During the past two months, the process of exploring my Métis ancestry has been an exhilarating yet challenging journey. While some may find their lineage conveniently documented, I’m faced with a paucity of records, documents, and artifacts. There can be several reasons for the underrepresentation and limited resources.
Many Métis communities faced displacement, disruption, and cultural suppression due to colonization and government policies. Métis identity and rights have often been contested, and in some cases, official recognition may not have been given or documented. Consequently, this lack of recognition and documentation makes it difficult to locate relevant resources and to trace my Métis ancestors, as records are scattered, inconsistent, and even non-existent.
The Gale Family Library (GFL) recognizes that, historically, there has been an insufficient number of resources and initiatives dedicated to the preservation of Métis history and culture. For those exploring their Métis ancestry, they provide research tools like the Metis Family Research Guide and the Fur Trade in Minnesota Guide. These curated resources offer a roadmap for navigating the complexities of Métis genealogy and history. Amelia, a wonderful reference librarian at the GFL, has also provided me with a variety of research strategies and offered insight on available databases, census records, and vital collections hosted outside of the library. Such resources as the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Glenbow Library and Archives, Library and Archives of Canada, and the Metis Nation Historical Online Database have helped me untangle historical threads and assist in uncovering my ancestral roots.
One of the defining characteristics of Métis culture is the blending of European and Indigenous lineages. This diversity can make tracing one’s family history a complex puzzle. Despite the challenges, it has not been impossible to locate valuable information about my ancestors. The Hudson’s Bay Company kept careful and detailed records of its operations and activities as well as its employees, posts, ships, and events.
Because of these scrupulous records, I can trace my lineage to the 1780s in Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers), Quebec—one of the oldest settlements in Canada. This is where one branch of my Métis family tree begins, with the marriage of my 4th great-grandparents: Andrew McPherson, a clerk for the Northwest Company and Hudson’s Bay Company, and Marie Pinesi Okijikokwe (or Ikwesens), an Algonquin/Anishinaabe from Grand Lac. My 3rd great-grandfather, George McPherson, is one of at least three children born to the couple.
Hudson’s Bay Company Biographical Sheet of Andrew McPherson, ca. 1783-1847. A Biographical Sheet is a tool prepared by HBC archivists to provide basic information on HBC and NWC employees.
This report was written in 1823 by Andrew McPherson, clerk in charge at Grand Lac. Locating this report in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives was a remarkable encounter. I am struck by the beautiful penmanship and detail with which it was written. The report describes conditions, lists supplies, and paints a picture of the dangers working at the Grand Lac trading post.
In 1831, George McPherson begins his career in the fur trade and joins the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) as an interpreter in the Témiscamingue District at the age of 18. In 1837, HBC transferred him to northwestern Ontario, where he later served as the postmaster at the Osnaburgh House. Most likely it was here that George met Isabella Okwikimighiwa (my 3rd great-grandmother) and they were married. Despite extensive research, I’ve been unable to find more information about my 3rd great-grandmother. Genealogical records, however, offer a glimpse into her life alongside George—they welcomed four children into their lives: Margaret, Mary, Andrew, and George Jr. (my 2nd great-grandfather). It is noted that Isabella died sometime before 1850, but this is not when George’s story ends.
Hudson’s Bay Company Biographical Sheet of George McPherson, 1814-1891.
George remarried Mary Ahdemar in 1850 and later retired to the Red River Settlement (now Winnipeg)—the birthplace of the Métis Nation and heart of the Métis Nation Homeland. George and his family lived at the settlement for two years (1856 to 1858) before he re-entered HBC’s service as the postmaster and then clerk at the Rat Portage post (now Kenora) on Lake of the Woods, Ontario.
McPherson family, Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods, 1872. Front row: George McPherson Sr. and Mary Ahdemar (George Sr.’s 2nd wife). Back row: Margaret McPherson (daughter of George McPherson Sr.), George McPherson Jr., Sophia Morrisseau (George Jr.’s wife). Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / C-079642.
Painting of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Rat Portage [Kenora], Ont. by John Arnot Fleming. August 20, 1857. Courtesy of Digital Archive Ontario.
Many explorers and voyageurs visited the post at Rat Portage. In 1870, after the Red River Resistance, Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald dispatched a military expedition “to oversee the transfer of territory and transition of power from the provisional government [led by Louis Riel] to the new administration.” The expedition, led by Colonel Garnet J. Wolseley of the British army, consisted of approximately 1,500 men who travelled from Toronto to the Red River Settlement (de Bruin 2006).
