by W. L. Morton
Manitoba Pageant, April 1959, Volume 4, Number 3
Eighteen miles west from Winnipeg, on the old highway to Poplar Point and Portage la Prairie, is the village and parish of St. Francois Xavier. It is one of the oldest settlements in Manitoba and many of its people are still French.
St. Francois Xavier was not always so named. It was first called Grantown, after its founder, Cuthbert Grant, the Cuthbert Grant who had led the bois brules (the half breeds) at Seven Oaks in June, 1816. He led them because they had accepted him as their leader. This they had done because he was the son of a North West Company partner of the same name and of an Indian mother. After being sent to Scotland to be educated, Cuthbert Grant had worked in Montreal as a clerk of the North West Company, and then as a clerk at the Qu'Appelle post in what is now Saskatchewan. Then he became the "Captain General of the Half Breeds" in the spring of 1816, when the trouble between the Company and Selkirk's colony was becoming very dangerous.
After the strife between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company had ended in 1821, Governor George Simpson made Grant a clerk in the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Garry, lest he make trouble with the half breeds and Indians. Grant was glad to be at peace and at work, but trouble broke out with some of the colonists and Grant had to leave the Company in 1823.
Simpson was reluctant to see him go, and planned a new part for Grant to play. There were many half breeds in the country whose services were no longer needed in the fur trade, and who would be better off settled on the land. Simpson and Grant planned to form a half breed settlement.
They chose a spot on the Assiniboine River about eighteen miles west of Fort Garry. There was a slight ridge there known as the Coteau des festins, which we might translate freely as Dog Feast Ridge. It was, we may suppose, an old Indian camping ground. Across the river there was a view far to the south and west over the plain called White Horse Plain (Prairie du Cheval Blanc) because a white horse was said to have roamed there for many years after its owner, a Cree chief, and his Assiniboine bride, had been pursued and killed by a jealous Sioux rival. (* See Manitoba Pageant, January 1958, for the "Legend of White Horse Plain.")
There Simpson gave Grant a tract of land of six miles frontage on the Assiniboine and six miles depth. Grant, who was an educated gentleman and a man of some wealth, considered it to be his seignieury, as though he were a seignieur in Quebec. There in the spring of 1824 he had the grant divided into river lots, took the central ones for himself and a church, and gave those nearest to the bravest warriors and buffalo hunters of the Métis or half breeds. By 1827, there were over fifty families settled in Grantown.
Grant himself, while active as a trader and freighter, set himself to become a farmer also, in order that his people might be persuaded to take up farming to support themselves. In a few years Grant had cleared as much as fifty acres of land, and the other settlers had made a good beginning. One of these was Pierre Falcon, the poet of the Métis.
But Grantown was formed not only as a farming settlement. It was also a defence for Red River against the Sioux Indians. The Sioux were the hereditary enemies of the Cree and the Ojibwas, from which tribes the Indian wives and mothers of the Métis came. The Métis, as buffalo hunters and plainsmen, were skilled in plains fighting, and fought the Sioux with confidence and daring. As long as Grantown stood, the Red River colony was shielded against Sioux raids and thievery.
The people of Grantown never did turn to farming as the only way of winning a living. They kept up the buffalo hunt on the plains. Every June and October, the whole settlement, except for the very old and very young, went out to the plains with their carts and their buffalo running horses, on the two great annual hunts. And the carts came back with pemmican, dried meat, tallow and robes. Sometimes they had to fight the Sioux, as in the great battle of the Grand Coteau, in what is now North Dakota, in July, 1851.
So famous were the warriors of Grantown, indeed, that in 1836 an American adventurer, General Dickson, came to Grantown to get Métis fighters to help him conquer Mexico. Grant refused to let his people go, but Falcon wrote a song about Dickson's visit.
There were many other interesting things going on in Grantown under its famous leader, Cuthbert Grant, who in 1828 was made Warden of the Plains of Red River the making of Red River carts, the making of maple sugar, the building of the church at St. Francois Xavier, named for the Jesuit saint who had worked and died in China. About these things you can find out for yourselves, if you want.
Page revised: 30 June 2009