Minnesota’s Canadian connection — state capital St. Paul founded by Red River settlers

by Bruce Cherney

During the critical year of 1816 for the Red River Settlement, the North West Company had ordered Charles Bottineau to make himself available for attacks against the colonists brought from Ireland and Scotland by Lord Selkirk. Although he had for years been employed as a voyageur and fur trader with the Nor’westers, Bottineau decided to avoid the call to arms and instead set off in pursuit of four-legged, rather than two-legged, game.

While Bottineau absented himself on a hunting trip, on June 19,1816, a party of Métis led by Cuthbert Grant had a fateful encounter with Hudson’s Bay Company Governor Robert Semple and the settlers at Red River. Semple led his armed men out of Fort Douglas and marched the short distance to Frog Plain with the aim of preventing the Métis from proceeding any further. The resulting ill-fated confrontation is known as the Battle of Seven Oaks, during which Semple was killed along with 20 men from the fort. Just one person from Grant’s party died after the shooting had stopped. 

Following the battle, Fort Douglas was occupied by Grant and the surviving HBC men were taken into custody by the Métis.

When Bottineau returned to the NWC post at Pembina, he was also taken into custody, but was released through the intervention of his wife’s Chippewa (Ojibway in Canada) family from the Lake of the Woods region. Close ties to aboriginals through friendship and marriage (the aboriginal women who wed white men  were termed“country wives,” while their union was referred to in French as à la façon du pays — in the custom of the country) were exceedingly important to the fur trade. 

The birthplace of Charles Bottineau is shrouded in mystery as either Boston, Massachusetts, or La Rochelle, France, though it is more likely he was born in Quebec (then Lower Canada), as he came west in 1787 as an employee of the Montreal-based NWC.

No such controversy surrounds the birthplace of his son Pierre, who became known as the “Kit Carson of the Northwest.” Pierre was born on January 1, 1817, in a buffalo hunting camp near Grand Forks, which at the time was technically part of the nearly 300,000-square-kilometre land grant obtained by Lord Selkirk from the Hudson’s Bay Company for the nominal fee of 10 shillings (the equivalent today of obtaining a property for $1).

Charles Bottineau and his family lived at various times in the Red River Settlement, Pembina and the Grand Forks area, typical sojourns of the voyageurs and Métis families of the northwest. 

Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher of St. Boniface, who became the bishop for the northwest of British North America in 1822, founded a mission at Pembina in 1818. Within four years, there were 500 residents, a church under construction and a school.

Pembina had also been an important refuge for the Red River settlers during the intense conflict between the HBC and Nor’westers. It is perhaps because of his familiarity with the settlers that Bottineau declined to participate in the Nor’westers’ terror campaign, which was designed to maintain the region solely for the fur trade by driving the agriculturalists from the land. The Nor’westers even paid settlers to quit their land and move to Eastern Canada, a ploy that was so successful it nearly ended the Red River Settlement. In 1815, 133 settlers were convinced by NWC chief trader Duncan Cameron to quit the colony.

A problem confronting the Pembina settlers was the impending designation of the international border between the U.S. and Canada. The Treaty of Ghent (1814), signed between the U.S. (1815) and Britain following the War of 1812, confirmed earlier agreements that the international border was the 49th parallel. As a result, Pembina fell within the authority of the U.S. But ratification of boundary claims were not fully resolved until an 1818 convention. The days of Britain’s claim over a significant portion of what would become North Dakota and Minnesota had come to an end, although Canadians  still heavily influenced settlement patterns in the U.S. 

In fact, the state capital of Minnesota at St. Paul was founded by “Canadians,” the majority of whom had first called the Red River Settlement home, including the Pierre Bottineau family. St. Paul became a vital link for the Red River Settlement — first for freight carried by Red River carts, followed by transportation using steamboats and railways. From the mid-1840s to the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881, most of the goods and manufactured products bought into Winnipeg came via  St. Paul. 

