Gabriel Dumont, the Last of Great Métis Leaders

par Combet, Denis

Gabriel Dumont photographed by Orlando Scott Goff, around 1886-1888

North America's Métis nation was born out of the meeting of the First Nations and European settlers between the 17th and the 18th centuries. Gabriel Dumont, along with his friend Louis Riel, are emblematic figures for this unique people group. He took up arms to fight for their rights at the battle of Batoche in 1885. He also spoke for them in New England and in Quebec, where, in 1888, he sought to present the French Canadian Métis as the civilisers of the Prairies. Even today, his leadership skills, his loyalty, his ability to make decisions and his exceptional determination are an inspiration to the many Métis community organisations in Canada and the United-States. Gabriel Dumont's actions have helped give the Métis people their rightful place at the heart of French cultural heritage of North America.


Article disponible en français : Gabriel Dumont, le dernier des Métis

Gabriel Dumont, Emblematic Figure of the Saskatchewan Métis

On September 23rd 2006, at the Collège Universitaire de Saint-Boniface, a conference was held to commemorate the centennial of the death of one of the Métis' important historical figures: Gabriel Dumont (1838-1906). The bilingual conference not only brought together researchers from Canada and the United-States and Europe - many of them Métis - but it also demonstrated the growing interest in this French Canadian Métis, great buffalo hunter, trapper, guide, interpreter, fur trader, businessman, performer, and extraordinary activist (NOTE 1). Although this leader of the Métis forces that fought against Canadian troops during the North-West Rebellion in 1885 remains in the shadow of Louis Riel, he is nonetheless considered as a symbol of the Métis cause-particularly in Saskatchewan and in Western Canada. The Gabriel Dumont Institute (Saskatchewan), created in 1980, is a community organisation that aims to preserve the Métis' unique culture and to support the various Métis community groups and their initiatives in the fields of education, the arts and social services. The existence of such an institute testifies of the importance Gabriel Dumont has for this people group (NOTE 2).

Of all the Canadian provinces, Saskatchewan has the strongest historical and cultural ties with the Dumont name. Through its various exhibitions and commemorative events, the Batoche Museum honours Métis who fought in the 1885 resistance lead by Gabriel Dumont. There, visitors will have the chance to visit his grave, as well as peruse objects that once belonged to him. Among those relics is the gold watch he received from French Canadians of New York in 1887 in honour of his courage. Visitors can also see Dumont's famous pool table, which was moved from the Stoney Mountain Penitentiary (Manitoba) to the Batoche Museum (Saskatchewan) in 2007 (NOTE 3).

Centaur, by David Garneau

More recent monuments and constructions also commemorate his memory. There is the Gabriel Dumont Bridge that spans the South-Saskatchewan River, west of Rosther (Saskatchewan) and another location named after him is a parkin Saskatoon on the east bank of the South-Saskatchewan River. The memory of the man born in Saint-Boniface (1837) is also present throughout the country. The École Secondaire Gabriel-Dumont, a French high school (for native speakers) in London (Ontario), was founded in his honour in 1998. Lastly, being of French Canadian Métis stock, he is not forgotten in the land of his ancestors. On February 6th, 2006, Quebec City named a street after him. It was done to honour the memory of the numerous voyageurs from Lower-Canada who, after 1763, kept moving westward to trade further west in the Prairies, as far as the Rockies, mingling with the Native peoples and giving birth to the Métis people (NOTE 4).

If Gabriel Dumont is a symbol of the strength of a people born from the meeting of Europeans and North America's First Nations, he also embodies the ongoing struggle minorities must carry on in order keep their freedom and defend their rights. A historic figure in North America, he personifies the dedicated fighter, both daring and calm, on whom rests the future of any minority marginalised by the dominant culture. He also holds a special place in Canadian history for the part he played at Louis Riel's side during the North-West Rebellion in the spring of 1885 (NOTE 5).


