Edmontonians in the Spotlight – J.E. Brazeau, Pt 1.

1846 Fort, Edmontonians In The Spotlight

If you’ve ever driven through west central Alberta, you’ve probably been to Brazeau County. Last time I passed through, I wondered aloud about this eccentric fur trader who had so many things named after him. Thus this week’s addition to our Spotlight series!

Our question: what makes a man remembered?

Our period: the mid-19th century, when fur traders in Aboriginal lands were guests tolerated in their wooden outposts as part of a relationship that included the exchange of European beads, blankets and other items for the valuable furs of the hinterland.

Joseph Edward Brazeau was an American fur trader, hailing from St. Louis, Missouri and ending up in Rocky Mountain House, Edmonton, and St. Albert. Like many fur traders he knew an incredible number of Aboriginal languages (6) and, unlike many other fur traders, his name now dominates our landscape.

Gerome as Brazeau

There are many historical figures that have more impressive resumes, but few fur traders are so remembered as our man. Besides Brazeau County, Concise Place Names of Alberta (2006) lists Brazeau Canal, Brazeau Forks, Brazeau Lake, Brazeau Mine Pit, Mount Brazeau, Brazeau Reservoir, and Brazeau River.

His origins are remarkable. Most folks who met Joseph Brazeau in Alberta said he came from an old Spanish or Creole family (he was even said to wear a flat black sombrero) out of Missouri, and there’s another Brazeau County and creek there. Helpful files sent by the Missouri Historical Society reveal that his French family came from Kaskaskia, Illinois. His father was Joseph Brazeau, Sr., who came to St. Louis after the Illinois French settlements became part of the United States, around 1781. Joseph Sr. also made something of a living trading for furs on the Missouri River. ‘Creole’ might suggest that the family were what Canadians would nowadays call Metis.

Joseph Brazeau Jr must have had a similar penchant for trading and worked for many years in the American Fur Company at Fort Union. Here he picked up the Apsà¡alooke (Crow), Dakota (Sioux), and Nitsitapii (Blackfoot) language skills for which he would become famous. He also engaged in daring spying missions against rival Fort William by climbing its walls at night! A contemporary traveling artist, George Catlin, described the young Brazeau as “a gentleman of education and strict observation, who has lived several years with the Blackfeet and Shiennes¦” Being remarked upon by travelers to the fur country would become something of a Brazeau specialty.

When Joseph Brazeau moved up to the British side of the line and Edmonton in the 1840s, he would have reported to Chief Trader John Edward Harriott , who also spoke Cree and Blackfoot fluently and Chief Factor John Rowand. Rowand and Harriott were rivals with the American traders, so hiring Brazeau would have been something of a coup. Rowand did, however, remark in a letter  that he had recently heard rumours that the “new man, Brazeau” was not as honest as he originally supposed, possibly referring to his proclivity for telling tales.

Rowand and Harriott spent most of their lives on the North Saskatchewan River, but have no entries in Concise Place Names of Alberta. So what was Brazeau’s secret? Perhaps it was his friendships and the aid he gave to various explorers.

Blackfoot Trading Party at RMH Courtesy of Joseph Cross

When James Carnegie, the Earl of Southesk, travelled through Fort Edmonton and the Rockies on his famous Pe-Toh-Pee-Kiss by George Catlin, Courtesy of georgecatlin.orghunting trip in the late 1850s, he spared several pages of his narrative account to his conversations with the sociable Brazeau. They smoked pipes long into the night, talking about Brazeau’s experience in the Missouri and Yellowstone country. Southesk was eager to talk of the adventurer-artist George Catlin , who had travelled through Brazeau’s old range and painted the Peigan, Mandan, and Crow. Brazeau also had a great store of tales, short and tall, of gunfights, Kai-nai warrior Pe-toh-pee-kiss, and women with which to thrill Southesk, the West’s first white tourist.

About the same time, Brazeau entertained members of the Palliser Expedition  at Rocky Mountain House. Our multilingual American helped negotiate between the expedition and the local Nitsitapii (Blackfoot) chiefs to gain support and guides for Palliser. Captain Palliser and Captain Brisco found Mr. Brazeau as engaging a host as Southesk had.

 “My old friend, Mr. Brazeau, received us all with a very hearty welcome. He complained of loneliness up at his post, and assured us over and over that our visit conferred a great benefit upon him, being naturally very sociable; he was most entertaining.

 “Mr. Brazeau had been for many years in the American Indian fur trade; was a wonderful Indian linguist [sic] and spoke Stoney, Sioux, Salteau, Cree, Blackfoot, and Crow, – six languages, five of which are totally distinct from one another. Being of an old Spanish family, and educated in the United States, he also spoke English, French, and Spanish fluently.”

 Mr. Brazeau’s employers had traditionally discouraged much exploration of the west “ for the reason that disruption to Rupert’s Land meant disruption to the fur trade. Settlement was feared (rightly) for the changes it would wreak in a system that had proved profitable for the HBC for so long. Wealthy tourists like Southesk or official expeditions like Palliser’s were to be excepted and hosted graciously. Others were considered nuisances.

Captain Palliser and Sir James Hector ca 1857 na-588-1 John J Healy pre 1898

Prospector John J. Healey arrived at Fort Edmonton during the very lean year of 1863 with a small gold-hunting party from the American side of the line. Animosity quickly sprung up over the Company’s less than hospitable reception. The exception, unsurprisingly, was the genial Mr. Brazeau. He and Healy became good friends during their stay and before Healy’s departure (little gold was found), Brazeau received him in the fort and they shared a sparse meal of pemmican and water together. Healy would later return to Alberta and help build Fort Whoop-Up with Al Hamilton in 1869.

Brazeau’s friendliness with these early travellers may have helped his immortality, preserving accounts of his stories and “ in the case of Palliser “ gaining him a namesake mountain range! But this isn’t the whole story.

Keep an eye out for Part 2, where we’ll meet Brazeau’s family and follow some of Brazeau’s encounters with the Blackfoot during rough years at the beginning of the Great Transition.

 

Sources:

  • Concise Place Names of Alberta edited by Merrily K./ Aubrey 2006
  •  Missouri Historical Society
  •  The Earl of Southesk Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of travel, sport, and adventure, during a journey through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories, in 1859 and 1860
  •  Spry, Irene M. The Palliser Expedition: An Account of John Palliser’s British North American Exploring Expedition 1857-1860
  •  Dempsey, Hugh A. Adventure with the Kootenays Alberta History Autumn 2002

 

*Captain Palliser, and many historians quoting him, described Brazeau incorrectly as a linguist. While he knew many languages, it doesn’t seem like he studied language to any extent as modern linguists do.