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‘Miller of Seine’s’ millstones recalls days of Louis Riel

by Lillian Gibbons

Winnipeg Tribune, 19 July 1949

The millstones that belonged to Louis Riel’s father, “the miller of the Seine,” now lie in repose under the elms at the home of Louis’ nephew, Joseph Lavallee, Bruce Road, St. Vital.

Made of red granite, the four stones that equalled a pair of upper and nether millstones, rest within hailing distance of where they ground wheat into flour. Their original location was on the bank of the Seine at river lot 50. The reconstructed house on the property is numbered today 539 St. Anne’s Rd., the home of Henry Lagimodiere. Across the road. the annual Metis picnic was held July 3. “The field was covered up with cars,” reported Mr. Lavallee. “There was a platform for Red River jigs, fiddler contests but no speeches this time.”

Bruce Road is the first cross street south, and Mr. Lavallee’s home is the second house to the left down the street. Bruce Road gets its name from John Bruce, a Metis who served as president of the Committee of Protection, with Louis Riel as secretary, in the days of the survey dispute, October, 1869. In December Riel formed his provisional government.

Mr. Lavallee’s mother was Octavie Riel, Louis’ fourth sister. His father, Louis Lavallee, was one of two men appointed by the National Metis Association to go to Regina in 1885 to bring home the body of Louis Riel. It was transported in a box car, under armed guard of the two watchers, and buried in St. Boniface cathedral churchyard while one of the greatest assemblies of people ever to gather in St. Boniface looked on. To them Riel was a patriot who sacrificed himself for the self-government of the new province. Fr. Morice called him ‘father of Manitoba.’

The white house with maroon painted shutters that stands inside the white picket fence guards the mill stones. Like the stones, the house was moved to its present location from the river bank about 35 years ago, says Joseph Lavallee.

The miller of the Seine, as he is always referred to, was Jean-Louis Riel, who married in 1843 Julie Lagimodiere whose parents came to Red River from Quebec in 1806. Jean-Louis was a hunter and farmer who later set up his mill on the Seine. Some say it was the first flour mill in Manitoba. In 1849 he won fame as leader of the Metis, taking an armed band of French speaking half breeds to the HBC trial of the free-trader, Sayer. The trial ended in acquittal.

Louis, eldest son of the miller, born Oct. 22, 1844, was a bright boy who started his education at St. Boniface college and continued it at Montreal under the patronage of Mme. Masson, a Montreal widow whom Bishop Tache interested in the boy. He was in Montreal eight years.

While Louis was still studying in 1864, the miller died. Louis did not return to his mother but wrote her an effectionate letter full of his concern for her with many references to ‘my dear Papa.’ It was 1868 before Louis returned on a river boat, to be met at St. Boniface by his mother, his sisters Marie and pretty Octavie, says the record. Octavie became Mr. Lavallee’s mother. Another sister was already a nun at the convent ; Louis kissed her hand reverently while he embraced his other relatives.

When he appeared next Sunday after mass at St. Norbert some people did not know who this strange handsome man of 24 years was. Then word went around, “It is the miller’s son.”

The Riel family moved from the Seine to the Red River, to a three room log house now the Riel P.O. In it is the coffin in which Riel’s body was brought from Regina. The body was secretly transferred to another coffin in which he was buried in St. Boniface. In the cupboard with the up-ended coffin are Riel’s grandmother’s little sad iron and his grandfather’s sword, presented to him by Lord Selkirk for his warning message to Montreal.

It is 80 years ago this fall since the “trouble” of 1869. The sight of the millstones recalls it all. Louis is buried to the left of the main entrance of St. Boniface cathedral besides his grandfather, Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere who in 1815 went on snowshoes to Montreal to warn Lord Selkirk the Red. River settlement was threatened with extinction; and her grandmother Marie Anne Gaboury Lagimodiere who lived to be 95. On the centenary of Riel’s birth a small bronze plaque was put on the left front entrance of the cathedral: “Champion of the Rights of Western Canada” is the tribute.

There are no closer relatives today than Mr. Lavallee, nephew. Riel’s wife, Marguerite Melhumeur whom he married while he taught in St. Peter, Montana, was brought to the Red River house after his death. She died the same winter. Their daughter died at eight and their son at 21. The Louis Riel who lives now on De La Giclais is the son of Louis’ youngest brother, Alex.

My Love Affair With Louis Riel

Page revised: 6 October 2012

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