The Dumont Clan: from Quebec to Alberta (1790-1880)

The Dumont: Voyageurs and Buffalo Hunters of the Prairies (1793-1864)

Métis camp on the prairie, Manitoba, around 1874

Thoughout 17th and the 18th century, the fur trade industry that was developed in the Pays-d'en-Haut ever advancing towards the legendary Western Sea, made it possible for various cultures to interact and mingle, which eventually gave rise to a new people: the Métis (NOTE 6). In the years following the end of the French rule (after 1763), many French Canadian voyageurs worked in the trading posts of the North West Company or those of the Hudson's Bay Company. It was in these times of bustling commercial activities in Western Canada that this new people became a distinct political entity(NOTE 7).

The Dumont clan, recognised for its role in the Métis community in the lands that are now known as the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, was originally from Quebec. Jean-Baptiste Dumont, a voyageur, left Montreal around the year 1793 to settle in the Saskatchewan valley, near Fort Edmonton, where he worked for the Hudson's Bay Company. There, he married a woman from the Blackfoot nation, Josephte Sarcis. They had three children, Gabriel (1801-1880), the hero of Batoche' uncle, Jean-Baptiste (1805-1885) and Isidore (1810-1885), all hunters and guides respected for their vast knowledge of the land. In 1853, Gabriel founded the community of Lac Sainte-Anne (near Edmonton). Along with his brothers and many members of the clan, he was hired to guide the famous Palliser expedition over the Rockies. They had been described as a group living as the Natives did. Dressed in the European style, most spoke French, but preferred to converse in Cree (NOTE 8). The eldest of the Dumont finally settled in Battle River, while his two brothers chose Saskatchewan and Manitoba as their home. At the time, such blending of cultural identities was rather common among the French colonists that moved West and it confirms that the evolution of French culture in North America largely came to be defined by the very selfsame custom of cultural and genetic mingling that has become the foundation of Canadian identity.

Gabriel Dumont, Warrior of the Prairies

Isodore Dumont, also known as Eskapo, and his wife, Louise Laframboise, moved to Saint-Boniface where they lived from 1834 to 1840, selling pemmican and farming their land. Their son Gabriel (named after his uncle) was likely born in December of 1837 in Saint-Boniface during the couple's short stay in the Red River region. Little is known about Gabriel Dumont's childhood and teenage years other than that he lived a semi-nomadic life with his parents between the Red River and Fort Pitt, at the border of what is now known as Saskatchewan and Alberta. It was during the many trips of his clan through the Prairies that, very early in his life, he developed fighting skills, as well as an acute sense of danger. He had his first taste of battle during the battle of River Coteau (1851) in which a Sioux war party engaged a convoy of Métis hunters from Saint-François Xavier (NOTE 9).

Although he fought for the Cree, allies of the Métis, he was also a brilliant diplomat. It was a quality for which members of the Dumont clan were famous. In 1862, at Devil's Lake, they had negotiated with the Dakotas Sioux that had been fleeing nearby American troops. A few years later they negotiated with the Blackfoot. They were also hired as interpreters for the famous Treaty no 6, signed in 1876 at Battleford by the lieutenant governor Alexander Morris, between Canada and the Cree, Assiniboine and Chippaya tribes of the region. Negotiations lead by the Dumont clan with the various First Nations populations facilitated the Métis' passage through the lands of their enemies and consolidated long-lasting political alliances. Dumont once again demonstrated his power and influence over the Native nations in 1870, when he offered to come to the aide of Riel with more than 500 Natives to stop Colonel Wolseley's troops, who were marching towards the Red River settlement. It is this image of Gabriel Dumont, as a traditional Métis, prairie buffalo hunter and as someone who had chosen to lead a life close to the one of the First Nations tribes that made him so symbolic for today's Western Métis people, as they stake their claims, regardless of whether they be French or English-speaking.

Gabriel Dumont: Leader of the Hunt and President of the Saint-Laurent de Grandin Council

Gabriel Dumont (1837-1906), Millitary Leader of the Métis during the North-West Rebellion of 1885

Gabriel Dumont's image is associated with the welfare and development of the Métis communities for whom he dedicated his whole life. Dumont was conscious of the role that the Métis people played as civilisers for the various societies of Western Canada. A renowned leader of the hunt (an honour he held from 1863 to 1880), he displayed firmness and a sense of justice when it came to respecting the environment at a time when the buffalo population had already started growing scarce. John Kerr, who had lived with the Dumonts as their apprentice, recalled an event where in the eldest of the clan, Jean and Gabriel Dumont, who had all taken part in a hunt with their Cree allies, stood up to condemn Big Bear, who had broken the hunting law (NOTE10).

