December 6, 2015
I started to realize, after writing profiles of early Canadian women for awhile, that there was more archival materials available for women of British descent than of those from other cultural backgrounds.
The following is a piece about a French Canadian woman who lived in St. Boniface, the Franco Manitoban suburb of Winnipeg:
Marie-Anne Gaboury: “A Strong Woman”
by Tanya Lester
The sign marking the burial site at St. Boniface Cathedral reads: “Tomb of Jean-Baptiste Lagimodiere. Celebrated Voyageur and Marie-Anne Gaboury, his wife, First Canadian White Woman.”
Most people living in Winnipeg recognize, at least to a certain extent, the important role Jean-Baptishte Lagimodiere played in Western Canadian history. After all, a city boulevard was named after him. Few know anything about Marie-Anne Gaboury. But if Gaboury had not ventured into the Canadian West, where no other white woman had settled before, part of this country’s most important history might have never happened the way it did.
Gaboury and Lagimodiere were the grandparents of Louis Riel. If Gaboury had not been a strong woman, she never would have left her home in Maskinonge, Lower Canada when her husband got to the itch to return to his vouageur life only a few weeks after they were wed. Nor would their daughter Julie, the mother of Louis Riel, have been born in the West.
Gaboury was soon to realize that her own and her children’s survival could never be taken for granted in the wild Canadian West. There was the time, for example, when Gaboury was riding her horse on the plains near Fort des Prairies (Edmonton), carrying her baby girl Reine in one of the saddlebags. They came upon a herd of buffalo and Gaboury’s horse decided to chase them.
In seconds, Gaboury found herself in the middle of a buffalo stampede. Her horse was racing at a full gallop and she could not rein in because her child, in the saddlebag, was in the way. Her husband finally cut Gaboury’s horse off from the stampeding buffalo herd.
Gives birth to second child
Trembling with fear, Gaboury gave birth to her second child only a few hours later on the bald, open prairie. She named the baby boy Laprairie to commemorate where and why she birthed him on that particular day. “As if she would have forgotten!” the authors of A Harvest Yet to Reap conclude their version of this story.
Had Gaboury been killed in the stampede, Julie would have never been born. There might have still been a Metis uprising but Louis Riel would not have led it. Had Gaboury been killed, the life of the woman who pioneered the tradition of strong prairie women, who made enormous contributions to homesteading the West, would have been cut short.
When Gaboury survived the ride through the buffalo herd, she had already narrowly escaped death several times. Shortly after she arrived in the West, in 1806 at the age of 26, she came close to being murdered. Over the years, many French-Canadian voyageurs had taken Native women for their wives. Although the marriages were never sanctioned by the Roman Catholic church, mosat of these unions were lasting.
“A white man who married the daughter of a chieftain cemented a relationship which was of benefit to all. Jean Johnston wrote in Wilderness Women, “The girl (sic) found security; her people and the fur trader profited by good trading. Until Marie-Anne came in 1806, there had been nothing to jar or ruffle this comfortable pattern.”
But to blame Gaboury for upsetting the “comfortable pattern” would be totally unjust. Lagimodiere knew he had already been ‘married’to an Indian woman in the West when he wed Gaboury in Lower Canada. By failing to tell Gaboury about the Indian woman, he might have been responsible for her death.
It is not surprising that his Native ‘wife’ pretented to befriend the lonely Gabour, where she was tenting on the Pembina Ruver. While Lagimodiere was out on the buffalo hunt, the Native woman hoped to poison Gaboury. She escaped death only because the woman told another voyageur’s wife about her plan. The other Indian woman warned Gaboury and, when Lagimodiere arrived home, they moved further up the Pembina River out of reach from his first wife.
However, it seems likely Lagimodiere was responsible for a very heartless practice that became prevalent in Western Canada. In later years, the Red River church registers often list the name of an Indian mother who baptised her child in the church, while the father is listed as a white Hudson’s Bay clerk or voyageur whose name and/or whereabout were unknown.
First white woman
On several other occasions, Gaboury’s white skin and fair hair served to protect and even save her life. There was the time Gaboury arrived at Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River, carrying Julie in a moss bag jhust as the Native women carried their babies. The Indians who met her, however, certainly did not mistake her for an Indian woman. They offered her gifts and recited prepared speeches. “Have pity on us,” they said, “we only wish to look at you.”
Gaboury must have been puzzled concerning the grandeur of this meeting if she was not aware of the talk which had preceded her arrival. A voyageur named Belgarde arrived at the fort ahead of the party Gaboury was travelling with. The Indians heard a white woman from New France was coming and asked Belgarde all sorts of questions about her.
Either Belgarde wanted to play a joke on them or he wanted to help protect Gaboury.Regardless, he told the Indians she was a good woman but knew a lot about medicines and, if she wanted, could kill someone simply by looking at him or her. So when Gaboury arrived the Indians were well prepared to please her.
