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Riel's Parents and Childhood

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Louis Riel Sr., Louis’ father, was born in Ile a la Crosse, Saskatchewan, in 1817. His parents were Jean Baptiste Riel L’Irlande and his wife Marguerite Boucher. Marguerite’s father was a fur trader. Her father married a Dene Aboriginal woman. Marguerite was called in French, "Metisse". This French word meant a woman of mixed ancestry. She was part Aboriginal and part non-Aboriginal. Since his mother was part Aboriginal, so was Louis Riel Sr.



Louis’ mother was Julie Lagimodiere. Her father was Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere. He was a FREEMAN, that is, a fur trader who did not work for any fur company. Jean married Marie-Anne Gaboury in Quebec and brought his new wife to the North West where they had their family. In the settlement the Lagimodieres lived like the rest of the freemen and their Aboriginal wives and children.



Louis Riel Sr. moved to Red River Settlement and married Julie Lagimodiere. He was a leader in the community. He helped Red River traders to get free trade and become freemen. He was also known as the “miller of the Seine” because he had built a mill on the Seine River for grinding wheat into flour. The Seine River flows through St. Boniface into the Red River.

Windmill in the Early Settlement

Louis Riel Jr. was born in the Red River Settlement in 1844. He was the eldest son of Louis Riel Sr. and Julie Lagimodiere.

Upper Fort Garry, ca. 1845

Many different groups of people settled at Red River. There were Aboriginal People(s), French, Scots, English, Swiss and many persons of mixed ancestry.

Red River Colonists

Often, Aboriginal People(s) and those of mixed ancestry were called by names and words that were racist and they did not like them. The words suggested that an Aboriginal background was a disadvantage. People felt hurt and insulted by negative comments about their ancestors. Young Louis grew up in this community and was aware of this problem.

Like the other boys in the settlement, Louis would learn to be a hunter. Louis Goulet wrote about growing up there. He said:

Little boys like myself, we always worked hard at imitating our parents and our elders. We used to play bows and arrows. Anything we could find was a target: posts, squirrels, rabbits, hares, small birds, prairie dogs. It all helped to polish our skills as archers. We competed for arrows, buttons, and sometimes for candies and fruit. When we were old enough, we switched to shotguns or rifles. That was school on the prairies, all the time we were playing, we were apprenticed to be skilled hunters.

[Charette, Guillame, Vanishing Spaces (Memoirs of a Prairie Métis). Winnipeg: Editions Bois-Brûlés, 1980. p. 42.]

Metis Children Playing

In the settlement, Louis also went to a school run by the Grey Nuns of the Roman Catholic Church. There were very few books in the school as books were very expensive. Louis learned a lot from listening to the stories his family and friends told him. He would have learned the history of his family in this way. He also enjoyed writing poems.

Grey Nuns Arriving at Red River

Metis families are great story tellers. They used a language called Michif (a mixture of French and Cree). They loved to tell stories about their brave leaders. Louis Riel’s grandmother, Marie-Anne Gaboury, was a very good story teller. Louis would have heard her tell many stories about their family’s past. This kind of story telling is called “oral history”. It is told from one generation to the next. Usually, these stories are not written down but Marie-Anne’s stories were recorded by a priest whose name was L’Abbe Dugast.

Louis did very well in school. Bishop Tache thought Louis and two other boys were smart, so when Louis was 14, he paid the expenses for them to go to Montreal, in 1858, to study. He hoped that the boys would go to college and become priests.

Louis Riel Leaves for Montreal

When they left Red River they were accompanied by Sister Valade, the head of the Grey Nuns (or Les Soeurs Grise in French) in Montreal. They travelled south by Red River cart to Crookston, Minnesota in the United States. There Louis met his father who was working on a train of Red River carts. (This would be the last time Louis would see his father alive. Louis Sr. died in 1864 before Louis returned to Red River.)

Route from Red River to Montreal
Red River Cart Train
Modern Day Red River Carts

From Crookston, Louis’ group continued south by cart to St. Paul on the Mississippi River. The trip from Red River to St. Paul took them four weeks.

At St. Paul, they boarded a paddle wheel steamer to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River (in Wisconsin).
Paddle Wheel Steamer
From there, they took a train to Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and Montreal. The last part of the trip from St. Paul took them just one week.
Steam Train