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Métis in Minnesota

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Black and white photograph of an unidentified Métis fur trader of Indian and French Ancestry, ca. 1870.

An unidentified Métis fur trader of American Indian and French ancestry, ca. 1870.

In the Minnesota region during the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, métis, or mixed-ancestry, people often acted as bridges between white and American Indian communities. The Métis cultural community of Pembina formed out of fur trade dynamics and influenced Minnesota during its territorial birth.

The term “métis” [\mā-tē(s)\] has more than one meaning. One references a person with mixed ancestry (métis means “mixed” in French) and is usually written with a lowercase “m”. For example, in Minnesota before statehood, having one Dakota parent and one Scottish parent made one métis. Government officials kept special census records, like the “Sioux Métis rolls,” of mixed-ancestry persons.

Another meaning of the term identifies present-day members of the Métis Nation of Canada. This specific mixed-ancestry group practices distinct ways of life. People representative of both groups—the métis and the Métis Nation—were involved in the fur trade era in pre-territorial Minnesota and around the Great Lakes.

Mothers of Métis and mixed-ancestry children of the Great Lakes region came from the Dakota and Ojibwe nations as well as the Menominee, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Sauk, Ho Chunk, Odawa, Cree, and Assiniboine. Scottish, Irish, French, and British fathers lived during the French, British, and American periods of colonization. They were coureurs de bois (French or métis traders), voyageurs, artisans, merchants, soldiers, officers, and government workers. Additionally, some mixed ancestry children had a black parent and an American Indian parent.

Historical accounts describe marriages of men with African ancestry with American Indian women. James Thompson (eventually freed from slavery) married a Dakota woman in 1833. Joseph Godfrey escaped slavery and married a Dakota woman named Takanyeca in 1857. Pierre Bonga, a free man, married an Ojibwe woman, and their son George Bonga married Ashwewin, who was Ojibwe as well. These men lived and died in close association with their wives’ communities.

Marriages with Native women allowed the men to build bonds with their wives’ extended families. These husbands tapped into new economic opportunities, accessed hunting areas, influenced trading, and benefited from the many skills and kinship ties of their Native wives. The women themselves also gained social status, influence, and access to resources. Some of these marriages were á la façon du pays, French for “according to the custom of the country.” In some cases, the European and American colonial powers legally recognized marriages as well as divorces. Some fathers were committed to raising their mixed-ancestry children; others abandoned them.

Historically, métis lived with complicated identities. In pre-territorial and territorial Minnesota, mixed-ancestry people acted as translators, guides, teachers, farmers, traders, missionaries, and entrepreneurs. The métis were able to use different parts of their identity in order to survive day to day. This made for a variety of life stories.

Jane Lamont, the Scottish and Dakota granddaughter of the Dakota leader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), lost both her parents before she was nineteen years old. She was at first a teacher, then chose homesteading and marriage to the nephew of the missionary Samuel Pond. On the other hand, Mary Taliaferro Woodbury, another métis woman, lived with her children in St. Paul. She lost her husband, a soldier, in 1863, then moved her family to a reservation in 1887 or 1888 to live with her Dakota relatives.

In the 1820s, the number of mixed-ancestry families and children in Minnesota soared. This began to change in the mid-to-late 1800s, when the need for the métis as go-betweens declined. At this time, métis faced increasingly negative reactions from society for being persons of mixed ancestry. Social options for the métis became more limited. Some mixed-ancestry people tried to join mainstream, Euro-American ways of life (at least outwardly). Others moved with American Indian relatives to reservations.

Native nations often looked after their mixed-ancestry relatives. Pelagie Faribault, a woman of mixed Dakota ancestry, received land through an 1820 agreement with the Dakota. Although the U.S. did not make the agreement official, it eventually recognized some of its provisions—including the land grant to Pelagie Faribault. Roughly between 1830 and 1851, the Lake Pepin region contained land set aside by treaty for mixed ancestry families. Much of it was lost to white colonists or exchanged for land certificates (scrip) in other locations. A draft of a U.S. treaty with the Pembina and Red Lake Ojibwe—written in 1851 but never ratified—included a sum of money for mixed-ancestry relatives.

Various mixed-ancestry families usually lived near fur-trading sites from the late 1700s into the 1800s. Many raised children next to each other. Some lived near Fort Snelling and in Mendota, Prairie du Chien, and, later, Lake Pepin (on the Mississippi River). Many of them knew the Red River and Pembina Métis and often interacted with them.

