From Buffalo Hunting to Cattle Ranching: The Métis of the Belly River

Editor’s note: In honour of National Indigenous History Month, RETROactive is pleased to share another post written by historical researcher Matt Hiltermann, on behalf of the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3. Marsii Matt!

Written by: Matt Hiltermann

The history of the Métis in the MacLeod-Pincher Creek area before 1874 is difficult to parse, due in-part to the shifting nomenclature of the area. During the 19th century, the Belly River was variously applied to not only its modern course, but also the Oldman river between its confluence with the Belly and its confluence with the Bow. Sometimes, its French name, the Gros Ventre River, was even applied to the entirety of the South Saskatchewan. As such, determining where events took place along the so-called “Belly River” can be difficult to determine. Most references to the Belly River, however, likely take place in what is now the Oldman River watershed, so these early accounts are pertinent to discussions of the Métis history at Pincher Creek, Fort MacLeod and Lethbridge.

The lack of literature – both primary and secondary – reflects the distance of the Oldman-Belly watershed from imperial – and  later colonial – record makers, such as fur traders and missionaries, who were situated primarily on the North Saskatchewan and Missouri Rivers, hundreds of miles away. Still, while evidence is sparse, the few sources that ventured into the Oldman-Belly Watershed inevitably make mention of Métis people or of Métis families in the area. 

The earliest accounts of trading parties into the Belly River country come from Peter Fidler, who wintered among the Peigan there in 1793.  Beyond that, it is only mentioned once between 1795 and 1821. The Belly River only comes back into focus during the 1822, when Francis Heron led a party of Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employees and contracted Freemen into the region as part of the HBC’s Bow River Expedition. On October 27, 1822, “Mr Heron and his Party consisting of Messrs. J.E. Harriott[,] Dond. Manson, Hugh Munro, Alexr Douglas and Twenty men” departed for the Oldman-Belly Watershed. It is worth noting that Harriott would spend most of his career trading with the Blackfoot at Rocky Mountain House and Peigan Post (aka Old Bow Post), while Munro would marry a Piikani woman and live out most of his life among the Blackfoot. It not clear who the other 20 men on the expedition are, although the likes Jimmy Jock Bird, Louis Brunais (Bruneau), Jack and George Ward, and Michel Patenaude were probably among their numbers, as all of these freemen had or would later develop kin connections with the Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina or Gros Ventre, and remained active in the Southern Alberta Trade throughout the 1820s. [i] These men were Métis themselves or gave rise to prominent Métis families.

“Country between the Red River Settlement and the Rocky Mountains showing the various routes of the expedition, under the command of Capt. John Palliser, 1857-1858.” Source: Historical Maps Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary. 

Following the Bow River expedition, the Belly River Valley fades back into obscurity. It is not mentioned once in the Edmonton House Journals between 1826 and 1834. However, in his memoirs, American fur trader Charles Larpenteur mentions a trade expedition to the Belly River during the 1830-1831 trading season alongside Jacques Berger and two other men, Dacoteau and Morceau. The identities of these men remains obscure, though the name Morceau (alternatively, Moreau, Morisseau, Morrisson and Morrow) does appear to still be active in the area at the time of the Mounties’ arrival.[ii]

Few births are recorded in this area compared to the area around Calgary, suggesting less activity that in the Bow River Valley. However, there are two notable individuals: Francois Munro was likely born along the Oldman River in 1849, while Jean Baptiste Lafournaise dit Laboucan was born on the Belly River in 1861. James “Jimmy Jock” Bird was also married on the Belly in 1825. The presence of familiar surnames, such as Bird and Munro, is unsurprising as their activity in Southern Alberta is well-attested. In 1859, Olivier Vanesse (dit Anas) and Felix Munro are recorded as being in the Belly-Oldman area with Doctor Hector of the Palliser Expedition, while an unnamed “Blackfoot Halfbreed” – likely Paul Cayen or one of the Munros – guided the expedition through this area ca. 1860.

While most of the names and people discussed so far have been Métis from the Edmonton area, it is also likely that folks from Red River were ranging this far west prior to 1870. In 1857, Henry Yule Hind records Métis hunting, “beyond the South Saskatchewan River.” In his memoirs, George William Sanderson recalls trading with the Blackfoot beyond where Medicine Hat is today around 1862.

