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Aboriginal Backgrounds in Southern Manitoba

by Chris Vickers *

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1945-46 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The purpose of the following paper is to present a broad outline of the aboriginal backgrounds in the southern portion of the Province of Manitoba. The area covered is roughly that part of the province lying south of a line due east and west through the south shore of Lake Manitoba. In presenting the material the most recent occupation will be discussed first. With this as a bench mark, the writer will attempt to trace the Indian occupation of the area during the historic period; and from there into the little known prehistoric past.

The first period under discussion will be the last eighty years of the nineteenth century. The reader should be warned, however, that during this period clear tribal distinctions are difficult to draw. The impact of white civilization had rudely disturbed all aboriginal cultures on the plains; unrest was wide spread; and tribal mixture the inevitable result. Speaking in general terms, however, the principal native occupants were the Chippewa. They were quite recent figures in the Manitoba scene. Their ancient home was along the north and south shores of lakes Huron and Superior. It is possible that Nicolet met them there in 1634 and 1639. The first historic mention of the tribe is in the Jesuit Relation of 1640, and we know that Raymbault and Jogues visited them in 1641 at Sault Ste. Marie, finding them at war with a western tribe, quite likely the Sioux. Judged by native standards the Chippewa cannot be considered a great tribe in North American prehistory, yet they were in some measure responsible for dynamic cultural changes among the Siouan tribes of northern Minnesota. Armed with French guns, they have been held partly responsible for driving the sedentary Sioux Out of the Milles Lacs area, and I am tempted to speculate on what part, if any, they played in the migration of the Assiniboine from the headwaters lakes area. They were also responsible for the destruction of an established Cheyenne village on the upper Red River sometime during the middle years of the eighteenth century, transforming these settled horticulturists, as Strong has said, into “warlike, equestrian nomads.” [1]

The elder Henry on his journey west in 1775 found the Chippewa as far west as the big forks of the Rainy River, but mentions only the Cree when he reaches the shore of Lake Winnipeg. Yet it is known that the Chippewa followed the white trader into the lower Red River Valley. The younger Henry on his journey up the Red River in 1801 mentions Cree and Assiniboine north of the forks, but at the confluence of the two rivers states “forty Saulteurs awaited my arrival.” Even at that date they were taking virtual possession of the Red River Valley. During the next sixteen years the occupation became complete. In 1817 when Lord Selkirk made the first treaty with aboriginal people west of the great lakes, the Assiniboines had gone and even the Cree admitted Chippewa ownership in the area as far west as Muskrat River north of Portage la Prairie. Alexander Ross has told us that they really had “no claim at all to the lands of Red River, being aliens or intruders.” Yet they were here, and under the leadership of Peguis, the most influential tribe in the area. The westward march of the Chippewa ended in pre-reservation days in the Turtle Mountain area. Sir George Simpson in his annual report of 1832 states they “usually hunt about the Pembina and Turtle Mountains.” Their Turtle Mountain and Portage la Prairie bands were our principal aborigines during the years under discussion, and numerically at least, they were lords of the area from 1820 until the age of settlement.

Concurrent with the Chippewa occupation there was without question some occupancy by the Cree. Historic documentation is scant; but the younger Henry’s reference to Cree and Assiniboine in the Rock and Pelican lake area on 14 October 1800 was a tribal mixture likely to continue well on into the century. While the migration of the Cree was generally well toward the west, small straggling bands intermingled with both Chippewa and Assiniboine during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Archaeology may ultimately furnish evidence on Cree occupancy of the area. One site west of the village of Belmont, Manitoba, known as the Kreiger site, was occupied during the historic period; and the cultural evidence now available suggests an Algonkian tribal occupancy.

The tribal mixture in southern Manitoba during the middle years of the nineteenth century is well illustrated by the presence of Dakota Sioux in the area. It is true that the southern portion of the province was on the outskirts of the historic range of the Dakota, nevertheless they were here, and a source of danger to the early trader, the buffalo hunters from Red River, and the various scientific expeditions that explored the West in the middle years of the century. Hind made careful preparations against “hostile tribes” before leaving Fort Garry in June 1858. He makes repeated references to the Sioux as a source of danger between 24 June and 4 July of the same year while in the southwestern portion of the province, while in the Narrative he writes: “As we cautiously approached the bank of the river [Assiniboine] opposite the mouth of the ... Souris, on the look out for Sioux Indians,” a vigilance that was continued as long as they remained south of the Assiniboine River. In addition, a considerable body of Sioux entered Manitoba following disturbances in Minnesota in 1862. Their descendants are still located on reservations in the western part of the province.

