next page
Contact:bl.gif (1311 octets)Michel Lopez

On the bench sat the Magistrates of Assiniboia, beside Recorder Adam Thom of the Quarterly Court of Assiniboia- among them Cuthbert Grant, sitting in judgement on his own blood and kin. This was the beginning of the notorious Sayer trial which was to end any legal attempt to curb free trading in Red River.

The trial of Guillaume Sayer was also the trial of the old order which had held sway in Red River since the union of the companies in 1821. It was therefore also the trial of Cuthbert Grant. Could he sitting on the bench as a magistrate, not only in virtue of his education and his character, but also as Warden of the Plains and chief of the half-breeds-could he by his own example influence the half-breeds of Red River to accept the verdict of the court and the sentence of the law? If he could not, his usefulness would be greatly diminished , if not ended.

Grant's influence, it was soon apparent, could no longer hold the half-breeds in check. There was talk indeed of the leading free trader, James Sinclair, now being chief of the half-breeds . And the Metis of St. Boniface and Pembina, the men of the main river party of the buffalo hunt, were following the lead of a newcomer, the Metis son of a Nor'West voyageur, Louis Riel. This elder Riel, whose famous son and namesake was to pursue a dominant role in the events of 1869-70 and again in 1885, had returned to Red River from Lower Canada in 1841 . He brought with him much talk of Papineau, and of how the new Recorder in Assiniboia , Adam Thom, had written against the French in Montreal and had helped Lord Durham prepare the Report which said that the best fate for the French would be, to be assimilated by the British. From Pembina the Reverend Georges Belcourt sent messages of inflammatory sympathy, and the resentment which had smoldered so long reached the point where it was ready to burst into flame. Thus the men who flocked to mass at St. Boniface Cathedral that Ascension Day came armed , and after Mass they swarmed across the Red to gather in menacing array around the Court House where the court was in session.

The court sat unprotected , for its president was Governor Caldwell, who thus could not command the pensioners, and neither could Captain Foss, who was still suspended from the performance of his duties. He was free to supervise the building of a summer house on his new property on a point of the Assiniboine later to be known as Armstrong's Point. So it was that the sturdy Irish veterans stood cheerfully around the gates of Fort Garry , or mingled with the Metis, or worked on their lots along the Assiniboine. Nor did Sheriff Alexander Ross, much less Sheriff Cuthbert Grant, swear in special constables. It had become tacit policy in Red River not to resist the buffalo-hunters when roused and acting as a body, as they now manifestly were.

In this atmosphere of gathering defiance, the Court finished its previous cases and called Sayer before it. As the prisoner stood up, the excitement came to a head. The crowd surged forward, shouts went up, and a wild Metis demanded to be let into the Court House to shoot the Judge Thom on the bench . A group led by Sinclair and escorted by Sheriff Ross, did make their way in. Thom rebutted his arguments. The upshot was a compromise, an agreement that Sinclair might represent the prisoner and challenge the jury. He challenged no fewer than nine and their places were taken by Metis and half-breeds, some from the mob outside, who sat in the jury box with their powder horns at their sides.

The trial then proceeded, Sayer explained that he had not been trading, but only exchanging gifts, Indian-fashion, with relatives.

Moreover, he said, even if this were trading, Chief Trader J.E. Harriott, who was trading among the free traders as Grant had done in the twenties, had told him he might trade for furs, The jury then retired and, with a perhaps surprising and possibly pre-arranged honesty, brought in a verdict of "guilty of trading in furs. but coupled this with a recommendation for mercy in view of the culprit's belief that he had permission to trade. Thereupon Ballenden rose and professed himself satisfied with the verdict , and asked that mercy be granted and that the charges against the other three accused be withdrawn.

The intent was to try to have a formal verdict and yield the rest to the clamoring crowd outside. But when the news of Sayer's dismissal without penalty was shouted from the door , the crowd took it for acquittal and drew the instant conclusion that henceforth no one would be prosecuted for trading in furs. They thought their purpose realized and raised the shout: "Le commerce est libre ! Le commerce est libre !" which in fact marked the end of any attempt to enforce the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company by resort to the courts.

Nor was this the whole program of the Metis, for they followed up their victory on May 17 by demanding that Thom , whom they regarded as an enemy of their race, should retire from the Court, and that twelve representatives of the Metis be admitted to the Council of Assiniboia. In short, their demands were revolutionary, and in them there was no place for Grant. Grant had served Simpson and the Hudson's Bay Company too long and too loyally. He could no longer be regarded as the chief of all the Metis of Red River. New leaders had risen: James Sinclair for the English half-breeds, and Louis Riel for the French Metis. Only in Grantown was Grant still chief.

