A Haven in the Bush: The Baptiste River Métis Settlement

Editor’s note: Tanisi! This is the concluding post in our series recognizing June as National Indigenous History Month. We hope these posts and resources have helped you learn more about the many diverse cultures, histories and achievements of First Nation, Inuit and Métis Peoples across what is now Canada. Banner image: The remains of Charlotte’s cabin at the Baptiste River Métis Settlement (Source: Laura Golebiowski).

Written by: Laura Golebiowski, Indigenous Heritage Section

It’s a Sunday afternoon in late May. Despite forecasted rains, it is a beautiful day, and the sun shines through the forest canopy of balsam poplar, trembling aspen and tall pines. Sandwiches are pulled from a cooler atop a striped wool blanket, and tea is poured. Family photographs are passed around: black-and-white images of babies bundled in snowsuits and bucking broncos at a rodeo.

We sit down on the soft ground. Gladys motions to the moss surrounding us, noting how it was used by women as menstrual products and to line the moss bags that held babies safe and snug. Wild berries, Labrador tea, mint and medicinal plants are also found here: a reminder that this landscape, almost one hundred years ago, sustained an extended family of Métis matriarchs for more than a decade.

This place is known as the Baptiste River Métis Settlement: a remote location north of the Town of Rocky Mountain House and west of the North Saskatchewan River. Here, three generations of Métis women and their families established their home in the 1930s. They built cabins, raised children, cared for livestock and developed self-reliance, living off the land. Now—nearly a century later—the descendants of these women, along with representatives of the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3 and Local 845, return to the site via the old wagon trail (ruts still visible) to tell the story of the ones who lived here. 

George Moritz, Paul Bercier and Bernie Ouellette share stories in front of the remains of Charlotte’s cabin at the Baptiste River Métis Settlement. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

Louise Fleury (née Boushie) was born in Montana in 1875, the great-granddaughter of a Canadian-born Frenchman and a Cree woman. At a school in Chemowa, Oregon, she met Thomas (Tom) Fleury, a man born at Frog Lake. Once married, the couple moved from Montana to Frog Lake, then travelled west with Thomas’ mother, Sara Bushy, to the Rocky Mountain House area to be closer to Louise’s relations.

They settled on the south banks of the Baptiste River in the early 1930s, traveling the wagon trail that extended from the Town of Rocky Mountain House to the O’Chiese First Nation reserve.

Louise was renowned throughout the area for her medicinal and midwifery skills; people would travel to Baptiste River to seek her expertise rather than visit the doctor in town. Tom and Louise raised 11 children (ten biological and one foster child), several of whom married and built their own homes at the Baptiste.

On this Sunday afternoon, it is a privilege that I am joined by two direct descendants of the Fleury family. Elder Gladys Bigelow is the great-great-granddaughter of Louise and Tom. Her grandmother was Isabelle, the third-eldest of the Fleury children, who did live at the Baptiste for some time. Randy Mottus is the great-grandson of Louise. His late mother, Madaline (also identified as Magdalene), was born at Baptiste River on August 10, 1942 to Sara Fleury—Louise’s daughter who had a cabin located directly adjacent to hers. Also with us is Local 845 President George Bernard (Bernie) Ouellette and wife Audrey, Elder Paul Bercier, John Parkins and Gladys’ husband George Mortiz.

At least eight structures were built in the time the Fleury family lived here: five cabins, one barn and two outbuildings. Each cabin has always been known by the name of the woman who made it home: Louise, Grandma (mother-in-law Sara Bushy), Sara, Virginia and Charlotte. This naming convention is indicative of the central role women play in the safeguarding and transference of Métis culture.

During the fur trade, kinship and commence were inextricably linked, and Indigenous women’s ways of knowing and relations were key to survival. Ethnohistorians have referred to Métis settlement patterns as “matrilocal”: husbands would move in with, or near to, their wives’ relations. This was certainly the case at the Baptiste, where Louise’s married children established their own homes and families mere metres away from Louise’s own cabin.

