There are many notable women in Edmonton’s history books. The ‘Famous Five’ may come to mind straight away, in addition to prominent activists, authors, politicians, and athletes. All brilliant, resilient, accomplished. Yet, none hold a candle to our own First Lady, Louise Umphreville Rowand. During Edmonton’s early development, Louise played a central role in nearly every aspect of civic life.
Louise Lisette ‘Shining Star’ Umphreville (1783-1849) was the daughter of Edward Umphreville (1754-1838) and Ann Constant (1755-). Ann was a Swampy-Ojibwe woman from the east, her father a Montreal merchant. Edward sprung from a defamed baronship in Britain, but that’s another story. Edward and Ann met and were united in the custom of the country as early as 1774. Although the records are scant and contradictory, sources note several Umphreville children: Thomas (1779-1850), Louise, Wishkenebo (1785-), Sarah (1786-1826), and Canote (1788-1842). Susanne-Marie (1792-1846) born at Stella Maris Mission along the Columbia River is also noted in vital statistics records. She was present at Fort Augustus with Louise and later married the notorious Nicholas Montour (1781-1850).
My great (4x) grandfather was Thomas Umphreville, Louise’s older brother. Louise is my ancestral Auntie. If you know anything about family dynamics in Indigenous communities, you know there is an honoured place for our Aunties. As role models and secondary parents, Aunties show us love and strength, humour and grace. These are women that we emulate, the women who help raise us, and help to raise our own children; women with mad skills; lifegiving, heart-holding, spirit-singing, knowledge-sharing icons who sometimes smack you when you make them laugh.
This series over several installments is a tribute to Louise Umphreville, to her sisters and daughters, our intrepid Aunties: Women of this Land. Women who carried our traditions, wielding practical skills and the products of Indigenous cultures in a new economy; powerful women who united two worlds. Women who adapted, survived, and triumphed.
Ann and her daughter Louise, like many Indigenous women of the 1700s, were active agents in the fur trade tending to a great deal more than maternal duties. Women procured and processed most foodstuffs, built fires and shelters, sewed clothing and footwear. Like her mother, Louise adapted to the evolving social and economic needs of the fur trade holding the reins of an entire empire in strong and talented hands. Nearly every newcomer, as recorded in personal letters and company notebooks, soon disparaged their western footwear as unfit for the frontier. Within the first few months living beyond the bay, trader and canoe-man alike abandoned their flat bottom British sod boots for the footwear of the continent: the mighty moccasin.
More expensive at the fort store than a kettle and slightly cheaper than a wool blanket, the invaluable smoked hide slipper was in high demand. No man could work without shoes. No fancy hats could be made without furs. Enter the Aunties and their plethora of land and hand skills to save the burgeoning industry. For, although furs were aplenty, leather footwear is made of hide which must be tanned, soaked, stretched, scraped, and smoked. With a level of expertise unknown to company men, the trade in furs depended heavily on the skillset of the country. Beyond their domestic labour, women like Louise also facilitated trade through the maintenance of cultural protocols, communication and translation services, constructing snowshoes, and mending canoes on the go, all while caring for children, and often while pregnant.
Over the span of thirty-five years, Louise Umphreville bore several daughters from two country marriages, across thousands of miles of both water and land. By the time she was ten years old, Louise had canoed the kisiskāciwani-sīpiy, the “swift flowing river” from its westernmost trading post to Cumberland House in the east. It is equally possible that Louise travelled as far as the Pacific Ocean, stopping at the mission when her mother gave birth to her little sister. Louise Umphreville could trace her childhood journey from York Factory to Montreal, from Red River to the Columbia River, she was truly a woman of the continent. As with all rivers and with each star in the sky, with every story told there must be a beginning. The story of Louise Umphreville begins in May of 1788, near Frenchman Butte, Saskatchewan District.
It was a warm spring day, the sort of day that you can smell the earth waking up. Little birds chattered endlessly to one another in a nearby willow tree. As Louise lay on her mat of buffalo robes and wool blankets, she had a sense this day was an important one. The river was moving steadily now. The last slabs of buoyant ice had melted away in the returning warmth. Her father was leaving today for Montreal. She’d heard her parents discussing final preparations for the journey before dawn that morning. Feeling resolute, little Louise pulled on her moccasins and gathered her shawl about her shoulders. Today would be one of many days that Louise Umphreville faced a wave of unknowns yet embraced it with the strength and grace shown by the women before her.
Beyond the door to their house hewn of spruce logs, several worn stumps circled a large fire pit. Nimaamaa (Mother, in Ojibwe) Ann stoked the fire, adding a few sticks of kindling to wake it up and blowing on it gently as she hummed an old medicine song, one hand holding her large belly. Tiny Sarah, who sat nearby gnawing at a piece of dry meat, greeted Louise with a toothy smile and a squeak. Soon, Nimaamaa Ann’s prize copper kettle boiled for tea and the aroma from the iron pot of wild rice and dried blueberries began wafting throughout the yard. Traders had passed through last autumn and they’d brought two small sacks of dried blueberries from the north. Hardly awake, staring into the bubbling mass with its bursts of blue, Louise could feel her tummy rumbling. She sensed, though, it was more than just hunger.
Louise heard her older brother Thomas by the horse shed with their father. He was always so full of questions and ideas that he rarely stopped talking in a mixture of Swampy and Ojibwe, English and French. He was listing off the places Edward would pass on his way east: Turtle Fort House, the peak at Eagle Creek Hills, the ‘Elbow’ where the river turns north and east, then the confluence of the kisiskāciwani-sīpiy with the equally fierce southern branch. Thomas had given up trying to convince his father to take him to Montreal, the boy’s gloom quieted by an unrelenting curiosity. He’d made long trips with Edward to the buffalo pounds in the south, or to convene with traders along the river highway. Not yet ten, Thomas wasn’t ready for the 600-mile journey to Fort Garry, let alone the voyage from Grand Portage across the wide lakes then downriver to Montreal, where Edward was to negotiate his dividends in the Northwest Company. They expected him home by mid-summer.
In the end, the deal went sideways as many of Edward’s enterprises did. He left Montreal and didn’t ever return to his family, sailing out of New York City in October of 1788. Nimaamaa Ann, Louise, and her siblings resided at the house Umphreville built a few years more, supplying traders on the Carlton Trail with horses, spaces to camp, and handmade hide goods. When David Thompson rode past in 1800, the property had been abandoned. Louise’s mother had remarried by then, producing sister Susanne-Marie. After a time, Nimaamaa Ann moved to Paskoya (The Pas) where her brother resided, where she eventually died, her year of death not recorded. Her life was like a comet, blazing steadfast and sure until it burned away.
As the century turned, Louise was seventeen and building a life of her own, just as her siblings were doing. Thomas began working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Sarah would soon be married to Dr. Calder, Susanne-Marie would apply the many skills learned from Nimaamaa Ann contributing to the success of her fur trading husband. Canoté, who was born just after Edward’s departure, would become a famous Columbia River guide and oarsman. The Umphreville clan, today thousands strong, are spread across the continent like constellations in the sky.
A notable woman, Louise continues to glimmer brightly in collective memory, our very own ‘Shining Star’. One cannot help imagining Louise as a young mother, glancing down at the cradleboard resting on the canoe’s yoke. Her infant staring up at a cloud-filled sky, falling asleep to the rhythm of the paddle. The river and the stars flowing in their blood, too.
Read the story of Louise Umphreville’s coming of age in the next installment, Part 2.
Jenna Chalifoux © 2021