The diminution of Grant's influence which was marked by the Sayer trial was quickly acted upon by Simpson. The Council of the Northern Department did not renew, for the first time in twenty -one years, his annual appointment as Warden of the Plains. Grant's unique place in the Red River colony was ending. Councilor of Assiniboia and Magistrate he remained, but his usefulness as a check on the free trade was over. Even on the Council his position as representative of the people of mixed blood was henceforth to be shared, as the Reverend Louis Lafleche was appointed in that capacity in 1850. This was the beginning of a process which was to bring a number of half-breeds to the Council table, among them some of Grant's Grantown neighbors.

The old order was changing in another respect. Grant had always believed himself the seignior of Grantown. He believed that his people held their lands of him. But the new interest in land titles caused by the free trade quarrels led Chief Factor Ballenden to challenge Grant's belief.

In 1850 he convinced Grant that his proud claim was groundless. Ballenden wrote to Simpson:


Fort Garry, Red River Settlement

13th February 1850


Dear Sir George,

In the Settlement, in so far as regards the Company's affairs, all goes on quietly.-Provisions of all kinds are abundant and the proximity of the Buffalo has given the more improvident of the Half Breeds a Supply of fresh meat, of which they would, otherwise, have been much in want this spring,-Here , as elsewhere, there is a Scarcity of Fur bearing animals: but I think we have got our share. Returns are indeed equal, if not superior, to those of last year at this date. At Pembina Mr. Setter is doing but little, but his opponent, so far as I can learn, is doing still less.- At Red Lake the Indians are literally starving.

During the last week or more, we have been rather gay here.

The Bishop of Ruperts Land & Mr. Thom have each given a party and Mr. Logan has issued his Cards for one also. I attended at the two former and as I am invited to the latter, I shall be there also if circumstances do not prevent me. I think I must give something like a Return also, altho' I would rather not.

Since I wrote you Grant and I have come to an amicable arrangement. He gives up his absurd claims to Seigniorial rights and acknowledges that the people of the White Horse Plains are in no respect different, in so far as regards their lands, from the other Settlers, This is all well, but allow me again to request that you will not only recommend, but also urge on, the preparation of, the Title deeds as corrected. I an particularly anxious on this subject, as I think it has been too long neglected, and as I know it will, in the eyes of the Settlers, give value to that which they considered almost valueless, their lands.

Yours Most truly

(Signed) John Ballenden

The career of Grant was ending; the history of Grantown and its people was to go on.

The Last Years of Grantown

The changes wrought by the events of 1849 produced no change in Grant's relations with his neighbors in Grantown or in the course of life there.

An interesting event of the early fifties was the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth. It was not always easy in Rupert's Land to find a suitable mate when young people were ready for marriage. Sometimes parents had to seek far afield, and such was the case with Cuthbert Grant's daughter Elizabeth. Thus when Grant received a letter from York Factory acquainting him of the interest of young William McKay in his daughter, he and his family thought it worth considering as William McKay Sr. was the master of a post at Trout Lake, and he and his wife were people of fine character. Because of the distance involved it might take several years to make the necessary arrangement. The following correspondence tells of the courtship. In January 1849, James Hargrave had written from York Factory to his old friend on behalf of one of his men, Mr. W. McKay as follows:


Y. F. 17, Aug/49

C. Grant Esq. /R.R.

My Dear Grant-

I enclose a letter from Mr. W. McKay, one of my post servants the subject of which was made known to me this summer. His son and your Daughter Elisabeth it seems had formed a reciprocal attachment to each other some time ago - and altho like others they kept this to themselves- yet now the young fellow has come forward ina manly frank manner and requests permission of me "to take a wife." He is a lad so far as I have known of good character- is prudent and saving having wages as an asst. interpreter in the amount of 20 pounds. and. Should you approve of the proposal and that your daughter is still unengaged- I see myself no objection to his setting in life. And could your daughter come here next spring under the wing of a carefull and respectable freighter such as Mr. Mowat, I would take care of her in the Factory until her intended arrived from Grant Lake-when I would unite them as man and wife- agreeably to the rites of the Country & England.

With kinds regards to my old friend Mrs. Grant now & always.

My Dear Grant

most faithfully yours


Grant replied to the above in June 1850


Grantown 3rd June, 1850

J. Hargrave Esquire

My Dear Sir,

Your kind favor of the 17th Aug. came safe to hand on the arrival of the fall boats as well as an enclosed letter from Mr. W. McKay regarding his Son William demanding my daughter Elisabeth for a wife. Now, after the character you give me of the young man's good behavior etc. there lies no difficulty in complying to his request, but the devil is to get the girl to consent to go down alone and unprotected for she's not acquainted with any of the freighters, and her mother is also against it. But if the young man could be permitted to come and pass 2 or 3 days with us , no doubt all these present difficulties would be done away with, so you see how the land lies.

