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The Assiniboines of Manitoba [1]

by C. Vickers

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1951-52 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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It is a generally accepted fact that the early home of the Assiniboine was somewhere in the southwest corner of the Laurentian Shield, somewhere in the north-central portion of the state of Minnesota. They called themselves “Nakota,” and sometime prior to 1640 AD they had broken away from the parent Yanktonai Dakota tribe. This move on the part of the Assiniboine was looked upon as rebellion by the Dakota, for they always referred to the Assiniboine as “Hohe” or rebels. The cause of the break is not known. Various traditions have been handed down, all of them worthless to the historian. The real cause of the separation could have been economic, rather than petty quarrels over the seduction of women. Whatever the cause, this migration of the Assiniboine, was the start of a great Siouan movement out of the eastern woodlands into the bison-hunting plains of the west.

It has been assumed for generations that the meaning of the word Assiniboine, which is Chippewa in origin, was “Stone Warriors” or “Stone Roasters” or “Stone Eaters” or “the people that cook with hot stones.” [2] This meaning, Stony Sioux, has often been traced, as suggested above, to the fact that the Assiniboine sometimes cooked their meat with hot stones. All of this may be correct, but the late J. N. B. Hewitt of the Smithsonian Institution does not agree, he considers these interpretations as “historically improbable.” He states that the limited noun in the word Assiniboine, boin or bwan, means “The Weaklings, The Incapable Ones,” and was the name given by both the Chippewa and Cree tribes to the wandering Assiniboine, because they compared unfavourably with the eastern, sedentary Sioux. The prefix, assine, does mean stone, but the reference is not to cooking with hot stones, it is geographical; and indicates the rocky region around the Lake of the Woods and west, which was an early home of the Assiniboine after they had deserted the parent Siouan group. If Hewitt is correct the name could mean “the weak Sioux of a stony land.” [3]

The Historic Approach

There is ample historic documentation to prove that the Assiniboine were a Canadian tribe before the middle years of the seventeenth century. The available data covers a period of nearly two hundred years; it is a rich source of information on the location of the tribe during the years covered, and suggests an occupancy prior to the written record. The direct historic approach is a well recognized method of identifying the tribal occupants of archaeological sites. In this section historic documents will be examined in order to determine the area occupied by the Assiniboine, with particular emphasis on the data that covers southern Manitoba.

The first definite reference to the Assiniboine as a separate tribe appears in the Jesuit Relation of 1640, when Le Jeune refers to them as the Assinipour [4]. A clue to their early location is suggested in Creuxius’ map “Tabula Novae Franciae Anno 1660,” which shows a River of the Assiniboines flowing into Lake Nipigon [5]. There is further evidence that the Assiniboine hunted during this time period in the area between the Lake of the Woods and Lake Nipigon. Jenness summarizes this data from volume 54 of the Jesuit Relations as follows: “They were then hunting in the country around the Lake of the Woods and Lake Nipigon, and, though depending mainly on the chase, gathered large quantities of wild rice.” [6] The Jesuit Relation of 1658, recording recently discovered tribes, states: “At thirty-five leagues from Lac Alimbeg (Nipigon,) is the nation of the Assinipoulak, that is to say, the Warriors of Stone.” [7]

The Jesuit map of Lake Superior, which appears in the Relation of 1670-71, suggests a more westerly range for the Assiniboine. It records at the mouth of the Kaministikwia River the following: “River by which you go to the Assinipoulac 120 leagues northwest.” [8] This wide range in territory does not appear to be at variance with fact.

