Sunday, October 15, 2017

An Orphan of the Company: Lisette's Parentage At Last Revealed

Whenever I'm revisiting Lisette's Journey for an upcoming gig, I do a Google search on keywords related to Lisette and Daniel Harmon, to see if anything new has turned up in the vast reaches of the internet. One of the keywords I tend to use when pursuing leads on Lisette herself is "snare indian," which is an older term for the Secwepemc or Shuswap people of British Columbia.

Daniel's journal records October 10, 1805 at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan that 

"This day a Canadians daughter (A Girl of about fourteen years of age) was offered me...Her mother is of the Tribe of the Snare Indians, whose country lies about the Rocky Mountain." 

This puts Lisette's birth year around 1791, and her mother's birthplace in present-day Alberta or British Columbia. The term "Canadian" in this context indicates that Lisette's father was a voyageur, most probably a Métis of mixed parentage himself. 

Today a search for "Snare Indian" yielded a 2013 book by Joachim Fromhold, Alberta History: West Central Alberta, 13,000 Years ..., Part 2; Parts 1750-1840. The searchable text on Google Books yielded 9 hits on Snare, including a thrilling entry that is the best lead on Lisette herself that I have found in thirty years. 

This is a remarkable finding, since it confirms the original spelling of Lisette's last name as Duval, a name I used for the first 20 years of the program. It also gives the full name of Lisette's father, Jean Baptiste Lavallee Jr., as well as the date and place of Lisette's parents' marriage circa 1789 at Rocky Mountain House, now a National Historic Site in Alberta where I have presented my roleplay of Lisette. The marriage date aligns well with Lisette's birth year of 1791, so we can be confident that these are indeed Lisette's parents and confirm that her mother was a Shuswap. 

Fromhold reports that "a number of births occurred during the 1770s or slightly before among the ASINI WACHI--the dates being uncertain due to the lack of existing records....somewhere to the west, across the North Saskatchewan River, the future Mrs. Lavallee was born, possibly in the Jasper area, to the Snare Indians." (p. 5) This would make Lisette's mother no more than 21 at her birth, and likely younger. 

Fromhold's 2010 book, The Medicine Hills: Sacred Ground, 13,000 Years of History and Notes, includes the earliest known reference to Lisette (Lizette) herself, as an infant at Rocky Mountain House with the party of fur trader Peter Pangman. Lizette is listed with both birth and death years, indicating that more is known of her life history. (As her death certificate in the Montreal archives indicates, she died at Sault-au-Récollet, Montréal, February 14, 1862 aged 70.) She is listed with acronyms for Cree, Shuswap, Rocky Mountain House, Snake, and others.

As ASINI-WATCHI, Lisette's mother would be a member of the Asini Wachi Wi iniwak,  ("Mountain People"), which Fromhold gives as a confederation of several Cree and Assiniboine bands. These people's lands were known as the Asini Wachi Nehiyawak (Mountain Cree), who can be identified in the region as early as 1650. Today, the Asini Watchi Nehiyawak are a traditional band of the Mountain Cree. This aligns well with references in Daniel's journal to the languages he spoke with his wife and children.

"In conversing with my children, I use entirely the Cree, Indian language; with their mother I more frequently employ the French. Her native tongue, however, is more familiar to her, which is the reason our children have been taught that, in preference to the French language." (pp. 218-219)

There is a notable omission in Peter Pangman's party. Louise Paul (Cree) is listed by name, and two other wives are also listed, but there is no mention of "Lavallee, J. (wife)." Since Irvine Martin, b. 1790, is also listed as an infant with both his parents, the most likely explanation is that Lisette's mother died, either at or shortly after her birth. This could provide one logical explanation for why she was "given" to Daniel at such an early age. However, the fact that Cree was Lizette's native language and was more familiar to her indicates that she was brought up in a native, Cree-speaking community. Perhaps Louise Paul or one of the other wives in the party took on her upbringing in her early childhood. 

