Half-breeds, Settlers and Rebels: Newspaper Images of the Red River Métis in 1869

©1997 Tom Bacig

Pursuing questions about the meeting of European and Native American cultures in Canada and the Old Northwest, I've come to wonder how we come to believe what we believe about who we are. I know I've had an unseemingly prolonged adolescence. (What else are university professorships for.) And I recognize that my continuing quest to discover my identity is a luxury and a compulsion. But I'm beginning to think that such compulsions are common in this time and place, and that my long adolescence may mirror, even rise from, the youth and literacy of the cultures of the Americas. And while I run the risk of making a virtue of my necessities, some exploration of our notions of race, ethnicity, and our common heritage may hold promise in helping all of us to rethink some of the most vexing problems troubling our times, problems rooted in old and persistent hatreds, rivalries, oppressions and exploitations. Let us turn then to examining one of the peoples emerging from meetings between Europeans and Native Americans.

First a confession of personal bias infecting my attempts to understand these issues. On September 23, 1662, Jean Durand, a peasant from the town of Doeuil in the province of Saintonge, having completed his three year contract to earn his way to New France, took to wife Catherine Annennontak, daughter of the late Nicolas Arendankir captain of the Hurons of Georgian Bay. In 1658, she fled her father's death and the annihilation of the Huron nation by Iroquois armed with Dutch and English muskets. The orphan and 200 other women and children were led to Quebec by the Jesuit missionaries who had been "converting" them. She was "reared and taught in the French manner" by Madam de la Peltrie and Marie de l'Incarnation at the Ursuline convent in Quebec, so that she "could someday marry a Frenchman." The Jesuits of Canada dowried her for marrying her Frenchman, giving 350 livres to the newlyweds. She was fourteen years old.

And from this blood and bone, from these genes and chromosomes, from the policies of Champlain and the Recollets and Jesuits, of church and state, spring 12 generations of people of mixed blood. Mixed offspring married mixed offspring, and in Quebec no one kept track. In the west, moving up the lakes they were called bois brûlé, "burnt wood," coureurs de bois, "woods runners," voyaguers, "canoemen." Catherine and Jean's son, Louis, the first of my "mixed" ancestors, was among those who went. As they moved west to the plains, spreading from the Missouri basin to the Arctic, these "French-Indians" came to see themselves as people apart, as the Métis , the mixed..

So the Métis of Canada have come to see themselves. But how did the dominant Anglo cultures of the United States and Canada view people of mixed blood? The answer to that question varies over time, but it ends where most questions about the preservation of "native" cultures in the Americas have ended; in the fight to maintain some sense of identity, some connection with tradition, some sense of what the elders have to say in the face of every kind of pressure to capitulate to the dominant cultures. The case of the Métis is especially difficult because neither the dominant cultures nor the native cultures wanted the Métis to endure or prevail. Additionally, the Métis' connections to French Catholic culture further alienated this people from Anglo Protestant culture.

Robert Thomas, Head of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, poses he issue nicely in his after word to Peterson and Brown's The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis.

In exploring such questions about identity historians are now arguing that to come to real understandings of the ways in which the frontier experience shaped the characters of North Americans, we will have to turn away from Turner and Roosevelt's construction of the past as the drama of "manifest destiny" and spend more time studying the portrayals of the experiences of specific groups in specific frontier locales.

Lyle Dick, for example, in " The Seven Oaks Incident and The construction of a Historical Tradition, 1816-1970" explores the way history and myth are made. He raises fundamental questions about "objective" history, questions which are based on the careful analysis of the way in which amateur historians and professional historians portray the Métis people of Canada. He points out that in contrast to nineteenth century amateurs' preservation of competing interpretations of both the people and events at Seven Oaks, professional historians pictured the Métis "as the inherently flawed product of an unsound racial mixture." He concludes that the "transformation of Seven Oaks historiography from Red River pluralism to Anglo Canadian romance ... to myth" has become "ideological bedrock, ... stubbornly resistant to revision."

Finally, attempts to understand the role played in forming "national character, aboriginal and non-Anglo European groups like the Métis and Metisto suffer from the Anglophone bias that characterizes most histories of North America. That history is, in the main, a tale told by the "victors" which gives short shrift to the perspectives of Native Americans, Spaniards and Frenchmen, let alone groups of mixed languages and cultures. Peter Charlebois summarizes this situation in the introduction to his Life of Louis Riel.