The picture returns to focus in the 1870s, first with the accounts of American whiskey traders and later the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP). Whiskey trader John LaMott recounts travelling with three Canadian Métis through the Belly River valley during the early 1870s, while NWMP surgeon, Richard Barrington Nevitt notes the presence of a Métis settlement on the Belly River prior to the arrival of the Mounties in 1874. Nevitt’s writings and artwork merit particular attention; according to Hugh Dempsey, “[Nevitt’s] letters of 1874-1878 are the most detailed account of life at Fort MacLeod known to exist.”

“Buildings and residences of Fort Macleod, Alberta,” ca 1876. Illustration by Richard Barrington Nevitt. Source: Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.  

Nevitt’s first reference to a Métis presence in the Belly River Valley, noted above, occurs even prior to the arrival of the Mounted Police at what would become Fort MacLeod. It should come as no surprise that his first visitor and patient outside of the force was a young Métis woman concerned about the wellbeing of her newborn child. Although she is not named in Nevitt’s letter, this first-time mother was likely Isabella Carr (nee Grant), the daughter of Johnny Grant and Isabelle Lussier. Her mother is noted as being part of the Blackfeet in Montana, and was the half sister of one Marie Cadotte (wife of Cuthbert Grant).[iii] Isabella’s first (and apparently only) son, Joseph, was born at Pincher Creek in April of 1874, and this would likely have been her first opportunity to take the baby to see a doctor. At the very least, she seems to be the only first-time Métis mother with a newborn baby the right age to have been Nevitt’s patient documented in the area at the time. Interestingly, although Nevitt visited Grant’s farm near Dufferin, Manitoba, he does not appear to have made the connection between his former host and his first patient at Fort MacLeod.[iv]

Although Isabella Grant Carr was likely the Métis woman described by Nevitt, she was by no means the only Métis person in the area at the time; scrip records indicate that the descendants of Angelique Vallee were also prolific in the area.[v] This is noteworthy, as the [La]Vallees seem to have been part of the brigade in the Milk River. The Vallee family also seems to have been connected to the Spring Creek band of Northern Montana.  

Angelique’s daughter, Philomene Hebert, claims to have been at the location that would become Fort MacLeod since 1865. Philomine’s half-brother, Cornelius Leblanc, settled at Pincher Creek in 1870, though he would later establish himself at Fort MacLeod where he married Mary Favel in 1875. Meanwhile, although her own scrip is vague on the matter, Gail Morin indicates that another daughter of Angelique – Harriet Gladstone (nee Leblanc) – arrived in the Battle River Valley between 1871 and 1873 after previously residing at Fort Benton and on the Marias River. It therefore make’s sense that Harriet’s daughter – also named Harriet – stated on her scrip application taken at Pincher Creek that she had lived her entire life in, “this part of the country”. Despite the conflicting accounts of exactly where members of these families were in their scrip records, dominion land claims situate these families near modern-day Pectin, Alberta. This appears to be where the extended Leblanc-Hebert-Gladstone family had their settlement.[vi] They may have inhabited the wintering site described by William Pearce as being located, “in the Porcupine Hills on Beaver Creek, Sec. 9-9-29-W4th.”

Métis camp with Red River carts, photograph possibly taken at Milk River Lake, Alberta, 1874. Source: Royal Engineers/Library and Archives Canada.

However, the Métis population settled in the area was small when compared to the more migratory Métis who also frequented the area. Nevitt reports the arrival of a large Métis camp at Fort MacLeod in June 1875. While he only mentions the Munros by name, scrip records indicate that members of the Collins, Cardinal, Desjarlais and Deschamps families were likely part of this camp as well. Based on individuals whose scrip records this data was gathered from, this brigade seems to have been one from the what I call the Edmonton Settlement Complex; that is the string of settlements – mostly but not entirely along the North Saskatchewan – between Lac La Biche and Lac Ste Anne. Some later families to settle in the area from the Edmonton Settlement Complex included Paquette, Salois, L’Hirondelle, Godin and Boucher.