Fromhold includes an image of the well-known Peter Rindisbacher painting "A Cree Lodge at Red River" from the West Point Museum. RIndisbacher painted in the Red River District in 1822, three years after Daniel and Lisette left for Vermont, but this scene is very familiar to me. One of the most powerful experiences I had during my own years in the pays d'en haut was roleplaying Lisette at Rocky Mountain House, both out on the riverbank and in a teepee furnished almost exactly like this one. It is easy to imagine these women as Louise Paul, Madame Martin, and Madame Pierre Pangman, thirty years earlier at Rocky Mountain House, smoking together with a young orphaned Lisette kneeling at the fire. I can still smell the tobacco-pungent woodsmoke, the tallow on the snowshoes, and the musk of the beaver skins. 

It is a thousand kilometers by road from Rocky Mountain House to Cumberland House. Today it would be a 12-hour drive. How did Lisette make her way there to be offered to Daniel in October of 1805? That answer most likely lies with her father and his career in the fur trade. It did not end well for him.

Fromhold's Alberta History makes reference to M. Lavallee in 1806 from the records of the Dunvegan journal. Today known as Dunvegan Provincial Park and Historic Dunvegan, this important fur trade fort on the Peace River in western Alberta was built in 1805 by Archibald Norman McLeod, a wintering partner in the North West Company. Daniel Harmon was posted to Fort Dunvegan in 1807-1808, a year after accepting Lisette, so it was their first posting together. It is likely that she knew Dunvegan well, though the memories may not all have been happy ones. 

In April 1806, the journal makes several references to traffic between Rocky Mountain House and Dunvegan. On April 21, "three of the men that went to the R. Mountain arrived with letters from here. This is the eighth day since they came off." It was, therefore, a bit more than a week's paddle from Lisette's birthplace to the home fort of her father during the period she met Daniel.

A telling incident from April 1806 in the Dunvegan journal shows the power that the masters of the fur trade forts had over their men, and over the women "belonging" to them. After a man stole some meat from a drying rack, 

"in order to punish him, [Mr. McLeod] took his wife and gave her to M. Cadieu, who is more able to maintain her, Martineau being much in debt." 

It is clear not only that it was a voyageur's responsibility to provide for his woman and not that of the Company, but that inability to do so would be swiftly dealt with. A wintering partner who could take a man's wife and give her to another of his men could easily have taken a young girl from her father the previous fall and given her to an up-and-coming young manager like Daniel Harmon.

Indeed, it was Archibald Norman McLeod himself who placed Daniel in charge of his first post. In 1800, the year Daniel arrived in the Northwest, McLeod was the wintering partner at Fort Alexandria, in charge of the Swan River District. In the summer of 1800, Daniel had signed up at Grand Portage for a winterer's post, and was taken by "John MacDonald, Esq." (John MacDonald of Garth) to work for MacDonald at Fort des Prairieson the Saskatchewan River, now Fort Edmonton, Saskatchewan. Having built the new fort at Rocky Mountain House in 1799, John MacDonald was newly made a wintering partner in 1800 and placed in charge of Fort des Prairies, which was then the largest department in the northwest and in direct competition with the Hudson's Bay Company. 

On August 2, 1800, Daniel writes from the mouth of the Winnipeg River near Lower Fort Garry, now WInnipeg, in Manitoba.

"When I left the Grand Portage, it was expected that I should go up the Sisiscatchwin (sic) river to spend the winter. That river falls into the north western end of Lake Winipick (Winnipeg). But, since our arrival here, we have received intelligence from the Swan River Department, which country lies between Lake Winipick and the Red and Assiniboin(e) Rivers, that in the opinion of Mr. McLeod, who superintends the concerns of that region, that it is necessary to make another establishment there. It is therefore determined that I shall go and take charge of it; and I shall accordingly remain here a few days, to await the arrival of the brigade, destined to the Swan River department." (Harmon journal pp. 21-22)