Charlebois is a least partially right. We do need to consider the way in which the stories we tell and told about the experiences of the pioneers and the natives, reveal the under stories of racism, imperialism, and nationalism that are the legacy of European settlement in North America. However, attempts to redress the imbalance of the self-congratulatory boosterism, and unabashed racism and imperialism of Turner's thesis, have their own limitations if all they produce is narrowly focused empirical studies of marriage patterns or trade arrangements in frontier communities. It is too easy to slip into views of people and events which are atomistic, and which while they give a clearer sense of the economic causes of events, or of the cross cultural similarities in the experiences of indigenous people as they are exploited or overrun, mask the common ground of the lessons of freedom taught and learned by and from the land and the people as they came together. Here, though deeply flawed by his underlying racist genetic theory, Marcel Giraud's two volume The Métis in the Canadian West (1986), comes closer to the truth in portraying the emergence of the Métis on the fur frontier .

Against this backdrop, it seems worth while to examine the effects American newspaper accounts had in shaping Americans images of the Métis and the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. Such examination reveals the way events of frontier life were reconstructed in the popular mind. The "reporters" told their stories to suit the needs and interests of the readers, governments, and groups with vested interest in, access to, or control of, their newspapers. In so doing the "free press" established the ground for the stories historians came to tell, and against which the portraits of the people of the frontier emerge. Thus is born our sense of history, politics and law, and our conceptions of what it means to be indigenous, native, American, Canadian, European, red and white.

At the center of the events on the Red River in the vicinity of Winnipeg in 1869-70 were:

American newspapers, recently connected to events and each other by telegraph and cable, try to tell this story "as it happens"; their correspondents at Winnipeg and Pembina are at a two week remove from St. Cloud, Minnesota, where the telegraph line ends, though occasionally riders can deliver dispatches in seven to ten days.

Whatever really happened as Louis Riel and the Métis proclaimed the provisional government of Manitoba, the newspaper stories about those events were as much a product of the national aspirations of politicians of church and state in North America and Europe as they were of the relationships of the community of dwellers inhabiting the environs of the region south of Lake Winnipeg on both sides of the 49th parallel. The story of these people will only become clearer if we understand how the stories we tell each other about the past have changed from time to time, and how much they were changed by the advent of the popular press, the first of the mass media to pretend to give us all the news, and instant history.

I purpose in the brief time we have today to compare summaries of some reports appearing between October, 1 and December 26, 1869 in the New York Times and the St. Paul Daily Press. All these reports are superficially unlike typical news stories of our own day; differences between "editorials" and "news" stories are often difficult to detect, particularly in the St. Paul Daily Press. The Times reports are a gauge of both the level of knowledge of most Americans, and of the attitudes of the eastern establishment towards the Red River Rebellion. The St. Paul papers provide a clear sense of the importance attached to these events on the frontier, and suggest the extent to which the governments of the United States and the state of Minnesota supported and/or fomented the Métis rebellion.

Our explorations of American versions of the rebellion begins with reports from the New York Times. On November 11, in a short story drawn from a "private letter," written to the Chicago Tribune, the Times gives its first account of events in the Red River country. The report is surprising in that it antedates all reports from St. Paul, Minnesota, the chief source for all subsequent reports. I suspect it may have come from "agents" operating in the Pembina region. I want to share the story in its entirety, including headlines, to demonstrate the shift in tone that will characterize the Times accounts.



Trouble With the Indians at Winnipeg

--Preparations to Resist the New Governor

A second report, in the same issue, at the end of the same series of new briefs concerning events in Canada "corrects" this first account.

Later About the Indian Difficulty

--The Trouble Smoother Over

One does wonder why both versions of the events in Winnipeg are reported and which is "true"; whether the confrontation is planned or has occurred; and how events which will not be reported for four days in the newspapers closest to the events are already known in Chicago ,

By the 17th the Times, now following the lead of the St. Paul Daily Press, names the problem the "Red River Difficulty" and the rebels are "insurgents, not "Indians and half breeds" who "demand a territorial government;" that is, they want to be part of the United States. However the Times editorial on the same subject illustrates some ambivalence about the events. The Red River Difficulty is "Indian trouble, ...difficulties akin to those which settlers on our own frontier are painfully aware." On the 23rd the Times reprints a Toronto Globe story about "half breeds in open hostility" and "600 men sworn to resist the Canadian authorities and calling themselves "liberators." By the 25th a dispatch from St. Paul through the Globe claims the Fenians are running the show. The "reporter" here is Canadian. While these initial reports are clearly biased in various directions and often openly racist in language and tone, there is at least some variety of interpretation of events. As the "story" continues to unfold, however, the "American" version begins to be defined.