The earlier presence of Edmonton Métis in a particular area, compared to Métis from Red River, is consistent with what we see elsewhere in Southern Alberta. This is likely because, due to contact and a high frequency of kin connections, the relationship between Edmonton freemen and the Blackfoot was generally cordial; by contrast, there was more distrust (if not hostility) between the Blackfoot and the freemen from Fort Carlton and Red River. The Edmonton brigades may also have been smaller, as the population of the region was much smaller than at Red River and the Saskatchewan Forks, meaning that the Edmonton freeman families were not as much of a strain on the region’s resources as those who came from east of the Cypress Hills.

While the initial Métis population of the Pincher Creek-Macleod appears to have been largely families associated with Edmonton Settlement Complex, as the 1870s and 1880s progressed, more and more Métis from Red River moved into the area. This was the result of a few factors. First, following the events of 1869-1870, there was a mass exodus of Métis from Red River to locations further west. This was due, in part, to the increasingly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant population of Red River and that demographic’s hostility towards the Métis.[vii] Another factor was the government’s tardiness in implementing the Manitoba Act, resulting in many Métis losing their farmland to immigrants from Ontario. Finally, as the buffalo herds retreated west, the annual commute to and from Red River for the hunt became less and less tenable as wintering camps had to be established further afield.

This brings us to some of the factors that attracted Métis to the Pincher Creek area. The first factor was its proximity to the last buffalo herds. A second factor was that there was already a Métis presence in the area. As mentioned above, the settled Métis population was small, but that sense of familiarity was still appealing. Finally, with the arrival of the Northwest Mounted Police, the people from Red River – who had fewer kin ties and less contact with the Blackfoot – no longer had to worry about possible raids or attacks from the Blackfoot. Some of the Red River families that arrived between 1875 and 1885 included Brown, Delorme, Flammand, Fagnant (spellings vary), Gervais, McGillis, McKay, Short, Sinclair and Whitford. While they were initially evenly split between MacLeod and Pincher Creek, by the 1891 census they had largely coalesced around the latter.

“Mrs. Louise Flamand, Pincher Creek, Alberta,” ca 1910 by Ingram and Bridgman. Source: Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Demographically, the Pincher Creek-MacLeod area was less homogenous than other settlements on the prairies. Calgary, Edmonton, Duhamel, Buffalo Lake, St. Albert, Lac Ste. Anne and Victoria Settlement all had clear Métis majorities. The non-Indigenous populations of these communities were mostly former fur traders who had married into Métis families and settled among them, although by 1881 there were a few newcomers from Ontario Quebec, and the Maritimes. These recent arrivals were mostly merchants, government functionaries or members of the Northwest Mounted Police.

The Belly River Valley was somewhat different. Perhaps surprising today, this region was more populous than the Bow River Valley, accounting for 354/582 people in the Bow River (M) District. Of that, Anglo-Canadians made up the largest group at 115 (32 per cent). Of that number, 91 (79 per cent) were men over the age of 16, while six were women and the remaining 18 were children. While a few of these were farmers, stock raisers or labourers, about 57 per cent of the Anglo-Canadian population worked either as government functionaries or merchants. The NWMP alone employed 46 per cent of the Anglo-Canadian population.

Métis made up the second largest group at 76 (21 per cent). This population formed a standard age pyramid, with the ration of men to women to children being roughly 1:1:2. The Métis here mostly worked as farmers and freighters, although a couple younger individuals worked as servants to Col. James Macleod’s family. There were also some specialized skills among the Métis in this area, with David Sinclair working as a blacksmith, John McDougall acting as a farming instructor[viii], and two cousins – both named George McKay – working as a schoolmaster and Anglican minister, respectively.

The third major population group was American, accounting for 11 per cent of the population. This American group poses methodological problems for census analysis as their origins are unclear. For example, to take the census at face value, Jerry Potts – the famed guide for the NWMP – would be coded as a “Scottish-American,” while John Collins – a well-known Métis buffalo hunter and freighter – would be “Irish-American”. There were also at least two African Americans in this number – David Mills and Annie Saunders. Given the difficulty with identifying the ancestry of many of these Americans, they have been left as a separate entity. Overwhelmingly, this population was engaged in some form of agriculture: farmers, ranchers, stock raisers, teamsters or farm labourers, although there are a couple merchants and tradesmen among them. Numerically, all but two of the Americans were men.

“Métis family, southern Alberta,” ca 1890 by T. H. Mather. Source: Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.  