Daniel worked in the Swan River Department under McLeod for the next five years, and was well respected by his wintering partner. He liked McLeod, and it was apparently mutual. Daniel writes from Fort Alexandria that "I am happy in meeting him, after so long a separation, and he appears to be pleased to see me, safely here." Later he commented that 

"While at Alexandria, my time passed agreeably in company with A.N. McLeod, Esq., who is a sensible man and an agreeable companion. He appeared desirous of instructing me in what was most necessary to be known, respecting the affairs of this country; and a taste for reading I owe, in a considerable degree, to the influence of his example." (Harmon journal p. 47)

Archibald Norman McLeod also knew Jean Baptiste Lavallee, who was in his employ at Fort Dunvegan in 1806 at the time of his death. Fromhold recounts that on May 6 of that year, La Vallet (Lavallee) died from eating a poison plant.

"This morning the children went to gather a kind of root called des Quesnes du Rat (rat root, also called cow parsnip, swamp root, and squaw root). In place of that they brought a great quantity of hemlock of which several of the men ate of it, and especially Toussignant and La Vallet. The latter ate such a quantity that he soon was sick, and went to the block house. He was no sooner (arrived) than he fell senseless. In that situation he remained for some time. When Mr. McLeod was informed of this, he immediately gave him an emetic, but it had no effect, he being at the time senseless. He remained in that dreadful condition until 4 pm, when he expired." (Dunvegan journal)

On the following day, May 7, 1806:

"this morning the young man that died (La Vallet) was buried, and his grave was surrounded by pickets. This evening Martineau was called into the Hall, and Mr. McLeod spoke to him about his having told Baptiste La Fleur that he intended to desert to go the the R. Mountain. Mr. McLeod reprimanded him for speaking so foolishly as he usually does, and explained to him what would happen to him was he to desert." 

It seems from this that Martineau and Lavallee were of the same brigade, meaning that Lisette's father would have known of, and likely been present for, the "giving" of Martineau's wife to their brigade mate Cadieu a month earlier. How poignant for a widower who had, most likely, had his own daughter "given" away from him six months earlier. But, it also seems that McLeod ruled with an iron will. At least he made the attempt to save Lavallee's life. His emetic succeeded with Toussaint and the children, so Lavallee was the only victim of a tragic accident. 

One cannot help but wonder if those hapless children who collected the rat tail hemlock were still at Dunvegan the following year, when the daughter of the man who died of their unfortunate harvest arrived as the wife of their new master of the fort. There is no mention of any of this in Daniel's journal, so it is pure conjecture. However, it does fit the facts.

The taking of a "country wife" in the fur trade was called "the custom of the country," or "à la façon du pays." It was a custom well known to Archibald Norman McLeod. Daniel's journal records that 

"Mr. A.N. McLeod has a son here named Alexander, who is nearly five years of age, and whose Mother is of the tribe of the Rapid Indians. In my leisure time, I am teaching him the rudiments of the English language. The boy speaks the Sauteaux and Cree fluently, for a child; and makes himself understood tolerably well in the Assiniboin(e) and French languages. In short, he is like most of the children of this country, blessed with a retentive memory, and learns very rapidly." (Harmon journal p. 54)

It is more than plausible that Daniel's mentor and boss, a towering figure in La Compagnie Nord-Ouest and a political force in early Canada, wished to instruct him most particularly in "what was most necessary to be known, respecting the affairs of this country" by arranging a mariage à la façon du pays for a promising young man who was so clearly fond of McLeod's own son. This is also one explanation of why Daniel may have accepted Lisette after having earlier declined the offer of a Cree woman in 1802. On August 11 at Bird Mountain, he writes

"On the ninth instant, a Chief among the Crees, came to the Fort, accompanied by a number of his relations, who appeared very desirous that I should take one of his daughters, to remain with me. I put him off by telling him, that I could not then accept of a woman, but probably might, in the fall. He pressed me, however, to allow her to remain with me, at once, and added, "I am fond of you, and my wish is to have my daughter with the white people, for she will be treated better by them, than by her own relations." In fact, he almost persuaded me to keep her, for I was sure that while I had the daughter, I should not only have the father's furs, but those of all his band. This would be for the interest of the Company, and would therefore turn to my own advantage, in some measure; so that a regard to interest, well nigh made me consent to an act, which would have been unwise and improper. But happily for me, I escaped the snare." (Harmon journal, p. 70) Three years later, he would meet another Snare that he would not escape, but would gladly walk into, for quite different reasons.

