Manitoba History: Paulet Paul: Métis or “House Indian” Folk-Hero?
by John E. Foster
Since the Métis have been a subject of serious scholarly inquiry, writers have acknowledged the complexity of their society in Red River. In addition to the “plains hunters” who captured the attention of Alexander Ross’s pen and Paul Kane’s brush there were the “traders” and the “tripmen.”  Nevertheless the pervasive influence of the image of the plains hunters has been such that little scholarship has either addressed distinctions within the Red River Métis, or sought to explain the factors that perpetuated these distinctions yet bound them together as a community separate from other peoples in the Red River region. Similarly, the pervasive influence of the image of the Red River plains hunter has obscured our perceptions of Plains Métis experiences outside of Red River. In the region of the Upper Saskatchewan and northward to the watersheds of the Athabasca and Peace rivers, ways different from those in Red River emerged. Yet it is only recently that scholars have become aware of some of these differences. It is in clarifying these distinctions, both within the Red River Métis community and amongst the Plains Métis beyond the Red River region, that an examination of the legends and life of Paulet Paul takes on scholarly value.
One perspective through which we may attempt to understand the nature of a society is examining the heroes and heroines whom a particular people would honour and whose feats they would emulate. It is particularly useful, in the light of an individual’s heroic achievements, to establish a sense of the more mundane patterns of his or her live. Together, heroic achievement and mundane life style may suggest historical understandings not apparent through more traditional historical analysis. In terms of the 19th century Plains Métis one such folk-hero is the demi-legendary Paulet Paul:
Both in legend and in life Paulet Paul was a man to be reckoned with. His feats established him as a man of consequence amongst the Plains Métis. His achievements expressed some of the more significant values and practises that these Métis would associate with men of consequence in their society. Yet the more mundane aspects of Paulet’s life suggest a style of living not usually associated with the Plains Métis. Thus the possible paradox emerges that a Plains Métis folk-hero, whose feats supposedly enshrined values and practises essential to adult males in this community, was not a Plains Métis.
A problem in the historical evidence that cannot be ignored, as it suggests the possibility of more than one individual, is the spelling of Paulet Paul’s name. J. J. Gunn, in his folk history account “Tripmen of Assiniboia” in Echoes of the Red, refers to him as Poulet Paul.  To the ears of English speakers “Chicken” Paul seems incongruous as a name for a man renowned for his physical stature and prowess, except perhaps in the sense of “Poulet” as “Rooster.” Gunn’s spelling is mirrored in a biography of Father Lacombe authored by an anonymous Sister of Providence. There our subject is Paul Poulette, i.e. Paul “Chick,” a term of endearment for a little girl.  Perhaps the explanation for this spelling lies in the missionary’s handwriting and the word order of an entry in the baptismal records. Professor Paul Chartrand in a letter to me noted the spelling “Paulette” as a male first name in his family’s antecedents.  This spelling and its accompanying pronounciation are compatible with Paul Kane’s nineteenth century usage, Paulet Paul, and with the spelling found in Katherine Hughes’s biography of Lacombe.  It would appear that “Rooster,” “Darling” or “Tiny” Paul was the giant of a man who became the York boat brigade guide from the region of Fort Edmonton, who flourished in the years ca. 1830 to ca. 1855, and who would become an enduring folk-hero amongst numbers of the Plains Métis.
The world of the tripmen in the York boat brigades in the years after 1820 was the stage-setting for Paulet’s exploits.  Three brigades plied the Saskatchewan and Red River waterways of the Northern department. The Red River brigade transported furs and goods between the Red River Settlement and Norway House and between Norway House and York Factory. The Portage la Loche brigade was recruited at Red River to transport goods to Norway House and thence northwest via the Churchill River system to Portage la Loche, where cargo was exchanged with the Athabaska brigade before returning to Norway House and finally to Red River. The third brigade, the Saskatchewan brigade, was recruited in the region of Fort Edmonton, trip-ping to Norway House and York Factory before returning to the Upper Saskatchewan. It was in this third brigade that Paulet Paul became a tripman and rose to become the guide.
