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Manitoba History: 1000 Words: Julie Lagimodière Riel and the Little Boy

by Lyle Brennen
Bel Air, Maryland

Number 88, Winter 2018

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In a widely publicized photograph, Julie Lagimodière Riel (1822–1906), mother of Louis Riel, is seated with a little boy who is often identified as her grandson, Jean-Louis Riel. The stated date of the photo varies as well, with one archive dating it as late as circa 1890. In an email to me, Darren Préfontaine of the Gabriel Dumont Institute opined that the photograph appeared to him to have been taken much earlier, even predating the birth of Jean-Louis. That led me to do some detective work on it.

I quickly identified the photograph as the work of Red River photographer Ryder Larsen. I had previously done a good bit of research on Larsen and came to recognize the backdrops, furnishings, props, and card stock that he used in many of his photographs. Larsen had photographed a significant number of the prominent families in and around Winnipeg and many of these pictures are found in libraries and archives throughout Canada.

In the Julie Riel photo, we see a painted backdrop of a Grecian landscape with a Greek temple, a low fence with circular embellishments, and a broad white baseboard. This same background is found in other Ryder Larsen photographs that are imprinted on back with his distinctive photographer’s stamp.

Ryder Larsen operated his studios in Winnipeg and St. Andrew’s between 1866 and 1871. In 1870, he was charged in the murder of Thomas Johnstone but the case never came to trial because Larsen disappeared from Winnipeg in 1871 and was never seen again. The photograph must therefore be dated to no later than 1871. As Jean Louis Riel was born in 1882, more than ten years after Larsen vanished and his studios closed, the little boy with Julie Riel cannot be him. A side-by-side comparison of known photographs of Jean-Louis Riel at around the same age as the little boy in the photo with Julie Riel reveals little to no resemblance.

Riel kin. In a photo taken in 1871 by Red River photographer Ryder Larsen, Louis Riel’s mother Julie Lagimodière Riel (1822– 1906) appears with a young boy. Alleged to be her grandson Jean- Louis Riel (1882–1908), photographic detective work indicates that he is actually her son Alexandre Riel (1863–1938).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, CH0267 GR10030 CAM-11-6 / Z 12-2-5-1

There is a good case for claiming that three other extant photographs of pairs of Julie’s children were taken in the Larsen studio on the same day as the Julie Riel photo. The people in all four photographs are seated in the same position relative to the Grecian landscape backdrop behind them, i.e., with the Greek temple and a bit of the fence to the left. The legs and spindles of the chair on which the little boy is sitting are identical to those of the chair on which Charles Riel is sitting. In each photo, the chairs remain in the same position relative to the floor pattern. It appears that, after each photograph was taken, the two subjects got up, leaving the chairs in place, and were replaced by the next two subjects.

The photographs of Charles and Joseph Riel, Henriette and Eulalie Riel, Octavie and Marie Riel, and Julie and the little boy are all in the collection of the Library and Archives Canada. All four photos have handwritten inscriptions on verso that identify the subjects and that give the date of each as 1871. The inscriptions were written by the same unidentified person sometime between 1898 and 1931. The day those four photos were taken was probably a “Riel Family Photo Day.”

It has been assumed by many that the little boy seated with Julie would likely be her grandson because of the apparent age difference. To the eyes of many, Julie looks old enough to be the boy’s grandmother.

In 1871, the Riels participated in a “family photo day” at the studio of local photographer Ryder Larsen. In this trio, we see six of Julie Lagimodière Riel’s nine children alive at that time. In each photo, note the similarity of the floor covering and backdrop with the one of Julie Lagimodière Riel. In the left photo, we see at left Octavie Riel (1852–1890, later the wife of Louis Lavallee) and at right Marie Riel (1850–1873). In the centre photo, we see at left Charles Riel (1854–1875) at left and Joseph Riel (1858–1921) at right. In the right photo are Henriette Riel (1861–1898, later the wife of Jean-Marie Poitras) and at right Eulalie Riel (1853–1931, later the wife of William Gladu).
Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3195255; MIKAN 3200080; MIKAN 3191523

If the little boy were a grandchild, the only one he could be is Joseph Zastre. Joseph was the first grandchild of Louis Riel, Sr. and step-grandson of Julie Lagimodière Riel. Joseph was born in 1866 to Marguerite Marie Riel and Jean-Baptiste Zastre. Given that the photograph is dated 1871, that makes all other grandchildren not yet born or too young to be in the photograph.

Julie’s last child, Alexandre, was born in 1863 when Julie was 41 years old. That would make Julie 49 and Alexandre eight at the time of the 1871 photograph. This would account for the apparent age difference which suggests a grandchild.

Deciding whether the little boy is Alexandre Riel or Joseph Zastre could be based on making a judgment as to whether he appears to be closer to eight years old (Alexandre) or closer to five years old (Joseph). Other factors, however, must be considered. Julie Riel had nine living children at the time of this 1871 photograph. Six of them that were photographed that day are Charles and Joseph Riel, Henriette and Eulalie Riel, and Octavie and Marie Riel. Julie most certainly would have brought along a seventh, Alexandre, her youngest child, to be photographed together with his six brothers and sisters. That leaves only two missing children: Louis and Sara. Sara entered the novitiate of the Grey Nuns order in 1862 and was posted to the Oblate mission at Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan in 1871. It is unlikely that she would have been able—or allowed —to attend the photo shoot with her mother and siblings. Louis may have been occupied with the momentous events of that period in his life.

A handwritten inscription on the back of the photograph of Julie Lagimodière Riel identifies the little boy as her son Alexandre.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3200082

Given that the inscription on the back of the photograph names the little boy as being Julie’s son Alexandre, and the near certainty that Alexandre would have been included in the photo session with his mother and six other siblings, it is reasonable to conclude with confidence that the little boy is Alexandre Riel.

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We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 11 July 2022

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