Welcome to our new feature, Edmontonians in the Spotlight, in which we turn our attention to one of the many historical luminaries to have made Edmonton their home.
In honour of National Aboriginal Day on June 21 and all of Edmonton’s stalwart sentinels, we look at a titan of a man who built an unassailable reputation for himself as one of Fort Edmonton’s most dangerous and capable men.
Franà§ois Lucier Jr (ca. 1796-ca. 1867) was born in what was known in English as Rupert’s Land, now Western Canada. The son and namesake of a voyageur from Recollet, Lower Canada (now Quebec), Lucier was brought up in the fur trade – that world of Company traders who fancied themselves ‘Caesars of the Wilderness’, wily Nehiyawak (Cree) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) trappers and warriors, and the first stirrings of the mighty Métis nation, to which Franà§ois belonged.
The time we represent at the 1846 Fort Edmonton was relatively quiet, in part because of the tragic smallpox epidemic of 1838, but the world of Lucier’s young adulthood was one where the peaceful trading and was sometimes disrupted by violent raiding. The Scots, Canadiens, and Métis of the Hudson’s Bay Company were tolerated guests and relations with their hosts were not always pleasant.
All parties saw the advantage of good trade relations and peace, but at the same time all parties had need of the horse. A good horse for the Company, especially at Edmonton, was necessary to transport furs between sites where no river ran, to hunt bison, and for the horse-racing amusements of the Company men.
A good horse for the nomadic Nakoda meant transportation – not for furs – but for their families and possessions as they moved from camp to camp. A buffalo-runner was especially valuable in hunting the bison that sustained life.
The Company believed that any horses they took care of were their property until they chose to sell them. The Nakoda believed that one couldn’t own anything permanently. Everything was a gift from the Creator. If a Nakoda needed a horse and he was brave and quick and stealthy enough to take it, then it was his until somebody took it from him.
This sets the stage for the events of October 1826 at Fort Edmonton, twenty years before our recreated Fort. Several young Nakoda made off with twenty-four Company horses during the night: a mighty prize! Lucier was among those who pursued and, being well-mounted, began to overtake one of the men, dodging arrows as he went. As he overtook and fought the horse-taker, Lucier drew his huge hunting knife and sheathed it in his foe’s heart!
The fight was a remarkable occurrence among the generally peaceful fur trading forts, and Lucier no doubt never passed up a chance to tell the tale. Over the next half-century, almost every traveller to come through Fort Edmonton recorded the story in his journals, each with his own personal touches: Governor George Simpson, visiting big game hunter Frederick Ulric Graham, and wandering artist Paul Kane.
As Graham embellished, “Franà§ois is as fine little veteran ‘Coureur Des Prairies,’ as tough as steel, and ‘game’ to the backbone; the hero of several fights with the Assiniboines, several of whom he has killed, and he tells his story with a grin of how he ripped up the last fellow with his ‘dag,’ as if it were the best joke possible.”
Lucier was employed by the Company for several more years as a ‘Horsekeeper’ and as a Middleman in the gruelling York boats. In 1842, in his forties, he went ‘free’ and made his living outside the Company’s regular employ. The ‘Freemen’ of the prairies, colourful and hard as nails, were the core of what would become known as the Plains Métis – not necessarily possessing a connection to Red River, but nonetheless taking their place as one of Canada’s proud Indigenous Peoples.