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Manitoba History: Rooted in Mobility: Metis Buffalo Hunting Brigades [1]

by Brenda Macdougall and Nicole St. Onge
University of Ottawa

Number 71, Winter 2013

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the settlement bound for the plains … From Fort Garry, the cavalcade and camp-followers went crowding on to the public road, and thence, stretching from point to point, till the third day in the evening, when they reached Pembina, the great rendezvous on such occasions … Here the roll was called and general muster taken, when they numbered on this occasion, 1,630 souls; and here the rules and regulations for the journey were finally settled. The officials for the trip were named and installed into office; and all without the aid of writing materials.

The camp occupied as much ground as a modern city, and was formed in a circle; all the carts were placed side by side, the trains out-ward. These are trifles, yet they are important to our subject. Within this line of circumvallation, the tents were placed in double, treble rows, at one end; the animals at the other in front of the tents. This is in order in all dangerous places; but where no danger is apprehended, the animals are kept on the outside. Thus the carts formed a strong barrier, not only for securing the people and their animals within, but as a place of shelter against an attack of the enemy without. [2]

This iconic description written by Alexander Ross of the departure from Red River of a cart caravan bound for the Plains on 15 June 1840 and the organization of the semi-annual, commercial, buffalo hunt is echoed in several other 19th-century accounts providing us with a lens into the organizational structure of these events but also a sense of the spatial dimensions of the brigades. [3] The history of this Red River-based buffalo-hunting tradition was extensively documented by explorers, travellers, fur traders, artists, and other visitors to the Plains because its size, scale, and organizational matrix were considered remarkable achievements (then and now) for a group of people often described as an illiterate underclass. The general focus of these early accounts was on the emergence of a nascent political structure, emphasizing the pseudo-militaristic elements that permitted the mobilization of these small cities. While these descriptions provide us with an important opportunity to understand Metis political and military culture, they also point to several deficiencies in our current understanding of Plains Metis society as a whole. For instance, although the presence of women and children was hinted at, there is no sense of how family life defined the participants’ expected behaviours. Furthermore, the lens of buffalo hunting is generally so focussed on Red River—the place—that the Plains go unidentified as a place of import except as an undifferentiated space where the Metis went but the observers usually did not. Therefore, the community as a whole disappeared from view while on the Plains. As a result of this singular fixation on political and military traditions of the Red River Metis, few have examined how the buffalo hunts reflected Metis systems of socio-cultural organization or constituted a unique adaptation to an indigenous, Plains-based style of life. The movement of people, goods, animals and eventually the produce of the hunt subsequently attracted the attention of generations of historians, political scientists, lawyers and sociologists who all concluded that it was the style of commercial hunt that formulated the basis of uniquely Red River-based Metis governance systems and political ideology.

Ross’ efforts to describe and define the Metis of the Plains led to the evolution of a body of literature focussed on the political, economic and military history of the Metis at Red River. Due to its geographic and demographic import, as well as its central role in 19th-century Metis nationalism, the Red River settlement and the constituent parishes involved in the buffalo-hunting economy—St. François-Xavier, St. Boniface, and St. Norbert—have been the focus of a great deal of research. This scholarship largely assumes a singular population inhabiting those spaces for lengthy periods of time or on a semi-annual basis. When not at Red River, this buffalo-hunting society (the thousands of people noticed by Ross and others) lived at or in a series of semi-permanent wintering sites (hivernements) like Petite Ville, Willow Bunch, Turtle Mountain and Buffalo Lake (see Figure 1). In large part, these scholarly assessments reflect the available sources. For the most part, surviving historical records are place-specific—that is, written documentation exists in relation to a fur-trade post, a religious mission or the attempts at colonization such as the Red River settlement. Resident officials, like Alexander Ross, and institutions tried to capture the existence of a people who moved between places, but their focus was necessarily on the place from which they (the officials) worked and the institutional body that required the creation of the records. As a result, once the mobile populations left the sightlines of those fixed locations and travelled into a prairie space, they vanished from the scholarship, leaving us to ponder where they went and whether their reality has been adequately captured. These people may be “recaptured” in another fixed location by another set of records, but their lives spent “in-between” these fixed points—the places where they lived and hunted— remain poorly understood. Arthur J. Ray found that this problem was tied to a greater intellectual tradition that, consciously or not, was “settlement-oriented.” [4] He suggested that the solution required a reframing of the discussion to look at regional economies rather than location-specific economic activities. [5] Ray’s approach would certainly help us better understand the 19th-century buffalo hunt as an economic activity, but what would still remain shrouded in mystery are the social networks and cultural matrices that allowed these specialized hunting brigades to organize and perpetuate themselves. What Ross and others described was not a random collection of men gathering to hunt. Rather, the thousands of souls who went on the hunt also included women and children—the hunt was not performed by adult male hunters alone. Their labour was supported and supplemented by the efforts and productiveness of the young and old, boys and girls, elderly men and women, and adult women. The buffalo hunts are both a representation and a product of the family structure of the Plains Metis. We need to reframe the paradigm by not just looking at regional economies, but also at who engaged in this economy and evaluating how a socio-cultural network to support this complex economic activity was established. In order to do this, we must understand the context in which this economy—and therefore the families engaged in it—evolved as a specific form of trade.