Furthermore, in 1873, while president of the Saint-Laurent de Grandin community founded by father Alexis André, Gabriel Dumont took part in the establishment of a form of autonomous government that was primarily concerned with hunting regulations. This sort of governance was later abolished by Canadian authorities in 1875. Over the following years, tensions between the Métis communities of the South Saskatchewan River and the Canadian government grew. At that time, Gabriel Dumont played an important military role in protecting his people. His feats of arms and courage have won him an important place in Western Canada's history.


On the Warpath: the North-West Rebellion of 1885

The Battle of Batoche

Demands of the South Saskatchewan River Métis

The Red River Métis resistance, lead by Louis Riel in 1870, resulted in the adoption of the Manitoba Act by Sir John Mac Donald's government. This law gave the Métis the right to own land. Unfortunately, the lands were poorly distributed. The Red River Métis sold them at a very cheap price to speculators and moved to the United-States and to regions of Saskatchewan and Alberta. They had expected the lands would be divided into the long, rectangular swaths of traditional riverfront tracts, as the French did, and not in the concessionary tracts in accordance with the British grid system. Misunderstanding and setbacks prevented Canadian authorities from meeting their demands. After twelve years of peaceful demands, a group led by Gabriel Dumont went to Montana in order to convince Riel to come help them. His arrival among them brought together all the South Saskatchewan River Métis. However, the peaceful measures, mainly sending petitions to Ottawa, went unheeded. On March 1885, with the support of Gabriel Dumont and his clan, Louis Riel decided it was time to try a new approach.

Battles of Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Batoche (1885)

Graves of Métis Killed during the Battle of Batoche

The names of the three places will always bear great significance in the Métis and Canadian collective memory. If Louis Riel remains a martyr for his people, Gabriel Dumont embodies the fighting spirit still present in the Métis people.

On March 26th 1885, Louis Riel established the Exovedate, a council of 12 representatives. Gabriel Dumont was chosen as the adjutant - general of the Métis forces. He arranged them in the same way hunting parties were arranged when hunting buffalos. In attempt to avoid bloodshed, Riel stifled many of his Dumont's military initiatives. Nonetheless, Dumont proved to be a formidable and courageous fighter. He would defeat the Canadian troops at Fish Creek only a month after having suffered a severe wound to the head while leading his men to victory at Duck Lake. A brilliant tactician, he was able to set up defences around Batoche that, for many days, would delay the victory of Canadian troops, who outnumbered and outgunned the Métis. (NOTE 11) For many days after this last battle, Gabriel Dumont roamed the hills and plains looking, in vain, for Louis Riel. Finally learning Riel was held in Regina, he would ride to Montana. There, he would try to organise the escape of his friend and leader, but without success.


Gabriel Dumont, or The Defender of Métis Rights 1886-1892

The months following the defeat at Batoche were hard for Dumont, who also had to cope with the death of his father in 1885 and of his wife the following year. For a few months Gabriel joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a marksman. At that time he was introduced to New Jersey's French-speaking communities who were interested in his stories and invited him to give conferences. This is how he met Edmond Riboulet, a businessman from New York, who agreed to commit his story to writing. Having someone to put his words down in writing would enable him to continue what Riel had started, which was to fight for the rights of the Métis. From 1887 to 1892, Gabriel Dumont travelled through North America, in order to make the general population aware of the Métis' harsh living conditions (NOTE12).

No where else was Dumont ever as politically active as when he was in Quebec, the land of his ancestors (NOTE 13). In 1887, Honoré Mercier, founder of the Parti National, offered Dumont an official pardon. Not long after, he was invited by members of patriotic and nationalist clubs of Quebec to deliver a series of conferences that were very popular in the province's main cities, as many newspaper articles reveal. There, he was in contact with members of parliament such as Raymond Préfontaine, Fabien Vanasse and Laurent-Olivier David. (NOTE 14).