The remainder of the population was about evenly divided between off-reserve Blackfoot (8.5 per cent), Irish (7.6 per cent), English from England (7.4 per cent). There were also smaller populations French from Quebec (4.8 per cent), Scottish from Scotland (2.3 per cent), and miscellaneous other places (1.7 per cent). As well, data from 3.7 per cent of entries was too damaged to interpret.

The Métis presence in the Belly River Valley looks different than other sites in Southern Alberta, like Head of the Mountain, Tail Creek or Calgary, where families would winter over in semi-permanent structures. However, although the area was settled fairly late, Métis buffalo hunters, free traders and middlemen had been frequenting the area since at least the 1820s. While we have few records or accounts of the area prior to the arrival of the Mounties, this issue is the result of the historical record. Prior to the arrival of the Mounties, the Métis of the Belly River Valley were few in number and mostly had kin ties to the Blackfoot Confederacy. Still, it is worth noting that every time the picture does come into focus between 1820 and 1870, we find Métis there. By the 1870s, many began to put down roots in this area, and by 1891, most Métis in the area were involved in farming and ranching. To this day, the Métis community around Pincher Creek remains one of the most vibrant in Southern Alberta.

Sources:

Barkwell, Lawrence. (2018). “The reign of terror against the Métis of Red River.” Gabriel Dumont Institute. Retrieved online from http://www.Métismuseum.ca/media/document.php/149078.THE%20REIGN%20OF%20TERROR%20revised.pdf.

Bennema, Ted and Gerhard J. Enns, eds. (2016). Hudson’s Bay Company Edmonton House Journals: Reports from the Saskatchewan District, Including the Bow River Expedition, 1821-1826. Calgary: Historical Society of Alberta.

Dempsey, Hugh. (2002). Firewater: The Impact of the Whiskey Trade on the Blackfoot Nation. Calgary: Fifth House.

Dempsey, Hugh, ed. (2010). Frontier Life in the Mounted Police: the diary letters of Richard Barrington Nevitt, NWMP surgeon, 1874-78. Calgary: Historical Society of Alberta.

Devine, Heather and Margaret Clarke. (2009). The history of the Métis at Buffalo Lake. Calgary: Métis Nation of Alberta – Region 3.

Elliott, J. (1971). Hivernant archaeology in the Cypress Hills (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. 

Ens, Gerhard J., ed. (2008). Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Ens, Gerhard J. (1996). Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Métis in the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Foster, Martha Harroun. (2006). We know who we are: Métis identity in a Montana community. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hiltermann, Matt. (2020). “The Métis of Rouleauville.” Retrieved online from  https://albertashistoricplaces.com/2020/11/16/the-Métis-of-rouleauville/

Jukes, Augustus, and John W. Hannay. (2019) “The adventures of Hugh Munro.” Alberta History, p. 20+.

Larpenteur, Charles. (1933). Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri: The Personal Narrative of Charles Larpenteur, 1833-1872. Chicago: Lakeside Press.

Lewis G. Thomas. (2003). “Harriott, John Edward,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval. Retrieved online from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harriott_john_edward_9E.html.

Library and Archives Canada , Census of Canada, 1881, Northwest Territories (192), Nominal Schedule of the Living, Bow River (M) district, 1-14.

Library and Archives Canada, Census of Canada, 1891, Northwest Territories, Nominal Schedule of the Living, Alberta District (197), Lethbridge-Macleod-Pincher Creek Subdistrict (C), Pincher Creek Division (2), 12-16.

Library and Archives Canada, RG15-D-II-8-c, volume number 1340, microfilm reel number C-14957, “Joseph Carr”

Library and Archives Canada, RG15-D-II-8-b, Vol. 1328, reel: C-14939 “Philomene Hebert – Concerning her claim as a child

Library and Archives Canada, RG15-D-II-8-b, vol. 1330, reel: C-14940, “McEwan, Mary – Concerning her claim as a child”

Library and Archives Canada, RG15-D-II-8-c, Vol. 1341, reel: C-14958, “Henry Collins; for his deceased children”; RG15-D-II-8-c, Vol. 1361, reel: C-14992, “Munroe, Christine; for her deceased children”; RG15-D-II-8-b, Vol. 1326, reel: C-14937, “Cardinal, Marie – Catherine Cardinal, concerning the claim of her deceased mother Marie Cardinal, a Métis head of family.”