By July of 1870, the military expedition arrived at Rat Portage. Captain G.L. Huyshe, who accompanied Wolseley on this journey, wrote of George McPherson in his book The Red River Expedition:
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Rat Portage is but a small affair, three log-houses roofed with bark and enclosed by a high wooden palisading. The Company maintained thirteen men at this post, but nine of them are employed at small outlying posts in the vicinity. Mr. MacPherson, the official in charge, was most civil and obliging. He is a Scotch half-breed, a quiet, gentlemanly, elderly man, who has received a good education in Montreal. He had been for thirteen years buried alive at this post! Is it not a most extraordinary thing, that men of any education can be found to stand a life like that, utterly cut off from the rest of mankind, receiving news from the outside world only once or twice a year, to all intents or purposes dead or sleeping? . . . I ventured to question Mr. MacPherson on this subject, and he replied simply, that he had long since ceased to feel anything of the kind; he had his little farm and his wife and family, and was quite happy and contented. It is curious how soon men get accustomed to a wild and solitary life. . . . Mr. MacPherson had a few acres of wheat, barley and potatoes, some pigs and cows, and any number of mangy-looking pariah dogs. . . .The morning after our arrival we breakfasted with Mr. Macpherson, and heard a great deal about the dangers of the Winnipeg River; indeed we heard so many stories of hair-breadth escapes amid the dangerous rapids and whirlpools, that, like the boy who has been regaled on thrilling ghost stories until he is afraid to go to sleep at night, we were half frightened out of our wits at the dangers that lay before us. (Huyshe 1871, 170-73)
The experience reading about my 3rd great-grandfather created a sense of connection to him and the past. It evoked pride, gratitude, and an increased appreciation for the work of my ancestors and a stronger desire to learn more about the world they lived in. However, Huyshe’s book, like many other historical narratives I’ve encountered during my research, showcases stereotypes, biases, and assumptions that implicitly uphold the superiority of European culture and practices, while marginalizing and exoticizing indigenous peoples and their way of life.
After 40 years, George’s service with Hudson’s Bay Company came to an end in 1871, marking a crucial turning point in his life. He started a private trading business and served as an interpreter for Alexander Morris, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Manitoba and the North-west Territories, at the Northwest Angle during the 1873 Treaty 3 negotiations.
Treaty 3 Lands. Courtesy of Native Land Digital / Native-Land.ca.
Treaty annuity payment at Rat Portage. George McPherson is the bearded man at center-right in the photograph.
Subsequently, George was designated as the Indian agent for the Lake of the Woods reserves. In the fall of 1891, he died at Sabaskosing Bay in Lake of the Woods, Ontario. An excerpt of his obituary, published in the Rat Portage Weekly Record, states:
It was our painful duty last week to chronicle the death of Mr. George McPherson . . . The deceased was one of Nature’s noblemen, a native of this country, born on the Ottawa, his father being in the Hudson’s Bay Co’s service. He was educated at Brockville, Ont. and afterwards entered that Co’s service, being at Moose Factory and other points. He had charge of the old post location on Miller’s Island, and later removed to the present site of the Co’s house, where he built the first house erected in Rat Portage. Nearly twenty years ago he left their employ and went into trading on his own account. Later he was appointed Indian agent for the Lake of the Woods reserves, which position he held till about two years ago, when he was superannuated. . . . He held the highest respect and esteem of a wide circle of friends, and was especially beloved by the Indians far and near. He leaves a son and daughter to mourn his loss.
Leaving HBC to venture into trading on his own signifies George’s resourcefulness, entrepreneurial spirit, and determination to forge his own path. The deep “respect” and “esteem” he garnered from those around him further highlights his exceptional nature. The fact that he had a “wide circle of friends” and was “beloved” by First Nations people is a testament to his genuine character and dedication to their welfare. It is evident that George led a rich and meaningful life, leaving behind a legacy of resilience, compassion, and community service.
George McPherson is the man wearing the dark coat and hat in the center of the photograph.
Trader McPherson’s House, Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods. Oct. 1872. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / C-079641.
The process of unraveling my family history feels akin to assembling a puzzle, with scattered fragments from various generations, languages, and cultures slowly being pieced together. With each photograph, census record, and document I uncover, my journey towards comprehending my Métis heritage takes another step forward, bringing me closer to a sense of belonging and self-discovery.
Andrew McPherson, ca. 1783-1847. Biographical Sheet. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives,
Archives of Manitoba, Revised 2016.
Bouchard, Michel, Sébastien Malette, and Guillaume Marcotte. Bois-Brûlés: The Untold Story of
the Métis of Western Quebec. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020.
de Bruin, Tabitha. “Red River Expedition of 1870.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica
Canada. Article published February 07, 2006; Last Edited August 12, 2023.
George McPherson, 1814-1891. Biographical Sheet. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives,
Archives of Manitoba. Revised 2017.
Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, Grand Lac Report from Andrew
McPherson to John McRae, 1823, B82.e.1.
Huyshe, George Lightfoot. The Red River Expedition. By Captain G. L. Huyshe. London
and New York: Macmillan, 1871.
“The Late George McPherson.” Weekly Record. Rat Portage. Ont. Sep. 26, 1891.
Lefebvre, Pierre. “From the Highlands to the Fur Trade: The Journey of the McPherson Family.”
Métis Voyageur Fall/Winter (2006): 21-22.
McNab, David T. Circles of Time: Aboriginal Land Rights and Resistance in Ontario. Waterloo:
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999.
Nute, Grace Lee. Rainy River Country: a Brief History of the Region Bordering Minnesota and
Ontario. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1950.