In his conferences and his letters, Dumont proved to have a great political mind, trying to bring people's attention on the Métis demands, all the while presenting them as the brothers of the French Canadians (NOTE 15). He also fought to restore Louis Riel's dignity, who had been accused of madness during his trial in Regina. Having inherited the political role of Riel, the father of Manitoba, Dumont himself would become one of the great leaders of his people, as he too would strive to demonstrate the importance of the Métis as an integral part of society and of Canadian history.


Gabriel Dumont: The Last of the Métis (1888-1906)

Gabriel Dumont, 1838-1906 Batoche, 1885

Unfortunately, Gabriel Dumont was not able to influence the public opinion or any of the political figures who were nonetheless sympathetic to the Métis cause. It is true that he alienated many of Ultramontane persuasion [those holding the belief that papal creed reigned supreme over all matters in the lives of Roman Catholics], by blaming the clergy who had gone against Riel's plans at Batoche. They had given information to Canadian troops and refused to hear the confession of the Métis. In 1888, Dumont went to Montreal in order to tell his story for the benefit of future generations, as well as to challenge the veracity of the official reports of Canadian general Frederick Dobson Middleton on the events of 1885. Lawyers Adolphe Ouimet and Benjamin-Antoine Testard of Montigny, recorded his words in writing. In 1889, they would publish his version of the story in their book: Louis Riel, la Vérité sur la Question Métisse au Nord-Ouest [Louis Riel, the Truth on the Matter of the Métis in the Northwest], an important document asserting that the 1885 rebellion of the First Nations and Métis had been justified (NOTE 16).

Afterwards, Gabriel Dumont went back to live in the West. He only briefly came back to Quebec in 1892 to take care of a trust fund that had been raised for the widow and children of Louis Riel, executed in 1885 for treason. This fund indicates that there still existed ties between the French Canadians from Quebec and their Métis "cousins" from the West (NOTE 17). At the end of his life, Dumont lived on the lands of one of his nephews, Alexis Dumont, where he continued to live just as his Métis ancestors had. Before he died, he had his memoires written down by an anonymous author. There in, he would justify his actions, as well as those of his people, there by seeking to gain the understanding of generations to come. His wish to pass on his version of the events in which he played a role puts him on par with many a great historic figure who told their stories, in order to redeem themselves in the eyes of the official version of history - which is often so unsympathetic to the defeated. This "last of the great Métis leaders" died on May 19th, 1906 at Bellevue, near Batoche (Saskatchewan) from a heart attack.


Denis Combet

Professor, Brandon University




Note 1. Colloque Gabriel Dumont, Histoire et Identité Métisses, September 21st,22nd and 23rd, 2006, Collège Universitaire de Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, organised jointly in collaboration with Brandon University,under the supervision of Denis Gagnon, Denis Combet and Lise Gaboury-Diallo.

Note 2. Quebec City. "Inauguration of Gabriel-Dumont Street in Quebec City (Sainte-Foy-Sillery neighbourhood)" Quebec City, Le Regroupement Municipal, February 6th, 2006,

Note 3. The Gabriel Dumont Institute offers community programs and a publishing service that includes pedagogical and historic documents. On January 10th, 2007 the Canadian Government signed a $22.1 million aboriginal human resources development agreement with the institute.

Note 4. This pool table is a symbol of the restitution of objects stolen from the Métis in 1885.

Note 5. For a biography on Gabriel Dumont see George Woodcock, Gabriel Dumont le Chef Métis et sa Patrie Perdu, Montreal VLB editor, 1986 (translated from English by Pierre Desruissaux and François Lanctôt; the original edition appeared under the title Gabriel Dumont, The Métis Chief and his Lost World, Edmonton Hurtig Publisher, 1975, reprinted by J. R. Miller, Broadview Press, Peterborough, 2003). See also, Roderick Charles Macleod, "Gabriel Dumont", Québec, Dictionnaire Biographique du Canada, vol. 13, 190-191, Quebec City and Toronto, Presses de l'Université Laval/University of Toronto, 1994, p. 327-333; taken up in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, 2000, 5 p.