Figure 1. Map of northwest North America showing Metis wintering sites, circa 1870.
Source: Reprinted with permission from The Buffalo Lake Metis Site: A Late Nineteenth Century Settlement in the Parkland of Central Alberta by M. F. V. Doll, R. S. Kidd, and J. P. Day, Provincial Museum of Alberta, Human History Occasional Paper No. 4, March 1988.

The commercial buffalo hunt did not begin in 1840 with the event Ross described. Rather, this economy got its start with the commencement of the western fur trade in the latter half of the 1700s. Expansion of trade into the Athabasca and Mackenzie regions in the North necessitated that fur companies secure a stable and consistent food supply for their boat brigades. Pemmican, a mixture high in protein and fat made from dried buffalo meat, was highly nutritious as well as easily stored and transported, making it the ideal food for voyageurs who expended a great deal of energy canoeing hundreds of miles daily. The buffalo meat trade began with the Montreal trade companies, which, in turn, opened a host of pemmican-provisioning posts across the western Plains at places such as Fort Augustus on the North Saskatchewan River. [6] Eventually, as Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) tripmen on the northern trade networks also utilized this food source, it became integral to the Company’s economy. Consequently, the commercial pemmican trade, which began in the late 1700s-early 1800s, depended on the development of a corpus of hunters and their families who both hunted and then processed the meat into pemmican. By the mid-19th century, the buffalo hunters were independent operators often referred to as freemen or free traders because they were no longer employees of any particular trade company. Historian John E. Foster argued that an ethos or sense of freedom gained by wintering fur traders led to social relationships between the traders and Aboriginal people, which in turn formed the Western Plains Metis and their sense of independence. Foster’s theory of Plains Metis ethnogenesis privileged the role of European men (whom he referred to as “outsider adult males”) in the creation of Metis society and de-emphasized the role of women—First Nations or Metis—in their evolution into a distinct society. [7] As independent entrepreneurs, buffalo hunters operated in a mixed economy as traders, hunters and freighters seeking out new markets with a multitude of trade companies operating on both the Canadian and American Plains. As such, buffalo meat, hides and robes became central trade items increasing the scale and prosperity of the buffalo-hunting tradition. It was this latter incarnation of the commercial hunt and, in particular, the Metis role within it that so fascinated observers.

While the narrative focus of the 19th-century ethnographies has been on Red River, there are hints as to the types of movement occurring on the Plains. Visiting Canada in 1872, Sanford Fleming stopped at Fort Ellice (near present-day St. Lazare, MB) and took note of the Mackay family, who were preparing to head out onto the plains to hunt. Fleming remarked that it was common for people to “club together in the spring, and go west to hunt the buffalo.” [8] He added that “their united caravan [was] popularly called a brigade.” [9] The HBC’s journals for Fort Ellice contain several references to brigades in the 1866–1867 season:

The Saskatchewan carts still here all day. David and Patanaude repairing carts to take on the Saskatchewan that was left here by the first Brigade. [The following day, the Saskatchewan carts left with David Prince joining them] taking 3 carts with the 27 pieces that was left here. [10]

The Qu’Apell [sic] Brigade [was part of] 31 carts arrived this evening loaded with 174 packs robes and 12 bags pemmican. Bill Lading says 13 bags but one was eaten on the road. [11]

A. Belange arrived with the 2nd Brigade of Red River carts going up to Carleton. [12]

It is unclear whether these were freighting, trading or hunting brigades or a combination of two or more. Regardless, the ethnographies make it clear that hunting brigades—organizational units similar to Indian bands—were opportunistic economically and that buffalo hunters also traded and freighted. [13] So, while the activity was characterized as buffalo hunting, the brigades in fact engaged in a complex, multifaceted economic behaviour based on season, need, opportunity and external demands for their services and expert knowledge of the Plains.

By the time that the buffalo hunters attracted the attention of Ross and other writers and artists, multiple brigades were permanent, year-round fixtures on the Plains, moving between fur posts, missions and habitation sites. Furthermore, an adult man (usually, but sometimes a woman) with a strong personality, knowledge of the region, and with excellent hunting ability headed these brigades. [14] The Fort Ellice records refer to the Belanger brigade, for instance, but identified in the historical records are five additional kin-centred brigades named after their leaders – Gabriel Dumont, Charles Trottier, Francois Ouellette, Francois Gariepy and Jean Baptiste Wilkie.

The Trottier Brigade

In order to analyze the brigades as representations of Metis socio-cultural organization, we focussed our research efforts on the Trottier brigade. Named for a 19th-century captain of the buffalo hunt and a member of Louis Riel’s 1885 provisional government, Charles Trottier, this brigade was a community of people from White Horse Plains in Red River who began engaging in the hunt as a cohesive group in the 1830s. There are two central data sets about the Trottier Brigade that illuminated the history of this community of people. The first is the memoir of Norbert Welsh, based on an interview given by Welsh to journalist Mary Weekes and published in 1939. [15] Welsh, a one-time member of the Trottier brigade, as well as the nephew via marriage of Charles Trottier, provided a number of important descriptions of the buffalo-hunting economy generally and the Trottier brigade more specifically. He accounted for the movements of the brigade, as well as those of a number of other brigades, along with descriptions of where and when wintering sites were constructed throughout the western plains. Furthermore, according to Welsh, by the 1850s and 1860s the Trottier brigade comprised thirty families (approximately three hundred people), including his own. Welsh further identified a limited number of brigade members, noting that Charles’ brothers Antoine and Andre Trottier, brothers Moise and Louis Landry, and Isidore Dumont and Welsh were all members. However, beyond those individuals’ Welsh names, we do not know precisely who comprised the thirty families. To learn more about the members of the brigades and apply some context to the family structure, the second set of data utilized were vital statistics. Within mission records, census lists, and scrip records are important genealogical data about the brigade. With these data, we proceeded to rebuild the familial and social ties between the identified brigade members so that we could then begin to chart their movements.

