Welcome back to the second part of our Spotlight on Louise Umphreville (ca. 1783-1849), wife of Chief Factor John Rowand and ‘first lady’ of Fort Edmonton.
As John Rowand’s star rose in the Hudson’s Bay Company, so too did the prestige of his already wealthy wife. Louise Umphreville still spoke Cree as her first language, wore moccasins, and taught her children to dress deer hide. But she also had her own personal servant-girl, practiced weaving flannel, and had some unofficial (in Company terms), but still very powerful influence over the other women of Edmonton and their children, more than half of Edmonton’s population. Contemporary Alexander Ross praised Louise’s example:
I had seen very few places in the country where domestic arrangements, either within doors or without, were conducted with so much propriety as at this place [Edmonton]. At almost every other post, men and women are to be seen congregating together during the sports and amusements of the men, and the women are often seen flirting idly about the establishments, mixing among the men at their several duties. But it is not so here; I did not notice a woman, old or young, going about the place idle; all seemed to keep at home and to be employed about their own affairs. The moral and pleasing effect was such as might be expected, and reflects great credit on Mr. Rowand and on his family.
Reverend Robert Rundle, another contemporary, may not have gotten along as well with Louise. He took pains in a letter to Company officials to explain that he hadn’t meant to offend “Mrs. Rowand” with his loose talk. However she felt in return about Rundle, Umphreville was never baptised, neither Protestant nor Catholic (the faith her husband and children followed), and she and John never had their ‘country’ marriage solemnized by a priest.
Life for Louise was far from easy, despite her and her husband’s wealth. Fort Edmonton was remote, social circles very small, and mortality quite real. In 1836 two of her children, Marie-Anne and Henry, died at fairly young ages of separate illnesses. Louise was heartbroken, and when Marie-Anne’s grieving husband decided to take the orphaned grandchildren east to Trois-Rivieres, she shook his hand and kissed him, weeping at the separation and apologizing for any ill feeling between them.
Louise spent the remainder of her life in Fort Edmonton with her unwed daughters, Sophia, Margaret and Adelaide, and visited married Nancy at Rocky Mountain House as often as she could. By now both Nancy and John Jr. had produced more grandchildren to visit.
So what kind of woman could manage a man like John Rowand? A mature, intelligent, wealthy, well-connected go-getter who led by example and had as large a heart as any mother or grandmother would fill the bill nicely.
When Louise died, John called her his ‘old friend’ and the ‘mother of all his children.’ Most scholars believe she was buried in the Fort Edmonton Cemetery in Rossdale where a plaque is installed, but at least one descendent is convinced she was buried up the hill under what is now Ezio Farone Park. Both her son John Jr. and one of Rowand’s close colleagues gave their next daughters the middle name Louise, likely in her honour.
There are a great deal of questions, stories and legends regarding Louise Umphreville. One claims that her Cree name was ‘Shining Star.’ Another suggests that she belonged to an indigenous wisdom society known as the Mide Lodge. At one point she may have used the surname ‘Belly.’
The tragedy is that physical records from the time did not often pay a great deal of attention to women and not all oral tales are recorded. We do know she was the last of a generation of uneducated Métis women in positions of power and authority on the plains. Her daughters had to fight for status due to their Métis upbringing, and with the exception of her son Alexander (a Montreal Doctor), found themselves much more comfortable in an established Métis society in Red River than in Company or Canadian structures.
After Louise’s death, Métis women with little acculturation to European ways would never again hold such lofty positions.
Come down to the 1846 Fort next summer and visit with the women of the trading post. Their lives offer fascinating insight into the genesis of the modern Métis nation, but their every day duties, worries, and joys will not be so unfamiliar. While we currently have no interpreter portraying Louise, you can visit the ‘big house’ of which Louise was chatelaine and meet an interpreter playing one of her daughters, who will meet you with a cheerful tansi before welcoming you into her world!
Please contact Tom Long, Public Interpretation Coordinator at Fort Edmonton Park for sources or further discussion on the history of this intriguing but little-known Edmontonian. Aboriginal Burial Ground & Fort Edmonton Cemetery photo courtesy of maybeedmonton.tumblr.com Other photos courtesy of Fort Edmonton Park, City of Edmonton Archives, and Glenbow Archives