Note 6. On the question of cultural mingling and indigenisation see Gilles Havard, Empire et Métissages, Indiens et Français dans le Pays d'en Haut, 1660-1715, Montreal and Paris, Éditions Septentrion/Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003; Philippe Jacquin, Les Indiens Blancs, Français et Indiens en Amérique du Nord (XVIe-XVIIe siècles), Paris, Payot, 1987; Jennifer Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country, Vancouver, University of British Columbia, 1980; Jennifer Brown and Jacqueline Paterson, The New People. Being and Becoming Métis in North America, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 1985.

Note 7. Two events are generally considered to be key moments that would give birth to the Métis nation and shape the political influence it would have in the Prairies. The first is the battle of Grenouillère or Seven Oaks that took place on June 19th, 1816 between Robert Semple's Scottish settlersand a band of Métis lead by Cuberth Grant. The second is the trial of Guillaume Sayer at Fort Garry (Manitoba), headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), May 17th, 1849. Accused of illegally trading fur with the Americans, the Métis trader was saved by some hundred Métis lead by Jean-Louis Riel (Louis Riel's father).

Note 8. See The Papers of the Palliser Expedition 1857-1860, Edited with an introduction and notes by Irene M, Spry, The Publication of the Champlain Society, Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1968, p. 221-222.

Note 9. This battle took place on July 13th and 14th, 1851 in Missouri, where three hundred Lakotas Sioux attacked a Métis convoy from Saint-François-Xavier (Manitoba). The Métis' clear victory over their hereditary enemies enabled them to travel more freely to the United-States to establish pemmican trade.

Note 10. See "Chapter XIX: Chief Big Bear and the Bison", Constance, Kerr-Sissons, John Kerr, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1946, p. 152-161.

Note 11. For military details of the Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Batoche battles (1885), see Walker, Hildebrandt, La Bataille de Batoche: une petite guerre britannique contre des Métis retranchés, Ottawa, Environment Canada and Parks Canada, coll. "Études en Archéologie, Architecture et Histoire", 1985; Bob Beal and Roderick Charles Macleaod, Prairie Fire. The 1885 North-West Rebellion, Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, 1984.

Note 12. For details on Dumont's political initiatives for the defence of the Métis' rights after Batoche, see Diane Paulette Payment, "Les Gens Libres - Otipemisiwak", Batoche, Saskatchewan, 1870-1930, Ottawa, Environment Canada and Parks Canada, 1990, p. 170-173.

Note 13. In 1885, citizens of the province of Quebec had reacted strongly against the hanging of Louis Riel and they greeted the hero of Batoche with open arms.

Note 14. See Gabriel Dumont, Mémoires - Les Mémoires Dictés par Gabriel Dumont et le Récit Gabriel Dumont (texts prepared and annotated by Denis Combet and translated into English by Lise Gaboury-Diallo) , Saint-Boniface, Éditions du Blé, 2006.

Note 15. Among other things he dealt with issues such as amnesty, property titles (or writs), and compensations the Métis would have after the financial losses due to the events at Batoche.

Note 16. For details on Gabriel Dumont's visits to Quebec, his conferences, his correspondence with various religious and political figures of the province and newspaper articles that mentioned his visits to Montreal and Quebec City, see Gabriel Dumont, Souvenirs de Résistance d'un Immortel de l'Ouest, Presentation and notes Denis Combet and Ismène Toussaint, Quebec City, Éditions Cornac, 2009, "Chapter V: Gabriel Dumont au Québec", p. 197-271; and "Articles de Journaux sur Gabriel Dumont", p. 274-308.

Note 17. According to the Riel and Dumont families, His Lordship Tasché, Bishop of Saint-Boniface, would have kept the money collected for his diocese instead of giving it to the Riel family; that is why Gabriel Dumont came to Quebec City in 1892. See the letter of L.A.Fortier (doctor), "Lettre à Joseph Riel" Saint-Boniface, Société Historique de Saint-Boniface and Heritage Center, Louis Riel Foundation, document 446, 1092.


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