Our methodological approach for rebuilding familial and social spaces of the Plains Metis was twofold. We began with a standard genealogical reconstruction for a series of brigades, including the Trottier brigade, and then analyzed them by creating social networking graphs that illustrate trends and behaviours within families and between brigades. What was created by this exercise was a revealing snapshot of one specific brigade. Close inspection of genealogical connections of the brigade’s men demonstrated that this community had at its core Laframboise women. Sisters Ursule, Philomene and Angelique (all daughters of Jean Baptiste Laframboise and Susanne Beaudry) were married to Charles Trottier, Moise Landry and Antoine Trottier, respectively. Isidore Dumont, father of Gabriel, was married to Louise Laframboise, the aunt of the three Laframboise sisters (see Figure 2). [16] This social matrix calls into question Foster’s theory about the centrality of men in the creation of Plains Metis society.

Figure 2. Genealogy of the Trottier Brigade.

While the genealogical method is useful for understanding simple relations in a brigade, genealogies are limited in their ability to reveal a society. Genealogies are intended to trace the lineage of an individual through parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren, and are not designed to capture broader familial or social relationships. As such, we determined that transforming genealogical data into a social matrix as a means to understand Plains Metis society was necessary. We utilized Visone Software, a program that develops visual representations of social networks (or the social matrix) of a brigade and, eventually, the society as a whole. [17] For the purposes of this research, the social network was defined as representing a cohesive group of people—a Metis brigade—who associate with one another for various reasons—work, religion, political needs/desires, protection and/or support. A social network, therefore, is an effective means of identifying and representing familial relationships, and, therefore, the broader social community. This represents a new means of producing and representing genealogies. All social networks are made up of a series of nodes representing individuals present in a specific time and place, and can reveal linkages between individuals and the different types of ties that bind them. It represents families, but also communities of people living and working together. Social networking is simply a methodological tool that permits the visualization of the genesis and growth of the brigade as it travelled through time and space. This method of analysis has provided new clues about the social organization of the historical Metis. The Trottier brigade’s genealogy represented in Figure 2 can also be represented using social networking software, whereby we can visualize differently how the core group of Laframboise women, the cluster of circles on the left, are connected to the brigade’s men, as identified by Welsh, the cluster of triangles on the right (see Figure 3). All the individuals in the social networking graph are the same individuals listed in the genealogical chart, but instead of a linear representation of marital alliances, we can see how groups of related women drew a group of men who worked together into a social matrix predicated on blood and marriage. This connection between the women was revealed through basic genealogical information and some scant ethnographic data, but it is only through the graphing of the relationships that we can visualize the central space that they occupied in the formation of the brigades.

Figure 3. Social network of the Trottier Brigade.

Based on the initial Trottier-focussed research, we began systematically gathering, databasing, and synthesizing data from a wider collection of ethnographic materials and genealogical records in order to capture additional brigades that we noted were in contact with (or connected to) the Trottier brigade. By collecting a broader array of sources associated with other buffalo-hunting brigades, we linked the Trottier brigade to five other brigades via interfamilial connections. Tied to the Trottier brigade via marriage were the Dumont, Ouellette, Wilkie, Gariepy and Berger brigades. Trottier brigade members Isidore Dumont and Louise Laframboise’s son, Gabriel Dumont, was perhaps the most famous brigade leader of the 19th century due to his role as war chief during the 1885 Resistance. Gabriel was married to Madeleine Wilkie, the daughter of Jean Baptiste Wilkie, himself the leader of a brigade from Pembina (now in North Dakota) in the early 19th century. [18] Madeleine Wilkie’s sister, Judith, was married to Pierre Berger, the leader of the Berger brigade, while her brother, Jean Baptiste, Jr., was married to Marie Laframboise, the cousin of Ursule, Philomene and Angelique. Judith Wilkie and Pierre Berger’s daughter Elise was married to François Ouellette, while their son Jacques was married to François’ sister, Philomene Ouellette. François and Philomene were the nephew and niece of François Ouellette, Sr., another brigade leader. Finally, Cecilia Wilkie, sister of Madeleine and Judith, was married to Joseph Gariepy, member of the Gariepy brigade. As with the Trottier brigade, we can represent these connections genealogically (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Inter-Brigade connections.