A November 30th sketch of Riel reprinted from the St. Paul Daily Press demonstrates beautifully that American ambivalence which pits frontier racism against American admiration for those "resisting despotism." Particularly revealing is the writer's insisting that Riel is "pure French," not a "half-breed." Here, Minnesota's predilection for defining away the native "blood" of French Canadians (perhaps a result of the Great Sioux rebellion and the execution by hanging of thirty Sioux leaders) is especially apparent. By December 22 the Times "correspondent" in Chicago, on the strength of a dispatch from St. Paul, "reports" that the "French" have "without shedding blood" captured Upper Fort Garry, imprisoned Mcdougall's "agents", except for Colonel Dennis, who is "skulking about until he can reach the American territory." McDougall's only remaining supporters are "some fifty or sixty "swamp Indians (Swampy Cree)...[who are]...yet in the lower fort (Lower Fort Garry)." The "report" here is flowing from sources in St. Paul, Minnesota, and one suspects may be following the lead of the St. Paul papers, or even drafted by the same correspondents. The question of authorship of the various reports is especially problematic since it was customary for individual correspondent to use multiple pseudonym. Clearly the tone is pro "French." In fact, the rebels are increasingly portrayed, by St. Paul sources, as French settlers resisting the unjust imposition of British authority.

In its December 26th report the Times takes much of its story directly from the report of Enos Stutsman, correspondent for the St. Paul Daily Press, a legless lawyer/ journalist/land speculator/legislator serving as a US Customs agent supposedly controlling Métis smuggling. He is a proponent of annexation, and uses his reports of the rebellion to undermine Governor designate McDougall, portraying him as an ineffective, overbearing, aristocratic buffoon while suggesting he has the capacity to start a general Indian uprising. In both papers the reports quote from the "Declaration of Independence of the Provisional Government of Rupert's Land" and the Northwest Territory" where the rebels accuse the Canadian government of imposing its rule with the "rod of despotism" and claim that they have "acted in conformity to that sacred right which commands every citizen to resist enslavement." The language of the "Declaration" is typical of Stutsman's "reporting." Here are the headlines for, and the beginning of the first paragraph of, that story.



A Declaration of Independence -- A provisional

Government Established -- Interesting Statements

from the Seat of War

In so far as the Times was a "national" Newspaper by 1869 and was reflecting popular attitudes towards the Métis and their rebellion, it is clear that by the end of December 1869, for Americans, the events in Red River were no longer Indian trouble but a settlers rebellion against despotic foreign authority. The real goal of the leaders of the rebellion is "to strike for independence." Those who supported the Canadian government tried to raise the Indians against the French settlers and have been routed by the settlers. Clearly, for reporters and readers, these rebels have something in common with the heros of the American Revolution.

The engine powering this shift in newspaper perspective is the reports emerging from the frontier papers. One of three daily papers being published in the St. Paul/ Minneapolis area, the St. Paul Daily Press, gives the first report of McDougall's reception at the border. It is a brief letter printed on November 14, four days after the initial Chicago stories. The letter, appearing on page two, not only gives a hurried report of McDougall being stopped at the border, but reports a list of Métis complaints, anticipating by over two weeks the provisional council's "Métis Bill of Rights." Its writer, Enos Stutsman was obviously a close confidant of Riel and O'Donoghue and may very well have drafted some Métis documents. He may also have been an American agent working for James Wickes Taylor. If one examines "correspondents" reports as they appear in the St. Paul Daily Press, the extent to which, particularly on the frontier, the "news" is serving the expansionist American agenda is apparent. The November 16 Press provides the first detailed report of events at Winnipeg in a front page story. Here are headlines for, and the opening paragraphs from, that story.







Five Hundred Insurgents in Arms


Gov. McDougall Beleaguered at the Hudson's

Bay Company's Fort near Pembina





He Encamps on American Soil to Await the Turn

of Events


He sends to the Canadian Government for Troops

and Arms to Subdue the Rebels


In addition to this "news" story which seeks to assure us that the half-breed "troops" behaved like troops, "in the most soldier like and orderly manner" and not like a bunch of wild Indians engaging in "unnecessary demonstration... (and)... expression(s) disrespectful to the unfortunate," there are three other stories. The longest runs nearly three full columns on the front page. The headline and selected portions of the story follow.