The cabins at the Baptiste were modest, reflecting the environment from which they were built and the resourcefulness of the people who built them. The largest cabin on the site belonged to Louise, yet the structure housed seven occupants and was still scarcely larger than 30 square metres. The cabins were made from either pine or poplar, or both, with saddle-notch construction. The gaps between the logs were chinked; inside there were no interior walls, and likely no planed floors. The cabin belonging to Louise’s daughter-in-law Charlotte was unique for its roof of metal shingles, made from flattened two and five-gallon lard tins. The Elders note that lard tins were, “used for everything” and often hammered into something useful. Gladys specifically remembers her kokum making bread in a lard tin.

Nonetheless, these homes were a warm refuge from the wilderness outside. “Meat was hung to dry above the stoves in the cabins. Beaver hats, triangular wooden shelves, and bundles of sweet grass, sage and wild mint were hung on the walls and hare fur blankets (long strips of hare fur woven together) were spread out on the beds. Informants remembered other cabin furnishings as well: a trunk, wooden bowls made out of tree [burls], low benches by the stove, an air-tight heater, and a rectangular stove constructed of sheet metal referred to as either a forestry or a Métis stove.”

 In 1995, an archaeological investigation located the remains of all five cabins. Today, nearly thirty years later, we can only find two, plus the remains of the chicken coop. When the Fleurys lived here, a communal barn was also built, located close to the riverbank. Between Charlotte’s cabin to the west and Louise’s cabin to the east is a large area that appears to have been cleared in the past. Today, the area has been repopulated with trembling aspen and balsam poplar, but it is relatively free of deadfall and underbrush. Historic photographs provided by the family in 1995 show the Fleury family clearing the land with hand axes. On this site visit, the Elders identify the area as likely grazing pasture for the livestock kept by the families: goats, teams of horses, chickens and at least one cow. Gladys remembers that Grandma Fleury always had milk available.

The Fleury family lived at Baptiste River until 1945. Despite their efforts, Louise and Tom could not attain legal Indian status for the children and grandchildren, and so the family never joined their relatives at O’Chiese First Nation.  In the late 1940s, the Alberta government actively removed Indigenous and non-Indigenous occupants off Crown land, deeming them illegal squatters. Many cabins and settlements were burned to the ground. The Fleury families took the opportunity to move to Crimson Lake and later to Cranbrook, British Columbia. Gladys recalls the racism experienced by her grandparents in the town of Rocky Mountain House. The refuge that the Baptiste River provided could not be replicated elsewhere.

However, the recollections of what life was like at the settlement remain, and they are happy ones. Per the 1995 archaeological report: “Accordingly to memories, the Baptiste site was a haven; a place to raise their children without fear of them being stolen away by the authorities and put in residential schools, and where the land was rich with plants and animals. So it was here the Fleurys made their home.”

In 1997, the Baptiste River Métis Settlement was designated a Provincial Historic Resource. The site is recognized for its “representation of a narrowly-defined period of time in the life of an extended traditional Métis family” and the information potential to “permit a more complex understanding of the daily lives and economic and subsistence practices of the Fleury family and the socio-cultural environment in which they lived.” 

We know that Indigenous knowledge, family testimony and oral histories are the best sources of information when it comes to a greater understanding of sites like the Baptiste River Métis Settlement. Thank you to Gladys, George, Randy, Paul, John, Bernie and Audrey for sharing their knowledge, experiences and perspectives about this special place. Marsii!

The Historic Resources Management Branch’s Indigenous Heritage Section works with Indigenous communities to preserve and protect cultural heritage sites and significant landscapes. To connect with the Section, please email aboriginal.heritage@gov.ab.ca.

Sources:

Hrychuk, B.I., Reeves, B.O.L. and Ronaghan, B.M. (1995).The Baptiste Site, Alberta, FdPs-1, Reconstructing Twentieth Century Métis Lifeways in Alberta (Permit 95-067). Prepared for Alberta Culture.

Alberta Culture and Status of Women. (1997). Baptiste River Métis Settlement Site Statement of Significance.

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