The basis of Paulet Paul’s heroic stature amongst the tripmen was his physical prowess. To explain why his physical prowess should be of such significance, some attention must be paid to ways of this society of adult males. Each of the brigades had a nickname, supposedly derived from their dietary habits. The tripmen of the Red River brigade were known as “Taureaux”; they were named after pemmican made from the flesh of an old buffalo bull. Supposedly the toughness of the Red River tripmen was attributable to this dietary preference. The tripmen of the Portage la Loche brigade were known as the “Poissons-blancs.” “Whitefish” may not suggest a “macho image” to today’s readers but apparently the term could refer to a coarse-fleshed fish not fit for human consumption,perhaps an aquatic equivalent of Taureaux. The Saskatchewan brigade tripmen were known as the “Blaireaux,” i.e. badgers. The unpredictable aggressive ferocity that marked their behaviour was apparently derived, like the traits of their compatriots in the other brigades, from their eating habits. Gunn points out that the reputation of this brigade caused the term “blaireau” to become generalized to apply to any person or animal whose behaviour merited this appellation.  With such totemic designations identifying the brigades, it is little wonder that social intercourse amongst them was neither serene nor uneventful.
It was as his brigade’s champion fighter that Paulet first rose to prominence. J. J. Gunn explains the historical context:
The young clerk, W. Cornwallis King, arriving in the summer of 1862, recorded a similar event:
Paulet Paul was not the only champion to arise among the tripmen. There was Michael [sic] Lambert, “who ... would step forward in the interests of the Taureaux, shake hands with Poulet, and then for the next half hour or so, proceed to enhance his picturesqueness to such a degree that his own dog would not recognize him.”  Paulet apparently was the slugger and Michel was the boxer. The latter’s punch, however, was not to be denigrated as Gunn explains:
Paulet’s reputation amongst the tripmen did not rest solely on his ability as a fighter and his willingness to take on all comers. The painter Paul Kane recalls an incident the record of which, no doubt, had become enhanced with time but which, nevertheless, added to the image of Paulet’s physical prowess. It would appear that sometime early in the 1840s the Saskatchewan Brigade arrived at the head of the Grand Rapids on the Saskatchewan River a few miles above its entrance to Lake Winnipeg.  As brigade guide Paulet was responsible for deciding whether the valuable cargo of furs would be portaged with the boats, whether the men would “demicharge,” i.e. portage part or all of the cargo and row the boats through the rapids, or whether cargo and boats together would challenge the Grand Rapids. Paulet elected to challenge with full cargo, and as brigade guide he proceeded first, charting the way for the boats that followed. Kane’s account begins with Paulet’s steering oar snapping and pitching him into the rampaging water. On the basis of strength alone Paulet rose to his feet in the turbulent waters in time to grab hold of the second York boat following behind. Ahead, Paulet’s boat and crew, now rudderless, were at the mercy of the cascading torrents. Disaster seemed but moments away. Taking command of the crew of the second boat, Paulet set out in pursuit of the wayward vessel ahead. When the distance had closed Paulet leapt to his own boat, acquired an oar and once more steered his craft safely through the rapids. The renown associated with this feat ensured Paulet’s fame in the Northwest for a generation if not more.
Paulet’s physical prowess no doubt played a significant role in his rise to the enviable position of brigade guide. Hudson’s Bay Company officers would find his credentials in personnel management eminently acceptable. In time his reputation alone would ensure among his tripmen acceptable levels of enthusiasm for the dangerous and physically demanding tasks ahead. Yet Paulet was not simply a physically domineering bully supported by a benefiting officer corps to the detriment of the lowly tripmen. Paulet was a part of the tripman’s social world. He was expected to demonstrate his loyalty to its interests. In one incident, when the tripmen believed that one of their number had been unjustly treated by an officer, Paulet was expected to lend his stature, occupational and physical, to their cause.  He did, and they were successful to the point of receiving not only redress but an extra rundlet of rum to acknowledge the tripmen as men of consequence. In the eyes of his social world Paulet served his fellows well. Regrettably, while still a relatively young man, Paulet was shot and killed near Fort Edmonton, supposedly at the instigation of a rival who aspired to his position. 
The legends, or perhaps more accurately, anecdotes, associated with Paulet Paul are limited to his feats of strength and his prowess as a fighter. For these attributes he received the accolades of his fellows. They were abilities associated with a man of consequence not only amongst the tripmen but also amongst the plains hunters as well. Yet these abilities were not sufficient to establish Paulet as an enduring leader in his community. It is in the more mundane aspects of his life that we discover the patterns of behaviour that may have served to frustrate his attempts to assert himself as a leader amongst his fellows despite the encouragement of the missionary (himself a legend), Father Lacombe. It is in this sphere of activity that Paulet’s “limitations,” as some might term them, become apparent and in so doing perhaps highlight aspects of the Métis experience on the Upper Saskatchewan that have not been apparent in previous studies.