In the other stories printed in the November 16 edition, the rebels are compared to freed slaves and there is an indirect reference to British support for the Confederacy during the recently ended civil war. The reporters stress the inability of Canadian or British governments to force obedience because troops need to pass through US. The rebellion is seen as providing an opportunity for annexation of all western Canada There is a suggestion that the Métis are suffering "taxation without representation." The Métis are praised for temperance, courtesy and not interfering with business.

Stories in subsequent issues of the Press printed between November 17 and December 25 range over all aspects of the unfolding story of the Red River Rebellion. Time prevents our considering most of this material, but a few more examples are worth considering. On November 18 a correspondent signing himself Finnigan submits a letter signed by Piewasch (Cha Wawwesach), Ojibway leader, requesting a meeting with Ojibway chiefs and "old men" to "learn from you the intention of the government you represent respecting our people and our lands."

On the 23rd stories suggest that the Hudson's Bay Company helped the Métis capture Fort Garry, mentions Fenian involvement in the "revolution," tweaks the British Empire and impugns Canadian courage. By the 28th stories and headlines link the Red River Rebellion to revolutions around the world especially those of 1848. On the 30th an account of Ignatius Donnelly's speech to the St.Paul Chamber of Commerce. Donnelly, making parenthetical references to the Fenians and all the revolutions of "poor, oppressed, downtrodden people;" reminds his listeners and readers of the support of Britain for the south during the American Civil War, including recognition of the rebel government. He ends his speech paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, "Let us say God speed to everything that raises up the flag of freedom. Let then you voice go forth to cheer these poor people, and if it comes to bloodshed, it is better that the veins of one generation run dry that the next generation may be free."

By December 3 the Press feels ready to analyze the "Secret Springs of Winnipeg Difficulties" quoting the Toronto Globe which is chastising some Canadians (one can't be sure whether it's McDougall and the Ottawa cabinet who are being referred to or it Schultz and the Canada Firsters) for the treatment of "Half-breeds as niggers and the casual treatment (au facon du pays)of native and Métis women. In other words, the American press agrees that it's Canadian racism that caused the rebellion. Since it's always easier to see others as they ought to see themselves than to see ourselves as we ought to, it should be no surprise that by December 18 the Press can use the rumor of Indian war to play on Minnesotans fears of a repetition of the events of 1862. The headlines and stories illustrate the use of such reporting to inflame the citizens of Minnesota toward McDougall and the Canadian Government. Not only do the paper's correspondents accuse McDougall and Denis of raising the Sioux who " massacred" Minnesotans, of raising war from America in violation of agreements between Canada and the United States reached as a result of the abortive 1837-38 rebellions, and of endangering US citizens living in Pembina because once ignited Indian war will ignore borders. They also imply that the "so called half-breeds" who speak French are French and not like "the two hundred Swampy Indians and a number of their English half -breed relations" (emphasis added), and explain, in the story already alluded to in our earlier account of New York Times coverage, that Riel is pure French, "without a drop of Indian blood in his veins" ..." able to lead the Métis to their French destiny, which is, of course, "manifestly" American. The main article summarizing McDougall's sins concludes, "I trust that the people of Minnesota, who have had the experience of Sioux atrocities, will at once call the attention of our military authorities to our defenseless condition." Stutsman, using one of his pen names, "Spectator," has called for troops to be sent to Pembina to control the Sioux and Swampy (Cree) and their "English half-breed relations," and support Louis Riel in whom. " their country will find a savior" ...who... "makes his entry into the world at about the same age Napoleon Bonaparte did," and whose " mother was born in the Red River settlement, but of Canadian descent." What the term "Canadian" seems to mean here is that she had "not one drop of Indian blood in her veins," either.

Five days later, on the 23rd, after Riel has captured the Canada Firsters, secured Upper Fort Garry, thereby ending thee threat of Indian war, the Press advises Canada to withdraw from the Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territory, leaving them to their manifest destiny, of course. And what would that destiny have held for the Métis? Amazingly, the Press is equally clear about that in proposing, in its December 30 edition, "cession by Great Britain to the United States of that part of British Canada lying west of Lake Superior and Hudson's Bay. ... For the utter impotence of Canada to extend is authority into that country, when resisted by a few hundred half-breeds (emphasis added), brings into bold relief the physical barriers which separate it from Canada"... and ... "which make it indeed, wholly dependent on American markets" ... and which ... must inevitably compel its annexation to the United States, whenever it shall contain a population large enough to command its destinies," manifest though they might be.