Proof that the Assiniboine did come to the west end of Lake Superior to meet the French traders is found in two actions of Du Lhut. In 1679, one year before he rescued Father Hennepin on the Upper Mississippi, he met the Assiniboines in council “... at the head of Lake Superior.” [9] Four years later Du Lhut established a trading post at the mouth of the Kaministikwia River for the expressed purpose of trading with the Assiniboine and Cree. [10] Hennepin himself, during the same period, located the Assiniboine northeast of the Issati (Santee) who were then presumably around Knife Lake, Minnesota. [11]

The anxiety of the French fur traders to reach the Assiniboine was greatly stimulated by the appearance of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on Hudson Bay in 1670. Louis Jolliet visited Governor Bayly at Charles Fort in 1679. Bayly offered Jolliet work with the English company. Jolliet refused, saying: “... I was born a subject of the King of France and would be proud to serve him faithfully all my life.” Then he added his main reason for refusing: “It was to found an establishment among the Assinibouels.” [12]

The geographical knowledge of the area west of Lake Superior during the middle years of the seventeenth century was far from exact. It was based entirely on Indian reports, and much confusion existed on the location and number of the great interior lakes west and northwest of Lake Superior. De Lisles’ Paris map of 1703 gives us the first reliable cartographical data. Here the range of the “Assenipoils” is shown to be west and north of “Lac Des Assenipoils.” That this lake is the modern Lake Winnipeg, is strongly suggested by the fact that it shows “Lac Des Assenipoils” being drained by the “Riviere De Burbon” (Nelson River) into Hudson Bay. [13]

The French documentation under review deals with the advance of geographical knowledge from the basin of the St. Lawrence River west. It is far from conclusive; but it does indicate that the Assiniboine were a separate tribe before 1640 A.D., and well established over a wide territory west of the Lake of the Woods, including southern Manitoba.

During the latter part of the period under discussion, the wanderings of the Assiniboine were not confined to the area directly west of the Lake of the Woods. The establishment of English posts on Hudson Bay, attracted them to the northern sea, where they were heartily welcomed by the English traders. A. S. Morton, reviewing the comments of the French historian La Potherie, for the year 1684 (when the French were on Hudson Bay) states: “Assiniboins brought down a beautiful body of furs in ninety-one canoes.” [14] Their route to the Bay was either by the way of the Hayes or Nelson rivers, voyages that were the basis of De Lisles’ map previously mentioned. Documentation on the location of the tribe in southern Manitoba is found in the journal of Father Antoine Silvy, a Jesuit priest. This enterprising Jesuit accompanied a French expedition from Quebec in 1684, which was sent to Hudson Bay for the expressed purpose of seizing Port Nelson. He acted as scribe for the expedition and left an entertaining account of the year’s proceedings. Among his many comments is the following: “... the Assiniboines who came down from a distance of from fifteen to twenty days inland ... their village, which is beyond the great lake of the Assiniboines, of which Port Nelson is the outlet, according to what we hear.” [15]

Silvy’s comment appears definitely to place the Assiniboine in the Lake Winnipeg region in 1684, for the Nelson River, with Port Nelson at its mouth, is the outlet of the great inland lake. Father Marets in a letter written for the same area in 1694-95 places the Assiniboine at a greater distance from Port Nelson: “The Assiniboine are thirty-five or forty days journey from the fort.” [16] This estimate of the time occupied in making the long journey to Hudson Bay, is probably more accurate than that of his brother priest, Father Silvy. Early speculations on time and distance are not important, however, the vital fact in both comments is that the Assiniboines did reach Port Nelson in the late years of the seventeenth century. This journey was made by way of the Hayes, or Nelson, river; it would seem to place the homeland of the travellers around and “beyond” Lake Winnipeg, in southern Manitoba.

The final reference on the range of the Assiniboine in the last decade of the seventeenth century is found in the Kelsey Papers. Henry Kelsey was dispatched from York Factory by the Hudson’s Bay Company, in 1690 and 1691, on inland journeys of exploration. It is evident he reached the Saskatchewan River, perhaps at The Pas, Manitoba, and from there travelled into the open plains of eastern Saskatchewan. In his journal of this famous journey he makes repeated reference to the Assiniboines, “Ye Stone Indians.” He writes of being on the border of “... ye Stone Indian Country,” which was apparently just south of the Saskatchewan River in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan. [17]

This documentation, based on exploration from Hudson Bay, vastly increases the range of the Assiniboine. It is now evident that at the dawn of written history in the west, and before, they were established occupants of southern Manitoba, and were not unknown in eastern Saskatchewan.