International and state borders shifted during the nineteenth century so that the Pembina Métis community was sometimes in Canada and at other times in Minnesota, Dakota, and Iowa Territories. Minnesota played a geographically important role to the culturally distinct Métis in Canada. The distinct Plains Red River Métis, or “La Nation,” routinely traveled on oxcart routes starting in the 1820s. These routes went through what is now Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, Fort Snelling in St Paul, Pembina in North Dakota, and the Red River Colony in Manitoba, Canada.

These Métis traded and conducted business of various kinds. Minnesota Territory, before statehood, actually included Pembina. Pembina also had a Minnesota Territorial representative, Joseph Rolette, who had married into a culturally Métis family.

Brigades of Métis hunters with ox-drawn wooden carts went after buffalo until the mid-nineteenth century. The hunting of buffalo sometimes caused conflict with nearby American Indian nations. A form of seasonal food gathering continues to the present day in Métis communities.

Louis Riel, the famous leader of the Canadian Red River Métis, visited a relative in Minnesota in 1878 and, for a short time, lived in Saint Paul. He approached John Ireland, the city’s Roman Catholic Bishop, and asked for help in resettling “Canadiens” to the United States. Some were probably Métis.

Ireland did not help Riel. In 1885, the Canadian government ordered his death for his role in organizing Métis armed resistance. The French Canadian town of Gentilly, Minnesota, mourned the execution as a symbol of the oppression of French speakers.

In the Red River Valley and Pembina, Métis intermarried and passed on a culture combining what their parents had brought from their own backgrounds. Certain symbols persist in the present day as markers of Métis life. Brightly colored sashes and the sash dance, floral beadwork, and the infinity symbol flag are symbols of Métis culture. Métis music and dance traditions include jigging, fiddling, and tunes such as the Duck Dance Fiddle Song. Some Métis families celebrate Easter and maple sugar season with specific foods, like crepes with maple syrup. Linguists recognize the French Métis language and Michif as official languages spoken in the United States and Canada.

As of 2017, Canada and the United States maintain different Métis policies. Canada formally recognizes some Métis groups as having legal rights. The United States does not view métis peoples as a distinct group. Nonetheless, métis people in several states have formed organizations based on cultural heritage and métis rights.

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Babcock, Willoughby M. “With Ramsey to Pembina: A Treaty Making Trip in 1851.” Minnesota History 38, no. 1 (March 1962): 1–10.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/38/v38i01p001-010.pdf

Bachman, Walt. Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013.

Basson, Lauren, L. White Enough to Be American? Race Mixing, Indigenous People, and the Boundaries of State and Nation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Benoit, Virgil. “Gentilly: A French-Canadian Community in the Minnesota Red River Valley.” Minnesota History 44, no. 8 (Winter 1975): 278–289.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/44/v44i08p278-289.pdf

Campbell, Maria. “Forward: Charting the Way.” In Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History, edited by Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall, xiii-xxvi. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

Carroll, Jane Lamm. “’Who Was Jane Lamont?’ Anglo-Dakota Daughters in Early Minnesota.” Minnesota History 59, no. 5 (Spring 2005): 184–196.
http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/59/v59i05p184-196.pdf

Denial, Catherine, J. Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013.

Flanagan, Thomas. “Louis Riel and the Dispersion of the American Metis.” Minnesota History 49, no. 5 (Spring 1985): 179–190.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/49/v49i05p179-190.pdf

Andrew Godfrey family book, 1801-1917
Manuscript Collection, Little Canada Historical Society, Little Canada
Description: Genealogical records of the Godfrey family associated with the founding of Little Canada.

Kugel, Rebecca. “Reworking Ethnicity: Gender, Work Roles, and Contending Redefinitions of the Great Lakes Métis, 1820–1842.” In Enduring Nations: Native Americans in the Midwest, edited by R. David Edmunds, 160–181. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Merriam Webster Dictionary.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/m%C3%A9tis

Murphy, Lucy Eldersveld. A Gathering of Rivers: Indians, Métis, and Mining in the Western Great Lakes, 1737–1832. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Peterson, Jacqueline. “Many Roads to Red River: Métis Genesis in the Great Lakes region, 1680–1815.” In The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, edited by Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S. Brown, 37–71. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2001.

Pritchett, John Perry. “Some Red River Fur-Trade Activities.” Minnesota History 5, no. 6 (May 1924): 401–423. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/5/v05i06p401-423.pdf

Sperry, Elizabeth. “Ethnogenesis of Metis, Cree, and Chippewa in Twentieth Century Montana.” Master’s Thesis, University of Montana, 2007.
http://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/385/

St.-Onge, Nicole “Familial Foes? French-Sioux families and Plains Métis Brigades in the Nineteenth Century.” American Indian Quarterly 39 (Summer 2015): 302–337.

