Friday, April 15, 2016

Louis Riel: A Franco-American?

“Father Jean Baptiste Bruno, the priest of Worcester, who was my director of conscience, said to me: 'Riel, God has put an object into your hands, the cause of the triumph of religion in the world, take care, you will succeed when most believe you have lost.” 1
-- Final Statement of Louis Riel at his Trial, Regina, July 31, 1885

This transcript records the name of the priest of Worcester incorrectly. The priest Louis Riel mentions at his trial was Fr. Jean-Baptiste Primeau, the curé at the parish of Notre Dame des Canadiens in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was to this same Franco-American priest that Riel entrusted “une bonne partie” of his papers.2

His close relationship with a priest serving in a New England Franco-American parish should come as no surprise since, by the time of his execution in 1885, Riel was a U.S. citizen. He became a naturalized citizen on March 16, 1883 at Helena, Lewis & Clark County, Montana Territory. As part of his oath of citizenship, he renounced his allegiance to all foreign powers and monarchs, including and explicitly Queen Victoria.3

Indeed, one might say that at the time of his death Louis Riel was a Franco-American. Canada executed a foreign national for alleged treason against a Queen and a government that he had abjured.

Riel in New England and New York in the 1870s
Worcester was not the only Franco-American center in the Northeastern USA that Riel visited in the 1870s. In the Summer of 1874, he addressed Worcester’s Franco-Americans at their St-Jean Baptiste Hall and then gave speeches rallying support for the Métis cause elsewhere in the region. During the 1870s he visited Woonsocket, RI, Manchester, Nashua and Suncook, NH and maybe other New England towns with large Franco-American populations as well. He also visited the Franco-Americans of Northern New York at Plattsburgh and Keesville.4

Riel spent a month-and a half in the region again between December 1875 and January 1876, again visiting Worcester and Suncook. This period coincided with a mental breakdown that led to Riel’s stay at the Beauport asylum in Québec.

After his release from Beauport on January 23, 1878, Riel returned immediately to the Franco-American centers of New York and New England. He visited the priests Fr. Fabien Barnabé at Keeseville, NY and Fr. Louis-Napoleon St-Onge at Glens Falls in that same state. He visited Fr. Primeau at Worcester and also visited New Hampshire. He then returned to Keesville where he settled for a time as a farmer and contemplated marriage.

Between his visits in 1875 and 1876, and his longer stay in 1878, all told, Louis Riel spent more than a year of his life among the Franco-American communities of New England and New York.

Riel’s activities on behalf of the Métis in the 1870s and 1880s coincided with the zenith of the movement from the Québec countryside to the industrial towns of New England and northern New York. Riel found in the Northeastern USA an audience eager to support Francophone communities elsewhere on the continent.

New England Franco-Americans demonstrated their support for Riel at a massive meeting called by the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society of Montréal for June 24, 1874. It was the Franco-American delegation, led by the indomitable journalist Ferdinand Gagnon of Worcester and his sometime partner Frédéric Houde, who pressed the convention to support Riel unequivocally.

The Québécois Liberals at the meeting, with their eye on the delicate politics of the newly minted Canadian Confederation, were more reticent about supporting Riel too vocally. The Liberals did not want to embarrass their own party’s government. Houde, in particular, however, was eager that the Society should make a strong statement of support for Riel.5

After his travels in the East, in November 1878 Riel moved westward to St. Paul, Minnesota, a city founded by a Canadien. He also spent time in the French-Canadian/Métis town of St. Joseph, Dakota Territory, eventually moving on to the Montana Territory where he became a U.S. citizen.

Riel, New England and New York in the 1880s
Persuaded to return to the lands north of the border, Riel led the resistance against the Canadian government in 1885 in Saskatchewan as he had led the earlier uprising on the Red River in 1869-70. During the period of his subsequent trial, leading to his execution, the voices of Franco-Americans in the Northeastern USA spoke again in his support.

The Franco-American citizens of Lawrence, Massachusetts petitioned U.S. Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard on Riel’s behalf, on the grounds that Riel was a U.S. citizen and that his trial had been unjust.

The petition from Lawrence reads as follows:

August 17, 1885
Petition of the Canadian-French citizens of the United States of Lawrence, Mass.
SIR: Considering the partiality shown in the proceedings in the trial of Louis David Riel, in which the accused was sentenced to death for high treason towards Her Majesty, the Queen of Great Britain, for the more or less active part he has taken in the recent North-West Canadian troubles, and claiming that the said Louis David Riel is a citizen of the United States, we hope that the American Government will have him equitably treated.

In consequence, Mr. Secretary, we beg of you to be our interpreter to His Excellency the President of the United States requesting him to assist in preventing this abuse of justice, and that the Stars and Stripes which are our safeguard, shall shield under its noble folds the unfortunate, who is the apparent victim of fanaticism.

Hoping that our request will be favorably considered, we are, Mr. Secretary, Your most humble servants, citizens and residents of Lawrence, Mass.,

And four hundred and five others.

The petition of American citizens “of French-Canadian nationality” from Rochester, New York is more pointed:

Petition of French-Canadian citizens of the United States residing at Rochester, N. Y.

To the Hon. T. F. BAYARD, Secretary, of State of the United States:
The undersigned, citizens of the United States and of French-Canadian nationality, respectfully represent, as they are credibly informed and verily believe: That Louis David Riel is, and was at the time of his trial, a naturalized citizen of the United States, and had for many years and up to the time of the troubles in which be became involved in Canada, resided at Montana, in the United States, where he was engaged as a teacher;

That while residing there he was prevailed upon to go to Canada to intercede for the oppressed inhabitants of the Canadian North-West territory.