The historical data of the eighteenth century furnishes conclusive proof that the Assiniboine tribe occupied the valley of the Assiniboine River, and adjacent regions, during that century. Captain W. Coats, who made many voyages to Hudson Bay between 1727 and 1751 comments on their location in his book The Geography of Hudson Bay. It was “... on the western sides of those Lakes from latitude 61 degrees to 47 degrees, to westward of the Superior Lakes ... and do generally come down every year, or once in two years, to trade at York Factory.” [18] The La Verendrye journal of 1738 clearly reveals the territory of the Assiniboine. When he arrived at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers he found “... ten wigwams of the Crees.” It was not until he started up the Assiniboine River that he met the tribe under discussion. He states: “I had not gone far when I began to meet a number of Assiniboines who had been told that I was ascending their river and who came to meet me.” [19] It was also the Assiniboines who guided him on his famous journey to the Upper Missouri.

Peter Pond’s map of 1785 is a further source of information. Pond was a prolific, and not inaccurate collector of Indian data, the map shows: “Assiniboines or Stone Indians” west of the Manitoba lakes and in the Assiniboine River country. [20] When John Macdonell arrived at the Pine Fort on September 21, 1793 he has interesting comments to make on conditions at the fort; adding on the 26th of the same month that there arrived “... nine lodges of Assinibouans well loaded with pieces (of) meat.” [21] Sir Alexander Mackenzie leaves little doubt about the home of the Assiniboines. After describing the Red River, he turns to its great western tributary, it he tells us: “... is called after the tribe of the Nadowasis, who here go by the name of Assiniboins, and are the principal inhabitants of it.” [22] David Thompson on his journey from Fort La Souris to the Mandans in 1797 encountered only Assiniboine Indians en route. The Narrative reveals that on December 4 he “... came to five tents of Stone Indians” and on December 9 “... to eight tents of Stone Indians,” both contacts occurring in the Souris valley. [23] The younger Henry, describing Fort La Souris in July 1806 states, “There are here, three labouring men, an Assiniboine interpreter, and forty women and children, almost starving.” [24] Finally, Donald Gunn, referring to Donald McKay and the establishment of the first Brandon House has this to say, “... and during the winter traded with the Assiniboines.” [25]

This survey of Canadian documents, not necessarily complete, indicates the extent of the Assiniboine habitat from 1640 to the opening years of the nineteenth century. We find them occupying, without much reason for doubt, that vast triangular area that straddles part of the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Ranging over a region that likely reached south of the international boundary; encroaching, perhaps, on the territory of their cousins the Sioux; in contact with the semi-sedentary Cheyenne on the upper Red River, and the Mandan-Hidatsa groups on the Upper Missouri and during the latter part of the period under review; armed with French and English guns; made highly mobile with the horse: putting pressure on two Algonkin groups that lay immediately to the west, the Gros-Ventre and the Blackfoot, but living at peace apparently with the Cree to the north.

This data also focuses our attention on the fact that southern Manitoba, the valleys of the Assiniboine, Souris and Pembina rivers, were a principal centre of occupation in both pre-historic and historic time. This historic data is the basis for the writer’s assumption that some of the important archaeological sites in southern Manitoba were occupied by the pre-historic and historic Assiniboine. In the succeeding section the archaeological evidence will be examined.

The Archaeological Evidence

The first association of the Assiniboine tribe with excavated archaeological material was made by Dr. Lloyd A. Wilford, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. In two publications Wilford has described his Blackduck focus of the Headwaters Lakes aspect; cautiously suggesting that the culture “... has in general an appearance of being relatively late,” and that the Assiniboine tribe are “... most likely to have created the culture.” [26] The twin facts that Blackduck sites in north-central Minnesota exist in the region known to be an early home of the Assiniboine, and the similarity of the culture to his Mille Lacs aspect, known to be the work of their parent tribe, the Dakota Sioux, form the basis of the assumption.