By the winter of 1822-23, Bishop Provencher abandoned the mission at Pembina and invited the Métis families to relocate to the Red River Settlement, 110 kilometres to the north.

The disastrous Battle of Seven Oaks caused Lork Selkirk to recruit professional soldiers in Eastern Canada to protect the fledgling colonists at Red River. He recruited soldiers from the de Meuron Regiment (five officers and 80 men), de Watteville Regiment (20 men) and the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles (only a few men), who had fought for Britain in Canada during the War of 1812.

The de Meurons and de Wattevilles were  Swiss German-speaking regiments  — a few Poles were in their ranks. Selkirk recruited them as soldier-settlers. 

The mostly Catholic soldiers  received land along the German River (today Seine River) in St. Boniface. Because of the presence of the German-speaking Swiss regiments, the community of St. Boniface was named after the patron saint of Germany.  

In 1821, the threat of violence between the HBC and NWC ended when the two companies merged. 

In that year, Colonel Rodolphe de May, one of the de Meurons, was sent to Switzerland to 

recruit Swiss settlers for Red River. The colonel managed to convince 175 poverty-stricken Swiss to come to the Red River.

The new settlers were ill-suited to life on the frontier, being mostly “watch and clock makers, pastry cooks and musicians” with no agricultural skills, but they were heartily welcomed by the bachelor soldiers.

“No sooner had the Swiss emigrants arrived than many of the Germans, who had come to the settlement a few years ago from Canada, and had houses, presented themselves in search of a wife, and, having fixed their attachment with acceptance, they received those families, in which was their choice, into their habitations,” according to an eye-witness as reported in The Old Settlers of Red River, by George Bryce and delivered to the Manitoba 

Historial Society  on November 26, 1885.

The major flood of 1826 — 40 per cent greater in magnitude than the 1997 “flood of the century” was the turning point for the Swiss at Red River.

Alexander Ross, an historian and fur trader who had settled at Red River in 1825, wrote that when refuge from the flood was sought at Silver Heights — one of the few areas not inundated — “the rascal de Meurons, who, it was well known, hardly possessed an animal of their own, and yet were selling cheap beef all the time ... These were the boys that had been brought to the country to restore the settlements to order and keep peace!”

The accused cattle-rustling soldiers, the “dross” of the settlement, according to Ross, were fed up with Red River and they, the Swiss and a handful of other settlers decided on June 24 to try their luck south of the border.

HBC Governor George Simpson wrote in his journal that he considered the flood and the departure of the settlers “an extinguisher to the hope of Red River ever retaining the name of settlement.”

Donald McKenzie, the HBC governor at Red River, wrote in August 1826 to Andrew Wedderburn Colville, Lord Selkirk’s brother-in-law and executor of his estate (Selkirk died in 1820) that the Swiss and de Meurons with some Canadians “quit the country” rather than “submit to the labour of re-establishing their farms ... They were mostly composed of idle and turbulent characters who infested the colony for several years. In consequence we now look foward to a more peaceable systyem of things.”

It was reported that 243 people from Red River — nearly half the settlers in the community — made their way to Fort Snelling, which was established by the U.S. government in 1819 and completed by 1825 at the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. The fort was named after Colonel Josiah Snelling. 

Ross, perhaps showing a bias against the Swiss and others who abandoned the dream of establishing a thriving settlement at Red River, wrote that “every idler and other person adverse to Red River” was in the party heading south, “and so little was their further residence in the colony desired, that food and other necessities were furnished to them gratis by the Company, with the view of hastening their departure.”

Ross did say that later reports from the U.S. indicated the former Red River settlers “were doing well.”

Indeed, the same colonists who were called failures in Red River went on to found the important community of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Contrary to what Ross said of 

the Canadians, General Chetlaine of Chicago wrote a December 1878 article for Harpers Monthly praising the northerners. Chetlaine, who was originally from the Red River Settlement, wrote: “The descendants of these colonists are numerous, and are found scattered throughout the Northwest, the greater part being in the region of the lead mines. Most of them are thrifty farmers and stock breeders. A few have entered the professions and trade. All, as far as is known, are temperate, industrious, and law-abiding citizens.”