Daniel's stated reason for accepting Lisette was strikingly different from the economic motives he had expressed earlier, which would have done credit to a hustling Montréal Pedlar or an entrepreneurial coureur de bois. It indicates two critical pivot points in Daniel's career. The first is his own shift in self-perception from ambitious, hands-on Indian trader to a prosperous "gentleman" manager of the Company's forts. By 1805, Daniel writes that "it is customary for all gentlemen who remain, for any length of time, in this part of the world, to have a female companion, with whom they can pass their time more socially and agreeably, than to live a lonely life, as they must do, if single." Daniel had lived a lonely life for six years. Who more logical than his "sensible and agreeable companion,"  the McLeod of McLeod, to instruct his protegé in what was "customary for all gentlemen" among winterers. 

The second pivot point is a macro shift in fur trade corporate policy from the 18th to the 19th century, regarding NWC liaisons with native women. The advantages of family trading rights to the individual trader were tipping in the balance against the corporate overhead of this consequent population boom among the sons and daughters of the country. Within twenty years, this interracial powder keg would ignite in the Red River Affair, the Battle of Seven Oaks, and the Battle of Batoche. Daniel was just beginning to feel the effects of what was more than likely a very deliberate move by his senior management.

A very particular North West Company policy seems to have been at play in this transfer of the young Lisette from her Métis father to a rising American clerk. On the receiving end, Christian charity was also clearly a factor in Daniel's acceptance of Lisette, and also in her eventual, though patronizing, acceptance by the good people of Vermont. In the original preface to Harmon's journal, his editor Ezekiel Haskell "wishes to address a few remarks, through the medium of this preface, to the Christian public, and to all who feel any regard to the welfare of the Indian tribes, whose condition is unfolded in this work." While Haskell acknowledges that Daniel, having returned to the northwest, would not have an opportunity to review or comment on the preface, he did indicate that Haskell's (distressingly racist) call for a missionary establishment might succeed based on "some facts that the author has disclosed to me." These facts include a NWC policy explicitly favoring liaisons with Métis like Lisette over native women like her mother, whose welfare was taking its toll upon the Company's corporate purse by the 1820s. 

"In the numerous establishments of the North West Company, there are from twelve to fifteen hundred women and children, who are wholly, or in part, of Indian extraction. Women have, from time to time, been taken from among the Natives, to reside in the forts, by the men in the service of the Company; and families have been reared, which have generally been left in the country, when these men have retired to the civilized parts of the world. These women and children, with a humanity which deserves commendation, are not turned over to the savages (sic); but they are fed, if not clothed, by the Company. They have become so numerous, as to be a burden to the concern; and a rule has been established, that no person, in a service of the Company, shall hereafter take a woman from among the Natives to reside with him, as a sufficient number, of a mixed blood, can be found, who are already connected to the Company." (Harmon journal p. xvi)

How effective, then, was the ruthlessly pragmatic implementation of this policy in 1805-1806 by Archibald Norman McLeod, Esq. In Martineau's case, he transferred the upkeep cost of a native woman from a man so far in debt as to steal food from the Company (perhaps for that very woman) to a more solvent workman. Cadieu is mentioned several more times in the Dunvegan journals, and clearly was a more compliant and successful employee.

In Jean Baptiste and Lisette Lavallee's case, McLeod (if indeed it was he) saved the Company, and his home fort, any further expense of supporting a presumably motherless young woman of marriageable age; transferred her living costs and the future cost of her children (eventually numbering fourteen) to one of his favorite middle managers, with that gentleman's full cooperation; and avoided any political or financial inconvenience from having that manager take up a native woman like the Cree being actively offered him, instead of one of the "sufficient number of mixed blood who are already connected to the Company." 

