Métis from the Willow Bunch district of southern Saskatchewan were
set to murder Jean-Louis Légaré after he tricked them into abandoning
their plan to join the rebel forces of Louis Riel. But the Quebec-born
fur-trader not only survived the 1885 incident, he bolstered his
reputation as one of the most compassionate men in the West (page updated 2012).
Half-starved due to the collapse of the buffalo-skin market and
fully frustrated by a federal government that couldn't care less,
dozens of Métis who were headed north for Riel's headquarters at
Batoche had set up camp on the outskirts of Moose Jaw. The burghers
of Moose Jaw were nervous.
Willow Bunch Museum
Légaré: fur trader, merchant and superb negotiator.
North-West Territories Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney rushed
to Moose Jaw and then wired Légaré in Willow Bunch to come and persuade
the Métis to return to their homes 130 km (80 miles) to the south.
Légaré was a talented negotiator. But the respected trader told
Dewdney there's no easy way to change the minds of hungry and desperate
men. Food or some kind of employment must be found for the Métis,
Dewdney balked. It's too expensive, he said.
Légaré is reported to have replied: "There are 80 men at (Willow
Bunch) that can carry arms. That might cost a good deal."
With authorization that came from Canadian Prime Minister Sir John
A. Macdonald, Légaré carried out his plan.
The Métis were scattered in isolated camps around Moose Jaw. Légaré
visited one of the camps and asked the men whether they'd be willing
to deliver something to Willow Bunch (it's not clear what). There's
good money in it, he told the men. But the mission must remain secret,
he said, even from the other Métis.
With the prospect of money and food for their families, the men
agreed. Légaré told them to leave at midnight.
He then visited each of the other camps in turn, making the same
secretive arrangement but advancing each departure by one hour.
Then he quickly set off for Willow Bunch to be there before the
first party arrived.
The Métis were outraged when they realized how they had been duped.
They threatened to murder their former friend and burn down his
Willow Bunch store and trading post. But while Légaré may have thwarted
their plan to join the rebellion, he had wrung from the federal
government concessions that greatly alleviated the cause of their
Willow Bunch Museum
replica of Légaré's home/commercial building will be featured
at the heritage working village planned for Willow Bunch.
Forty men, representing virtually every Métis family in the area,
were given jobs as scouts at $2 per day. Their job was to patrol
the U.S. border region looking for Americans the Canadian government
feared might be tempted to take advantage of the unstable situation
created by Riel.
one of the featured personalities at the Willow Bunch Museum, a
former convent built in 1914 by the Sisters of the Cross.
He arrived in the Willow Bunch district in 1870 after leaving
his native Quebec to work several years in Minnesota and North Dakota,
where he became involved in the fur trade. Seven years after arriving
in Canada, he found himself in the midst of an international brouhaha
when Lakotah (Sioux) Chief Sitting Bull and 5,000 followers set
up camp near his trading post at Wood Mountain, about 65 km (40
miles) southwest of present-day Willow Bunch.
Sitting Bull's defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
in June 1876 made him the most feared Indian on the North American
continent. His flight to Wood Mountain posed a political dilemma
for Canadian authorities and a practical one for 'Canadian' Indians
living in the area.
The government feared Sitting Bull would use the sanctuary granted
him to stage raids on the U.S. or, worse, form an Indian coalition
threatening warfare in both countries. For Canadian Indians, meanwhile,
food was scarce and buffalo numbers shrinking before 5,000 hungry
A series of particularly harsh winters left Indians throughout
the region with little food and few furs to trade. Légaré played
a key role in keeping the Lakotah and others alive by giving them
money, food and supplies.
Sitting Bull trusted only two 'white' men during his four-year
stay in Canada: The courageous North-West Mounted Police Major James
Walsh; and the kind Légaré. The chief consulted both friends before
agreeing to return to the United States in 1881.
Légaré's status with Sitting Bull resulted in the U.S. and Canadian
governments contracting him to escort the Lakotah to Fort Buford, North Dakota, where the chief surrendered to American authorities.
The two nations promised to cover the trader's expenses and give him
$25,000 plus a township of land for his role in resolving the international
Willow Bunch Museum
(Sioux) Chief Sitting Bull.
But when Légaré submitted to the U.S. government an itemized bill
for $13,412 to cover the cost of feeding, transporting and protecting
the Lakotah on their trip south - he hired Métis hunters for security
- he received only $5,000. The $25,000 never materialized, nor did
the land. Légaré ended up with only $2,000 from the Canadian government.
Légaré dabbled in ranching and dairy farming after moving his trading
post and store to the present site of Willow Bunch in 1880. There,
he would play a central role as patriarch of the community.
When died in 1918 at the age of 76, his son Albert received a telegram
from the Wood Mountain Sioux:
"We deplore bitterly the loss of our old friend."
So did many others.
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