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Gabriel Dumont

by Gordon McIntyre

Even today, with technology and globalization ushering in change at a dizzying pace, it's hard to fathom how much the world changed during Gabriel Dumont's lifetime.

Gabriel Dumont, a legendary life.
- courtesy Montana Historical Society
Gabriel Dumont, a legendary life.

From his birth at Red River (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) in December of 1837 to his death in 1906 at Batoche, 100 km (60 miles) north of Saskatoon on the South Saskatchewan River, Dumont saw the bison go from a seemingly unlimited renewable resource to near extinction. He observed Saskatchewan change from a teeming and wild land of grasses, rivers and forests - a land without boundaries - to a tamed, measured-out patchwork of farmland tended by sod-busters from somewhere else. And he witnessed a freedom-loving people become subjugated to a fiefdom in the faraway, insensitive capital of Ottawa, a place whose foreign laws were carried out by the disciplined, military-like Redcoats of the North-West Mounted Police.

Dumont, though unable to read or write, was brilliant in his environment, much the way cats that can't be taught to fetch or beg are brilliant at being cats.

Not as well known as his charismatic compatriot Louis Riel, Dumont was a truer Canadian hero. When he died at 68 of heart failure, the event went unheeded except for a small funeral and items in two, tiny Saskatchewan newspapers.

"When Gabriel Dumont died, the world did not think of him because the world did not know him," George Woodcock, a former University of British Columbia lecturer and one of Canada's foremost men of letters, wrote in Gabriel Dumont, the most comprehensive book on Riel's military commander.

"He and the cause he fought for, and the way of life he personified, had so faded out of memory that only the local newspapers in Battleford and Prince Albert noticed Dumont's death and his funeral.

"The papers of Toronto and Winnipeg and Montreal, that once had spoken of Dumont with the kind of fearful admiration Milton reserved for Satan, did not even remark his passing."

Dumont's grandfather, Jean-Baptiste, left Montreal in the 1790s to work as a voyageur with the Hudson's Bay Company. He married a Scarcee woman and they had three boys, including Dumont's father Isadore and uncle Gabriel. Both were big sturdy men and renowned as hunters and guides.

By the 1830s the Métis, never more than 10,000 people, began to acquire a collective consciousness and gravitate toward the Red River Valley. They didn't want be part of their mothers' exploited race, and they weren't wanted by their fathers' imperialist one. Most spoke French and were Catholic, though some were of Scottish descent.

Dumont's father broke and cleared three acres of land on the Red River in 1838, a year after Dumont's birth. The land was a long, narrow strip that stretched like a finger perpendicular to the river, giving each Métis access to water and a transportation route. This traditional type of subdivision would decades later be part of the reason the government in Ottawa wanted to stamp out Métis culture, demanding instead that all farms be of the square, range-and-township variety that produced the checker-board pattern seen throughout Saskatchewan today.

Major General Frederick Middleton, Dumont's foe at the Battle of Batoche.
- courtesy Public Archives of Canada
Major General Frederick Middleton, Dumont's foe at the Battle of Batoche.

Like the mythical cowboys of the U.S. west, the Métis hated the yolk of authority. But rather than retreat into individualism, they embraced a sense of community that believed in man's inalienable right to live free.

"A licentious freedom is their besetting sin," wrote Alexander Ross, a British subject who accompanied the Métis on a buffalo hunt.

Dumont's dad was prosperous, owning a mud plaster house and barn, four Red River carts and some canoes. The family had all the wild game and fish they wanted - no self-respecting Métis would eat meat that wasn't wild. But in 1840, Isadore Dumont grew restless and moved the family back to the wilds of Saskatchewan's plains and forested river valleys.

Before the move, Isadore took part in one, last, Red River buffalo hunt. Gabriel, then 3, went along as part of the hunting party of 1,630 people, 1,210 carts, 400 hunting horses and 500 dogs - the hunting party was a procession that stretched five miles in length. They travelled 25 kilometres a day and posted sentries at night to guard against their biggest enemy, the Sioux.

Once scouts found a herd, hundreds of Métis hunters would charge full gallop into the bolting beasts, shooting from the hip and reloading at top speed with balls carried in their mouths. The best hunters, which Gabriel was to become, would kill more than a dozen bison a day.

In that 1840 hunt, 1,375 buffalo were killed the first day alone. After two months, the procession headed back to Red River. Five Métis had been killed by lightning on the open plain. One died during a surprise Souix attack and eight Souix were killed in retaliation. Ross estimated they returned with 500 tons of meat and pemmican, and left as much rotting on the ground.

Isadore Dumont's share of the kill was 3,500 pounds. It was one of the last great Canadian hunts.

Batoche was not yet a settlement when the Dumonts arrived in the late fall of 1840. It was an abandoned trading post. The bison still covered the land as far as the Métis could see, giving them and the Indians a false sense of security. In fact, the majestic animals were being pushed by American hunters west and north into Saskatchewan. They were fewer in number, but more concentrated.

This is the world Gabriel Dumont grew up in. Métis possessions were few and simple: Some brightly colored clothes and sashes, a good Winchester rifle and a good horse. A simple log house, unfurnished, sufficed for winter. Families slept on the floor on buffalo robes.

Dumont learned six languages, but never more than a few words of English. He grew up hunting during the hunting season, and feasting, singing and dancing at other times. Five of his seven sisters and brothers survived.