Once we began looking at the families involved in the buffalo-hunting economy, it became clear that these individuals were intimately connected to one another and had forged a geo-social relationship predicated upon their involvement in this very specific, yet complex, economy. Just like what we discovered in the Trottier brigade, tracing the genealogies of specific families associated with identifiable brigades reveals a pattern of sisters—more importantly, related women, sisters or otherwise—marrying brigade members and linking otherwise unconnected males into a kinship system predicated upon interfamilial structures. In the case of the Trottier brigade, three Laframboise sisters stand out as having connected unrelated men to one another in a hunting brigade. This pattern was also seen with the Wilkie sisters, Judith, Madeleine and Cecilia. In this case, these three sisters were all married to captains or leaders of separate brigades—Pierre Berger, Gabriel Dumont, and Joseph Gariepy—and not men who all belonged to the same hunting group. There is a third variation regarding inter-related women connecting buffalo hunters. Within the Ouellette brigade, there were three Ouellette brothers marrying three Bottineau sisters. Brothers Isidore, François and Antoine Ratte Ouellette were married to Marie, Josephs and Angelique Bottineau, respectively (see Figure 5). As with the Trottier brigade chart, we can see to the left the three Bottineau sisters and on the right the three Ouelette brothers. The green clusters represent the children, the second generation, who belong to these groups of married siblings. In short, women played a pivotal role in the creation, formation, leadership and maintenance of brigades.

Figure 5. Social network of the Ouellette Brigade.

Clearly, family provided the matrix for establishing social and economic cohesion, but it must also be remembered that these were families on the move. Though identifiable with particular regions, they did not establish settlements, as we understand them. While the buffalo hunters occupied habitation sites—wintering camps or hivernements in the historical records—they lived as much in-between them as in them. Where, how, and when the brigades moved was central to their economic behaviour, but it was also pivotal to their efforts at maintaining social cohesion. The Plains Metis and their brigades connected to one another in a style of life distinct from others engaged in the trade economy writ large.

Re-orienting the Geographic Gaze

The ethnographic data highlight some mobility issues and reveal several realities on the Great Plains that have not been fully addressed by academic scholarship. As noted earlier, the standard interpretation of the buffalo hunt is that it originated in and from Red River, and that two brigades left this settlement, heading south and west to the buffalo ranges beginning in the late 1830s-early 1840s. In this interpretation, the Plains were not a homeland but rather a place in which the Metis worked seasonally but otherwise had no ties. Instead, Red River was at the centre of the buffalo hunters’ geography and, in turn, was the homeland. [19] This purported reality is further emphasized by the use of geographic terms to describe the brigades. Red River, Pembina and Whitehorse Plains become privileged locations in this narrative rather than the families who went on the hunt.

Within the framework of place-specific buffalo-hunting narratives, scholars generally agree that the strongest concentration of committed buffalo hunters at Red River came from the Whitehorse Plains, a sizable region situated west of the Forks of the Assiniboine and Red rivers on the eastern edge of the Prairies. In 1824, famed Metis leader Cuthbert Grant and fifty families left Pembina for the Whitehorse Plains to a location first named Grantown and later renamed St. François-Xavier after a Catholic mission was established. Whitehorse Plains encompassed an area greater than the community of Grantown or the parish of St. François-Xavier, likely including the parish of St. Charles, another Roman Catholic mission farther east on the Assiniboine River, plus Baie St. Paul (the Saulteaux mission) to the west. Largely described as a French Métis parish because of its Roman Catholic heritage, many of the earliest inhabitants of St. François-Xavier were Scottish Halfbreeds with names such as Grant, McGillis and McKay. Irene Spry argued that racial and/or cultural divisions amongst the Red River Metis population was grossly over-stated. By surveying non-clerical sources, she demonstrated instead that “Métis and mixed-bloods” were linked in “ties of blood and long association on the hunt and trip.” [20] Intermarriage between the so-called English- and French-speaking Metis families at Red River was, according to Spry, fairly widespread, and so the emphasis on division was less useful for assessing the community’s social make-up. Spry’s conclusions are born out when one looks at the number of families within the parish of St. François-Xavier with clear Scottish paternal traditions and the rise of Jean Baptiste Wilkie, Scottish Halfbreed, to the level of brigade leader in an economy largely described as being pursued by French Métis. By the late 1830s, when the Whitehorse Plains brigade(s) began heading directly west to the prairies, following the Assiniboine River and bypassing Pembina, they were also re-orienting themselves more fully to a plains-based style of life. Some of the Whitehorse Plains Metis—the Trottier Brigade and others—began moving and wintering farther west by the 1850s and not returning regularly to the settlement because the distances between Red River and the buffalo ranges were simply becoming too great.

Interestingly, after analyzing the ethnographic and vital records capturing the life cycles of individuals, it became apparent that this movement of hunting brigades out of Red River onto the Great Plains in an east-to-west fashion did not constitute population shift from the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to the Plains. The Metis of Red River were not the first out onto the plains; instead, they joined other Metis who had made the plains their home since the early 1800s. To understand this, it is relevant to revisit Marcel Giraud’s work on the Metis of western Canada, originally published in 1945. Giraud’s research produced an observation that has been overlooked by scholars focussed on Red River as the heartland of Metis ethnogenesis and political expression. According to Giraud, there was a clear division within Plains Metis society by the early 1800s. Giraud argued that there were the Metis of the West, who “dwelt outside the nucleus of civilization” as established at Red River and who had a strong affinity with Plains Indians because they followed closely their mode of life by refusing to create permanent settlements. [21] Giraud regarded the Metis of Red River as far more civilized because, even though they hunted, they were more privileged due to their closeness to the parishes and western society. While Giraud’s analysis has the heavy overtone of crude social Darwinism—savagery versus civilization—he provided an important hint about the dynamics of Plains society.