The “Canadians” — an all-encompassing term used  by the Americans of the era to describe those who came from Red River and elsewhere across the 

border — squatted on land just north of Fort Snelling on the west side of the 

Mississippi. The fort provided the first U.S. government presence in the northwest after the international border was 

finally fixed in 1818. With the resolution of the border question, the HBC was forced to abandon all hope of retaining its influence over the southern region of the former Lord Selkirk land grant.

American fur traders such as Norman Kittson, who was originally from Eastern Canada, began to directly compete with the HBC for furs. At Pembina in the 1830s, Kittson encouraged Métis from north of the border to  trade their furs at his post, which contributed to the end of the HBC’s fur trade monopoly in Western Canada by 1849.

During this era, Red River Métis 

ignored the international border and travelled into the U.S. to hunt buffalo, trade or homestead.  

Pierre Bottineau left Red River for Fort Snelling in 1837 to work as a guide and interpreter for Gen. Henry Hastings Sibley of the American Fur Company post at Mendota, which was located across the Mississippi from Fort Snelling.

In May 1838, Bottineau guided 40 families with 20 head of cattle from Red River to Fort Snelling. This was the first of many trips Bottineau made between Red River and Fort Snelling. In one instance, he escorted a small party of former Canadians who wanted to return to Red River from the U.S.

“Perhaps no man in the Northwest has passed a life of more romantic adventures, exciting occurrences, hair-breadth escapes, and ‘accidents of flood and field,’ than Mr. Bottineau,” wrote Williams J. Fletcher (1934-95) in his book, A History of the City of Saint Paul, and of the County of Ramsay, Minnesota. “He has travelled over every foot of the Northwest, and knows the country like a map.”

Fletcher knew Bottineau when he was “about 65 years of age.”

Another wrtiter said: “He spoke every language in the region from French, English, Sioux, Chippewa, Cree, Mandan, and Winnebago. Experienced in all the particulars of frontier and savage life, he was equally proficent as a hunter, trapper, boatman, guide, and businessman ... Fully six feet tall and straight as a grenadier with clean piercing black eyes, he was of attractive appearance ... naturally of manly instincts and gentlemanly deportment, polite, agreeable and of a kindly disposition, always true to his word and fellow man.” 

At Fort Snelling, the military authorities began grumbling about the settlers who occupied land near the fort, implicating them in the liquor trade with “Indians residing in that region of the country” and being “destructive to the discipline of the troops” and “the peace and quiet of the country.” 

The impression given by U.S. army officials and contemporary historians is that virtually every white settler was a whiskey trader. This was at least partially true since the settlers were squatters on military land with little agricultural training despite spending several years in Red River. The clock makers, pastry cooks and musicians had few options to earn a living other than whiskey peddling to the nearby thirsty U.S. troops and aboriginal people.

By 1838, the military commander of the fort. Major J. Plympton, had prohibited “all persons, not attached to the military, from erecting any buildings, fence or fences, or cutting timber for any but for public use,” an order that he vowed to strictly enforce.

Some settlers, such as Abraham Perry (anglicized from Perret), a Swiss watchmaker from Red River, did establish farms near the fort at the urging of Gen. Snelling. Perry had the advantage of having brought some cattle south from Red River and became a prosperous farmer. 

Benjamin Gervais, who came to the west from Eastern Canada in 1803, settled at Red River in 1812 and left for Fort Snelling in 1827. He gained valuable agricultural experience at La Pointe in what later became the Norwood neighbourhood of Winnipeg, and was able to turn this experience into a successful farm operation near Fort Snelling.

But he and other farmers were also by default caught up in the ramifications of the illicit liquor trade. Although they were innocent of indulging in its propagation, they were painted with the same brush and eventually evicted from the Fort Snelling military reserve. 