The Blackduck focus is a mound-building culture, and Wilford has excavated and described the material culture from both mounds and the type village site. The mounds contain refuse from village sites; while the burials are frequently in a sitting position, accompanied by small mortuary pots.

The utilitarian pottery of the village sites is distinctive. The body sherds are surfaced with a cord-wrapped paddle, with a few net impressions. The rim area is sometimes brush marked, likely with stems of grass. Over this brush marking there are impressions made with a cord-wrapped stick, horizontal, vertical and oblique. These cord-wrapped stick impressions are frequently accompanied by circular punctates. The lip of the pot is thickened and flat, sometimes decorated with cord-wrapped stick impressions. Associated with this pottery are small triangular projectile points, both side notched and unnotched. End scrapers are roughly rectangular in outline. Drills and thick knives are present, and the bone tools include awls and both unilaterally and multiple barbed harpoons. [27]

This material culture, one of the most distinctive of the Woodland pattern, is present in a strikingly similar form in southern Manitoba. Excavations on the Avery site at Rock Lake, on the Stott site at Brandon, surface collections at Lockport, on Flee Island sites near Portage la Prairie and at numerous other sites in the drainage of the Assiniboine, Souris and Pembina rivers, have yielded this Blackduck culture. Its presence in southern Manitoba has been described in the Archaeological Reports of the Society for the years 1945 to 1950, and was defined as the Manitoba focus of the Headwaters Lakes aspect in the report for 1948. [28]

A further similarity with the Minnesota Blackduck is found in fact that the principal Manitoba sites examined are mound sites. Burial mounds are present near the Avery, Stott and Lockport sites. Many of the Manitoba mounds have been badly disturbed in the past, and authentic records of their contents scarce. A survey of the available data, however, yields interesting results. Many of the mounds contained, as the Blackduck mounds did, burials in a sitting position and small mortuary pots. These mounds would appear to be the work of the same people who left the Manitoba focus material. [29]

All of the Manitoba sites mentioned above are pre-historic. The only historic site, known to have been occupied by the Assiniboine Indians is the Snart site, just west of Pine Fort on the Assiniboine river. The material from this site has been previously described in the Society’s report for 1948, and excavations since that time have added to the material available for study. It is significant that while the bulk of the material found on the Snart site is of white origin, the native material that has been recovered is identical with the Manitoba focus. Small triangular arrow points, thick knives, rectangular end scrapers and various bone tools similar to those found on the pre-historic Avery, Stott or Lockport sites. This Snart site, occupied during the lifetime of the Pine Fort, 1768-94, has a profound significance in any attempt to associate the Assiniboine tribe with the Manitoba focus and its Minnesota counterpart. There is little doubt it was occupied by Assiniboines. [30] If the Assiniboines made the native material found on the Snart site, it would seem to be a safe assumption that their ancestors left the similar culture found in older, pre-historic sites in the same general area.

The dating of pre-historic sites can be a dangerous game of guess-work. An attempt to pin down the time period of the Manitoba focus would not be an exception. The Snart site would appear to be very close to the end of the occupied time period, and the writer is of the opinion that the earlier pre-historic sites of the focus were occupied some time during the three centuries prior to the Snart site occupation. This impression is subject to correction as knowledge of the focus expands. The fact that the Manitoba focus material lies above the older Rock Lake focus on the Avery site and below the more recent Selkirk focus at Lockport supports the suggestion the culture is “relatively late.”

The time period assigned to the Manitoba focus is of vital importance in its final association with the Assiniboine tribe. The historic evidence indicates that the Assiniboine did occupy southern Manitoba in late pre-historic and early historic time. The archaeological sites of the focus occupy an identical geographic area. The type of artifacts found on the sites, including the Snart site which is a late manifestation of the culture, have every indication of being of recent origin, and the well preserved condition of the perishable material supports the assumption they are not of great antiquity.

