Join us today, O reader, as our spotlight series turns to focus on Edmonton’s one-time first lady, Métis matriarch Louise ‘Lisette’ Umphreville (ca. 1783-1849).
There’s no surviving image of Louise, and you won’t find many things named after Umphreville in the city. Nowadays, marketing agents would rather find names like Tuscany Hills or the utterly baffling Sol’Town. But for over twenty years of Edmonton’s past, nearly two hundred years ago, there was only one resident of the area that was arguably more important than Louise Umphreville. And that was her husband.
If you’ve come to Fort Edmonton Park before you’ve probably heard of John Rowand, larger than life Chief Factor of the trading post called Edmonton. A 300 pound man-mountain who ruled over the Hudson’s Bay Company traders of the plains by being able to out-carry, out-work, and out-curse all his men.
What kind of woman could handle such a man?
Louise was born (about ten years prior to Rowand) of another trader, Edward Umfreville (the different spelling is not unusual), and a woman of the Cree nation along the Saskatchewan River. Also not unusual for the time, Edward ‘turned off’ or separated from his Cree wife when Louise was still an infant. We know little of her childhood, but by the time she comes to our attention she had amassed a large herd of horses as her dowry, suggesting that her and her maternal family’s condition was affluent. Her sister wed a well pedigreed Company officer/clerk, Nicolas Montour (Jr.), who was later called the ‘Chief’ of the Edmonton Métis. Her brother’s children all became Company Clerks. The Umphrevilles were not a minor family in fur trade society.
Louise Umphreville’s first husband was French-Canadian Pierre Boshue dit Berland, with whom she had three children, but it is her second husband, John Rowand, of whom we know more.
A travelling scientist and explorer, J.H. Lefroy recounted the story of Rowand and Umphreville in his journals, as he heard them from John some thirty years later. The tale begins with Rowand:
¦hunting alone as a young man he had been thrown from his horse and had broken his leg. By some means intelligence reached the fort of what had occurred and before the whites could do anything an Indian girl had mounted and galloped off in the direction indicated. She found him, nursed him, and saved his life and he married her.
The romantic story fails to mention many details, including that Rowand also adopted Louise’s three children by Pierre and treated them as his own; step-siblings to the seven (!) children John and Louise would produce, including gentle, generous Margaret and blustering, injury-prone John Jr.
We will continue the story of Louise in Part II. In the meantime, those interested in Louise and the recognition of Edmonton’s women may also be interested to know that some citizens have suggested a fountain be built in her honour at Rossdale. Watch the Spirit of Edmonton video to learn more!
Visitors to the 1846 Fort may also happen upon (or request an impromptu performance of) one of our Fur Trade Tales storytelling sessions, in which the “Courtship of John and Louise” is brought to life. Stay tuned for part II!