Dumont grew to 5-foot-8. He broke his first horse at 10 and became a master archer and marksman not long after. He was a fisher and hunter without equal, and he could canoe the most dangerous white waters. It was said, by the white hunters who hired him as a guide, he could find his way around the Prairie valleys and woods blindfolded. He could call the bison the same way a hunter calls a moose. And in a rare instance of Hollywood getting it right, Dumont could put his ear to the ground and determine whether hoofbeats belonged to horses or bison.

Before he was 20, Dumont could shoot a duck through the head at 100 paces. Stories were told of how he rescued distressed damsels and held off a dozen Blackfoot. Most of the tales are probably apocryphal. But some are documented, like the time he rushed a Blackfoot war party and killed the brave who stole his horse - no minor misdemeanor in the mid-1800s.

Dumont married in 1858, in Dakota territory. Unlike her husband, Madeleine spoke English. They never had children.

By 1860, the buffalo as well as the whitefish had become scarce. Dumont was elected leader of the Saskatchewan Métis buffalo hunt in 1863, at age 25. From then until the doomed Northwest Resistance of 1885, he was their virtual leader. In 1868, a year after Canadian confederation, Batoche became a permanent Métis settlement. The former Rupert's Land in which it was situated became the Northwest Territories.

Looking north from Batoche up the South Saskatchewan River, where Dumont operated a ferry.
- courtesy Heritage Canada
Looking north from Batoche up the South Saskatchewan River, where Dumont operated a ferry.

In 1873, Dumont built his first log cabin and called himself a farmer, even though he had no cattle or crops and still lived by hunting and fishing. He began to operate a ferry across the South Saskatchewan River, a natural barrier on the busy Carlton Trail trade route that linked Fort Edmonton to Fort Garry. Dumont and other Métis were attempting to change their way of life in accordance with the wishes of Ottawa, which wanted the Métis and Indians to become farmers.

Yet, the federal government was doing little to assist them in their transition, or even recognize their existence. In 1877 and 1878, Dumont organized meetings that resulted in the Métis petitioning Ottawa for representation on the Territorial Council. They also sought title to lands they already occupied, and they wanted assistance with schools and farming.

The federal government wouldn't budge. Dumont and other Métis leaders asked Louis Riel, exiled in the U.S. after the 1870 Red River Uprising, to return to Canada to assist them in their cause. When the government continued to ignore Métis claims, Riel established a provisional government in the spring of 1885 and named Dumont his military commander.

"Though illiterate, Dumont's first request to the territorial government was for education for Métis kids," Woodcock writes in Gabriel Dumont. "His next request was for land. It's the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald's unheeding of injustice and unresponsiveness to land claims that led to revolt."

Dumont's background as an Indian fighter and buffalo hunter made him a formidable foe for the North-West Mounted Police and federal forces. A true guerrilla fighter, he used the element of surprise and his knowledge of the land to great effect.

The Métis never lost in combat until their force of fewer than 300 clashed with 800, far-better-equipped militia at the Battle of Batoche. Dumont tried to convince Riel a defensive battle against Major General Frederick Middleton's North West Field Force would be doomed to failure. Instead of fighting the militia on its own terms - traditional, entrenched warfare - he argued Métis success would only come through surprise attacks in the countryside. But Riel chose to make his stand at Batoche.

While Riel was hung as a traitor, Dumont escaped to the U.S., where his capture by an American military patrol presented President Grover Cleveland with a political hot potato. Cleveland eventually ordered Dumont freed.

He was free to roam wherever he wished in the U.S., but he'd lost every single material possession in his homeland. Dumont joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show for a few months to earn some cash, arriving in Philadelphia in 1886 to work in the heart of the New World Europeans who'd destroyed his way of life.

He rode in a parade down New York's Fifth Avenue and competed against Annie Oakley as a marksman. He even posed for tourists at Staten Island, where one unusually astute reporter noted, "Gabriel Dumont, the only political exile in America, studied the big crowds more than they studied him."

Dumont is buried in the Batoche cemetery with Métis who died in the fighting.
- courtesy Heritage Canada
Dumont is buried in the Batoche cemetery with Métis who died in the fighting.

The Canadian government granted him amnesty and he travelled to his grandfather's home town of Montreal in 1888. He may or may not have gone to Paris in 1889. He returned to Saskatchewan in 1890, disillusioned by his futile attempts to raise political sympathy among the French in Quebec, France and the eastern U.S.

Dumont spent his last years hunting, fishing and mostly keeping to himself, although he enjoyed telling the children of his nephews and nieces about the old days and ways.

As writer Margaret Atwood put it in Survival, we're far more comfortable in Canada celebrating collective heroism or epic yarns of survival in the face of a dangerous natural environment. Riel was a martyr, perhaps with messianic delusions. But Dumont, writes Woodcock, was a Canadian hero in the "high romantic vein," like a Homerian protagonist, the "greatest Métis buffalo hunter, who had no superior when it came to the wisdom of the wilds."

On his final day, Dumont, by now a solitary widower, had been out for a walk, a few days after returning from a fishing and hunting trip. His body was still vigorous. There were no signs of decay. He stopped at the home of a relative to eat, but after a few mouthfuls of soup, rose from the table and, without speaking, walked over to the bed and fell dead upon it.

It was May 19, 1906. The province of Saskatchewan was less than a year old and King Wheat was about to make the Canadian plains the mechanized breadbasket of the world.

(Gordon McIntyre is a Saskatchewan native and reporter for the Vancouver Province newspaper. His son's middle name is Gabriel, in honor of Dumont.)

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