Concern arose that the illicit liquor was having a disastrous effect on the aboriginal population of the territory. Rev. Gideon H. Pond in the Dakotah Friend, recalled in September 1851 that many natives traded all their possessions for whiskey. As well, liquor made them kill “one another with guns, knives, hatchets, clubs, fire brands...” He said suicide resulting from the destruction of their way of life was rife in the Indian territory.

In a report to the U.S. War Department, Brig.-Gen. John E. Wool said that the whiskey trade was responsible for escalating tensions between the Sioux and Chippewa  and intensified “their national hatred ..., a source of constant and increasing anxiety to the commanding officer” of the fort.”

“The illicit sale of liquor by some unscrupulous squatters on the (military) reserve, led to the expulsion ... of all the settlers, whether guilty of that offense or not, and resulted in forming a settlement ... which ultimately grew into the Saint Paul of later day,” wrote Fletcher. “Thus the very cornerstone of our civic existence was laid by whiskey ... In fact, the very first steamboat that ever landed at the shores of Saint Paul, the Glaucus ... (on) May 21, 1839, stopped to drop off six barrels of whiskey for Donald McDonald, since known as the ‘Half-Way House,’ being afraid to take the liquor any further up the river, for fear it would be seized and destroyed by the authorities at the fort.”

Because of the predominance of whiskey peddlers, government reports called for the immediate eviction of “white settlers” from public lands within 32 kilometres (20 miles) of Fort Snelling in order to create a “military reserve.”

 At the time, the region was organized as part of Wisconsin Territory. Edward James, the territorial marshal, sent his deputy, Ira B. Brunson of Prairie du Chien (at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, and now in the state of Wisconsin) to execute the eviction order. On May 6, 1840, every settler on the reserve was “dishoused and driven off, and every cabin within the (surveyed) lines destroyed.”

“To these poor refugees it was a cruel blow,” wrote Fletcher. “The victims of floods, and frosts, and grasshoppers, in the Red River valley, and once expelled from the Reserve (west side), it seemed that the cup of disaster was charged to brim for them. Mournfully gathering up their effects and flocks, they set out once more to find a home.”

Among the dispossessed was Bottineau, who made his way to Pig’s Eye, the present location of St. Paul, joining other Canadians who had come to the east side of the Mississippi in 1838 and 1839 because of earlier evictions.

By 1839 and a year before the mass eviction, Fletcher said there were already nine cabins within  the future limits of the city of St. Paul.

The community was then named 

after Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, a Canadian voyageur from Sault Ste. Marie, who first settled in Mendota in 1832.

Parrant immediately  gained the wrath of the authorities in the region by selling liquor throughout the Indian Territory. Because of Parrant’s poor reputation, whatever is written about him is extremely unflattering. He was described by Fletcher as a “coarse, ill-looking” fellow who “spoke execrable English. His habits were intemperate and licentious, and, at the date we speak of, he was ... probably sixty years of age.”

To continue his whiskey business, the moonshiner moved to Fountain Cave, just beyond the fort’s jurisdiction. Soon after, he borrowed money from Canadian William Beaumette, mortgaging his claim in the process, and set up a tiny shack near Lambert’s Landing in June 1838 — the nucleus of Pig’s Eye.

Parrant’s nickname is attributed to Edmund Brissett, a young Canadian, who in 1832 was doing odd jobs around Fort Snelling. He wanted to send a letter to Joseph R. Brown at the trading post on Grey Cloud Island, 20 kilometres to the south, but didn’t have a name for the community where it was to be posted.

“I looked inquiringly at Parrant,” said Brissett, who later related the story, “and, seeing his old crooked eye (Parrant had only one eye) scowling at me, it suddenly popped into my head to date it at Pig’s Eye, feeling sure that the place would be recognized, as Parrant was well known along the river. In a little while an answer (to the original letter) was safely received, directed to me at Pig’s Eye. I told the joke to some of the boys, and they made lots of fun of Parrant. He was very mad, and threatened to lick me, but never tried to execute it.”