Furthermore, Giraud’s perception that there was a group of Metis originating from the northern Plains who were not as civilized as the Red River people—because they lived a lifestyle more akin to Indians—is an issue discussed within the HBC’s administrative records. In her analysis of the minutes of the northern council, Nelly Laudicina observed a series of “grey zones” in the administrative and legal history of the Council of Assiniboia. The Council was largely uncomfortable with the level of independence exhibited by the Metis hunters at White Horse Plains. These inhabitants residing along the banks of the Assiniboine River were often described as belligerently independent, resistant to farming, and insistent on maintaining close ties to Indians, all of which made their activities and behaviour suspect. The manner in which the HBC attempted to resolve its unease with this population manifested itself in a series of contradictory policies. For example, although it was Company policy to try to encourage former employees, freemen, and their respective families to come to the colony, the Council of Assiniboia tried to control exactly where this hunting population settled. The Council made efforts to divert them away from the heart of the colony and towards the banks of the Assiniboine River at a safe distance and under the control of Cuthbert Grant. Clearly, there was some unease in Red River immediately after the merger of 1821 regarding the role and influence that the Plains Metis would exert within the settlement. At the same time, however, there is also recognition that these hunters were potentially useful if their economic energy could be harnessed. In encouraging the Pembina Metis community to shift to Red River in the early 1820s, Governor George Simpson specified that he wanted them to settle at Whitehorse Plains on the far western edge of the settlement where they could be controlled by Cuthbert Grant, who had recently been made “Warden of the Plains.” [22] In bestowing this title on Grant, the HBC effectively set him outside the Company hierarchy because he was no longer employed as a clerk, yet also to establish him as an agent of Company authority. The title Warden of the Plains was strictly honorific, “a Sinecure offered him entirely from political motives and not from any feeling of liberality or partiality.” [23] Grant’s role was to assist the Chief Factor of the Red River District in his efforts to stop free trading in the area of the settlement. By keeping him thus occupied, Grant would himself no longer interfere with the HBC’s trade, while also keeping the Metis and Indians at distance from the colony:

It moreover affords us the benefits of his great influence over the half breeds and Indians of the neighbourhood which is convenient inasmuch as it exempts us from many difficulties with them. He resides at the White Horse Plain about 16 miles up the Assiniboine River where he farms and only visits the Establishment on business or by invitation; but is always ready to obey our commands and is very effective when employed as a constable among the half breeds or Indians. [24]

No such concern was ever expressed by Simpson or other HBC officials about the Metis settled at St. Boniface and southward along the Red River. This type of attitude was reserved almost entirely for the Assiniboia Metis. Additionally, in 1825, the Northern Council further flattened the differences between Indians and Metis by directing that “Freemen; Half Breeds and Iroquois” hunters and trappers be treated as if they were Indians.

Additional ethnographic data support Giraud’s conclusion that there was a separate group of Plains Metis, distinct from the Red River core, and the data also reveal elements of events on the plains. In his memoir, Auguste Vermette discussed the history of the relationship that the hunters at St. Norbert and St. Boniface had with those from Whitehorse Plains (St. François-Xavier), noting:

Les gens de Saint-Norbert puis de Saint-Boniface, ils ne s’entendaient pas bien avec les gens de la Prairie-du-Cheval-Blanc. Ils allaient à la chasse ensemble, ils voyageaient ensemble, mais on aurait dit que leur manière de vivre était pas pareille. Ils logeaient, ordinairement, un quatre, cinq milles de différence, en cas d’alerte, être assez proches pour avoir de l’aide. On pouvait venir aider l’autre en cas d’attaque par les Sioux. Encore, je rencontre les gens de la Prairie, on dirait qu’ils ne sont pas comme nous autres. [25]

Vermette’s observation that the people from Whitehorse Plains were somehow different from hunters of the St. Norbert and St. Boniface parishes is telling. When we look at the history of the family names from Whitehorse Plains, it becomes apparent that many originated in the trade at Forts des Prairies (Fort Edmonton) on the North Saskatchewan River, not on the southern Plains or at Red River. [26] It is known that Grant, founder of the Whitehorse Plains community, had begun his career as a young man working in the Montreal-based pemmican trade. The son of a NWC wintering partner and the nephew of one of that company’s founders, Grant was posted to Fort Espérance (now in Saskatchewan) on the Qu’Appelle River in 1812. By this time, the fur-bearing animals in the Qu’Appelle region had been almost exterminated and Fort Espérance was a victualling post whose primary functions were the organization of the buffalo hunt and the supply of pemmican to sustain the fur trade in the Athabasca country. [27] Although many members of these western families resided on the outskirts of the settlement, they continued to be perceived as distinct by authorities, as well as other Metis. Furthermore, according to Barry Kaye’s analysis of the settlement’s census records, these families continued to demonstrate even stronger ties to the buffalo-hunting economy than the residents of other parishes who, though they participated in the semi- annual buffalo hunts, engaged in a more mixed economy that included freighting with carts and oxen and low-level agricultural activity. The residents of White Horse Plains had few oxen and even fewer worked the land. This may help explain their earlier westward departure from the Settlement and their opting for a life of continual hunting and travelling on the northern Great Plains as the buffalo herds continued their westward range contraction. The Assiniboine parishes were populated by families from very different regions, very distinct economic nodes—kin to various and distinct First Nations and western Metis communities within the vast northwest trade network; so their enduring distinct behaviour is perhaps not so surprising. [28]