That while residing temporarily there he was arraigned and indicted for high treason against Her Majesty the Queen of England;

That during the month of July last he was put upon his trial, which resulted in his conviction and sentence of death; That, all your petitioners are credibly informed, his trial was not only not impartial, but that he was deprived of giving evidence which might have shown him entirely innocent of the offense of which he was accused;

That under the then existing political excitement in Canada, resulting in a measure from questions bearing upon the rights of the people for whom he was contending, he was deprived of the means of making his best defense, and that his trial was unfair, partial, and unjust;

That, as your petitioners are advised and believe, the court before whom he was tried was without jurisdiction, and that his conviction was unsupported by the evidence and contrary to law.

Your petitioners therefore ask such interposition on the part of the United States government as may seem reasonable and just for the relief and protection of one of its adopted citizens, now languishing under the sentence of death by a foreign court. Rochester, N. Y., August 29, 1885.

and sixty-six: others.6

Secretary Bayard answered the petition of the Franco-Americans of Rochester politely but unsatisfactorily since he does not resolve the paradox that Riel was charged for treason against a Sovereign he had renounced explicitly.

Also among Riel’s friends and supporters was Edmond Mallet, one of the most famous Franco-Americans of his day.

Born in Montréal, and raised in northern New York State, Mallet was a hero of the Union Army in the American Civil War and rose to the rank of Major. Mallet was also one of the first historians of Franco-Americans, composing articles and books about the French and French-Canadian contribution to the United States. Appointed to a government position by President Abraham Lincoln, and subsequently enjoying other government jobs, Mallet had the ear of powerful individuals in Washington.7

Major Edmond Mallet
Source: Assumption College
It was Mallet who had most likely urged Riel to seek U.S. citizenship after the two met in Washington. It had also been Mallet who, when he had sensed that Riel’s mental state was crumbling in 1875, had led the Métis leader to Fr. Primeau in Worcester.

In 1885, Mallet contacted Secretary of State Bayard urging him to speak to President Cleveland and to prevail upon him to intervene on behalf of Riel. Ferdinand Gagnon also agitated in favor of Riel in 1885.In the event, however, Cleveland did nothing. 

Even the Anglophone, mainstream press in the States covered the trial, with a tone of sympathy toward Riel for the most part. However, none of the English-language coverage mentions his status as a U.S. citizen, although the Franco-Americans were well aware of it.9

We generally think of the story of Riel in connection with the Francophone Métis of the Prairie West, and this seems to be the area where he himself felt most comfortable. Although he visited New England and New York, his home in the USA was Montana, across the border from the midsection of today’s Canada, the area that Riel knew best.
Riel's Execution

However, in Riel’s day one thought in terms of a French-Canadian nation that spanned borders: national, state and provincial. A Canadien(ne)-français(e) was a Canadien(ne)-français(e) whether his or her home was in Montréal, Manitoba, Montana or Maine. And Riel’s Métis had a place within this broad definition of “French-Canadian nationality.”

Although Riel himself identified as Métis, Riel was no foreigner to the Franco-Americans. His supporters from New England and New York, including the priest Primeau, the journalist Gagnon, the war hero Mallet, and the Franco-American people of Lawrence and Rochester, considered Riel to be one of their own.

1. For the quotation from Riel’s final statement see:

2. Glenn Campbell (Ed.) et al. Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press), 1985, xxvi. 

3. For Riel’s oath of citizenship see “Message From the President of the United States (Benjamin Harrison), In response to Senate resolution of February 11, 1889, a report upon the case of Louis Riel”

4. For Riel’s activities in New England and New York see Mason Wade, The French-Canadians, 1760-1967, Volume 1, (Toronto: MacMillian & Co., 1968) 405. For Riel's moves see also the timeline of Riel’s life in Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel esp. 105-107.

5. Thomas Flanagan, Louis David Riel, Prophet of the New World, Rev. Ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 48f.

6. Full text of the petitions from Lawrence and Rochester are included in the  “Message From the President of the United States.”

7. For a brief biography of Mallet see Edmond J. Mallet Collection, Manuscripts and Photographs, Held at Assumption College Library: Biographical Note.

8. Jeremy Ravi Mumford, “Why Was Louis Riel, a United States Citizen, Hanged as a Canadian Traitor in 1885?” The Canadian Historical Review 88, 2, June 2007, 256-258.

9. For the American press coverage of the Riel affair see Mumford, 251-253.


  1. Very interesting article...I recall learning about Riel in my upstate New York grammar school history class circa 1963. It was probably not part of the New York State syllabus but something the Catholic nuns wanted us to know about.

  2. It will be of interest to readers that Louis was identifying himself, and his people, as "French-Canadian Métis" altogether (ou Métis Canadien-Francais), hence giving a sense of belonging to two peoples. Great read. Thank you.

  3. J'ai beaucoup apprécié et découvert.Merci Mr Vermette.Très beau texte, et page d'histoire du Manitoba.

  4. Quel bon blogue M. Vermette merci! Vous écrivez et expliquez très bien. Par hasard, je suis déjà allée dans quelques endroits dont vous parlez, ex. Worcester, Nashua, Plattsburg, Beauport. Je pense à Louis Riel chaque fois que je vais à L'Ile-Dupas au Québec, du fait de son aïeul Jean-Baptiste Riel dit L'Irlande. J'avais déjà calculé que Louis Riel avait une dizaine de filles du roi dans ses lignées. Il a une ascendance très riche, ex. irlandaise, francaise, amérindienne.

  5. Thank you for this most interesting post. My ancestors emigrated from Quebec to Worcester to Manitoba. I'm wondering if you know where the St. Jean Baptiste Hall in 1874 Worcester was located? I'm wondering if it was near the Notre Dame des Canadiens Parish near the Common.

  6. I found the answer!