Ironies abound. Clearly,for the readers of the Pioneer Press, while the Métis are capable of self determination vis a vis the British crown, the American eagle must swoop to their protection by "imposing authority on a few hundred half-breeds" and filling the prairie with settlers. Riel appears to have been a wise savior indeed, recognizing that American imperialism and Ottawa domination were faces of the same coin, and that only by gaining provincial status could the Métis maintain their identity. The fact is that the Métis of Canada have not found this task easy, but it is equally the fact that the Métis of Minnesota, by and large, disappear. Métis images and identity have been woven into the tapestry of Canada. At the border, near Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, and Fort Benton, Montana, a few mixed threads blend the peoples of Canada and the United States, who are in their terms neither Canadian or American, but are the New People of the Americas. These thin border threads are what is left of identity for the Métis of the United States. I am of these people and the Celticized Ligures and Santoni. My ancestors have been barbarian peasants, savages, conquered and civilized on two continents, but enduring, becoming part of the land where ever they've landed.Threads on the borders of civilizations' tapestries. Cisalpine Gaul, Breton, Huron hunters, overrun in turn by Roman, French, British, Canadian, American city dwellers and farmers. We persist in trying to know who we are.

My name is Durand. At least a part of my name is. If then, as now, I'd be Thomas David Charles Durand-Bacigalupo. What's in a name, after all? Thomas for my name changing, doubting father; David for my Piandi Pretti [Plateau of the Priests (for which gods - Druids of the Cisalpine Gauls?)] peasant grandfather (who did end his life suffering, they said, from dementia, trying to run naked to battle death in the Celtic manner); Charles for confirmation and Uncle Charlie, Grandma Bacigalupo's brother, who kept a mistress at White Bear Lake in the padrone way, and drove his peasant brother-in-law into his room above the dynamo at St. Kate's and away from his sister and his nephews and nieces because Davido's English wasn't good enough; Durand for my unknowing Métis mother, Gertrude Lillian, grandaughter of second half cousins who married in the Métis way.

Thereby hangs a tale, etymlogically, from the French

Dur is the root, an adjective meaning hard, becomes the noun dureté, hardness which metaphorically becomes cruelty, or duree wear or duration. Durabilite is durability and durable is durable. Dur also names tough customers and hard material. Durcir, to harden, which is inflected to durcissement, hardening, which yields, as verb again becomes noun, durcee, duration, or if it stays a verb in its new form, durcee, to last. Similarly durer, to last or endure, carries hardness to action giving us, with further inflecting, durete hardness turning cruel. From this comes the adverb durant, during, measuring the time that hardness persists. (It is suspected that the Durands of Doeuil are descended from "a certain Bernard Durant who was living in 1065 in Dampierre on the Bontonne (sic?) ... a village 13 kilameters (sic) southeast of Doeuil" who with his wife and sons "donated a piece of property to the church of St. Cyprien, directed by Hugnes Rabiol, some land with trees, bounded by Humbert Arduin's house and the Boutonne (sic?) forest. From the same root flow endurer, endure; endurant, resistant; endurcir, to harden; endurci, obdurate; endurcissement, obduracy; and peasants who, like the rocks, give up slowly, their obduracy, their resistance, their essence, to William Vollman and Ignatius of Loyola's stream of time. All of this extends to durillon, callus or corn, suiting peasant wood-cutters from Doeuil, and, in the plural, cursing Gertrude Lillian's feet in her later years - almost as if, as a child, she'd walked in moccasins from Christian Island in Georgian Bay, across the black ice, through the woods to Quebec and the Ursilines.

Bacigalupo which means swinging wolf, or kissing wolf, and hangs another tale. After what. "The name is as common as Smith in Piande Preti," Tomasso the first said. "Why Ma didn't even change her name when she got married." More kissing Cousins? Or is it much older? A clan name? The wolf clan meeting the Romans naked, howling defiance in the face of advancing civilization and death, their druids keeping the faith and the knowledge another thousand years, beaten back past the mountains, living amidst the Santoni's alien grapes.

This web page ( is maintained by Tom Bacig, and was last updated Thursday, 09-Nov-2000 19:17:01 CST. Send comments to

©1997 Tom Bacig