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.
|- courtesy Montana
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
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
|- courtesy Public
Archives of Canada
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
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
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
|- courtesy Heritage
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
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
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."
|- courtesy Heritage
is buried in the Batoche cemetery with Métis who died in the
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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