Teillet, Jean. “Boundaries of the Metis Nation” Presentation slides, December 2011. http://www.metisportals.ca/cons/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Boundaries-of-the-Metis-Nation-2011.pdf

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of an unidentified Métis fur trader of Indian and French Ancestry, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of an unidentified Métis fur trader of Indian and French Ancestry, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of two men, probably Métis, preparing a Red River cart train at Pembina, 1856.
Black and white photograph of two men, probably Métis, preparing a Red River cart train at Pembina, 1856.
Black and white photograph of an eight-person mixed-blood Ojibwe family, including a baby, on the White Earth Reservation, ca. 1897.
Black and white photograph of an eight-person mixed-blood Ojibwe family, including a baby, on the White Earth Reservation, ca. 1897.
Métis dance at Devil’s Lake, Dakota Territory, ca. 1870. Drawing by Corporal Louis Voelkerer, Company A, Thirty-first United States Infantry.
Métis dance at Devil’s Lake, Dakota Territory, ca. 1870. Drawing by Corporal Louis Voelkerer, Company A, Thirty-first United States Infantry.
Black and white photograph of Antoine Blanc Gingras, Métis Fur Trader and member of the Minnesota Territorial Legislature, ca. 1855.
Black and white photograph of Antoine Blanc Gingras, Métis Fur Trader and member of the Minnesota Territorial Legislature, ca. 1855.
Black and white photograph of dog team drivers, Tarbell and Campbell, from Pembina, 1856.
Black and white photograph of dog team drivers, Tarbell and Campbell, from Pembina, 1856.
Color image of a pair of beaded Dakota-Metis half leggings, probably from the Red River region of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba, made in the mid 1800s
Color image of a pair of beaded Dakota-Metis half leggings, probably from the Red River region of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba, made in the mid 1800s
Black and white photograph of a Dakota treaty delegation in Washington, 1858.
Black and white photograph of a Dakota treaty delegation in Washington, 1858.
Color image of a Quilled coat, ca. 1851.
Color image of a Quilled coat, ca. 1851.
Color image of a French-Canadian finger-woven wool sash in ceinture flechee or “arrow sash" pattern, ca. 1750–1800.
Color image of a French-Canadian finger-woven wool sash in ceinture flechee or “arrow sash" pattern, ca. 1750–1800.
Color image of loom woven garters that originated in the area around Selkirk, Manitoba, and are possibly Ojibwe, Métis, or Cree, ca. 1820s.
Color image of loom woven garters that originated in the area around Selkirk, Manitoba, and are possibly Ojibwe, Métis, or Cree, ca. 1820s.

Turning Point

In 1849, the U.S. government establishes the Minnesota Territory, which annexes the lands and communities of the Pembina Métis and some other Métis groups.

Chronology

1603

The fur trade of New France (present-day Canada) begins to produce a multi-ethnic population, including mixed-ancestry families and children from various European and American Indian backgrounds.

1670

England’s Hudson Bay Company begins to trade for furs in North America.

1720s

French fur trading decreases as British fur trading flourishes.

1767

After their victory in the French and Indian War, the British consolidate their control of the fur trade. As a result, trading evolves to focus on competition, profit making, and debt collection rather than on exchange and making allies.

1784

The North West Company establishes a headquarters in Montreal.

1798/1799

The XY Fur Company breaks off from the Northwest Company (they rejoined in 1805).

1780s to 1790s

More and more fur traders, merchants, and officials begin to view relationships with Native, Métis, and métis women as practical and temporary rather than tools for building social bonds.

1820

An agreement is made in which Pelagie Faribault, a mixed-ancestry Dakota woman, is recognized for having European-style ownership rights to Pike Island.

1820s

Many people in the Minnesota region continue to cultivate interests and family connections that cross ethnic and racial lines.

1822

One year after the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company joined, the American Fur Trade Company begins trading in Minnesota after the development of posts at Red Lake, Sandy Lake, the Minnesota River, Rainy Lake, and the Lake of the Woods.

1849

Pembina and, by extension, the Pembina Métis, become part of Minnesota Territory. (In 1858, they became part of Dakota Territory.)

1849

A fight breaks out in the Minnesota Territorial legislature between branches of the Democratic Party over the representation of the Pembina Métis. Some viewed them as part of the “old” fur trade history of Minnesota.

1854

The Minnesota Territorial legislature votes down a bill that would have required black settlers to pay a fee of $300 to $500 dollars. The influence of the Pembina Métis shaped the results of the vote.

1878

Louis Riel speaks to Bishop John Ireland about moving French Canadian (and probably Métis) people from Canada to the U.S. Ireland denies his request.

1885

The Canadian government executes Riel for treason. He had become a U.S citizen while remaining associated with Canada and helped lead two acts of armed resistance against the Canadian government. Following this, some Métis move to the United States.