The archaeological evidence now available indicates that the Manitoba focus material was abandoned in the same time period, and covers the same geographical area, as those assigned to the pre-historic and historic Assiniboine. The conclusive evidence of the Snart site, occupied by the Assiniboines, with native artifacts that are part of the Manitoba focus, stoutly supports the hypothesis that the earlier sites of the focus, the Avery, Stott and Lockport sites were occupied by pre-historic Assiniboine groups. Finally, if the focus is not the work of the Assiniboine, the pre-historian is faced with the problem of finding an alternative; an alternative tribe that lived in the area during the same span of time; then disappeared without leaving a trace of their identity. [31]


1. This paper is Mr. Vickers’ Archaeological Report for 1951, printed here because of its general and summarizing character; reports for the years 1945 to 1950 may be obtained in mimeograph from the Secretary of the Society.

2. Diamond Jenness, The Indians of Canada (Ottawa, 1934) p. 308.

3. J. N. B. Hewitt, Forty-sixth Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, 1950) p. 381.

4. James White, Handbook of the Indians of Canada (Ottawa, 1913) pp. 45-47.

5. Grace Lee Nute, Caesars of the Wilderness (New York, 1943) p. 73.

6. Jenness, The Indians of Canada, p. 308.

7. Reuben G. Thwaites (ed.), The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol. 000, p. 00.

8. L. J. Burpee, The Search for the Western Sea (Toronto, 1908) p. 190.

9. Frances Parkman, La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West (Cottage edition, Toronto, 1901) p. 257.

10. Nute, Caesars of the Wilderness, p. 30.

11. Alexander Henry, Travels and Adventures, ed., James Bain (Toronto, 1901) fn., p. 277.

12. J. A. Burgesse, “Joliet in James Bay,” The Beaver, Dec. 1947, p. 14.

13. The Beaver, June, 1936.

14. A. S. Morton, History of the Canadian West to 1870-71 (Toronto, 1939) p. 97.

15. J. B. Tyrell (ed.), Documents Relative to the Early History of Hudson Bay (Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1931) p. 68.

16. Ibid., p.124.

17. A. G. Doughty and C. B. Martin, The Kelsey Papers (Ottawa, 1929) pp.2-5.

18. Quoted in C. N. Bell, The Journal of Henry Kelsey, Transaction Series 2, No. 4, Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (Winnipeg, 1928) p. 7.

19. North Dakota Historical Quarterly, VIII (4), July, 1941, “The La Verendrye Journal of 1738,” pp. 246-248.

20. H. A. Innes, Peter Pond, Fur Trader and Adventurer (Toronto, 1930).

21. P. W. Gater (ed.), “The Diary of John Macdonell,” Five Fur Traders (Minneapolis, 1933).

22. Alexander McKenzie, “A General History of the Fur Trade,” A Voyage to the Frozen Ocean, etc. (London, 1801) p. cii.

23. J. B. Tyrrell (ed.), The Narrative of David Thompson (Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1917) p.212.

24. E. Coues (ed.), New Light on the Early History of the Great North West (New York, 1897).

25. D. Gunn and C. R. Tuttle, History of Manitoba (Ottawa, 1880) pp. 87-88.

26. L. A. Wilford, “A Tentative Classification of the Prehistoric Cultures of Minnesota,” Minnesota Archaeologist, IX (4) Oct., 1943; “The Prehistoric Indians of Minnesota,” Minnesota History. Dec., 1945.

27. Wilford, “A Tentative Classification,” pp. 100-102, and “The Prehistoric Indians of Minnesota.”

28. C. Vickers, “Archaeological Report, 1948,” Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba (Mineograph) (Winnipeg, 1949) p. 9.

29. C. Vickers, “Burial Traits of the Headwaters Lakes Aspects in Manitoba,” American Antiquity, XIII (2) Oct., 1947, pp. 109-114.

30. Vickers, “Archaeological Report, 1948,” p.6.

31. The Stott mound and a portion of the Stott site was exacavated by Dr. Richard S. MacNeish of the National Museum, Ottawa, in Oct., 1952. Following the excavations, Dr. MacNeish expressed the opinion that it was an Assiniboine site; Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 17 and Nov. 17, 1952.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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