Macdougall, Brenda, and Nicole St-Onge. (2013). “Rooted in mobility: Métis buffalo-hunting brigades.” Manitoba History, 71, p. 21+. 

Mailhot, P.R. and D.N. Sprague. (1985). “Persistent Settlers: The Dispersal and Resettlement of the Red River Métis, 1870-1885,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, 17(2), p. 1-31.

Morin, Gail. (2019), Country Wives Vol. 4: Josephte Sarcee, Wife of Jean Baptiste Bruneau, Joseph Paul Durand, and Jean Baptiste Dumont.

Morin, Gail. (2016). Métis Families Vol. 5: Gariepy – Houle, 3rd ed.

Morin, Gail. (2016). Métis Families Vol. 9: Normand – Quintal.

Morin, Gail. (2016). Métis Families Vol. 11: Sutherland to Zace, 3rd ed.

Pearce, William P. (1925). Manuscript. Edmonton: Unpublished Manuscript.

Spry, Irene. (1985). “The “Memories” of George William Sanderson, 1846-1936,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, 17(2), p. 115-134.

Spry, Irene. (1995 [1963]). The Palliser Expedition: The Dramatic Story of Westward Canadian Expansion, 1857-1860. Calgary: Fifth House.

Smyth, David. (2001). “The Niitsitapi Trade: Euroamericans and the Blackfoot Speaking Peoples to the Mid-1830s,” MA Thesis: Carlton University.

Daniel and Jessie Loyer. (2019)  “Why Calgary isn’t Métis Territory: Jigging Towards an Ethic of Reciprocal Visiting.” Retrieved online from https://mru.arcabc.ca/islandora/object/mru%3A80?solr_nav%5Bid%5D=1c65cd5d32e325c1f623&solr_nav%5Bpage%5D=0&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=0

Banner Image: “Metis cart train, Fort Macleod, Alberta.” [ca. 1885-1890] (CU1145131) by . Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.


[i] On these individuals’ activities in Southern Alberta throughout the 1820s, see David Smyth, “The Niitsitapi Trade: Euroamericans and the Blackfoot Speaking Peoples to the Mid-1830s,” (MA Thesis, Carlton University, 2001), 322-346, 350. On kin ties, see ibid., 320; Gail Morin, Country Wives Vol. 4: Josephte Sarcee, Wife of Jean Baptiste Bruneau, Joseph Paul Durand, and Jean Baptiste Dumont (Gail Morin, 2019); Gail Morin, Métis Families Vol. 9: Normand – Quintal, (Gail Morin, 2016).

[ii] Interestingly, Francois “Frank” Morrisson (Morriseau) was the only individual enumerated as Métis in the 1881 census for the Bow River (M) district. Most Métis were enumerated according to their paternal ancestry (ie French, Scottish, Irish). He was settled in the Pincher Creek-MacLeod area at the time.

[iii] As Isabelle Lussier and Marie Cadotte have different last names, they likely shared a mother. Latter surname also deserves mention as it is one of the variants on the name of Paul/Pierre Cadotte/Cadieu/Cadien/Cayen/Cahen, the “Blackfoot Halfbreed” guide of the Palliser expedition.

[iv] Regarding Nevitt’s brief time at Grant’s farm, see Dempsey, Letters of Richard Barrington Nevitt, 2-3.

[v] Angelique Vallee was the daughter of Antoine Vallee and Suzanne Lafebvre or Favel. She was married twice: first to Louis Leblanc, and later to Basil Hebert, both Métis.

[vi] Additionally, there appears to have been a smaller number of Métis settled near Fort Kipp, near the confluence of the Oldman and Belly River. When they settled there, however, cannot be ascertained at this time.

[vii] While the French Métis endured the brunt of this hostility due to anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiment, it should be noted that Anglophone Protestant Métis were not spared the racialized violence. For example, Edmund Turner was threatened by the Canadian militia, Rev. James Tanner was killed when his horse was intentionally spooked, and David Tait was beaten and left for dead, while his brother Robert had over 500 bales of hay destroyed by arson.

[viii] This is John George McDougall and should not be confused with the missionary, John Chantler McDougall, or the merchant and scrip speculator, John Alexander McDougall.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s