The preceding paragraphs have outlined the principal occupation during the last eighty years of the nineteenth century. Prior to that date the chief occupants were the Assiniboine. Like the Chippewa they were intruders into the Red River country and to the west. Their ancestral home was in the headwaters lakes area of northern Minnesota. Wilford, after extensive study, is of the opinion that the Assiniboine are “most likely” to have been the historic tribe that built the mounds and occupied the village sites of his Headwaters Lakes Aspect. [2] The date of their migration will not likely ever be definitely known. It is a safe assumption, however, that they were hunting along the Red River and its western tributaries, shortly after the year 1600. Kelsey found them either on the upper reaches of the Assiniboine River, or the plains of eastern Saskatchewan in the years 1690 and 1691. La Verendrye in his journal of 1737-1738 is careful in pointing out that he did not meet the Assiniboine until west of the forks, and they acted as his guides for the journey to the upper Missouri. When John Macdonell journeyed up the Assiniboine River in the autumn of 1793 he stopped for a few days at the Pine Fort, and writes of the arrival of “nine lodges of assinibouans well loaded with pieces [of] meat.” [3] The younger Henry, who traversed our area more than once, is quite specific in stating it was the home of the Assiniboine in the first decade of the nineteenth century. He names the hand the Canoe or Paddling Indians and places the number of their lodges at 160. David Thompson is equally clear in the Narrative. In the journey from Fort la Souris to the Mandans in 1797-98 the only Indians he met were the Assiniboine. Lewis and Clark on their famous transcontinental journey; spent the winter of 1804-1805 with the Mandans on the upper Missouri. During these months they were in contact with the Assiniboine of southern Manitoba, described the area they inhabited and named the band the Menatopa.

The early years of the nineteenth century witnessed the gradual withdrawal of the Assiniboine from the area. In 1817 when Lord Selkirk made his treaty with the Indians at Red River, this Assiniboine nation, who for two centuries had been masters of the Red River Valley and the lands to the west, were not present, and were not consulted. The reasons for the withdrawal are clear. The horse had vastly extended their hunting range. Pressure by the Chippewa is a reasonable assumption. To these must be added attractions offered by American traders on the Upper Missouri. Denig confirms this last statement in his famous report on “Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri.” On page 398 he states: “They [the Assiniboine] have never sold lands by treaty, and the only treaty (with the exception of that at Laramie, 1851) was made by them through an Indian agent of the United States named Wilson, at the Mandan village in 1825. But this treaty was merely an amicable alliance for the protection of American traders and an inducement held out to the Indians to leave off trading at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts and establish themselves on the Missouri, without, however, any remuneration on the part of the United States.” [4] The year 1820 would be close to the actual date of the final withdrawal. We do know that during the third decade of the nineteenth century, when Catlin and Maximilian were with the Mandans, the Assiniboine had deserted Manitoba and were hunting in the White Earth River district south of the boundary.

During this period of Assiniboine ascendancy the Cree were also present. The Cree were a woodland people; tradition tells us they welcomed the Assiniboine into the Red River country. How far they ventured into the plains before the day of the horse is scarcely known, yet a joint occupancy of part of southern Manitoba appears certain. Another Algonkian tribe may have occupied the western portion of our area during the same two centuries. Sir Alexander Mackenzie in his A General History of the Fur Trade writes: “The Fall, or Big bellied Indians, are from the Southeastward also, and of a people who inhabit the plains from the north bend of the last mentioned river, [the Missouri] latitude 47.32 North, longitude 101.25 West, to the south bend of the Assiniboine River,” The Fall Indians of Mackenzie are the Rapid Indians of other early travellers and in modern terms the Gros Ventres. If Mackenzie is correct, the Gros Ventres occupied southern Manitoba from Oak Lake west.

During the 220-year period under discussion there is a possibility of some occupation by earthlodge building tribes of the Upper Missouri (Mandan-Hidatsa). Libby has stated that the south slope of our Star Mound is the location of an earthlodge village of the Hidatsa. [5] Careful excavation by the writer during the summer of 1945 failed to confirm this assertion. Nickerson, in an unpublished report to the National Museum of Canada (1914) discusses the presence of Upper Missouri culture in the Antler Creek area in the extreme southwest corner of the province, and is likely to be correct. [6] Francois Jeannotte, a French halfbreed who was born on the Souris River in 1806, and who was in the Antler Creek district in 1822, claims the site had been abandoned for a good many years, and adds that the Hidatsa were driven out by a combination of Chippewa, Cree and Assiniboine. [7] Nickerson, in commenting on the Jeannotte claim adds, “Careful search has not yet disclosed the location of the Grosventre (Hidatsa) village mentioned by Jeannotte, unless here they did not build the earthen lodges typical of this people in Dakota.” This comment by Nickerson is confirmed by my own observation. I have never seen anything in Manitoba that resembles an earth lodge village site, yet there is some archaeological proof of at least Hidatsa occupation in summer hunting camps. The Lowton Site mentioned later has clear connections with the Upper Missouri and is most likely to be a summer village of the Hidatsa. Whether the Lowton Site was occupied within the 220 years under discussion is a question which cannot be definitely answered. It is pre-white-man and was likely occupied in the century immediately prior to or in that succeeding the year 1600.