I shall not attempt to intrude on your present time and give you nothing but dismal news , so trusting this will find you enjoying your usual good health and spirits.

I am

Your ever faithful affectionate

Cuthbert Grant

Mrs. Grant begs to be kindly remembered to you.

 Elizabeth's reluctance was overcome at length, perhaps by a visit from the young man, Neverless the final arrangements took some time to complete, for the reply to a letter sent one year could not be expected until the next. It was 1853 therefore before the marriage took place and no doubt Grant gave his daughter a fine wedding.

At this date it is difficult to recover the details of the wedding, but a very old Indian told Margaret Complin of Regina that in his youth he was a guide to the early missionaries at Norway House. Once in his youth when he was with one of the missionaries on a trip they lodged for several days with Cuthbert Grant, who took them in spite of the fact that the wedding festivities of his daughter were going on.

This was probably Elizabeth 's wedding, as his anecdote is of the same year. He told of a large cavalcade arriving at Grantown after the ceremony in St. Boniface-long ribbons flying from the rosettes which decorated each individual's costume. He said that a large ox had been killed and roasted and that the festivities kept on with much gaiety and dancing for several days.

These festivities were not the only occasion for rejoicing in Grantown during these years. At long last Bishop Provencher's efforts to provide not only spiritual ministration but schooling for the mission had been borne fruit. The Reverend L. Lafleche was now resident at Saint Francois-Xavier and, expect when with the hunt, could keep a school for the boys. In 1850 the Grey Sisters who had come to St. Boniface in 1844 were able to send two sisters to reside at Saint-Francois. The fact that the convent school at once had eight pupils shows how much Grantown needed and wanted such a school.

Life was hard for the sisters. At first they had to sit on their beds, when resting, for the want of chairs. For economy, they burned their candle only while reading; prayer and meditation took place in the dark. And one young sister wrote despondently that in Saint-Francois even the fence post leaned in the direction of warm, sociable and longed-for St. Boniface. The sisters had known hardship in founding a convent in St. Boniface, but as time went on the pressure which Grant brought to bear upon them to extend their work to Grantown, coupled with his promise to build them a house, resulted in 1850 in the coming of Sr. Marie Eulate Lagrave and Sr. Hedwidge Lafrance to start a new convent at Saint-Francois-Xavier.

When Bishop Provencher asked the sisters to found this new school, Sr. Lagrave offered her services. She said that as she and Sr. Lafrance had already pioneered in founding the St. Boniface convent, they should do the same at Grantown. She felt that as they had experience they would be better able to meet the even harsher conditions expected there.

Mlle Cure Lafleche lodged the sisters in the old presbytery built by I'Abbe Poier in the 1830's. Some sixty children attended the first school. Many of them spoke Sioux and Cree and wanted the sister to teach them to sing and read French. Late in September of the same year Sr. Fizette joined them as "Institutrice" to the school.

At Grantown they had greater distance to travel, for as always the sisters were appealed to in time of sickness. Indians came and camped for months, and often became their charges. This work in addition to the number of pupils and scant accommodation taxed their resources to the utmost.

These gains for civilization at White Horse Plain, the slowly ripened fruit of the example Grant had set his people when he founded Grantown, are confirmed but modified by the Red River census of 1849.

In that year there were 914 people at White Horse Plain. They owned 521 horses, 569 cattle, 36 plough's, 394 carts, and one windmill. But they farmed only 526 acres, only 298 cultivated acres, there had been more than one acre a person, while in 1849 there was little more than one half acre a person under cultivation. This last fact reflected the slowly apparent truth that Grant's attempt to settle the Metis had been only partially successful. The need to continue the great hunts, the profits of hunting , and the lure of the wild life of the plains had kept his people the plains men and warriors they had been in his youth.

It was perhaps well, as it was inevitable, that they should have remained so . In 1851 the precarious peace with the Sioux was ended by a clash between the hunters and the Sioux which is known in the history of White Horse Plain as the Battle of the Grand Coteau. There on July 12, 1851 ,the Red River hunt , in two parties, encountered some hundreds of Sioux. The Grand Coteau is the eastern edge of the long escarpment at which the second steppe of the northern plains begins, and forms the watershed between the Missouri and the Assiniboine. The hunt was therefore on the borders of Sioux territory within the United States, and consequently subject to attack.

There is no evidence of Grant having been present at the encounter.

Neither is there any that he was elsewhere. But it is most unlikely that he would not have been mentioned if had led his people at this time. What was present was the discipline and spirit Grant had installed in the Metis.

return at the main page

(1) bl.gif (1311 octets)for bibliography source write to :