One of the more rewarding document collections providing glimpses into Paulet’s life are the thousands of applications for “North West Half Breed Scrip” beginning in 1885 and extending to 1906.  While Paulet died at least a quarter century previous to the granting of North West scrip, his name could be expected to appear in the documents as father to some of the applicants, assuming that he fathered children who lived to 1885, who acknowledged him as their father, and who elected to apply for scrip. To date I have managed to locate five applications in which “Paulette” Paul is named as father.  Linkage among these Paulette Pauls is poor, as each of the children has a different mother or one whose surname was not recorded. In addition, over the years 1830 to 1840 their geographical locations varied from Lac la Biche on the edge of the Athabaska region to Ford Edmonton, and to St. Francis Xavier and St. Norbert in the Red River Settlement. Thus, although dates and geographical locations are compatible with one male serving as father in all instances, the distinct possibility of more than one Paulet Paul must be recognized. Reference to The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation compiled by D. N. Sprague and R. P. Frye suggests that Paul or Paullet Paul, identification number 3870 who, in the North West Halfbreed Scrip records, fathered a child by his wife Marguerite Lavallee at St. Francis Xavier in 1838, is not the Paulet Paul in question.  Identification number 3871, Paulet Paul, however, offers birth dates and brief employment records compatible with what is known of the legendary Paulet Paul.  Moreover, he is associated with a wife additional to those identified in the North West scrip records. In the absence of contrary evidence, at the moment it would seem reasonable to conclude that together the scrip records and the Sprague and Frye compilation suggest a Paulet Paul who travelled extensively in his younger years from a home base in the Fort Edmonton region. In addition he would appear to have served as husband and father in a number of households for relatively brief periods of time. It is interesting to note that surviving records do not show Paulet fathering children after 1845. On the occasion of his baptism, March 27, 1853, however, he was also married to Josephte Askykatepiskak whose name does not appear elsewhere.  Her age is recorded as fifty-three, three years older than Paulet.
The pattern of Paulet’s “household” behaviour seems to be at variance with that associated with the origin of the Plains Métis. Elsewhere I have argued that the emergence of Métis experiences, rather than being the “inevitable” results of “natural” historical processes associated with the fur trade, are functions of particular historical circumstances and particular sequential patterns of events.  “Métis” would appear to be the sociocultural result over time of a few “immigrant” adult males responding successfully to the opportunity offered by a particular “niche” in the fur trade system. In the process of adapting to the opportunity and circumstances of a particular niche, these males established households which successfully enculturated children in the ways necessary to exploit that trading niche. In time all of the historical actors of the region came to view these households as a community distinct both from the community of the trading post and from indigenous Indian bands, even though they were linked to each through kinship. These historical circumstances and sequential patterns of events found expression on the Great Plains in the latter decades of the 18th century. The provisioning niche in the en derouine fur trade was the opportunity that laid the basis for the Plains Métis experience.  This Métis experience was, in turn, closely linked to the Métis experience of migrant eastern Indians, the Iroquois, Nipissing, Ottawa and Saulteaux hunter-trappers which emerged at the same time in the Athabaska-Peace region. These various immigrant adult males were “freemen,” former servants of the several fur trade companies identified with the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes tradition, who ended their contracts in the northwest and as buffalo hunters and trappers formed households which laid the basis for a distinct new community.  It is apparent, however, that few Euro-Canadien males chose this option. Euro-Canadien males usually chose to remain as engages, servants in the fur trade until age, injury, sickness or whim directed their course eastward to Montreal to end their association with the trade.
From what can be glimpsed of these freemen households through the documents, they would appear to have been, in most instances, sufficiently stable in membership to permit the adult male heads and their cohorts to influence male children to emulate their fathers in exploiting the provisioning and trapping niche.  In other fur trade households frequent changes in the male head would lead to the mother’s male relatives furnishing the appropriate role models for young men. In many and possibly most instances of this nature, the mother’s community was a House Indian band, not a freeman band. In a now familiar passage the Anglican missionary Rev. William Cockran described the circumstances that gave rise to such households:
The evidence bearing on Paulet Paul’s life, as yet by no means conclusive, suggests a similar pattern of household experiences for him, in House Indian bands rather than freeman bands.