Like Grant, there were others identified as being from the Whitehorse Plains region who had been, in fact, employees in the West long before Red River existed as a place to live. The family progenitors of our identified brigades were such men employed in the West in the early 19th century. Jean Baptiste Dumont was at Forts des Prairies working for the North West Company, beginning in 1811 until his death in the spring of 1815. Joseph François Laframboise was also at Forts des Prairies from 1816 to 1821, and there is no indication that he worked elsewhere. Joseph Berger, conversely, was in the interior by 1811, but he alternated between Red River and Lake “Ouinipic” (Winnipeg). Berger bought two horses from the NWC in 1816 and was noted as having deserted in 1818. From 1819–1821, he was rehired in Montreal by the NWC to serve another three years as a winterer and middleman at Red River and/or Nipissing River. Given all the years that he worked in the Red River region, it is no surprise that his family was from there. Similarly, Andre Trottier, Sr. worked in the Red River area, designated in the ledgers as the “country of his birth”, from 1813 to 1818. In the period 1811–1821, we found the Laframboises and Dumonts tied to NWC’s Fort des Prairies post region, while the Bergers and Trottiers were based out of the Red River posts. We can see from these differing employment opportunities that many of the families we associate with the buffalo-hunting tradition originated in very different parts of the Great Plains and Parklands. [29] We also know, however, that by 1821–1822, several families originating from Forts des Prairies were at Whitehorse Plains, having been encouraged to “retire” there by the HBC after the 1821 merger. [30] The Metis of Forts des Prairies had their societal and economic origin in the North West Company’s pemmican-provisioning trade network. Vast buffalo herds surrounded the posts of the North Saskatchewan River region in the late 18th–early 19th century, and many of these posts existed to administer the buffalo-hunt economy. Consequently, the Fort Edmonton region dominated the pemmican-provisioning trade. When the fur-trade and pemmican wars broke out in Red River in the early 19th century, men such as Cuthbert Grant, who had been working in the pemmican-provisioning forts between Edmonton and Red River, mobilized to march on Red River to defend their interests. [31] This event, which culminated in the Battle of Seven Oaks on 19 June 1816, as we know, has long been described by scholars as a Red River event instigated and manipulated by the NWC, thus denying Metis much role in the development of this political expression. However, when one considers that the men heading eastward from the Plains to Red River lived and worked in an economy that gave rise to a new society, it certainly points to a need for scholars to re-assess the relationship between these events—i.e., the evolution of a political consciousness based on economic necessity having its origins in a separate, plains-based Metis society. The buffalo and pemmican economy remained central to Fort Edmonton and to the Metis brigades based in that area after the 1821 HBC-NWC merger. [32]

Arguably, some of the group that Giraud identifies as the Plains Metis may not have originated in Red River at all (a conclusion he does not reach), but instead were a mobile group who had emerged by 1800 along the North Saskatchewan River. Families such as the Grants, McGillises, Brelands, and Dumonts were, by their history, not linked to Red River, but instead were descended from the pemmican-provisioning networks of the Saskatchewan and Milk River valleys. It is this first group, the mobile Metis of the West, who came out of the Forts des Prairies and onto the plains at about the same time that the people of St. François-Xavier and St. Charles were heading west. The marital alliances between the Trottier men of Red River and the Forts des Prairies-linked Laframboise women may have been partly a strategic linking of different pools of geographic knowledge and kin networks in the creation of a new hunting brigade. The autobiography of Johnny Grant of Montana clearly illustrates that the Fort Edmonton region was home to a Metis society in the early 1800s, well before Red River’s establishment. The region’s Metis, in turn, populated the Montana districts by the 1820s–1830s. Johnny Grant, the son of Marie Anne Breland and Richard Grant, was born at Fort Edmonton in 1831 but spent much of his life in the Montana territory. [33] Through this family history, it becomes clear that there had developed an in situ Metis population in the region around Fort Edmonton who worked throughout the Great Plains, particularly in the North Saskatchewan River valley along with the Idaho/Montana regions, first provisioning pemmican and then in the buffalo robe trade.

We can see elements of this phenomenon described by Giraud in ethnographic writings left by other 19th-century writers. In 1859–1860, the Earl of Southesk, who travelled between Red River and Fort Edmonton on the Carlton Trail, identified at least six different locations where hunters were preparing for the summer hunt:

  • at Fort Garry, a large camp of halfbreeds were preparing for a winter hunt;
  • at White Horse Plains, halfbreed hunters and their families with innumerable carts and horses were preparing for the annual summer hunt;
  • at Fort Ellice, men were on the plains hunting buffalo;
  • at Fort Qu’Appelle, hunters were heading south into unfrequented districts (i.e., the US);
  • at Cherry Bush Plains, near Fort Carlton, halfbreeds were organized and experienced buffalo hunters; and
  • at Fort Edmonton there were a lot of hunters. [34]

Southesk’s observations arguably point to a series of brigades preparing for their summer hunts that year. Giraud’s insights, along with accounts generated in the 19th century, and our efforts involving the methodology of social networking point to a need to re-assess the origins of Metis buffalo-hunting society.

