Jean Baptiste and Marie Anne
by Rossel Vien
Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1965, Volume 10, Number 3
"I defy the North West Company to find from the annals of their history two such pedestrian voyages", wrote Colin Robertson in 1817, referring to John Pritchard and Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere.
A former clerk of the North West Company, Robertson was then with the Hudson's Bay Company, and was, in fact, to become a force in the merging of the two rival concerns a few years later. Both Pritchard and Lagimodiere had also been employed by the North West Company and both were now interested in the Hudson's Bay Company and the newly established colony on the Red River.
Pritchard traveled from Montreal to Red River in the winter of 1814-15, by way of Abitibi Riber and York Factory. The following winter, Lagimodiere traveled from Red River to Montreal and back, "amidst numerous sufferings and difficulties", observed Robertson, who knew well that the voyageur had to avoid the North West Company men along the route.
Carrying important dispatches to Lord Selkirk, Lagimodiere set out on October 15, 1815, and was to reach Montreal almost five months later. He left his family at Fort Douglas, which had been established for the protection of the Selkirk settlers. He had with him another Canadian, Benoni Marier, and an Indian guide.
The three men went, first, some distance up the Assiniboine, in order to mislead the "Nor'Westers" at Fort Gibraltar. They probably took along with them one horse at least. The journey to Fort Daer, or Pembina, was usually made in two days. In the next stage, from Pembina to Lake Superior, through the outposts of Thief River, Red Lake, Mississippi River, Sandy Lake and Fond du Lac (where now stands Superior, Wisconsin), they had to carry their canoes over many portages. From Fond du Lac to Sault Ste. Marie they followed an old Indian trail running some distance from the south shore of Lake Superior.
This southern route had been chosen by Robertson, among other reasons, because the "Nor'Westers" had control of the old canoe route of the north, through Winnipeg River and the Lake of the Woods.
Lagimodiere left his companion Marier at the Sault which they reached about the end of January 1816. He took about twenty days to cover the next 440 miles, to Drummond Island, passed York (Toronto) on March 1, traveled by sleigh to Kingston and arrived at Montreal on March 10.
The information he brought persuaded Lord Selkirk that he would have to go to the help of the Red River settlers with soldiers.
It was on his way back through the same route, with letters from Selkirk that Lagimodiere was to undergo the most serious trials. He and his two companions, Benoni Marier and Jacinthe Parisien, were a few miles away from the fort of the North West Company at Fond du Lac when they were attacked by a Negro interpreter with ten armed Indians. In the middle of the night of June 16, 1816, the Canadian voyageurs were beaten and robbed, and the booty, including Selkirk's letters, taken to the fort.
When testifying in Court in July 1817, Lagimodiere gave a long list of the goods taken from him by the Indians and the "Nor'Westers". It included two canoes, one barrel of assorted grains, six pounds of powder, a gun, a silver watch, a keg of rum, three cotton shirts, three pairs of deer skin shoes, and such delicacies as a little mirror, two pounds of soap, six pounds of sugar, a necklace, a silk handkerchief obviously for his wife.
The day following the attack at Fond du Lac, the prisoners were sent to Fort William. They were released there but never recovered their possessions. When Fort William was taken by Selkirk himself, on August 16, the same year Marier and Parisien were still there but Lagimodiere was probably back at Red River. Poor Jean Baptiste "and his party" had been found half starved near Fort Frances a month and half before by another Canadian, Pierre Paul Lacroix.
Lagimodiere's trip to Montreal has secured for him a place in the story of the Selkirk Settlement. He is not remembered, though, only for that trip for it was he who brought the first Canadian woman to the West.
Born at St. Antoine on the Richelieu in 1776, Jean Baptiste may have met Marie Anne Gaboury before his first engagement as a voyageur. In any case, he was at Maskinonge (near Trois Rivieres) in the winter of 1805-06, and there, on April 21, 1806, he married the twenty five year old girl who was assistant housekeeper at the rectory. She must have hesitated before leaving for the unknown and far off country of the buffalo hunters and the Indians. According to the tradition, they left shortly after their wedding.
Madame Lagimodiere was at Pembina when she gave birth to her first child. It was the day of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Kings to the Infant Jesus. This being customarily the third important feast of the Christmas season in Quebec, devout Marie Anne looked for an appropriate name. Since the baby was a girl she called her "Reine" (Queen).
There has been some doubt as to who gave birth to the first white child in the Red River country Madame Lagimodiere, or the Orkney girl who astonished Alexander Henry Jr. on December 29, 1807, at the same post of Pembina, when she became a mother. Some historians have dated Reine's birth as January 1808, while others state it was January 1807 The accepted tradition is that Reine was born in 1807, though this cannot be confirmed by documentary evidence.
Nevertheless, Marie Anne was the first white woman to settle and raise a family on the prairies. It would take too long here to deal with her numerous adventures. Sufficient to mention that her second and third children were given picturesque names too: Jean Baptiste, born on the prairie of Saskatchewan, was known later as "La Prairie", and Josephte, born at Cypress Hill, was called "La Cypres".
Lagimodiere rendered noted services to the Selkirk colonists from their arrival at Red River. He and other hunters assisted in saving the first settlers from starvation during the winter of 1812-13. "My best hunter", said Miles Macdonnell, the first Governor of Assiniboia, in 1812. In the year of his trip to Montreal, Jean Baptiste was given a least two important tasks by Colin Robertson, who had known him for many years. On his arrival at Red River in July, Robertson sent Lagimodiere with some other freemen on a hurried trip to bring seven bags of pemmican to his canoe brigade which he had left at the mouth of Winnipeg River. In September, Robertson said that he had arranged with Lagimodiere "who has a few excellent horses to cart home the grain and hay".
As a reward for his mission to Montreal, Lagimodiere received a grant of land from Lord Selkirk, on the east side of the Red River, becoming a pioneer of St. Boniface. And his success as a farmer is also remarkable, though he continued as a voyageur for the Hudson's Bay Company long after that trip.
In the Red River Census of 1832-33, we find him and his elder son with twenty five acres of cultivated land, which is considerable in comparison with the other settlers. In the Census of 1849, grandpapa Lagimodiere had three sons listed, each of them with a family. He owned himself 50 acres of cultivated land, 8 horses, 12 mares, 6 oxen, 12 cows, 14 pigs, 41 sheep, 2 ploughs, 2 harrows, 8 carts.
Jean Baptiste died in 1855. Marie Anne lived to see Manitoba become a province: she died in 1875 at the age of ninety five.
The girl born at Pembina, Reine Lagimodiere, married Joseph Lamere, and both left Red River after the flood of 1826, as did more than 250 people but not Marie Anne or Jean Baptiste. Reine did not come back to Manitoba, apparently, until 1876, six months after her mother's death.
The best known of Marie Anne's children is Julie. Born in St. Boniface in 1819, she married an enterprising Métis in 1843 and became the mother of that strange idealist called by historian George Stanley the "founder" of Manitoba - Louis Riel.
Page revised: 18 July 2009