Welcome back to our Spotlight on a denizen of Edmonton (and Rocky Mountain House, and St. Albert!) whose name is known to many but whose story is known to few. It is a story of legacy and of connections “ to outsiders, to Aboriginals, and to family.
Last time, we looked at the genial American-born fur trader Joseph Edward Brazeau’s relationship with explorers and prospectors. This time we’ll stay closer to home.
In fact, while many of our stories of Brazeau come from hunters, travellers, and other outsiders, they are in the minority. For nearly two hundred years the vast majority of non-natives in the Northwest were not after souls, maps, or gold, but fur. As a clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Brazeau dealt with the great nations of the plains in order to obtain their furs and bison meat (which was only to feed Company men so they could quest after more fur).
Close relationships “ not always sunny, but rarely violent “ with Aboriginal nations led to marriages and these marriages led to the birth of the Métis nation. Joseph Brazeau wed métis Marguerite Brabant dit Salois (1815-1885), linked to the prominent Lucier family, sometime in the 1840s. Their first child in 1845 was named George Washington Brazeau, showing that Joseph’s American identity was still very important to him. Marguerite II, Mary Jane, John, Sophie, Adelaide Louise, and Joseph Edward III followed. It is possible Adelaide Louise was named in honour of John Rowand’s wife and daughter, since Brazeau was his employee at the time and depended on him for patronage.
These children grew up in interesting times. Brazeau came on board, probably as a valuable ˜steal’ from the HBC’s American rivals, just as the old guard were fading: Chief Trader John Edward Harriott retired in 1853 and Chief Factor John Rowand died in 1854. About this time many of the prominent Chiefs of the plains nations died and were replaced by younger and less experienced men. All the while the bison were rapidly fading, prices for beaver were dropping and colonial powers were beginning to eye Rupert’s Land greedily.
The HBC tried to fill the hole left behind by Rowand and Harriott with young rising stars like Brazeau and Richard Hardisty and old hands like Colin Fraser. They certainly had their work cut out for them. Driven by smallpox epidemics and the increasing importance of the horse, the raiding between the Nehiyawak (Cree) and the Nitsitapii (Blackfoot Confederacy) was heating up, and while war is dangerous to life, for the Company it was also a detriment to profit. War meant no one trapping beaver or hunting bison to bring to the hungry trading posts.
In 1861, Brazeau was forced to abandon Rocky Mountain House for fear his people would starve to death. He had them pack up and head for Fort Edmonton. Only the boatbuilder, William Gladstone, and a few hardy men stayed behind, determined to finish their quota of York Boats for the season. After these men had finished and departed, the fort was found empty by the Blackfoot and burned “ though perhaps not out of spite.
Brazeau helped at Edmonton to manage the difficult task of keeping the post neutral and open to business for all. Brazeau’s language skills, alongside those of Blackfoot interpreters Felix and John “Piskan” Munro were likely useful in this regard. While the traders feared and respected the Nitsitapii, they were also known on occasion to invite the Blackfoot to camp inside the walls of the Fort if the Nehiyawak were there at the same time “ an image that often surprises our visitors and the powerful image of the walls as imagined defence.
It was not from the HBC that peace would come, but from the efforts of the wiser aboriginal leaders. Maskepetoon, Sweet Grass and other Nehiyawak chiefs arrived at Edmonton in 1862 to arrange a peace summit, and asked Mr. Brazeau to entreat the Nitsitapii with tobacco and invitations. He played his part; over 500 Nitsitapii came and the ensuing meeting, held in the grading room and mess room (Clerks’ Quarters), went well. Thanks to the efforts of these Chiefs, peaces were made and re-made over the following twenty years.
Brazeau’s star did not shine forever. Rocky Mountain House, re-established for the Nitsitapii trade, was still a problem. Socially things were going well for Brazeau, as they always did. He hosted the wedding of his colleague Richard Hardisty and Eliza McDougall, the daughter of the new missionary, only a short time before having a similar guest-list come for his own daughter’s wedding. But operationally, Brazeau’s rebuilt trading post was a mess.
With the bison herds declining, there was still a distinct lack of food, and work on new buildings had to be halted continually due to starvation rations. Fire burned up a store of new shingles. Brazeau sent his carpenters to Edmonton for a rest which, deserved or not, earned him the ire of his Company masters. It was too much. In the winter of 1867, he was replaced.
Brazeau retired in 1869, after over twenty years on the Saskatchewan and fifteen before that on the Missouri. When he died in St. Albert a year later, he left behind him connections to a world rapidly fading: friendships with explorers benefiting from his hospitality; company relationships that seemed strained due to similar reasons; a role, albeit minor, in assisting the great peacemaker Maskepetoon and an undocumented relationship with the Nitsitapii nations whose words he spoke so well.
His name now graces mountains, rivers, creeks and counties, but his children also spread out around Alberta. His sons George Washington and John Edward III acted as interpreters and guides to the newly arrived North-West Mounted Police after 1874. George was stationed in the Edmonton area, while John was in Calgary.
So why is a man remembered? Where do place names come from? Sometimes it is simply luck. Sometimes it depends on who you know and what impact you made. John Rowand and Harriott were in the west longer and probably had a greater impact, but have little or nothing named after them. Maskepetoon could argue the same.
But Brazeau’s legacy comes not only due to luck, but due to the lasting connections his eccentric style, linguistic acumen, and jovial friendliness forged with the people who knew him. Few Edmontonians can ask for more.
- Scott Stephen Burning Questions About the Blackfoot
- J.G. MacGregor Senator Hardisty’s Prairies
- Dempsey, Hugh A. Maskepetoon: Leader, Warrior, Peacemaker
- Glenbow Archives
* Look for three thrilling fur trade stories featuring Mr. Brazeau in a supporting role in the near future! We’ve been working with a local author to combine Fort Edmonton’s ability to bring the past to life with his own talented pen. Our friends will get special access to the results!