Capturing the history of family-based brigades returns us to the central issue of mobility and why it has not been systematically studied as a style of life. The answer largely rests with sources and the types of methods employed by scholars. How does one track a people whose lifestyle is inherently mobile when the historical records are inherently immobile? For example, a sacramental register—baptismal, marriage, burial—has a fixed geographical scope that corresponds to either the territorial boundaries of a specific parish or the circuit of a particular itinerant missionary. However, hunting brigades moved continually across parochial and missionary boundaries. Records may exist for any one individual (or group) across a whole series of registers, so that if we were to look only at one register set, we would miss capturing the entire range of the family’s experiences and, therefore, the brigade as a whole. We first needed to delineate the brigades’ general patterns of migration and residence. [35] Tracing the genealogical records of the Trottier brigade enabled us to locate individual brigade members, the locations where they lived, were born or baptized, hunted, traded, married, and died. With this information, the general path of the Trottier brigade’s mobility emerged, providing a sense of its evolving spatial usage of the Great Plains. According to church records for the Trottier brigade, for instance, the permanent transition to the plains from St.-François-Xavier took place in the late 1850s and early 1860s. However, the brigade’s founding families were already establishing marital links to families along the North Saskatchewan River by the late 1830s. It is these marital alliances as much as the economy that brought the people of Whitehorse Plains, like the Trottiers, out onto the Plains. As a group, the brigade moved into the Qu’Appelle Valley, onto the Wood Mountain Plateau, and into the Cypress Hills by the late 1860s and early 1870s, and then fanned out both northward toward Round Prairie and southwestward into Montana Territory. The evidence, both social and geographic, found within a series of sacramental registers, was supplemented with data generated from an analysis of relevant trade, census, petition, and scrip records, and then further correlated with a close reading of existing narrative materials. [36] Utilization of all these sources permits the creation of a larger picture of the brigade’s activities, movements and composition away from Red River. In a sense, we have the ability to create a social and geographic grid across the Plains with specific temporal and geographic reference points. We were thus able to reduce the “silent zones” where the Trottier brigade disappears from the researcher’s gaze, and provide a more robust understanding of both their social and geographic networks.


New developments in computer software and technologies have the potential to transform humanities research in the area of history, especially the history of peoples who did not typically produce their own records. As researchers, we are often limited by the sources available to us, but more often, we are blinkered by our own preconceptions of what was historically possible or real. The overt focus on Red River as the nexus of Metis society can be attributed to the over-abundance of sources for that area, but that is only part of the story. The Red River settlement was an important node in the fur-trade system and the HBC’s administration after 1821, but it was not the centre of the Plains Metis world. In many respects, it was its eastern periphery. Arthur Ray rightly pointed to our scholarly myopia that privileges settled spaces as homelands, which, in turn, denies the possibility that mobility is in fact what defined a people. Through the utilization of new methodologies such as social networking software for tracing who and where a people were at any given time, coupled with a reassessment of the existing ethnographic and secondary literature available with an eye to further our understanding of the social and cultural composition of their society, it is evident that there is more to know about the Plains Metis. Quite broadly, greater attention needs to be paid to the role of women in the formation of the brigades and where the buffalo-hunting communities originated. But more than this, our research to date points to a new paradigm about the very nature of Plains Metis society. These were a people who lived in family-based economic units and spent their lives in a continuous cycle of movement that is alien to us today. Indeed, their sense of home was clearly far broader than fixed points on the map and far more extensive than the existing scholarship is able to capture. By embracing new technologies to support and enhance our scholarship, we have the opportunity to begin understanding a way of life on the terms of those who lived it. Through networking analysis, we were able to chart the contours of one brigade while beginning to see the outlines of others. Determining who the key members of the brigade were and to whom they were linked allowed us to proceed to an exhaustive yet targeted search of information on the brigade in far flung archival records. This, in turn, allowed us to chart the creation, composition and movements of the Trottier brigade over an immense geography and across several decades. It also allowed us an entry point into other brigades and to explore the interrelations of brigades, the actual foundation of La Nation Metisse.


1. We were assisted on this project by Dr. Timothy Foran, research associate at the University of Ottawa, who conducted extensive archival research on the Catholic missionaries and their interactions with Plains Metis, and by Émilie Pigeon, graduate research assistant, who began the process of developing our social networking analysis. We are grateful to them both for all the hours spent working with old records and computer software. The research undertaken for this project was made possible through the financial support of the Office of the Federal Interlocutor, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

2. Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement: its Rise, Progress and its General History to the Present Day, Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1972 reprint, pp. 245–246.

3. For example see: John McLean, John McLean’s Notes of a Twenty-Five Years’ Service in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, ed. W. S. Wallace, Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1932; Father Louis Laflèche Saint-François-Xavier, 1er juin 1847 (Ann. de la Prop. de la Foi, Québec) or “The People of Red River”, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, XVIII (Dec. 1858–May 1859), p. 172.

4. Arthur J. Ray, Telling It to the Judge: Taking Native History to Court, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011, p. 107.

5. Ibid.

6. Fort Augustus was the North West Company (NWC) post near the HBC post of Edmonton House. Both posts were occasionally referred to as Fort des Prairies, along with a number of other posts in the West in that general region. After 1821, the NWC and HBC posts were amalgamated and became Fort Edmonton.

7. John E. Foster, “Wintering, the Outsider Adult Male and Ethnogenesis of the Western Plains Métis”, Prairie Forum 19, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 1–13.