In addition to the information contained in the Northwest Half-Breed Scrip records and in Sprague and Frye’s compilation, a few other tidbits of information further suggest a House Indian context for Paulet. J. J. Gunn in his folk-history account began a statement with the phrase: “Now the Saskatchewan brigade had more Indian blood in it than any other ...”  Such a racist perspective is of course no longer acceptable in scholarly explanation. This partial statement, however, may well represent a nineteenth century perception of circumstances appropriate to House Indian ways. Gunn’s partial statement emphasizes Hudson’s Bay Company practise after 1820 in recruiting seasonal labour, particularly as tripmen or boatmen, from amongst native communities, many, if not most, of whom were House Indian rather than Métis. Similarly in referring to the new Christians baptized by Father Lacombe at the St. Albert Mission on Easter, 1853, the author, “une soeur de Providence,” describes one “Paul Poulette [sic]” of a formidable and vigorous physique who “s’occupait de medications et de jongleries.”  Such interests were those of an Indian, not of a Canadien freeman or his sons.
Father Lacombe faced little difficulty in recruiting families of freemen and eastern Indians to the mission’s support. As the Roman Catholic missionaries Rev. Francis Blanchet and Rev. Modeste Demers had seen during their journey up the Saskatchewan to the Columbia country in 1838, the memory of a Lower Canadian tradition expressed itself in the outpouring of affection and religious observance from Canadien and “Iroquois” households.  Settlement as farmers would be a different matter; but the presence of the mission first at Lac Ste Anne and then after 1861 at St. Albert was welcomed, as was its assertion of a role in leadership. However Lacombe, in recruiting Paulet as one of the mission’s participants, was seeking influence in another community in the region.
In furthering Paulet’s interests, Lacombe was instrumental in persuading Chief Factor John Rowand at Fort Edmonton to appoint Paulet leader of a small party of men going en derouine to trade for dried meat and furs with an Indian band on the prairie.  Paulet had very much desired the opportunity.  The results, however, were not what any had anticipated. One of the members of the en derouine party explained:
Amongst the descendants of freemen hunters the opportunity to lead an en derouine party was an opportunity to demonstrate abilities associated in the fur trade with the “commis,” the clerk, who represented the “bourgeois” in the conduct of trade away from the post. Paulet, rather than trading the goods to turn a profit to earn the accolade “voyageur,” distributed them amongst kith and kin in the manner of a band leader. This did not endear him to Chief Factor Rowand whom Lacombe had persuaded, along with his daughter, to act as god-parents at Paulet’s baptism.  The missionary himself was bemused if somewhat disappointed. Paulet’s ways were not those of a freeman heritage; rather they were the ways of House Indian bands.
Why, then, would Paulet’s feats survive amongst the Métis when Paulet himself seemed to reflect ways distinct from those associated with households involved in the emergence of the Plains Métis. Is the answer found simply in the understanding that the “macho-like” feats of Paulet had appeal to adult males that breached the limits of community boundaries? Although he was most closely associated with households of House Indians, Paulet’s feats had appeal amongst the descendants of the freemen as well. Such an explanation has merit but a stronger one emerges if we acknowledge that some House Indian households were becoming Métis in the generation after 1820 in the region of Red River. Indian families continued to drift into the Settlement; from the glimpses that have survived they appear to have been displaced House Indians.  Tripping for the Company or private freighters was their principal means of participation in the fur trade. In the institutional context of Red River, church and state, many were admitted as an element of the Métis community in the Settlement. “It was chiefly the uprising of this class and its kindred, the Hunter-traders, that shook to crumbling the government machinery of the old regime ...”  In effect some House Indian households, in an historical environment heavily influenced by a well established Roman Catholic mission, became a component of the Métis experience in Red River. On the Upper Saskatchewan altered historical circumstances and sequences of events did not see large numbers of House Indians become Métis.
