Pluto Press, 2002, pp. 76-77.

4. Ibid.

5. Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism, pp. 112-117.

6. Sprague, D. N., and R. P. Frye (comp.), The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation: the Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement 1820–1900. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publication, 1983.

7. Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism, pp. 12-13.

8. This paper and preliminary conclusions are based on a survey of relevant documents, especially the Fonds Georges-Antoine Belcourt and pertinent parish and mission registers housed at the Societe Historique de Saint-Boniface in the Centre du Patrimoine, Saint- Boniface Manitoba.

9. Hudson Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, E.5/10 and E.5/11 Census Returns for Red River Settlement, Grantown and Saulteaux Indian Settlement 1840 and 1843. Library and Archives Canada Manitoba Census Returns, C-2170, Red River Settlement 1846, 1849.

10. Devine, Heather, The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family, 1660-1900. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.

11. Podruchny, Carolyn, “Un homme-libre se construit une identité: Voyage de Joseph Constant au Pas, de 1773 à 1853.” Cahiers francocanadiennes de l’Ouest, 2002, vol. 14, pp. 35-59.

12. McKillip, James, A Métis Métier: Transportation in Rupert’s Land. MA thesis, University of Ottawa, 2005.

13. Métis National Council Research Team, Discussion Group A Report on Métis Community Studies. Edmonton, Alberta, 27 November 2005.

14. McCarthy, Martha, Pre-1870 Roman Catholic Missions in Manitoba. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Historical Resources Branch Report, 1987, p. 76.

15. Ibid. p. 76.

16. Devine, The People Who Own Themselves, p. 121.

17. McCarthy, Pre-1870 Roman Catholic Missions in Manitoba, p. 81.

18. Ibid. p. 86.

19. Ibid, p. 93.

20. Ibid. p. 82.

21. Tough, Frank, “’The Storehouses of the Good God:’ Aboriginal peoples and Freshwaters Fisheries in Manitoba.” Manitoba History, 2000, vol. 39, p. 5.

22. McCarthy, Pre-1870 Roman Catholic Missions in Manitoba, p. 93.

23. Societe Historique de Saint-Boniface, Archives de l’Archeveche de Saint-Boniface, T58314-58317 “Liste des familles du Fort Ellice.”

24. The usual caveats hold when discussing marriage patterns. Only marriages that have been regularized in a religious ceremony can be easily traced. Alliances “a la facon du pays” are difficult to determine with accuracy except occasionally through baptismal records for the children.

25. St-Onge, Nicole, Saint-Laurent, Manitoba: Evolving Metis Identities, 1850–1914. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2004, pp. 6-21. Devine, The People Who Own Themselves, p. 237.

26. The usual caveats regarding the census taking of highly mobile populations must be kept firmly in mind here. The residents may not have considered themselves “gone” but merely “elsewhere” for a time.

27. McKillip, Transportation in Rupert’s Land, p. 116-136.

28. Peers, Laura, The Ojibwa of Western Canada 1780-1870. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

29. Albers, Patricia C., “The Plains Ojibwa” in Raymond J. DeMallie ed. Plains. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001, pp. 652-660.

30. Smith, Brian J., “The Historical and Archaeological Evidence for the use of Fish as an Alternate Subsistence Resource among the Northern Bison Hunters,” in Kerry Abel and Jean Friesen. eds., Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1991, pp. 35-49. See also Tough, “The Storehouses of the Good God”, pp. 2-14.

31. Moodie, D. Wayne , “Mamomin: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Production of Wild Rice” in Kerry Abel and Jean Friesen, eds., Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1991.

32. Albers, “The Plains Ojibwa”, p. 654.

33. Ibid.

34. Tough, “The Storehouses of the Good God”, p. 14. St-Onge, Saint- Laurent, Manitoba, pp. 23-40.

35. Peers, Laura and Jennifer S. H. Brown, “’There is no end to relationship among the Indians’ Ojibwa Families and Kinship in Historical Perspectives,” The History of the Family, 2000, pp. 529-555.

Page revised: 20 October 2013