8. George Monroe Grant, Ocean to Ocean: Sanford Fleming’s Expedition through Canada in 1872; Being Diary kept During a Journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the Expedition of the Engineer-in-Chief of the Canadian Pacific and Intercolonial Railways, Toronto: Coles Pub. Co., 1970, p. 135.

9. Ibid. Emphasis added.

10. Fort Ellice Post Journal, 1865–1867. HBC 1M51 B.63/a/9. 9 August 1866.

11. Fort Ellice Post Journal, 1865–1867. HBC 1M51 B.63/a/9. 8 May 1867.

12. Fort Ellice Post Journal, 1865–1867. HBC 1M51 B.63/a/9. 9 July 1867.

13. For an analysis of the opportunistic economic approach of the Metis hunting brigades, see James McKillip, “A Métis Métier: Transportation in Rupert’s Land”, Master’s thesis, University of Ottawa, 2005.

14. Mary Weekes as told to her by Norbert Welsh, The Last Buffalo Hunter, 1939; Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1994, pp. 76–77; and Marie Rose Smith, “Eighty Years on the Plains”, Glenbow Museum Archives, GAIA, Box 1, File 4:64.

15. Weekes, The Last Buffalo Hunter.

16. Cheryl Troupe’s MA thesis on the history of urbanization of the Metis in Saskatoon details this early history of the Trottier brigade. She began the genealogical reconstruction of the Trottier brigade at Round Prairie, and a version of the genealogy in Figure 2 can be found in her thesis. Cheryl Troupe, “Métis Women: Social Structure, Urbanization, and Political Activism, 1850–1980,” Master’s thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 2010.

17. We are indebted to Émilie Pigeon for her work creating the social networking graphs contained in this paper.

18. Jean Baptiste Wilkie was the son of a Scottish NWC employee, Alexander Wilkie, and an Anishanaabe woman, Mezhekamkijok.

19. The most comprehensive study of the buffalo hunters leaving Red River, specifically St. François-Xavier, was undertaken by Gerhard J. Ens. See his Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

20. Irene M. Spry, “The Métis and Mixed-Bloods of Rupert’s Land before 1870”, in eds. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. H. Brown, The New Peoples, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1981, p. 97.

21. Marcel Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, trans. George Woodcock, 2 vols., Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1986, p. 3.

22. Nelly Laudicina, “Droit et Metissages, Evolution et usage de la loi a la colonie de la Riviere Rouge, 1811-1869,” PhD Thesis, Universite Paris IV-Sorbonne & University of Ottawa, 2012, p. 92; quoting Beaver House, HBCA, D4/8, pp. 14-16.

23. Laudicina, p. 91; quoting Williams, Hudson’s Bay Miscellany, Character Book, p. 210.

24. Ibid.

25. “The people of St. Norbert and of St. Boniface did not get along well with people of Whitehorse Plains. We hunted together, we traveled together but it seemed like their way of life was not like ours. They lodged, usually, four or five miles away. In an emergency, they were close enough to get / give help. One could come to help the other if attacked by the Sioux. Still, I meet people of La Prairie [today], and they are not like us.” Marcien Ferland, Au temps de la Prairie: L’histoire des Métis de l’ouest canadien racontée par Auguste Vermette, neveu de Louis Riel, Saint-Boniface MB: Les Éditions du Blé, 2000, pp. 51–52.

26. Forts des Prairies, rather than Fort de Prairies, is a reference often found in the Oblate records referring to the region of the North Saskatchewan River valley where there were many posts associated with the HBC and NWC. Fort de Prairie, however, was a specific location, a fur post operated by the HBC in the location that became Fort Edmonton.

27. George Woodcock, “Cuthbert Grant,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography,, 1 June 2012.

28. Barry Kaye, “Some Aspects of the Cultural Geography of the Red River Settlement, 1827-1850,” MA Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1967.

29. HBCA F.4/32 NWC Ledger Book, 1811–1821.

30. See also Ruth Swan and Edward A. Jerome, “Indigenous Knowledge, Literacy and Research on Metissage and Metis Origins on the Saskatchewan River: The Case of the Jerome Family” Prairie Forum 20, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 1–24.

31. Woodcock, “Cuthbert Grant.” See also Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, 1:450: “The correspondence of Duncan Cameron and Cuthbert Grant revealed the organization of a new force of Bois- Brules whose members, recruited in the region of Fort Dauphin, Fort des Prairies, the Churchill River, and the Qu’Appelle River, would sweep away in the coming spring the last vestiges of the colony that presumed to defy the wishes of their nation.”

32. Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, 1:16; Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton, Surrey, BC: Heritage House Publishing, 2005.

33. There are two significant biographies of Grant’s life: Gerhard Ens, A Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008; and Lyndel Meikle, ed., Very Close to Trouble: The Johnny Grant Memoir, Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1996.

34. Earl of Southesk, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, During a Journey Through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territories, in 1859 and 1860, Edmonton: M. G. Hurtig Ltd., 1969.

35. Timothy P. Foran, the research associate for this project, was the one to draw our attention to this issue of sources and location based on his work tracking the families through the existing sacramental registers for the Catholic missions in western Canada. He presented these ideas in a paper, “Marrying Well: Catholic Matrimony and the Construction of Metis Kinship Networks, 1850–1885”, presented at the International Council for Canadian Studies (ICCS), hosted by the Universities of Ottawa and Carleton, 24 May 2012.

36. Ibid.

Page revised: 4 January 2018

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