In the region of Fort Edmonton House Indian bands survived “The Transfer” in 1870 to accept Treaty Six in 1876.  A decade later when Half Breed scrip became available a number of these Indians discharged from treaty to accept scrip as “Half-breeds.” A large majority, however, remained in treaty. The Roman Catholic mission at St. Albert did not have the same success, in spite of Lacombe’s efforts with Paulet, in attracting House Indians into a Métis context.  Severely limited in terms of its resources from its beginning at Lac Ste. Anne in 1843, the Roman Catholic mission in the Fort Edmonton region found its influence limited to those hunters who wintered near the mission. Father Lacombe’s personal reputation gave him influence amongst bands far out on the prairie. But the mission itself would appear to have influenced the life style of a far smaller number. For whatever reasons House Indians on the Upper Saskatchewan do not appear to have mirrored the experience of many in the Red River Settlement who found themselves, over time, a part of the Métis community in Red River. In the region of Fort Edmonton distinctions between House Indians and Métis survived the experience of The Transfer in 1870 to be reinforced by later developments.
Paulet Paul’s feats are a part of Métis folklore in spite of the historical fact that Paulet was probably not a Plains Métis. Yet the stories of his feats survive amongst the Red River Métis because House Indian elements were becoming one part of the Métis community in Red River after 1820. And House Indians were Paulet’s people. Probably born and raised somewhere along the Beaver River system to the north east of Fort Edmonton after the turn of the century,  Paulet was familiar with the ways of bands that chose to make a particular post the focus of their activities. He could move with a sense of familiarity along the fur trade river systems and encounter House Indian people whose ways were his. In Red River some displaced House Indians had become Métis; but, in the region of Fort Edmonton evidence suggests that such a development did not bridge the distinctions between House Indians and Métis. Perhaps it is for this reason that, although stories of Paulet’s feats survived in Red River, I have not as yet been able to discover them amongst the descendants of the Upper Saskatchewan Plains Métis.
4. Une soeur de la Providence, Le Pere Lacombe: “L”Honnne an Bon Coeur” (Montreal: Le Devoir, 1916), p. 67. The anonymous sister was Str. Marie-Olive, Fr/Dr. E. O. Drouin, O.M.I., to J. E. Foster, Jan. 8, 1985, in the possession of the author.
19. P.A.C., D. of I., N.W.H.-B., RG15, v. 1330, Madeline Paul file, Catherine Gladu file, Johny Paul file; Index file 1886-1905, RG15, v. 11-W-BC, Josephte Pattenaude file, RG15, v. 1363, Michel Paul alias Bonneau file.
20. D. N. Sprague & R. P. Frye, The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publishers,?), Table I, I.D. #3870; Paul, Paulet and P.A.C., D. of I., N.W.H.-B., RG15, Index 1885 Applications North West Halfbreeds, p. 190, #1273.
30. M. D. M. Warner and H. D. Munnick, Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest: Vancouver Volumes I and II and Stellamaris Mission (St. Paul Oregon: French Prairie Press, 1972). Note the “freemen” response in the region of Fort Edmonton and Jasper House.
35. J. E. Foster, “The Country-born in the Red River Settlement: 1820-1850” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Alberta, 1973). See the discussion pp. 129-131 of migrants who I would now identify as House Indians, and who come under the influence of the Anglican mission in Red River.
38. While numbers of individuals who would appear to be House Indians in terms of lifestyle appear in the parish records of the St. Albert Mission, this in itself is not sufficient to qualify them as Métis.
39. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, F. 4121, “North West Co. English River, Equip Book 1820,” records four Canadien engagés surnamed Paul in this district. Paul Paul is noted as having been at Green Lake the previous year in F. 4136, “Servants Accounts, 1819-21.” No other district in the fur trade had the same concentration of Pauls. P.A.A., 71.220, “O.M.I. Papers,” “Lac Ste Ann’, Etat de la population. Lisle de paroissieus, 1860-84 [actually 1841],” Box 1, Item 3, gives Paul’s birth date as 1803. As well the births of two.sons, Jean, January, 1841 and Daniel October 31, 1845, by Louise Crise (a Cree Woman) is noted. Daniel’s name does not survive into the Half-Breed Scrip records. Jean Paul may be Johny Paul in P.A.C., D. of I., N.W.H.-B., RGa5, v. 1330, Johny Paul file and v. 1363, #2922; however, discrepancies in age and mothers’ names suggest that Jean and Johny [sic] were half-brothers. Johny took treaty as a member of Passpasschase’s Band south of Edmonton. Later, when the Reserve was terminated, he took scrip.
Page revised: 19 May 2013