Some powerful character clearly influenced Daniel over those three years, to think not of his own trading advantage with a Cree chief, but of his standing as a gentleman in need of the social and agreeable companionship of a "fair partner." It seems quite a sales job for the fourteen-year-old daughter of a nameless Shuswap and a working-class Métis interpreter.

This seems entirely in keeping with what we know of the wintering partners and their droit de seigneur du département. A.N. McLeod was directly descended from the 6th Chief of Clan MacLeod of Lewis, of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. Alberta's Dunvegan was named for the seat of the "McLeod of McLeod", and Archibald Norman, Laird of Swan River, certainly embraced the role. Daniel had placed himself on the career ladder to wintering partner, and although events would eventually overtake him in later life, his patron seems the likely provider of "my woman and the mother of my children."

But Dunvegan was not destined to have happy memories of her father for Lisette, or of fatherhood for Daniel. On Sunday, February 25, 1810, Lisette was nineteen and Daniel thirty-two when their own Dunvegan tragedy befell.

"On the evening of the 15th int., my woman was delivered of two living boys. They appear, however, to have been prematurely born; and from the first, little hope was entertained that they would long survive. One of them died on the morning of the 22nd, and the other the last night, and today they were both buried in the same coffin. He who gave them life, has taken it away. He had an undoubted right so to do; and though his ways are to us, inscrutable, he has the best reasons for whatever he does. It becomes us, therefore, humbly to acquiesce in this afflictive dispensation." (Harmon journal p. 150)

Another grave with pickets at Dunvegan. How far was it from the grave of Jean Baptiste Lavallee? I can see Lisette and Daniel standing there in the February snow, small George clutching his parents' hands. Born December 4, 1807 at Sturgeon Lake, George had just turned three, and was his father's pride and joy. I wonder if Lisette thought of her own mother, and was grateful to have survived these premature twin births. Had there been little hope entertained that she herself would long survive? Surely Daniel must have hoped and prayed for her. We know they wept together, and I am sure they prayed together, for their sons and for her father, in the fort's spare church with the picket fence. 

Had Lisette been present four years earlier, when they buried that young man, Lavallee, her father? He had most likely been far younger than the man who stood beside her now, the father of her children. 

I hope her husband's humble acquiescence was a comfort to her, though I confess I doubt it. Four years later, when they received the devastating news of George's death in far-off Vermont, she did not exhibit any such restraint. 

"When I informed her that our beloved son George was dead, she looked at me with a wild stare of agony, and immediately threw herself upon the bed, where she continued, in a state of delirium, during the succeeding night." (Harmon journal p. 201) 

So many deaths. Mother, father, two sons, and then their firstborn. I have to imagine that those dark days at Dunvegan deepened the agony and drove the delirium. I have always been moved to tears by that description, and this new context runs chills down my spine. I am more comforted than ever by Daniel's decision to invite her to return with him in 1819. And I understand that decision better, because within a year of her meeting him, Daniel was the only family she had.

"We have wept together over the early departure of several children, and especially, over the death of a beloved son. We have children still living, who are equally dear to us both. How could I spend my days in the civilized world, and leave my beloved children in the wilderness? The thought has in it the bitterness of death. How could I tear them from a mother's love, and leave her to mourn over their absence, to the day of her death? Possessing only the common feelings of humanity, how could I think of her, in such circumstances, without anguish. On the whole, I consider the course which I design to pursue, as the only one which religion and humanity would justify." (Harmon journal p. 231)

By the time Lisette was a mother, she was an orphan, a daughter of the Company, "given into the care of some good man." And he was a good man, who gave her a longer, wider, and kinder life than either of her parents had. It seems The McLeod of Dunvegan did her a good turn after all. Still, it's not like she had much choice, either in her early years or had she stayed behind after Daniel's return. I often wonder what she might have done with different choices, in a different time.


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