They wanted to barter with her as they were accustomed to doing with white men. In Gaboury’s case, though, a chief wanted to barter for a ‘possession’ she could not part with at any price. The chief, like all leaders, wanted to own something unique — something none of his people had, something to reinforce the high status he had in his community. He decided he wanted little Laprairie.
One day he unexpectedly visited Gaboury at her tent and offered her the finest horse her owned in exchange for her boy. Of course, Gaboury refused. The chief misunderstood her reason for refusal and put a rope attached to a second horse in her hand. Gaboury could not speak his language but said to her husband, “Tell him that I will not sell my child, that he would have to tear my heart out before I would part with him.”
The chief misunderstood again. He offered to trade both of his horses and one of his children for Gaboury’s blue-eyed boy. Frustrated, Gaboury finally had to break down and cry before the chief understood and left.
It seemed Gaboury often had unexpected visits in those early days. On one such occasion, Gaboury and Belgarde’s wife were camping in an isolated area while both of their husbands were out checking their traplines. A Cree band, that happened to be passing by, noticed the tent and decided to move in to get a better look. Belgarde’s wife saw the band coming and thought they would be massacred. She grabbed Reine and rushed off into the woods.
Gaboury was unable to steal away so quickly. When the Indians opened the tent flap, they were awed by the sight they saw. No doubt having heard many campfire tales about the ruthless ways of the Natives, Gaboury was sure death was upon her. There she knelt, feverishly fingering her rosary and praying to the Virgin for salvation.
Hours later, Lagimodiere came back to find the tent surrounded by this unfamiliar band of Indians. He anxiously called out to his wife, asking her if she was alive. “Yes,” it is reported Gaboury answered, “I am alive but I am dying of fright.” But the next time Gaboury’s tent was surrounded by Natives, she had learned to take it all in stride. She prepared a feast of meat for them while she waited for help to arrive.
Over those first few years, as the Lagimodiere family wandered across the prairies following the buffalo like nomads, Gaboury learned to set up a tent, skin buffalo, cook stew over an open fire, pound buffalo meat into pemmican , and expertly ride a horse. She learned to live in a way she would never dreamed of living for the first 25 years of her life.
From working for her uncle-priest for a decade, her life had evolved into constand wandering and adapting to one hardship and crisis after another. Undoubtedly, Gaboury often longed for a settled life.
In 1811, four years after she had arrived in the West, Gaboury dared hope her wish was about to come true. It was decided she and her family would settle at Red River where St. Boniface now exists. But she was soon to face new hardships. Attempts at farming the land were often dashed by early frosts, grasshoppers and floods. Against so many odds, Gaboury survived, living in a cottage by the river with her six children.
A few years later, Lagimodiere took on the work of messenger between the colonists of the fledgling Selkirk settlement and Lord Selkirk who was living in Montreal. On his return trip back from Montreal, he received work that his wife and children had been massacred during the Seven Oaks battle between the Metis and the Scottish settlers. Feeling he had nothing to return to at Red River, Lagimodiere took his time getting back to the settlement.
When he finally arrived, he found his wife and family had not been killed but would have soon faced death by starvation. They had fled from the battle site and had been taken in by a Cree chief who provided them with food and a tent for the summer.
With winter coming on, though, Gaboury moved her family to a small hut and had by that time given up her husband as dead. The Hudson’s Bay Company had promised her a pension in the event of her husband’s death. However, the Company was inoperative after the Seven Oaks Massacrse and paid her nothing.
Gaboury was relieved when her husband returned alive. Things started to look up for the next few years. The Scottish women provided her with some sporadic companionship with women who were used to the lifestyle she had experienced before coming to Western Canada.
Two priests arrived and Gaboury, the only baptised Catholic in the area, became the godmother to every Native in the settlement. Gradually, St. Boniface started to take on the makings of a town.
But for Gaboury, the hardships were still not over. In her old age, she was to grive the hanging death of her grandson, Louis Riel.
Gaboury died in 1875, at the age of 95, a strong woman to the end. She was the first of a long line of women who helped settle the Canadian West. Without them, white men would have continued to hunt and trade on the prairies and retire back in Lower and Upper Canada.
Tanya Lester has four books: Women Rights/Writes, Dreams and Tricksters, Friends I Never Knew and Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader. The first three are archived in the Legislative Library of Manitoba. All are available in library systems. Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader can be purchased from the author or from amazon.com
Tanya is also a tea leaf reader, tarot reader, psychic channeller and medium as well as an intuitive counseller and reiki master. To get a reading from her go to her website at teareading.wordpress.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 250-538-0086.
Tanya is also a housesitter and can be contacted if you would like her to house sit for you and give loving care to your animals.
Tanya is also available to do freelance writing on a variety of topics.