“Thus our city ‘founded’ — by a pig-eyed retailer of whiskey,” wrote Fletcher. “The location of the future capital of Minnesota was determined, not by the commanding and picturesque bluffs, a noble and inspiring site whereon to build a city — not by the great river ... in front of it, suggestive of commerce and trade — but as a convenient spot to sell whiskey, without the pale of law.”

One of the first settlers to follow Parrant was Abraham Perry, born about 1780 in Switzerland, who came from Red River with his family in 1826. He made a claim above Parrant’s. 

On June 13, 1838, Benjamin Gervais and his brother Pierre Gervais, also Red River refugees — though originally from Eastern Canada, not Switzerland — made a claim near the Perry family.

William Beaumette, who had immigrated to Red River from Canada in 1818 or 1819, was a stone mason by trade and helped build Fort Garry (under construction by 1822). He came south with the original immigrants of 1826 and settled near Fort Snelling and then in Pig’s Eye.

Benjamin Gervais bought Parrant’s claim for $10 and Parrant moved to a new claim in what would become St. Paul where he erected another hovel to sell whiskey. Parrant sold this claim and lost another in a property dispute with a neighbour. He then set out to return to Sault Ste. Marie, but the founder of St. Paul apparently died en route in 1844.

Pig’s Eye was a name fated to have a short existence. In the summer of 1839, Bishop Loras of Dubuque (made up of all of Iowa, Minnedosa and parts of North and South Dakota), visited Fort Snelling and Mendota seeking to establish a Roman Catholic mission in the region. Father Lucien Galtier was sent west to establish the mission. He built a log chapel on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River on land given to the church by Vital Guerin and Benjamin Gervais.

The log chapel was consecrated by Father Galtier on All Saints Day, November 1, 1841, and dedicated to St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. 

Apparently, Father Galtier did not object to Parrant’s enterprise, but merely to the nickname given to the community.

“I expressed a wish, at the same time (the chapel was consecrated), that the settlement be known by the same name, and my desire was obtained ...,” later wrote Father Galtier. “The name ‘Saint Paul,’ applied to a town or city, seemed appropriate.”

The first use of the name  was officially recorded when Father Galtier 

published the bans for Vital Guerin’s wedding.

The priest said bar owner Mr. Jackson opened a store and grocery at the foot of the Gervais claim which brought steamboats to the landing. “Thenceforth the place was known as ‘Saint Paul Landing,’ and, later on as ‘Saint Paul.’”

“One shudders to think,” a writer in the St. Paul Pioneer  later said, “of what the place would have come to if it had not been rebaptised — of the horrible marble squint of a Pig’s Eye following it around the world ... with such an eye glaring from its socket were a pestiferous Medusa’s head, blasting everything within five miles of it with stony leer ...”

When the Minnesota Territory was organized on March 4, 1849, St. Paul became its capital. It was made state capital when Minnesota became America’s 38th state in 1858.

Bottineau quit St. Paul just six years after its founding, moving his family to St. Anthony further up the Mississippi River. It is claimed that he sold his land in what is downtown St. Paul for $100. Another account said he traded it for a cow and a dog. 

“Bottineau’s Addition” of 320 acres of land in St. Anthony later became the Bottineau neighbourhood of Northeast Minneapolis.

He died at Thief River Falls on July 26, 1895, at age 78. The community and county of Bottineau, North Dakota, adjacent to the American border with Canada, are both named in his honour.

The city of Little Canada, a few kilometres north of downtown St. Paul, is a reminder of the state capital’s Canadian connection. Each year, the city, located along the west side of Lake Gervais (named after the city’s first settlers from the Red River Settlement), hosts Canadian Days. 

The city’s flag has a white fleur-de-lis with a red Maple Leaf background, and the Canadian flag is displayed in its council chambers.

Surprisingly, Thunder Bay, Ontario — not Winnipeg nor even Selkirk, which has a comparable population with the U.S. community of nearly 10,000 people — is Little Canada’s sister city. Minneapolis, across the Mississippi from St. Paul, did become a sister city of Winnipeg in 1973.