With the exception of the Hidatsa the tribe discussed under the period 1600 to 1820 are typical of Plains culture. They did not make pottery, or live in established villages. The bison was the most important single factor in their lives. Their food, clothing and shelter, their almost daily migrations were derived from and controlled by the wanderings of the great herds over the plains. Theirs was a culture suited to the semi-arid conditions west of the Red River valley. The white man’s gun, horse and agriculture destroyed it forever.

The age of the recent nomad had a definite ending, the establishment of the reservations signaled its close. It is not likely, however, that it had any clearly marked beginning. Small nomadic groups were likely always present close to the waterways of our western country. Who they were. is shrouded in mystery; only an occasional weathered artifact suggests their presence. However, in the century or centuries immediately prior to the coming of the white man to the west, two distinct semi-sedentary, pottery-making groups occupied southern Manitoba. One of these, already referred to, occupied the Lowton Site west of the village of Belmont, Manitoba. The second was responsible for building the numerous burial mounds scattered over the southern portion of the province.

The Lowton Site people were not mound builders. Their stone artifacts and pottery suggest a close connection with the cultures of the Upper Missouri, and in the opinion of the writer the group that occupied this site reached the aboriginal cultural peak in Manitoba. As already suggested, the writer considers the site to have been a summer camp of the Hidatsa. Wintemberg identified the Lowton Site pottery as Mandan. [8] The present writer prefers to use the broader term, Upper Missouri. Will and Spinden have pointed out that “the Mandans did not go away on long hunting trips as did most of their neighbors.” [9] Which would seem to exclude their presence on the Lowton Site. A far better case can be made for Hidatsa occupation. The younger Henry speaks of their “roving and restless disposition” and of their “long excursions” to hunt. The cultures, of the two tribes are identical, and the Lowton Site could have been occupied by either; but the historic evidence suggests Hidatsa rather than Mandan occupation.

The Upper Missouri culture is limited to the Lowton Site so far as present knowledge indicates. The Manitoba mound building cultures are far more widespread. More than sixty mounds are known to the writer and many others have undoubtedly escaped attention. These mounds are scattered from the Red River to the western boundary of the province. Judging from the scanty documentation available, these mounds are not all the work of a single cultural group. They appear to stem back into more than one of the Minnesota classifications as established by Wilfred. Very little work has been done on village sites occupied by groups who built these mounds. It is evident, however, that the Avery Site on the north shore of Rock Lake was occupied by the group who built some of the mounds along the north shore of the lake. The answer to the question: Who were these mound builders and what became of them?, is as yet in the stage of speculation. The earliest Assiniboine to enter the area may furnish part of the answer to the first part of the question. An environment much too harsh for the semi-sedentary culture they brought with them from the east and south, appears to be the most likely answer to the second portion of our question.

These two pottery-making cultures occupy a brief middle section in the aboriginal story of the province. Accurate dating is at present impossible. It does not seem likely, however, that either of these groups were here before 1300 AD or much later than 1600 AD.

Beyond this pottery-making age the aboriginal backgrounds of southern Manitoba are shrouded incomplete darkness. Folsom Man was in Saskatchewan, but no trace of him has so far been discovered in this province. An occasional Yuma-like point or weathered artifact are the only suggestions of great antiquity. Archaeology will in time reveal whatever ancient backgrounds exist, and that they do exist along our ancient lake shores and water courses, appears to be a reasonable expectation.


1 Smithsonian Misc. Coll. Vol. 100, p. 370.

2 Wilford, “Headwaters Lakes Aspect,” Minnesota History, December 1945, p. 328.

3 From Diary of John Macdonnell. In Five Fur Traders of the North West, University of Minnesota Press, 1933.

4 Denig. “Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri”, 46th Ann. Rep. Amer. Bur. Ethn., p. 398.

5 Libby, in introduction to La Verendrye journal, 1738-39. North Dakota Historical Quarterly. Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 232.

6 Nickerson, W. B., “Archaeological Evidences as applied to Southwestern Manitoba”, Ottawa, 1914. Manuscript report in files of Nat. Mus. Ottawa. Copy in author’s library.

7 Francois Jeannotte, Narrative. Collections State Hist. Soc. of North Dakota, Vol. 1.

8 Wintemberg. “The Geographical Distribution of Aboriginal Pottery in Canada.” American Antiquity, Vol. 8, No. 2.

9 Will and Spinden. “The Mandans”. Papers Peabody Museum, Mus. Amer. Arch. and Ethn., Vol. 3, No. 4, p. 120.

* Chris Vickers, secretary of the School Division of Baldur, Manitoba, has been carrying on archaeological work in the Rock and Pelican Lake area under the auspices of the Historical Society and with its assistance. See the Society’s Papers for 1944-45.

Page revised: 26 May 2013

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